The Danger of School Bell*

Aside

School is big in our minds at the moment, and it seems that it is not far from the news either. This week, two news stories have thrown up a curious question for me.

First, there’s been 14 year old Malala Yousefzai’s shooting. An outspoken blogger for the BBC at a tender age, and the first person to be awarded Pakistan’s National Peace Prize, Malala was on a bus on her way to school in Swat Valley – a heavily Taliban-controlled region of Pakistan – when Taliban gunmen stopped the bus and shot her in the neck and head.

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The people of Pakistan immediately came out in massive demonstrations of support for Malala and condemnation of the Taliban. Malala is currently in Birmingham, England, where is seems she is slowly recovering. It is interesting to note that Malala’s school is actually run by her father, and is one of only a few schools for girls that dare to operate under constant threats from the Taliban.

Then, last night, I received a plea from Causes.com to ask the Canadian government to put 15-year-old Amanda Todd’s cyber-bullies to trial after the teenager committed suicide. If you watch the story she poignantly tells through pieces of paper on YouTube, you are thrown (back) into the cut-throat world of high school popularity politics. Not only was she hounded and humilated on Facebook with a leaked photo of her breasts, making her change schools several times, she was then beaten up by a gang of teenagers for a regrettable fling she had had and left in a ditch.

It gets nastier: utterly depressed, too anxious to leave the house and constantly cutting, she drank bleach in an attempt to kill herself. She was taken to hospital where they pumped her stomach. When she returned home, her Facebook profile was full of posts from her tormentors: “She’s so stupid, she should’ve drunk a different kind of bleach”; “I hope she reads this and kills herself.” The really sad part of this story is that she actually did.

OK. So on the one hand, there are girls in Pakistan defying murderous terrorists to go to school. On the other, there are girls whose very attendance at school means exposure to pretty much the same kind of cruelty. The Taliban had guns, while the Canadian kids only had words, but the horrible truth is that the words had more the desired effect.

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Great photo story from the Guardian about schools around the world:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/gallery/2012/sep/14/schools-around-the-world-children#/?picture=395983374&index=0

What is going on here? The contrast is making me wondering if schools are universally good for children. Both cases are extreme, but Malala is not the only girl with restricted access to schooling, and Amanda is certainly not the only developed world teen who has been scarred by her schoolground experiences.

My husband commented: “People always want what they can’t have. It used to be that parents forbade their children from going to school, because they needed their kids to help with the harvest.” (Spain’s 3-month summer holiday dates back to this time.) “Then kids are desperate to go to school, they’ll escape and go in by themselves despite the punishment. The first act of democratisation has always been sending children to school, even though parents don’t like it.”

It’s not for nothing that Europe is now practically devoid of small-scale farmers, which forces food production into vast greenhouses, such as the ones that coat the Almeria area in a frighteningly uniform sea of plastic. Not only are they an ecological nightmare (chemical fertilisers, pesticides, masses of plastic dumped afterwards), they also hire immigrant workers for a pittance, who cannot get papers and are therefore seriously marginalised in society.

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But ecology’s loss is economy’s gain – in theory. Since the fall of Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1979, Spain has experienced an accelerated opening to the world wide markets. A huge amount of EU money has gone into building motorways across Spain to transport the food grown in the above-mentioned greenhouses to the North, where food production is lamentable low.

With democratisation came obligatory schooling from age 6, and socialist policies under Zapatero meant that millions of Spanish youths could attend universities on scholarships. Spain now has an abundance of photographers, media consultants, dance teachers, artists…and 25 % unemployment in places like Granada.

There’s no way anyone could say that education isn’t a good thing overall. Literacy alone opens up the world to small mountain communities like the one I live in; I read on a woman’s shopping bag yesterday the phrase “Leer is vivir dos vecez” – Reading means living twice. Illiteracy is still a problem here. My old neighbours, a goatherd and farmer woman in their seventies, used to walk an hour to town in the evenings to attend literacy classes. Our local cobbler still has to get me to read the labels of products in his shop.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but wonder if Caveboy’s daily resistance to school isn’t for a reason. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy spending five hours a day in a concrete, strip-lit box with thirteen yelling, tantruming, wooden brick throwing children, having to colour in inane pictures and rip out shapes from a workbook. How is that beneficial to a child’s development? We do far more interesting, educational activities at home.

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What I worry is that the educational standard of the western world is one that is focused on results, marks, passing exams, achieving certificates to stick on walls, rising up tables, improving chances of material success. This is government-think, not humanity-think. The individualism inherent to this system breeds loneliness, greed, anxiety, fear of failure, and the neglect of those who fall through the net.

Daniel Goleman in 1995 wrote a thesis about emotional education in preschool years, quoted in this web essay by Dana Kirsch:

The preschool years are crucial ones for laying foundation skills, and there is some evidence that Head Start can have beneficial long-term emotional and social effects on the lives of its graduates even into their early adult years – fewer drug problems and arrests, better marriages, greater earning power. The Kindergarten year marks a peak ripening of the `social emotions’ – feelings such as insecurity and humility, jealousy and envy, pride and confidence. Children in the youngest grades get lessons in self-awareness, relationships, and decision-making. Some of the most effective programs in emotional literacy were developed as a response to a specific problem, notably violence. As a society we have not bothered to make sure every child is taught the essentials of handling anger or resolving conflicts positively – nor have we bothered to teach empathy, impulse control, or any of the other fundamentals of emotional competence. By leaving the emotional lessons children learn to chance, we risk largely wasting the window of opportunity presented by the slow maturation of the brain to help children cultivate a healthy emotional repertoire [Goleman, 1995].

 


What is the purpose of education? Is it to increase productivity – not least for the parents, who need a place to leave their children while they do jobs that their kids cannot participate in? Or is it to produce healthy, well-rounded, sane individuals who have a good shot at being happy throughout their lives?

Like anything, I suppose, the answer is a combination of the two. Subsistence farming, as I blogged about here previously, is not economically viable any more. While illiteracy might spare a teenager from hateful comments left on their Facebook page (indeed, it would save them from a lot of aimless, time-wasting surfing on the world’s favourite brain leech), it’s abundantly clear that people can’t get on any more without having a certain level of education.

Still, it makes me wonder: are schools in fact producing brainy but ultimately inhumane creatures who can only contribute to society in economic terms?

I’d be fascinated to hear about your experiences.

* The title is an allusion to a Spike Milligan joke about the ‘Danger of Work Bell’ – look him up if you need a good laugh after all this!