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Thursday, November 17, 2011

Marvin Does Time: Why a Kid Chooses Jail Over School

Marvin, who I've written about earlier, is back in jail. He was part of a chainsnatch robbery and even though he didn't snatch the chain himself he was there and he was on probation so he's back inside. He could be released back to probation if he were willing to go back on house arrest and attend school, but he says he'd rather stay in jail. His incarceration saddens and frustrates me both personally and professionally.

Mainly, I'm frustrated because he has chosen to stay in jail rather than be put on house arrest because he would be forced to return to school.

This isn't because he comes from a bad family. He doesn't. His mom and dad are good parents and hardworking people. They are supportive, intelligent, and both understand the value of -- and are willing to support -- his education.

It is more related to the fact that he doesn't come from a bad family and the dissonance between his reality and his personal narrative is painful. Each of us has a dominant narrative into which we incorporate the events and interactions of our daily existence and Marvin's narrative is founded in badassery. He wants to be hard. He wants to be a thug and it is easier to align himself with his story in lock-up than it is in a classroom.

But it's not just that. There are dozens of kids that fall away from our school each year and many of them don't have a thug narrative and aren't involved in gangs and crime. For many of them their narratives are victim-based or built around self-loathing. But in all cases our schools have played a huge roll in creating the circumstances that make dropping out seem like a valid and reasonable choice.

We tell kids that school is vital. We tell them that getting a high school diploma is the most important thing that they can do. We beg, we scold, we yell and we cheer all in an effort to squeeze another graduate out of the tube. Our national emphasis is on graduation. High school is the only time in any of our lives when entire institutions are willing to bend over backwards in order to ensure our success. High school students are rewarded for attendance and for academic achievement. There are even movements afoot to pay students money to attend and succeed.

But at the same time, we treat them like criminals.

The article on Common Dreams today regarding the 'School to Prison Pipeline' starts like this:

Metal detectors. Teams of drug-sniffing dogs. Armed guards and riot police. Forbiddingly high walls topped with barbed wire.

Such descriptions befit a prison or perhaps a high-security checkpoint in a war zone. But in the U.S., these scenes of surveillance and control are most visible in public schools, where in some areas, education is becoming increasingly synonymous with incarceration.

That article concerns itself with the aggressive policing and policy enforcement by schools and school police which has the potentiality to destroy students. It's a real issue, but the problem is both older and more institutional than that:

Our schools manufacture alienation.

I've written about this in more detail before, but it is important to remember that our schools were designed in part with the advice and consult of Andrew Carnegie and other Gilded Age industrialists in order to tailor the educational product to the needs of the product's consumer. Since most public education products would be working in an industrial setting, it made sense to acculturate them to factory life in their adolescence so that they would be able to make the jump from pupil to cog with little added training.

Factories needed workers who responded to bells.

Factories needed workers who were capable of basic math and literacy.

Factories needed workers who were able to follow directions.

Factories needed workers who did not question authority.

Factories needed workers who did not attempt to think beyond the requirements of their duties.

Factories needed workers who were conditioned to repetitive simple tasks.

So schools tailored their factories to produce factory workers. They even designed the schools to resemble the factories in which their products would labor later in life.


But there are no more factories and the institutions, pathways and methodologies we have spent a century creating, that we cling to because this is how we've always done it, are now anachronistic and ridiculous. For the last thirty years, our schools have been home to a massive self-defeating hypocrisy where we are using a factory model in an attempt to create knowledge workers.

We tell our kids to think for themselves because the modern workforce needs critical thinking, but we punish them for doing so when their analyses don't match the conclusions required by the tests.

We encourage kids to be individuals, but reward conformity and punish dissent within the massive institutional system that is public education.

We want kids to be self-regulating, but still demand absolute obedience to tardy-bells.

We implore kids to express themselves, but we still don't allow them to question authority.

We rhapsodize about creativity, but we don't allow kids to apply it to our curriculum which is forged in steel.

Our aspirations are digital, but our actions are still industrial and for children who grow up in neighborhoods like Marvin's, where they are told over and over again that school is their only way out, confusion and frustration feed their often destructive narratives. Confusion and frustration are a short straight path to alienation.

And for Marvin and other kids like him, alienation means being more comfortable behind bars than in class.

1 comment:

  1. I like this article because it gets at one of the essential problems I have with the educational system. There is not enough focus on encouraging critical thought through dialogue. Paulo Friere talks about this in "Pedagogy of the oppressed" where he notes that because of a banking system of education in which students are treated like buckets, there is a lack of critical analysis which is essential to the growth and empowerment of the oppressed. Marvin doesn't own his wisdom, or personal growth because it's just information poured into his mind like water in a bucket. With critical thought comes a sense of ownership. Our schools need teachers who encourage critical thought, and are willing to listen; lose the hierarchy. On the other hand, society in general wants drones. We still in a lot of ways have a system that is like the factory model created by industrialists. It's just a subtle machination, that has evolved to deal with the peons of the modern age. Teaching the youth how to think for themselves would simply create disillusioned citizens. Who on God's holy created Earth would want that? ;)

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