Education, Values etc.
Yesterday a teen friend told me she made the honor roll in her school. I told her this worried me. I told her I was afraid she was losing herself and adapting to the school's system of punishment and rewards.
As I lay awake in bed now at three in the morning I have been thinking more about this.
Over the time I have known her I have seen her become more and more of a conformist to her society's values -- values which I believe are unhealthy for her and the world.
When I first met her I admired how strong she was and how she rebelled against her society's values. I admired how idealistic she was. I tried to nurture this idealism and non-conformity. But with her school authorities handing out repeated punishment and constant threats, along with well-organized rewards for doing what is "expected" of her, she has lost her rebelliousness and her idealism.
At the same time she has become more sarcastic, more cynical, more defensive, more invalidating and more hurtful. She has become less empathetic, less compassionate, less caring. She has become a worse listener. She has become less tolerant and more judgmental. She is less in touch with her feelings, less able to say how she feels and more likely to say "I don't know" when asked about them.
I don't mean this as a criticism of her. She, like all of us is largely a product of her environment. Instead, this is a criticism of her culture and of its process of "socialization." She has been hurt, attacked, invalidated time and time again. This is nearly all she sees. She sees those around her labeling and judging people, so she does the same thing to vent her negative feelings. Because she feels bad about it on some level and she knows it is wrong to do, she sometimes gets defensive and resentful when I confront her about it. At this point she is still able to acknowledge her feelings of defensiveness and resentment, but I am afraid one day she won't be able to and she will just want to stop talking to me. I have to walk a thin line between trying to help her stay aware of her feelings and how she is treating others versus maintaining our relationship. Often what I say is too threatening to people so they cut off communication and I end up having no influence with them at all. Or, worse, they might start to feel defiant towards me and my ideas as a way of proving everything is just fine in their lives and they don't need my help.
So while I may lose influence with some individual people, I still want to point out what is happening in schools to the most sensitive, most individualistic people. I want to call attention to what is rewarded in school and what is punished. By seeing what is rewarded and what is punished, we can see what the highest values are in the school system.
We all know that "good" grades are rewarded. But on what subjects are people graded? Are they the most important things for the survival of the human species or for the mental health of a sensitive, intelligent person?
I wonder what would happen if we started to give grades on things like compassion, forgiveness, empathy, helpful listening, emotional support, emotional literacy, emotional honesty and validation. I wonder what would happen if we gave grades on personal integrity, thinking for oneself and following one's heart and dreams.
I also wonder what would happen if we encouraged people to grade themselves. I want to ask my teen friend, for example, what grade she would give herself in the areas I just listed. Because she is so sensitive, aware and insightful, or at least she was before this year of school, she would probably be able to monitor her own progress or regression. Somewhat jokingly, I told her that she has regressed in her intellectual and emotional skills over the past year. I realize now that it is not a joke though. It is extremely serious.
What is happening to her is happening to many other intelligent, sensitive, creative people who are forced to go to school. I don't use the word "forced" lightly, because they are indeed forced. Not all of them feel forced, because some want to go. But the ones that do want to go seem to be going for one of two reasons. First, to be with their friends. Second, because they are afraid if they don't go they will not be able to get jobs later. For those who don't want to go to school for either of these two reasons, they do feel forced. Their parents, teachers, truant officers, police and judges will all join together to see that they are in the building physically, even if it is killing them to be there. And in some cases it is killing them, either psychologically or physically.
I know of one teenager who feels so stressed by all the rules and control in school that the first thing she does when she leaves is take drugs each day. This is not much different than the man whose job is so stressful he has to go to the bar after work.
To me, there is something really wrong in a society where a teenager has to take drugs to stop their pain and a man has to numb himself with alcohol everyday.
One source of pain is fear. At school the sensitive teenager is afraid of punishment, disapproval, rejection, humiliation, intimidation, mockery, and judgment. They are punished by the school authorities if they are late for class, if they laugh during class, if they try to communicate with their friends during class. In some schools they are punished if they don't wear the right clothes. In some schools they are punished if they sit on the floor in the cafeteria or get up and go to the bathroom without permission.
The more I listen to teens, the more I see how oppressive the system of rules and punishment really is, depending on the country. I know that in some schools in the USA and Australia, they will put a teenager in room alone for days at a time, solitary confinement, in other words, as a form of punishment. An Australian university student told me recently that when she was 16 she was put in such a room for four days, only being allowed out to go to the bathroom. Her parents were of no help. They took sides with the school authorities and said she "deserved" it. Although it happened years ago, she still felt resentful about it.
England, the USA and Australia are some of the places I hear the most complaints about from the teens, and which seem to be much more oppressive than, say, Holland, Switzerland, Sweden or Canada.
This makes me wonder if it is just coincidence that England, America and Australia are also the ones who invaded Iraq.
April 23, 2003