There’ve been a few posts floating around the Tumblr-verse lately that speak to children’s oppression within the education system, that suggest that our schools are completely dominated by the interests of adults and that we teach our children to submit to this authority in a way that has been compared to prison systems.

When I think about this problem, there are two major issues I come to that I don’t think have been addressed here: behavior management and democratic education. The first is a management issue, and the second is a governance issue. 

Behavior Management: Some of the main pieces of evidence that people use to fuel this debate are the methods that schools use to organize students. They walk in lines from place to place, they are told when and where they are allowed to move, and they are given specific instructions on how, when, where, why, and to whom they should speak. On its face, I think we can admit that this seems very oppressive, and I fully admit that this does remind me of prison. But I think anyone who’s worked with kids is likely to feel sort of defensive about this. Even when I was a camp counselor at summer camps, an environment that was fairly democratic, a certain amount of demonstrated authority on my part was necessary to make the things that children wanted become reality. I had to make children walk in lines. I had to limit when they spoke. (And I was only maybe 16 years old myself.) What I haven’t seen in this discussion is any feasible alternatives to the structures of schooling such that these methods of behavior management are not necessary. Even if everything that happened in schools was at the direction of children in a democratic system, it would still fall on adults to implement these things, adults that would need to manage the behavior of children to make them happen.

Democratic Education: Amy Gutmann, current president of UPenn and award-winning political theorist, had this to say about democratic education: “You cannot govern unless you have first been governed. You must govern after you have been governed.” By this, she implies that the development of children into citizens that can responsibly participate in a democratic society requires, to some extent, some governance over this development. As much as a parent provides structured nurturing for their child, so too does the school system for citizens. Again, I think this goes back to the conflicting values present in American education, manifested in individualistic verses societal goals, but the discussion thus far doesn’t address this conflict. As much as behavior management attempts to guide what children do, I think it’s fair to say that our system also attempts to guide what children think. I’m not saying it does it well, but I don’t think people have really spoken on whether it should. People cite injustices committed by the educational system when it has historically taught children things that marginalize different groups of people, but we don’t talk as much about the way that education has been used to rectify social injustices as well. In the end, the education system admittedly does cultivate a set of values within children, and it seems that admitting this makes many people uncomfortable.

TL;DR: I think there’s some legitimacy to the criticisms people have of schools and the way they “oppress” students, but I feel that they (1) usually fail to discuss realistic alternatives, (2) don’t consider why schools are structured as they are, and (3) don’t discuss the philosophical underpinnings of who controls education. I know, it probably gets annoying that I bring this up pretty much all the time, but I really feel like it’s this conflict of values that causes most of these types of arguments and discussions about education.