Schools Shouldn't Bear the Burden for Abusive Homes

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This was an acquaintance's response after I told her my opinion that schools simply aren't failing, but that they are designed to wrench differentiation and individualization out of students:

Well, that's really a negative way to look at it. What about the kids who don't have good family situations at home? School provides a sanctuary for them to escape abuse and to really learn and pursue something

I want to run through this claim (very) quickly and provide a different way of thinking about it. While it might give us warm fuzzies to think that public schools are a good thing for the least well-off among us, I'm willing to wager that schools not only don't help the least well-off, by and large, become better-off, but that they actually keep them poor, dumb, abused and powerless.

I also call public schooling "compulsory state schooling" from here on out. It is a more honest name for what public schools really are.

Claim: School is a Safe-Haven

The first claim, that school is a safe-haven for children from dysfunctional households, goes along these lines:

  1. Some children have dysfunctional and/or emotionally/physically abusive family lives.
  2. Compulsory state-schooling requires that these children go to school during the day.
  3. The school is a safer place than the home during these hours.
  4. Therefore, compulsory state schooling is good for these children, providing them safety from an abusive home life.

My biggest complaint with this claim comes from the third premise, "the school is a safer place than the home during these hours," and the leap from 1+2+3 to 4.

I cannot speak to the severity of emotional or physical abuse that abused children must face at home. Child abusive, whether parental or non-parental, is a horrible thing and should not be taken lightly. Whether it comes from smashing the child's curiosity and love of the world or from spanking, hitting, or slapping the child, abuse is a serious topic.

So how far has a society's moral standards sunk when transferring a child from one center of abuse (the household) to another (the school) is seen as a great achievement for that society?

Schools are breeding grounds for violence, bullying, and the emotional and psychological stunting caused by abuse. That these places should be seen as safe-havens should strike any reader as horror.

Schools as Abuse: Student-on-Student (Bullying)

Schools are the primary havens of bullying in any individual's life. While workplace bullying does occur and takes place between adults, it is mostly kept to workplaces that mirror schools and takes on a different shape than school-based bullying. More than one in four students will be bullied while at school, more than one in four will be a bully, and nearly three in four will report having seen bullying (the true number is likely higher, since students are skiddish about reporting bullying or thinking of themselves as having been bullied) (source).

Bullying can be anything from being called names and being shunned to having property stolen and destroyed to being the target of physical violence.

The targets of bullying are often students of the same age. Since schools group students by age, rather than by aptitude or by interests or goals, inter-student bullying can be more easily perpetrated, as larger and stronger students don't have to face repercussions from older students. More popular students don't have to worry about being smacked down for their immaturity by older students.

(In fact, schools with mixed-age grouping see much lower rates of bullying because these very precautions develop. It turns out children and young adults aren't naturally mean or petty and want to protect younger and smaller people, but when school prevents them from doing this, the bullies rise to the top.)

If we are supposed to rejoice at the idea of a student who is abused at home going to be abused by or witness abuse by their peers, we should check our moral compasses.

Schools as Abuse: Adult-on-Student ("Discipline," etc.)

There's another type of abuse that happens at school that only garners media attention when it involves sexual forays -- teacher abuse. Teacher abuse can be anything from mocking, shutting down, or shaming a student in the name of "discipline" to actually hitting, smacking, or orchestrating student-on-student abuse against students. This isn't just me being hyperbolic. Teacher abuse is a real thing. At its most extreme, physical abuse, it is still legally protected in nineteen states in the United States.

Teachers have been known to abuse students who don't meet a manageable mold -- the highest poppy ends up getting cut down. Students who are rambunctious (i.e., children who want to be children), special needs students, and those who are non-participatory are common targets of teacher abuse.

Imagine a young student who is overly shy because of an abusive situation at home. They've internalized the hatred that their abusive parents project onto them. They don't participate on the level that the teacher desires. A good teacher would find ways to get them to participate without forcing their hand. An abusive teacher will call them out, will shame them, will send them to the principal's office (a form of shaming), and might even hit them (i.e., "corporal punishment") to get them to participate.

On the other end of the spectrum, imagine the student that our compulsory state schooling-defending friend above describes. She comes to school with glee and joy because she has an opportunity to be away from an abusive situation at home. She has pent up energy, curiosity, and a desire to just do things. But she must be schooled. She must learn what the state test demands. If she doesn't the teacher will face repercussions from the administration. The teacher tries to get her to behave, but she just wants to use this time away from home to be a child for once. The teacher loses his patience and shames, mocks, and snaps, forcing the student to endure emotional and potentially physical abuse.

In time, it works. The student comes to see the entire world as a place where she does not belong. Home is a deep circle of hell, school is simply a higher circle. She relents, and internalizes the abuse.

Schools as abuse: Creating Abusers

Think about the abusive parents you read about. Chances are they were abused or bullied when they were younger. Chances are even better that they were abused or bullied or were bullies when they were in school. School beats the love of the world and of learning and curiosity out of human beings, as it is designed to, so should it come as any surprise that thoroughly schooled adults are abusive adults? It's a place where might-makes-right. It's a place where, "because I said so and if you don't, I'm going to shame and beat you," is the ultimate word. It's a place where

SCHOOLS AS ABUSE: SCHOOLING IS GENERALLY ABUSIVE TO THE INDIVIDUAL

But maybe the student escapes the odds and doesn't get bullied, watch bullying, become a bully, or be abused by teachers or administrators. Maybe she is simply subjected to the regularly scheduled programming of schools. She comes in at the first bell, goes to class, goes to the next class at the next bell, and slowly becomes a model student.

What happens in this time? She is told to get in line, shut her mouth, and ask an authority before doing regular bodily activities like going to the bathroom or getting a snack to eat. She is told that, no, she cannot go practice her violin, despite her love of music and her aptitude at the instrument. She must learn "economics" and she must learn geography. If she wants to pursue her passion, she can work hard to open up her elective time in her final few years in school to be granted a measly 39-60 minutes during the school day to indulge. Otherwise, she's SOL.

She begins to lose her color and curiosity of the world. Home is hell, school is simply purgatory. It's a place to be endured. If she's lucky, she'll be able to find some inkling of Heaven between the two in her short life, but with school running from 7 AM to 3 PM and home life being constricted her chances are slim.

At best, school provides a purgatory for her. At worst, it is its own special hell.

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