Curriculum Opinion

Rules, Children, Schools, and Prisons

By Deborah Meier — February 03, 2011 5 min read
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Dear Diane,

Bringing up prison has led readers into many avenues. I had actually written last week’s blog piece with a focus (in my mind) on how normalized torture has become in our system of justice. And I want to go back to it—because de-normalizing it won’t happen by passing a law, but it might happen if we have spent 13-20 years in communities whose notions of justice (law and order et al) start from a different place than our own.

Years ago, my colleague and friend, Mike Harrington (author of The Other America) wondered whether the time had come to drop the word “socialism” to describe what we had in mind (him and me, etc.) since it had become so debased by its usage to describe totalitarian and ruthless regimes (Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, and on and on). Since we can’t replay history I don’t truly know whether we’d have been better off dropping words whenever others stole our language for other purposes.

One thing about the word “Democracy” is that it can never by its nature be fully described. It’s always an unfinished project. The tensions that blog-reader and commenter Daniel Fallon precisely points to in all organized bodies (be they states, political parties, corporations, or unions) can be matched by the dangers that exist in (what many call) a free-market economy in which there is no state to mediate on behalf of the less organized and less powerful. At Mission Hill we kept playing with this problem as we constructed our operating rules. We recognized that we all needed some stability, so that we’d perhaps be best living with some questionable ones rather than continuously shifting gears—even though we could. But I think my default position is always: could we do without another rule, law, organization, etc.? Let’s try. That places me perhaps more in the tradition of individualism even as I seek to build communities, and nervous about those rules imposed upon us, but still aware that we need them! (Thanks, “Anonymous.”)

Let’s talk, too, about coercion—of which torture is the ultimate form (even in some ways more coercive than “off with her head”). The power to keep one alive while also causing intolerable, terrible pain, humiliation, and helplessness is a nightmare equivalent to the one that some religious people call Hell.

So if I sometimes call schools “prisons,” I’m actually trying to be, but am not entirely being, literal. Young people are deprived of their liberty although they’ve committed no crime except being between the ages of 6 and 18? For 180 days, they are forced into buildings in which they only have the power to sabotage and annoy. But the purpose is so important, I’m told. And, I agree. But I’m not sure that my old friend John Gatto isn’t right about what happens even in fairly benign prisons, and even in those that last only 180 days a year. Yet, given the realities of life—and its gross inequities—I think Gatto is wrong in suggesting we make schools voluntary. It is the very fact of its universality that gives us a right to demand that all citizens contribute to its costs! And, maybe the same hard-fought-for universality that prevents the powerful from exploiting the young during those same 180 days. And so on.

Given this wary view of mine you can understand, Diane, why I am so unalterably opposed to ever more centralized and distant authority to coerce our local schools—e.g. federalized curriculum, assessment, licensing—as the price for federal tax dollars.

I’d rather there be some lousy curriculums than one perfect one (e.g. my own). I’d rather there be no tests than one single test for those living within the U.S. Like driver’s licenses (which are state-by-state), I can see the use of assessing a sample of what people can actually “do”, but not what they “think,” even about content. I want more and better driver’s tests and fewer of those paper-and-pencil driving “tests.” They are “subjective” (one inspector alone with one driver), but you can retake them, and even go to different sites until you pass. I’d put up with that as a model.

That, too, is coercion. You can’t drive unless and until. But again, I’ll put up with such coercion. I’ll even put up with my contradictory changes of mind, and my own occasional hypocrisy. Yes, the word “enemy” may be unwise, but as the Mission Hill mission statement says, we need to defend the rights of even those we despise—which may even be a stronger word than enemy? But surely ... surely ... no matter what we think of such “enemies,” we should not have the power (directly or indirectly) to consider their rape in prison as an inevitable byproduct of their having broken the law in some minor or major way. We need to restore torture to its place as being beyond the pale. Kids being bored in school often call it torture, too, but that’s because we have debased the term and the practices it represents.

Can schools that rest on coercion be places where kids learn joyously? Yes—most of the time. We can spend a lot of energy (and we should) on seeing that schools are as uncoercive as we can precisely in the interest of a good education for... democracy! When I idly told a young man of 17 that if he wasn’t here to learn (can you hear yourself saying this?), he might as well go home, I was surprised 20 minutes later by a call from his mother telling me “he said I said” he could go home! I told her he hadn’t lied, but of course I had no right to say that. It was against the law.

It’s a dilemma, and there is no perfect answer, so we will have to keep arguing about this forever, and after a while we’ll come up with some better schemes which have other faults.


P.S. So now I’ll admit something else—I didn’t understand how this blog’s “Comments” function worked (and I’m still one of the few who is not clear about how do it). E.g. I didn’t notice that there are replies to replies, and even replies to replies to replies. I’m told by Education Week (Mary-Ellen Deily) that maybe this will be changed so we can read them all more easily.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.