Beyond the physical violence in schools that is much on the public’s minds these days, there is another kind of violence that is less noticed and even generally accepted. Call it “psychic violence,” for it is an assault on the mind and spirit rather than on the body. And it makes schools dangerous places for some teachers and students.
Rodney Wilson, the subject of this month’s cover story, beginning on page 24, is learning about psychic violence firsthand. He teaches history at Mehlville High School, near St. Louis, and he tries to teach it in a way that will encourage students to think about issues and to understand that history is the collective record of individual human actions. Last spring, in an effort to emphasize the consequences of intolerance and hate, Wilson revealed to his junior classes that he is a homosexual. Undoubtedly he did so because he felt that his silence was an unspoken lie between him and his students, an invisible obstacle to the trust that inevitably must link teaching and learning.
Wilson is eligible for tenure next year, so he knew when he made the revelation that he was putting his career in jeopardy. He was not surprised when he was summoned to a conference with his principal. Later, he received a memorandum from the district office admonishing him that “viewpoints on facts of a personal nature [should be left] outside the classroom.”
Wilson saw the memo not just as a reprimand but also as a challenge to the very act of teaching as he conceives it. How can teachers separate themselves from who they are? Is it improper for Jewish teachers to tell their students they would have been gassed to death in Nazi Germany? May black teachers voice their support of civil rights?
Wilson’s classroom revelation raises legitimate questions about the fine line between the teacher’s personal beliefs and his or her teaching. But he and his colleagues fostered an atmosphere of confrontation instead of open discussion.
Dustin Sutton, a high school senior in Mesquite, Texas, also learned a lot about psychic violence last school year. (See “Final Exam,” page 30.) Dustin had his life pretty well on course: He made A’s and B’s during what he calls the “best four years of my life”; he had a girlfriend and planned to join the Marines and launch a career in the military after graduation. But a few weeks before commencement last May, Dustin learned that he had failed the state’s required exit exam and could not graduate without passing it.
Dustin was just one of many students who faced the last chance standardized test that Texas requires to prove that its high school diplomas mean something. Except for the learning disabled, every student must pass a reading, writing, and math test some time before the end of their senior year.
Something is obviously wrong if students can earn passing grades and seemingly do well in school and then fail the exit exam. One teacher acknowledges that before the exam, students were “slipping through the cracks,” going to college without being able to read. But he also wonders if a standardized exit test is the right answer. “Now we’ve fallen into teaching a test.”
Dustin and his classmates are justified in wondering if it’s fair to have their lives put on hold solely on the basis of a standardized test. One teacher acknowledges that “We’re all guilty.” But it is the students who are paying the price—those who fail the test and, perhaps even more, those whose education will be restricted by it.
Of course, psychic violence in schools is nothing new. Celebrated filmmaker Frederick Wiseman portrayed it more than 25 years ago in his acclaimed documentary High School, about life in a typical inner-city high school in Philadelphia. His camera captured a mind numbing, prison like, factory school that, in the words of one reviewer, “somehow takes warm, breathing teenagers and tries to turn them into 40-year-old eunuchs.” Now, Wiseman has returned to film another high school. (See “Back To School,” page 36.) This time he portrays New York City’s Central Park East Secondary School, which he describes this way: “There are no metal detectors. There are no cops. There’s a very low dropout rate. Drugs and violence aren’t problems. So I was curious to get some sense of why it was working the way it was.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Dangerous Places