Most school-aged children had the luxury of a two-week vacation over the winter holidays. Today, much to their chagrin (and probably their parents' delight), they will be marching (In a straight line, please. Keep your hands to yourself!) back to school where they belong.
They will be back in the hallowed halls of learning, their ready brains poised to soak up education like the malleable little sponges that they are. Facts and numbers and grammar and literature and history and science being dumped continuously from now until Spring break into their minds, tamped down and packed together and ready to be regurgitated onto the test sheets required by state and federal governments for processing later in the year.
I'm cynical about compulsory education (and that might be stating it nicely).
Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions (even if one of those intentions is to get them out of their parents' hair before someone loses their temper and permanent psychological damage is done which may take years of therapy to unravel). While parents would like to believe that their darling babies are seated in neat little rows behind neat little desks learning everything they need to be successful in life, they may not realize exactly what their children are learning during their long stints behind the closed doors of public education.
There are other lessons that are taught in the public school system, and none of them will be found in the pages of textbooks or written across classroom whiteboards. Instead, these lessons are more subversive, taught through small interactions with teachers and other students, picked up through attitudes and environmental conditioning. They are lessons that may stick with your children long after they've forgotten state capitals and vocabulary words and the parts of a cell. (You know? The stuff they memorized just for those tests and then promptly forgot?)
What lessons? Here are just a few that most parents might not even realize (or if they do realize, don't think to question. Maybe because of their own standard compulsory education).
1. Obedience to Authority. Blindly. Even when it doesn't make sense. Arbitrary rules often run rampant in the classroom, but if the teacher (or principal or guidance counselor) demand it, even the child's parents will probably back it up. This goes for dress codes, assigned seating, and how the students put their names on their papers.
My daughter told me about something that happened in one of her classes. The teacher asked the class to read a selection and then use a highlighter to mark important information. One of the students chose to underline rather than highlight. The teacher pushed the issue, insisting that she use the highlighter even though underlining achieved the same result for the student. So the child, in an obvious act of defiance with an "I'll show him" attitude (because she couldn't respect an apparently arbitrary rule), highlighted the entire passage. Major trouble ensued with threats and lectures from the teacher about how she needed to "take her education more seriously." (Translation: Don't question my authority or your grades will suffer and then you won't get into a good college or get a decent job and you'll live the rest of your life a bum on the street... or something to that effect.)
The message is to do what you are told. The outcome isn't important, but your obedience is.
2. Indifference. Students are conditioned like Pavlov's dogs to move from one task to the next when the bell rings. It doesn't matter how interested in the current task they may be. It doesn't matter if they are finished or not. It doesn't matter if they are even remotely interested in the next task. When the bell rings, they are finished. They are expected to turn themselves on and off like light switches.
It's a subtle message. But the bell system teaches children to not care too much, to not get too engaged. It teaches them that no work is worth finishing. Nothing is as important as the arbitrary class schedule. Drop whatever you are doing when the bell rings and move on. There is an amount of detachment and coolness that must be applied to every "learning experience" with the knowing that there is only 45 minutes to focus, no matter how engaging the subject.
The message is to not get too involved, to not care too much. There isn't enough time for that.
3. Dependence and the Danger of Self-Motivation. Good students wait for the teacher to tell them what to do. (My daughter tells a tale of a fellow student who got in trouble with the teacher for reading chapters ahead of those specifically assigned in the class-required novel.) The message drilled into our children is to wait and follow directions. Someone with more training, someone more qualified to make decisions about your lives will do it for you. Don't try to overtly or covertly attempt to make decisions for yourselves (I'm talking to you here, Highlighter Girl!). You aren't qualified. Let someone else decide what you will learn, how you will learn, and when you will learn it. And if it doesn't make the authority approved list, it is insignificant and unimportant. Follow directions. Do what you are told... and only what you are told.
Self-evaluation is also deemed unimportant and discouraged. Instead a person's value and worth is determined by test scores, grades and report cards... all handed down by some third-party observers. Children are taught not to trust themselves, or to place personal value on their own achievements. Instead, they are taught to rely on the evaluation of certified and licensed officials. People need to wait to be told what they are worth. They need to depend on those in authority to tell them they are good and valued.
4. Acceptance of Surveillance. Even aside from the new security cameras being placed in schools across the country, there is no privacy in our public schools. Each student is watched by teachers and administrators and government entities. They are constantly tracked and compared through transcripts and test scores.
Students enjoy no private time. The amount of time between classes is kept to a minimum. Hallways are monitored by faculty. Lunch periods are kept short. Socializing in class is not permitted. Students are encouraged to spy on one another and to tattle, especially in the wake of huge anti-bullying campaigns. There is no time or space for independent or unapproved interaction. Everything is monitored and kept within the tight confines of approved behavior.
To make it worse, piles and piles of homework extend the hours of school surveillance well beyond official school hours. homework ensures that there is little free time to pursue unauthorized activities. Hours spent writing boring papers and drilling math problems and memorizing useless dates can't be spent developing passions, or learning from parents, or lost in free thought. Homework is the long arm of the school system extended into what should be private time. It's just another way that the schools influence, manage and direct the lives of their students.
The message is to just accept invasions of privacy. Pay no attention to Big Brother. He's been watching you since preschool.
5. Truth Comes From Authority. The right answer is the one the teacher wants. That's the answer that will be rewarded, the answer that will keep you from public ridicule, the answer that will get you passing grades and entrance into the future of conformists' dreams. What the student thinks (Although, it's probably safer if he or she doesn't think at all) is irrelevant. Besides, schools aren't set up to teach people HOW to think but rather WHAT to think.
My daughter was finishing up some Civics homework last semester when she asked for help with clarification of a question regarding the intended purpose of the Pledge of Allegiance. We discussed it for a few minutes, and then I asked her, "So what is the right answer?" She responded, "By 'the right answer' do you mean what I think is the right answer, or do you mean the answer the teacher thinks is right?"
Now THAT is a tough choice to make. Follow your conscience? Or get good grades?
Enough classroom squashing of independent thought makes people afraid to think thoughts other than what authorities tell them are "right".
All of these subversive lessons make large groups of children easy to manage. But the problem is that those easily managed children grow up to be easily managed groups of adults.
Although, I suppose that's only a problem if you aren't doing the managing...