Children and Power

Just as my brother’s kids figured out (see his post Children and Power), I figured out in about third grade that teachers had surprisingly little power over me: they lacked the tools to compel me to do anything I didn’t want to do.

Oh, they had tools that could make things unpleasant for me. But once I figured out that the unpleasantness that they could impose was limited and bearable—and, in particular, less unpleasant than spending large blocks of my time doing busywork—their ability to control me was just about zero.

I did make some mistakes, as is to be expected when important decisions are being made by someone that age. I figured out almost immediately that busywork was pointless, and started refusing to do it. It was only when I got to college that I figured out that the truth is more complex: only most busywork is pointless. (In particular, learning the multiplication tables and learning how to spell the common words in the English language are both worth doing and inevitably involve some busywork.) But there was so much pointless busywork, and I lacked the perspective to separate the pointless from the pointy.

Either of two things might have saved me a lot of grief later:

  1. Elimination of pointless busywork from the curriculum. (Then I’d never have gotten the idea that it was pointless in the first place.)
  2. Someone that I trusted to clue me in as to which few bits of busywork would eventually turn out to have been worth my time.

The first didn’t exist, even though I went to an elementary school that stood head and shoulders above others in treating students like people.

The second is a bit more complex and subtle. There were people I trusted, but I think they hesitated to admit that most of the busywork was pointless (because doing so would undermine the teachers) and probably didn’t know which things I wouldn’t be able to just pick up along the way. (For example, my dad picked up spelling along the way, and never needed to learn how to spell by laboriously memorizing the list of letters that makes up each word the way I did.)

Looking back, I marvel at just how adversarial the whole school system is, even for a student who was bright and not inclined to be disruptive.

Here’s an example: I remember a set of first-grade arithmetic drills done with pictures of counting sticks. Our worksheets would show pictures of sticks, which we were supposed to count. When the number of sticks was large, they’d be grouped into batches of 10. But my experience with school was that it was an adversarial process. To my mind (as a bright first-grader), it seemed extremely likely that the worksheets would group the sticks in batches of 10 for a while—just long enough that we’d lulled into taking it for granted—and then would start printing some groups with 9 or 11 sticks. Then any student who had gotten so lazy as to not check each group would get the problem wrong and be mocked for being so stupid and trusting as to not count out the sticks in each bundle.

Imagine what I must have gone through—imagine how teachers must have treated me in the months leading up to that point—to have made me expect that. (I certainly wouldn’t have expected such trickery from most of the other people that I interacted with.) And those were good teachers! I shudder to think about kids who have to suffer with bad teachers.

Kids who learn early that their power is greater than they imagine will end up making things harder for themselves in some ways. But I still think they come out ahead. I’m glad it’s a lesson I learned early.