The big news lately is Edward Snowden’s heroic whistle-blowing. Perhaps it has more to do with my interests than with any reality, but when I confront any story of this sort, my thoughts always turn to the question – how does this relate to the education system?
I do not think this is solely an attempt to change the subject, though. The schools are related, in important ways, to everything that goes on in society. The schools are microcosms of society; more importantly, since they are designed, in large part, by politicians and intellectuals, they tell us what these groups wish for society to look like. They show us how these two groups would shape our society if freed from any difficulties in doing so – since children are the most powerless group in society, their lives can be arranged and micromanaged in ways that would prove difficult on a larger scale. On the other hand, schools also impact the society at large in powerful ways. Many thought patterns become fixed in youth and during the teenage years – this allows schools to impact powerfully the way the society will think in one generation. The impact of schools, though, can actually be felt much sooner than this would suggest. We tend to underestimate children, but children are intellectual forces to be reckoned with – the process of growing up is, for many, a shrinking of the imagination, a loss of divergent thinking, and the sacrifice of ideals to reality. As a result, children are more idealistic, and also better at logical argumentation, than most adults. Their arguments impact those around them, exercising decisive force on, for example, parents’ voting habits. This impact is often seriously underestimated. It’s also, in many ways, a good thing – the society is better off if more imaginative ideas are expressed and taken seriously, and if more people hold passionately to their expressed ideals.
The Snowden case touches on two important ideas – privacy and the treatment of whistle blowers. Let us look, then, at how these issues are handled in schools.
Interestingly, while there is a lot of discussion about whether or not Edward Snowden was right, one hears very little discussion about the underlying fact that he revealed that we are a secret surveillance society. This is similar to the Bradley Manning case – eerily absent from public discussions of that case is the gutless, sociopathic soldiers who shot civilians and journalists from helicopters. In general, we can derive people’s opinions on the underlying question from the positions they express – those praising Snowden would tend to favor privacy, and those calling for him to be jailed or killed – among them Donald Trump and Peter King – would be expected to be against privacy, and likely all civil liberties. Yet, the point is, this is not a part of the public discourse. So thoroughly has the basic idea that government can be criminal, and that violations of privacy are wrong, been destroyed, that the closest thing we have to voicing them is defending a whistle blower.
This is not the only way that the public discourse is mistaken, of course. That there is even a debate about whether or not it is correct to reveal massive wrongdoing is a sign of just how broken our civilization is. Anyone who trumps out the right of government to privacy – a non-existent right, but parallel in form to the real one being defended here – can no longer claim for themselves or their country the banner of democracy. Democracy, if it has any value at all, is valuable insofar as it allows voters to hold leaders accountable for wrongdoings on their watch. If wrongdoing cannot be revealed, on what basis will voters make decisions?
If the very notion of privacy as a legitimate right has disappeared from our society, it is reasonable to look to the place where many of us learn our values to see how this happened. Not only does a typical student enjoy no right to privacy – the very idea that privacy is possible in school is outrageous.
Schools show no respect for the highest, most important form of privacy – the private thoughts within the mind of the individual. Under the prevalent philosophies of schooling, the interior of your head is public domain. Students have no say as to what they will learn, or whether they will learn at all. Why is this? If a reason is even given, we will be told it is so that students can be properly valuable to society – you cannot control your own mind, we will make use of your mind as it suits the hive.
Nor does the invasion of the mind end with telling students what they will learn. Frequently, students’ emotional state is a matter for discussion and regulation. While students are, as noted above, allowed little or no input into the matter of whether, or what, they will learn, academic failure is frequently attributed to a failure of the student to show adequate motivation or interest. Thus, students are not only commanded to involve their minds with unchosen topics, but they are further given the impossible command to be interested in these topics – even if they aren’t! Students are further instructed to participate eagerly and with a positive attitude. Students are expected to like their teachers, and can be punished via grades for obvious dislike – while their teachers carry out the mandatory schooling and frequently assign disproportionate penalties for small infractions.
Moving forward, students receive little ability to be discrete about things most of us consider extremely private. For example, almost none of us would excuse ourselves from a room by extrapolating on the excretory function we plan to do upon exiting, but such explanation is considered obligatory for students. Not only that, they are expected to request permission to perform this most basic physical need! Teachers consider student sexual relations to be fair game for discussion. Perhaps most importantly, privacy is based on the idea of bodily integrity – that we may decide what to do, at a given moment, with our bodies. If such an idea does not exist, then privacy cannot exist – which is why privacy cannot exist inside a school. Students have no base assumption of bodily integrity. Alone among non-criminals and non-military folks, they can be punished and even jailed for not being at a specific place at a certain time. No one else can suffer criminal consequences for leaving a place they do not wish to be in.
Many times, this is compounded by telling students that learning is their job. We are all familiar with jobs: jobs are freely chosen places of employment, and pay wages. School fits neither of these descriptions. Furthermore, jobs are done because they benefit others – those who pay us, directly or indirectly, to perform our jobs. But learning is not paid for by anyone, except under the coercion of taxation. Which leads us to another reason schools cannot allow privacy – they are the property of everyone in society except those who must attend. Every taxpayer can claim ownership of the schools – by extension, so can every interest group – but students do not pay taxes. When entering private property, we lose some of our privacy rights – the owner may demand no smoking, for instance, or the wearing of a specific uniform. This loss of privacy is generally limited by the fact that we usually only go places where the owner wants us – a visit to a friend’s home, a store, a place of employment, and so on – and so owners will not place such odious restrictions that we refuse to go. Schools have no such concerns – students attend under duress, not by choice. Also, owners of property tend to only be concerned about a few things – most people just don’t have a ton of obsessions. However, when a place is owned by all of society, each person’s craziness must be taken into account – producing any number of privacy-destroying rules.
Much of the discussion has centered on how Edward Snowden should be treated – that is, on the treatment of whistle blowers. It would seem that our society is hopelessly confused on this topic – most will affirm that whistle blowers must be protected – but too many of those same people will then offer various exceptions. Most commonly, it is denied that Snowden (and Manning) are whistle blowers since they went public rather than reporting the problem within their hierarchy – but in both cases, the problem was with their superiors! In any case, this argument is absurd in many ways. Why should whistle blowers be subject to this requirement, when it often puts them in increased danger and thus decreases the likelihood that the situation will be corrected? In this particular case, it seems reasonable, anyway, to say that the general public is the end of the chain, and that these individuals had every right to go to their highest superior. Consider also that we do not place this rather silly requirement on those reporting a crime – no one goes to the police to make a complaint, only to be told that their landlord is a more appropriate authority to turn to. Even if the policies these men wanted to inform the public of were limited to a certain level of the organization, nothing we know about those organizations suggests that they could be resolved from within. Finally, how are we to hold people accountable for wrongdoing if situations are to be dealt with internally?
In any event, though, the point stands that we recognize that whistle blowers need to be protected, even if we are inconsistent about it. So, what is the treatment of whistle blowers within schools? To ask the question is to answer it. Students reporting teacher misdeeds will most likely be ignored or disciplined. Unlike Snowden, though, even taking the issue outside of school is unlikely to produce a public reaction. Most of the society considers children to be inherently not worth listening to.
We should also consider how few avenues students have to speak out. The media within schools is entirely controlled by the school administration, which must approve every article and issue before publication. Outside media looks to the school administration for quotes and cues. There is a distinct lack of checks and balances within the school – even when an administrator knows that a teacher is wrong, the cult of ‘stand behind the teacher’ often prevails. If this same description were given of a country, no one would fail to identify it as totalitarian.
Why Should Schools Be Better?
I have been asked, more than once, why schools should be fair, treat students correctly, and so on. Usually the question is phrased as – why should schools be fair, if the world isn’t? That is, don’t schools need to prepare students for the unfair world, not release them with the delusion that the world is fair? There are many responses to this. For one, schools can teach about the unfairness of the world without imposing it on students. For another, as the above shows, in many ways schools are worse than the rest of the world. The question itself – why should one treat children well – strikes me as evidence that the speaker either dislikes children, or does not understand the role of adults – we are supposed to protect children.
The most important answer, though, is that the role of schools is not to reproduce the current society. Students should not be socialized to accept bad things being done to them, so that they are fit to live in a society that does bad things to people. They should be socialized to not accept such treatment, so that they will improve the society. The purpose of school ought to be (if we are to have schools at all) providing the tools necessary for the next generation to build a better society. In each generation, there is, in theory, more accumulated wisdom, more old ideas proven incorrect, and so on – schools can help transmit what the previous generation knew, so that the next can build on it, disprove parts, and come to conclusions that the older would not come to.
If we are outraged by what Snowden has revealed – and we should be – we have every reason to be far more outraged by what is done to children every day. Children are powerless and defenseless – we should always worry most about what is done to them. We must also realize that nowhere else in society would we tolerate what is done every day to children. How many of us would expect to ask permission to use the bathroom, to be forced to do physical labor every time we are late – and to be required to participate and display a positive attitude about this treatment? Would we accept a full day of unasked for obligations every day, with no pay?
Furthermore, that it is done to children makes it far more likely that it will happen throughout society. Children who grow up – as they have for generations – with this treatment are less likely to be vigilant for such abuses. Schools may not succeed in teaching math and science, but they have taught respect for authority, unquestioning obedience, and acceptance of totalitarianism. Furthermore, when we fight it in the schools, we are putting our leaders on notice that we consider such behavior unacceptable. What message does it send – to politicians and to children – when we object loudly when it is done to us, but remain silent about the worse forms of abuse imposed on children?