This is a guest post by William. William is a psychodynamic psychotherapist currently working in an educational setting in Chicago, and a regular commenter at Feministe. The first post in his guest-posting series on madness is here, and the second is here.
As some of you might know I’ve had the dubious privilege of sitting on a lot of different sides of the educational world. When I was very young I was given a series of trendy diagnoses and pumped full of drugs that made me sick, when they didn’t work I
attended was sentenced to survived several behaviorally-based programs for children with severe behavioral, emotional, and learning disabilities. These were the kinds of schools where “reasonable goals” were about as ambitious as eventual independent living and a closely supervised service job.
As time went on I was identified as “gifted,” a term whose barely-veiled-Christian-rooted ressentiment I loathe to this day, and placed in Chicago’s public “gifted program.” It was a good program that not only offered advanced and enriched classes like Latin and Philosophy in junior high, but also encouraged and demanded higher order critical thinking across the board. Unfortunately, I still needed some special education services at that point in my life and that caused a bit of a problem. Lots of people remarked about how they didn’t know what to do because it had never come up before. I even had one teacher ask me who I thought I was fooling because “being a genius means you’re good at learning.” It was frustrating because I had incredible trouble printing (I never did manage cursive) and the spatial abilities of a six year old but could understand Descartes in sixth grade. I always felt like a failure or an imposter and the constantly confused special education teachers did little to help that.
In high school I was identified as a trouble maker because I was the wrong kind of disabled kid: mouthy and independent rather than the (I wish this wasn’t a direct quote from an administrator) “huggy retard who makes people feel better about themselves.” I was never dangerous or violent but I didn’t develop the ability to keep my mouth shut or choose my battles until I was old enough to drink and I was constantly in trouble. By my senior year my special education teacher was trying to teach me basic phonics (because thats what disabled kids need!) and failing me because I was too busy reading Nietzsche. More than a dozen suspensions in four years, a GPA that allowed me to be a ringer for the school’s Scholastic Bowl team, and the sense that school just wasn’t worth it brought me to the edge of expulsion. The school was advised to leave me be and let me graduate after they played their hand a bit too aggressively and a special education lawyer reminded them that they’d be paying for my college education if they didn’t back off.
I escaped to college, went to grad school, and eventually earned a doctorate in clinical psychology. I’ve been a therapist in a “normal” high school, serving an underserved and economically underprivileged population of kids no one expected to amount to much. I now work at a small, relatively affluent, private therapeutic school for children with emotional disorders. Theres a lot I’ve left out there, but I think thats enough for context.
I’ve gotten to experience the world of education for children who are not normal from many angles. In that time I’ve come to have some pretty strong feelings about whats wrong not just with how we education students at the margins but how we educate in general.
If you pay close attention to education in America, or if you’ve read Foucault, you might have noticed that our schools resemble a factory floor. We bring in children, as if they were a blank slate, and fill them with useful knowledge. The focus is on the transmission of information. As a result most of the schools in the United States look more or less similar: a series of desks lined up, cross talk forbidden, faces aimed at a lecturing teacher who periodically assigns work to gauge student’s progress.
Problems begin to arise when you begin to encounter kids who, for whatever reason, aren’t well served by this system. A student with aural processing difficulties isn’t going to be able to listen to a lecture and soak up that information. A student with attention and concentration problems isn’t going to be able to focus on the teacher, ending with the same problem. A student whose previous education had gaps will have trouble keeping up, following along, or completing problems in the way they are expected (lateral thinking is not generally rewarded, especially if someone cannot quite explain how they got to a novel solution). Very bright students might already know the material or learn it more quickly and their boredom often leads to behaviors which are interpreted as disrespectful or oppositional. Kids having trouble at home, kids who are anxious or depressed, kids hearing voices, kids who cannot stop thinking that their shirt makes them look fat, kids terrified that their teacher hates them, all of these students will appear to be “bad students” for one reason or another.
This huge section of students who do poorly then become targets for different kinds of interventions. The problem, of course, comes from the way in which we determine what is wrong. Each of these kids present a different challenge, but when the end goal is the orderly transmission of some discrete set of facts any help is going to necessarily be designed to make the student more like other children, more able to soak up the facts and figures presented to them. Students with emotional difficulties face treatments aimed at reducing their symptoms so they can be normal, though the problems and the suffering still remains. Students with learning disabilities are set between the Scylla and Charybdis of lowered expectations and begrudging accommodations (they seem so much like cheating, after all) geared towards getting them back in class. Very intelligent, bored students are put in accelerated classes if they’re lucky (and if their intelligence happens to be even across subjects) or subjected to discipline designed to make them less disruptive if they aren’t.
The problem of education is similar to the problem of madness because the ways in which we think about education mirror the ways in which we think about madness: we conceptualize these things as deviations from an ideal norm, as something patients or students lack, and we identify these deviations based first on what is uncomfortable for us and then on what we can identify as different. Education today leaves little room for intellectual or neurological diversity. The end result of how we educate children is that kids learn how to conform to the expectations of the educational environment rather than how to think critically or meaningfully engage with data.
Which brings us to the uncomfortable problem: its not just kids who fall so far from the norm that they are labeled disabled or mad or bright or lost who are stuck in a system which disregards their needs and strengths in favor of hammering out perceived weaknesses, its everyone. We’ve all heard that girls are bad at math and we’ve spent a lot of time deconstructing and debunking that meme. Some people have even brushed up against the deeper problem by pointing out that maybe its not so much girls being bad at math as society creating an environment in which they are not allowed to be good at math. Similar observations have been made about the sciences. We lament cutting of arts funding and decreasing emphasis on humanities. We nod our heads and cluck disapprovingly of the school-to-prison pipeline. Yet we do not often ask the difficult question of why we fail to educate so many children or of why we move more and more resources into education but realize fewer and fewer gains. We avoid the question.
Education is a social justice issue. Being able to think and reason and learn and make connections are the roots of advocacy. Our educational system, perhaps not by design but by sloth and neglect, directly undermines those abilities by focusing on easy to measure facts. Grading an essay is hard but a machine can grade a true or false exam. I’ve seen the effects of this system up close, both in my own life and in the lives of my patients. A better system will cost money, it will not be as easily studied by standardized examination, it will require greater respect for students and demand greater flexibility from teachers and administrators. It will not be regimented and well organized. Perhaps most importantly, it will not do a good job of arranging students into hierarchies of usefulness.
A better system will also likely not be standardized. I like the idea of charter schools because I feel more choices mean more places where different students can thrive, but I recognize that this is largely an urban solution. I definitely think that high schools need to incorporate more choice and look more like colleges, allowing students to focus on things they love rather than things someone feels they really ought to know. I believe that the goal of education should be to bring students to a place where they can be functional in the world and follow their own intellectual curiosity; we ought to give students the tools to learn and accept that they might not care much for geometry or dead white novelists paid by the word. I believe that a system designed to support and respect students will lead to a society which is itself less rigid and disrespectful.