School Survival

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Forced Education and Dictatorships

"Things work better when people do them because they want to" - comparing schools in Uruguay to schools in the rest of the world.
by S. Hein

As I re-read what I wrote in another article I wrote this morning, about asking students why they are there, I realized the seriousness of the problem of forced education.

Governments around the world seem to be increasing the punishment of students (and their parents) who don't go to schools. I believe this is a dangerous trend. And I believe we are seeing the negative results of this kind of forced educational system. It is now possible for governments to send either the student or the parent to jail in some places if the student does not go to school. I am not even talking about if the student does not learn or can not pass tests. I am just talking about attendance.

Take a look at school attendance rules and the punishments for disobedience. The ones I have seen don't say "If the student misses x days and can not pass their tests". They just say "If the student misses so many days." So what is really important to the school authorities and the government bureaucrats? Attendance or learning? I say it is attendance.

But why would this be so, if it is as I suspect? My guess is that if you don't have the young person there in front of you where you can control nearly everything they do, then it is not as easy to brainwash them and turn them into obedient servants of the state.

It is obvious to me that schools do much more than teach basic material. They also brainwash. That is a strong word, but after visiting schools in many countries from Asia to South America, I believe it is fair to use it. In Thailand students will be brainwashed with the Buddhist religion. In Indonesia and Malaysia I saw students being brainwashed with the Muslim religion. In South America it is the Catholic religion. Though I have not been to Israel I think is is fair to say that it is the Jewish religion, or if not the religion per se, then the predominant Jewish cultural values, whether or not they are actually good for Israel or the world. In the USA they are being brainwashed not necessarily with religion, but with nationalism and patriotism. To me this is clearly not good for the world. And it is not good for the individual students because they are not free to choose if they go to schools, what they learn or how they learn it.

Students around the world are going to schools because their governments punish them if they do not go. Or they punish their parents. To me this is not the reason to go somewhere to learn something. To me, you would go because you want to go. The entire system of forced education to me is flawed on its fundamental basis of being forced.

I don't believe you need to force children or teens to go someplace where they can both learn and socialize with their friends. I believe it is natural for children and teens to want to be with their friends. I have asked many students if they would come to school if they didn't have to and when the students say yes it is usually because they want to see their friends.

Schools systems could be based on this simple fact of nature. Classes could be designed so you could work on things with your friends. Instead, many teachers will separate friends from sitting next to each other or from being in the same classes. In the past schools separated boys from girls. I believe we are seeing the results of this kind of system when we look at the violence, abuse, resentment and unhealthy behavior in the world.

My premise is simple. Things work better when people do them because they want to.

I don't agree that the world would fall apart if everyone did what they wanted to. Instead I believe if we started giving children and teens real choices and real information they would make healthy decisions. In visiting many schools in many countries I have not lost my faith in children and teens. It is the school systems I have lost faith in.

Here in South America one can really see the results of an inadequate educational system. So many school directors truly do not know what is important. They think what color shoes a student wears or what socks they have or what time they arrive is of the utmost importance. There is still a grade in what they call "conduct" here. I hesitate to write this because I am afraid the authorities in the USA will think this is a great idea and another way to try to control young people, but what that grade means is that you can be the smartest person in your class, and pass all your tests, but if you come late too many times, or if you don't wear the required clothes, you will not pass the year.

People here take all of this for granted. As in most countries the people have been taught to feel powerless. They have been taught this by the school system as well as in their homes as children and teens. But here in Uruguay there is less blatant physical control of children and teens than there was in places I have recently been to like Peru or Argentina. In other words, children and teens are not hit as frequently. Though to tell someone that you were hit as a child doesn't surprise anyone even here in Uruguay.

Since there is less fear at home, the place children and teens are taught to feel powerless is in the schools.

As in most countries I have been to in supposedly democratic countries, there is no democracy in the schools. Not once when I have visited schools has a teacher or a school director asked the students if they would like to have a visitor. Not once.

Not once have they asked the students before making a decision whether to let me visit an English class or not. Not even one time.

In Thailand I visited a school one day when I was wearing shorts. I was told I would have to wear long pants to visit the English classes. This decision, like all decisions I have seen, was made without asking the students if they cared whether I wore shorts or not. And I can promise you that the students did not care. Students know what is important much more so than the school directors. This is a very strong statement but I make it with confidence now. Over and over I have asked questions to students and have gotten more intelligent answers than from the school directors.

Recently here in Uruguay I was invited to go to an English class by the English teacher. So I went. And the students enjoyed the visit. In fact, they wanted to extend our talk for another hour. But when they did not quickly go to their chemistry class, the school authorities got involved and soon the school director was berating the English teacher for not asking permission to have me visit the class. The school director did not even meet me. She did not ask the students if they enjoyed having me visit or if they would recommend I visit more classes. She simply made the decision to not allow me to stay as a dictator would make his or her decision.

And this is almost exactly what many school directors are. They are mini-dictators. And then people wonder how a country could find itself in the midst of a military dictatorship. Uruguay, like many South American countries, has in fact suffered from a military dictatorship in recent years. The military would come in the schools and tell teachers what they could and couldn't teach. What books they could and couldn't use. They even told people how long their hair could be.

After witnessing what happened in the school here it has become more evident to me how a country falls into this kind of trap. I will call it the obedience trap.

If you are taught to obey, day in and day out, in buildings called schools, then you develop this obedience/ fear mentality. You become afraid to question authority, to rise up against it and challenge it. So if one day a few people take over the legislature building or the president's house, the majority of the others simply follow their orders.

To me this is almost incredible. It is hard to imagine. It is hard to imagine thousands of people around a country like Argentina or Uruguay obeying someone else's orders simply because that person is "above them." But this is what we are all taught to do in schools. We are taught to obey those above us.

I am hoping that the parents here in Uruguay will help me change the education system here. They witnessed what happened during the military dictatorship. Like in Argentina, people just "disappeared." It scares me, truly, to think of this kind of thing happening. To think of military people, people with guns, coming in classrooms and telling teachers what they can and can't do. And then taking away anyone who protests. But this is what happened.

And the perhaps even more frightening thing is that what is happening right now here and in most schools around the world is very similar, except no one is carrying guns. The only major exception to this that I know of is the USA which has armed police inside many schools now.

So students and teachers are still being told what to do by the government authorities. The teacher who invited me to her English class is now afraid to invite me back. I really don't know what would happen if she invited me back anyhow and I went again. I suppose the director could have her fired for disobedience or "insubordination" as it is sometimes called. I don't suspect that the director here would call the police and have me physically removed, but she might if I refused to leave. And what if the students protested and stood in the the way between me and the police?

Sadly, this is not all that hard to imagine. Students like to hear what I have to say. They are tired of being controlled by incompetent people like this one particular school director, who I am told is so old she is ready to retire. It would just take one defiant teacher who says "Enough is enough. Don't tell me what to do." If the teacher told me as far as she was concerned, I could stay, and if the students wanted me to stay, I would probably stay. So what would happen next?

I can't tell you what would happen here. But I can tell you what would probably happen in the USA. It is most probable that the police would be called. I would probably be arrested for "trespassing" or something. And if I resisted arrest I would be changed with resisting arrest, which I am pretty sure is a worse crime than just trespassing.

This is how school systems work. I want people to start waking up to the reality of this. But more than that I want to help people here in this little country called Uruguay actually change things.

I have few things on my side here. One is people know that English is important. They want it for their children. Two is that they know that the English teaching system is woefully inadequate. Three, they know how hard it is to get rid of an incompetent school director. Three, they have lived through a military dictatorship.

So I still feel hopeful that I can make a difference here. And even if I can't I will at least keep writing and reporting on what I find.

But before I finish this article I want to say that things in the USA are not much different than a military dictatorship now. Nor are they in England. If the all the people running for office believe children and teenagers should be forced to go to schools and should be punished or their parents should be fined or jailed if they don't, then things aren't much different than a military dictatorship. You still have to obey the people who control the guns and prisons, or you will eventually end up dead or in a prison yourself.

Supposedly in a democracy the people run the country. But in this small country of Uruguay I can see that things don't really work so well in practice. And this is largely because the people feel powerless. And they have given up trying to change things. They spend their time on other things, not on changing the education system. And I can't really say I blame them. It is just too difficult and too frustrating.

I get extremely frustrated myself and I don't even have kids. Yet I care about the kids and teens I meet around the world. It hurts me to see how they are being treated. So I will keep writing in the hope that my writing makes a difference, somehow, somewhere, someday.

S. Hein
Paysandu, Uruguay
July 7, 2007

Original Article

Written by: S. Hein
20 September 2007

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