About six or seven years ago, I got a late-night phone call from a woman I know. She was really upset and on the verge of crying when I answered. I remember the feelings associated with the conversation far more than I do the details, but I’ll never forget the emotions because I’ve thought about it over and over since then.
The woman was a teacher who hadn’t been teaching long. I don’t recall whether it was her first or second year, but I know she loved her middle school students very much. She was a very good and caring teacher — with a brilliant mind and flair for communicating effectively — the prototype of the rare sort of teacher who anyone would gladly trust his own children with. But on this night, she was upset and confused.
She was on a school trip with her students to Washington, D.C. At some point along the trip, some sort of bullying or rivalry started among her girls. I don’t remember if there was just one victim or if it was a conflict between groups. But whatever it was, it was the sort of ugly, mean, nasty thing that only kids of that age can do to one another. For this kind and loving teacher, it was enough to break her heart — partly because of the pain it was causing for students she loved and partly because it was reminding her of her own miserable school years at that age.
As we talked that night, I sat in a parking lot and listened, but I didn’t have any useful advice to offer. For all these years, I’ve been wondering about it. What causes kids to act this way to each other? And what can we do about it?
I happened to notice something Wednesday, and it set me to thinking about this all over again. Could it be that we’re causing the problem? Could the conflicts arise because of the way we’ve structured childhood?
I saw a little boy I know Wednesday afternoon and we waved at each other. He’s sweet and polite to me. His older brother used to be like him, but he’s been in school long enough that he’s gotten sullen and rude with adults, as though they’re the enemy. He can be outwardly polite — at least in a perfunctory way when he believes someone important is watching — but he doesn’t mean it anymore. He’s become a rude little punk, and he’s becoming more so the more years he spends in school.
Over the years, my views about school have changed radically. I started out believing in the standard government-run school model, mostly because that’s what I grew up with. Eventually, I came to favor private schools because I disagreed with government involvement. Then I realized that I didn’t like the school model at all. I didn’t want my children going to some child warehouse — even a nice building with a few nice teachers — every day and spending most of their waking hours. So I moved on to favor homeschooling and even unschooling.
Those who favor the mainstream school model frequently say that children who learn at home are denied the benefits of socialization. As I look at the results of what happens with kids in schools, though, it occurs to me that I like most children far better before they spend so much exclusive time with other kids in school and develop a “Lord of the Flies” mentality. Being “socialized” to that culture isn’t exactly improving them.
It seems to me that children who are raised and taught in mixed family groupings — interacting with adults and other children of various ages — seem more like healthy and well-adjusted human beings than those who spend most of their time (and have all of their identification with) a peer group of their own age.
Who ever came up with this idea that we should group children by age in these large warehouses that we call school? If you spend almost all of your time around a group, you’re going to become like them. You’re going to develop a culture and accepted ways of doing things that shut others out. In that sort of scenario, doesn’t it seem natural that teachers will come to be seen as the enemy — as some kind of prison guard?
So maybe the solution to bullying and all sorts of horrible angst among children and teens requires restructuring childhood. Maybe it requires us to get rid of the Prussian-model schools that we adopted less than 200 years ago. Maybe children need to be with their families.
I don’t have a proposal to implement this. It’s no coincidence that the modern school system developed at the same time that the Industrial Revolution happened, because schools were seen as something to prepare children for their futures as cogs in the industrial wheel. And as women joined the work force, schools also took on an additional important role as “free” daycare.
If my intuition that the entire school system itself is the root of the child/teen problem, society itself has to change. Families have to change in order to spend time together. Ways of earning livings have to change for that to be possible. In other words, I suspect that schools were a natural byproduct of the Industrial Revolution that we just haven’t gotten rid of — and that as society changes, that style of schooling will slowly die.
I suspect we’re in line for a broader restructuring of society — how we work and interact with each other — and when that happens, the old school model will be seen as an odd artifact of the past.
So if I could go back to the conversation six or seven years ago, what would I say to that dear teacher? I might suggest that she was trying to serve a well-meaning system that was doomed to produce the results she was seeing, not in every case of course, but in far too many cases — and there was absolutely nothing she could do about it as long as she was part of that system.
The one thing I’m more sure of than ever is that even a great teacher can’t ultimately fix the problem, because the problems are structural. Not even the best and most loving teacher can stop many kids from turning into bullies and beasts when the only check on their behavior is the approval of their peers.
I know some will see it as too radical for now, but I believe homeschooling and unschooling are the models that make sense for the future.