Monday, February 1, 2016

Education and Control: Ryan’s Story

Ryan hates school; he hates the work, he hates the environment, he hates the pressure, the shaming, the inflexibility. He hates having to be there at all. And he’s one of those students who needs educational freedom in order to excel. He doesn’t get that, so he’s failing.

He’s even failing a class in photography, which is his passion. He’s failing because he already knows perfectly well how to learn to take better pictures, and the class assignments are, “BS.” How frustrating, to be good at something but to dislike the class that’s supposed to be teaching you about it.  My son experienced some of those feelings when, after teaching himself five programming languages, he entered his first CS class in college and found it to be....utterly stupid.

Ryan, 17, goes to a high school in the Mid-Atlantic region of the U.S. He tells us how his school is trying to get kids to get good grades.

“We got this BS presentation in the auditorium. ‘Students, welcome back from your snowcation!’ I don't feel welcomed. It was all about being an ‘E-Free School’. E is Failing at my school.  The assembly was fully of ‘E-Shaming’.  And we got this contract thing:”


“If we fail anything we have to go to summer school and our parents have to pay for it.”, Ryan says. “And then the principal presented a shitty incentive to the whole school with this assembly.”

They get to wear hats.

In return for passing grades, the students get to wear hats in school.

“It could be worse,” said Ryan, “And the fact that it could be worse is crippling.”

I thought about that. I think Ryan meant that the fact that adults had the power not only to make students’ life miserable, but to make their lives even more miserable if they wanted to was incredibly stressful.

Like many students, Ryan’s parents see school as the only path to success in life. Their pressure only adds to his stress.

Ryan is a lot like I was. I never was able to do work assigned to me, unless it happened to coincide with work I wanted to do. I failed all through middle and high school. And I felt it. I felt inadequate; mediocre, often depressed. I observed kids around me who cheerfully fulfilled their assignments with a kind of confused wonder.

Yet later in my life, I pursued jobs, did work I had no interest in, and survived under the pressure of bosses who cared not a whit about my feelings. My passion was for independence, and that was my payoff. Ryan has no payoff at all. And he has no power.


How did the system get this way? What does it accomplish?

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