F**k School*

This post was previously named after the song by the Replacements, linked to at the bottom. I’ve changed it to the ** censored text due to the endless hits I get from people looking for school-related porn.

-mister zero

I was invited to talk to a class of kids yesterday about learning and learning disabilities and school and success – the usual spiel I love giving. I had a great time, we had a good talk, the kids were fantastic. The part I want to discuss here, though, is a weird bit about which there is a lot to say, and is related to the title of this piece. It’s a circuitous thought, but that’s how I am.

The longer I stay in this field – learning disabilities – the more I believe that LDs are a symptom of a screwed up education system. Here’s the short explanation for your edification:

LDs are a neurological condition that muddle one or a couple of the modes people have for receiving or expressing different types of information – reading, or listening, or whatever – which can make it difficult to deal with certain types of information.

Dyslexia’s a well known type of LD; it interferes with a person’s ability to decode or express words. Another LD may interfere with processing what one hears. Another might interfere with subtler things, like reading facial expressions.

I myself have a weird inability to master number facts – or even to remember number sequences. I caught myself last week singing the lead up to Destination Moon as “10 – 9 – 8 – 6 – 7 – 5 – 4 – 3 – 2 – 1” – I did it over and over. ADHD’s another kind of LD, which interferes with the ability to pay attention, plan, organize, etc.

What separates LDs from, say, a developmental or intellectual disability is the specific nature of LDs: someone who may not be able to read or write a lick might be a genius who remembers everything he hears. I myself can’t do math with any consistency, but do quite well in life.

LDs are a new and evolving concept – about 40 years old – which has had a great impact on schooling, as we struggle culturally to deal with the idea (in so many ways) that One Size Does Not Fit All. Teach someone the way they learn best, and you’ve saved one person from feeling like a dumbass – and added one more capable citizen to the pool. Schools are getting better and better at treating kids like individuals.

So, I love talking to kids about this idea – I would have loved to hear it when I was young, constantly failing math and science. I tell them that it’s a Thing with a Name, that there is generally a Way Around It (can’t read? get the book read aloud.) and that their area of weakness is not what they ought to focus on. Suck at math? Do your best, get through it, and don’t get a job that needs it. Focus on what you are good at!

The contentious thing I say is that the FAULT in the situation doesn’t lie with the student – it lies with school. LDs are contextual problems: dyslexia’s not a problem in a preliterate farming community, right? A kid with a math problem who began training early as, say, a Buddhist monk (not the one who paid the bills, obviously) wouldn’t have a “disability”, would he? I think that argument is extendable to a great degree. If our culture had evolved differently, perhaps school would have developed different focusses. If dancing and singing were the thing at the centre of our culture/economy/etc, then the good dancers and the good singers would get A’s in school – and the tone-deaf uncoordinated math wiz writing novels on the weekend might be considered a failure. Right?

School’s fault (by which I do not mean an intentional wrongdoing) is that schools have focussed for a long time on certain modes of learning and teaching: much reading, much writing, much math, much sitting still, and much obeying. Certain kids thrive in this, and some fail. The fault doesn’t lie with the students, does it?

So I like to tell kids this: school’s not beamed down to us like some Ten Commandments – it’s created by people making decisions. (It’s crucial to stress that these decision-makers have for the most part been motivated by good ideas and intentions.)

I also like to tell them that the awesome thing about our time and our culture is that they can FIX the school system if they want to get involved. They can become teachers, or politicians, or involved parents, and they can have an impact on this noble and imperfect system.

That Sounds Peachy, Man. Why Fuck School, Exactly?

The bad thing, which I don’t tend to go on about (because it’s complicated, overwhelming, soul-sucking) is that often the people who are in charge of this system – like most people in charge of most systems – don’t actually believe this stuff, not in any active way. At some point there’s too much ego invested for real problems to be dealt with. They wind up protecting a broken system rather than actually serving the needs of our kids.

The night before my presentation, I listened to a podcast of a TVO show about the state of Toronto schools (following that damning report about school safety earlier this year). Good ideas and straight talk were flowing, when parents, teachers and activists spoke. But anytime a politico spoke – former ed minister Snobelin (that piece of shit) and current power holders – the conversation died. Politicians and powerholders have this amazing ability to speak with communicating, and that ability has an amazing ability to ruin discussions. I hate it.

And then during my presentation, a similar thing happened. I was asked to share some thoughts on self-advocacy – a crucial skill for students who learn differently, as they often come up against misunderstanding/ignorance, or simply need to be able to explain how they learn best so that teachers can accomodate them. We were talking about this tricky situation – how to explain what you need, how to stick up for yourself, how to speak effectively to people in power. And a student raised her hand and started to talk about how a friend of hers had “a teacher who was really mean to her …”

The teacher of this class – a great lady, an obviously kind teacher, and the person who’d sought me out and invited me to talk – cut her off before she finished her sentence, saying that “We’re not going to criticize other teachers” and that that wasn’t polite. This is more common than you’d believe – it’s a sacrosanct rule among teachers that gets backs up more than any nails on any chalkboard.

Another student raised her hand and started to tell a story about how she’s been in a split class once and struggled the next year because of it. The teacher again turned it around – abruptly, forcefully – and said “But things worked out, didn’t they?”

I’m not dissing this teacher. She seemed like a great teacher and a lovely person. But it bears pointing this thing out: somehow we’ve got a situation where the Authority of schools seems to need to be above reproach. This social rule is so deep as to have become a matter of etiquette. This, despite the fact that we’ve ALL had at least one terrible teacher in our lives. More likely, most of us can count the exemplary, effective teachers we’ve had on one hand. I’d wager that at least a third of students HATE school. And we can measure the indicators – dropout rates are like 30 percent in Ontario. A similar percentage of new teachers leave the profession before their fifth year. I’d say that those are pretty clear messages: The education system is more than a little broken.

Who’s to blame? Easy: The people who fund schools. The people who work in schools. The people who’ve been to school. The people who make the decisions about how school works. To wit, all of us, except the kids. It follows that it’s our job to fix it.

The good news I shared with the kids is the truth: they CAN grow up and get involved and change things. It’s that sort of dedication that has got us to the point where I can go in and talk to kids like this. It’s that sort of dedicated teacher who invited me to do so. It’s that sort of things that’s improved schools to the extent that they have improved. Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying: I love and respect schools, teachers, and that we can get involved.

But this idea that something good is beyond criticism is deadly and dangerous and works against progress. Telling kids not to talk about their experience of school disables their ability to care about it. Take my word for it, the ones who grow up to become teachers have this silence ingrained and rarely question it. The teachers who go further into the system take it deeper in, and start calling their silence “being political”.

On the TVO show I mentioned, Snobelin, the boneheaded asshole who fucked Ontario’s system and scapegoated teachers brutally in the 90s was spoken to with respect and civility by most of the other panelists, all of whom were living with the devastation he set set in motion. At one brilliant point, though, an activist spoke clearly about blaming him for it, and he responded with a chuckle, saying “Hey, hey, don’t push too hard or I will push back…” She responded with all the righteous fury of a strong and angry mother: “Oh I do wish you would!” He didn’t speak much after that. It was the best moment in the show. It wasn’t polite, or political. It was just honest, and real.

The social rule that teachers and schools shouldn’t be criticized from within needs to be discarded if we’re going to fix things for our kids. Those rules aren’t for the benefit of schools – they’re for the benefit of the people in power. But this is a democracy, yo, and we are required to pull down those people if they can’t do the job. This can’t happen unless we turn our critical minds against bad ideas and our hard words against bad teachers and corrupt politicians.

Let kids talk. We learn more when they talk. The more we learn, the better we teach.

Here’s the relevent song. Listen to the words.

Fuck School – the Replacements


2 Responses to “F**k School*”

  1. 1 TheDeeZone February 20, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    You have some valid points. However school is not totatly to blame for Learning disabilities. The example you gave of a child in a pre-literate society doesn’t have dyslexia is interest but not totally valid. While in a pre-literate farming setting lack of reading ability isn’t a problem. However the affects of dyslexia are not limited to just reading problems. The confusion with direction such as left-right, remembering and being able to process multi-step directions would still exist.

  2. 2 misterjep February 20, 2008 at 3:27 pm

    I’m sure my arguments aren’t watertight, but it is my understanding that the best current research has dyslexia affecting the acquisition and use of phonemic awareness, and so is pretty much about language (and its building blocks). But the definitions of these conditions are not universally agreed on, so fair enough if understanding varies from place to place and over time. On some level I think all that may often just be distracting from the real mission, which is to teach people who struggle with learning.

    In any case, certainly school is not to blame for the existence of any neurological conditons; my point is that school’s strong favouring of certain modes of learning leaves out others, and that the negative aspects of LDs – the gaps in knowledge, the underachieving and the social/emotional impacts – are exacerbated by school as it is now.

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