Saturday, February 12, 2005

Learning the Police State

People don't like being oppressed, as a general rule. In order for people to accept overbearing authority, you really need to convince them it's a good idea. Thankfully, we send our kids to government-run schools for about a dozen years of their lives.

A recent study shows that a third of high school students think the First Amendment is excessive in its protection of free speech rights. Seventy-five percent think flag burning is illegal. If three-quarters of the next generation's leaders already think it's illegal, it almost ensures that will one day be the case.

This isn't a case of government propaganda being disseminated in schools -- if it were, the consequences would be manageable. This is fundamental problem with the way authority is used in an educational setting. We have a system which academically rewards information-regurgitating drones, socially rewards conformists, and punishes free-thinkers. Hysteria about the shootings at Columbine, the terrorist attacks of 2001 and the war on drugs has injected especially draconian rules into a system already wilting in the shadow of the iron fist.

School was for me a lesson that the world is not right, that everything -- even our most important institutions -- could be flawed. I learned that a system which imposes control on a group invariably drifts towards the convenience of power, unless protested. I was shocked to learn that the majority of those controlled in such a situation will unflinchingly embrace the control if a reward is dangled in front of them. In school, this reward was the promise of a career that only comes with a college degree, which requires enthusiastic participation in even the most ridiculous aspects of the system.

A former coworker of mine told me that his son got on his teacher's bad side by pointing out that it was now commonly known that photons of light do exert force on an object, contrary to what was being taught in class. I once asked a junior high teacher of mine about a problem in the text book that I thought might have the wrong answer, since applying the lesson learned in class that day would have given a different one. Her answer to me was, "whatever is in the answer key is the right answer," without the slightest discussion about the principles involved. It turns out that the answer in the key was the one I knew was right, but had it not been, it would have been right enough for her.

I can think of dozens of other instances of consensus-over-truth in my school experience. It's not the bad information that makes this such a disaster, it's the way in which any information -- good or bad -- is secondary to the ritual of school and the indoctrination of authoritarianism.

After the Columbine shooting, kids were singled out for things that could without hyperbole be called thought crimes. Many students have received varying degrees of punishment for brining toy guns to school, some of them inch-long guns an action figure might carry. How an injected-molded plastic sliver roughly resembling a gun could injure anyone or disrupt class is mind-boggling, but it doesn't matter. The rules say you can't bring a gun or a replica of one to school, and the rules are not to be questioned.

This week, a first grader received two days of in-school detention for filling a plastic bag she found with dirt and clovers and giving it to a friend as a gift. Her teacher thought it looked like a bag of marijuana, so the iron fist came down on her, a six-year-old girl. The girl had to be told what marijuana was, and why she was bad for simulating it. Disgusting. My little girl will sometimes take a piece of paper and wrap up household objects to give to me as gifts. This is exactly the same behavior. The girl is a victim of an overzealous system. Her view of authority and justice has been permanently distorted.

Kids don't think flag burning is illegal because teachers are telling them that, they think it's illegal because they're learning that one should never cause a disruption, that the status quo is sacred, and that above everything else, authority should never be questioned.


Blogger lux said...


i really like the clarity of examples in your writing. i tend to get complex when i become a social or political commentator, so my blog is more of a second journal (or third or fourth, the others being private ones).

anyway, thanks for posting...

2/12/2005 11:00:00 PM  

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