John Whitehead's Commentary
Transforming America’s Schools into Authoritarian Instruments of Compliance
“To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.” – psychologist Peter Gray
These days, it is far too easy to rattle off the outrageous examples of zero tolerance policy run amok in our nation’s schools. A 14-year-old student arrested for texting in class. Three middle school aged boys in Florida thrown to the ground by police officers wielding rifles, who then arrested them for goofing off on the roof of the school. A 9-year-old boy suspended for allegedly pointing a toy at a classmate and saying “bang, bang.” Two 6-year-old students in Maryland suspended for using their fingers as imaginary guns in a schoolyard game of cops and robbers. A 12-year-old New York student hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker. An 8-year-old boy suspended for making his hand into the shape of a gun, in violation of the school district’s policy prohibiting “playing with invisible guns.” A 17-year-old charged with a felony for keeping his tackle box in his car parked on school property, potentially derailing his chances of entering the Air Force. Two seventh graders in Virginia suspended for the rest of the school year for playing with airsoft guns in their own yard before school.
Thus, it’s tempting, when hearing about the 7-year-old suspended for chewing his Pop-Tart into the shape of a gun to chalk it up to an isolated example of school officials lacking in common sense. However, as I point out in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, these incidents are far from isolated, occurring as they have for the better part of the past 30 years under the guise of maintaining safety and security in the schools. They are part of a concerted, top-down approach to creating a generation of obedient worker-bees content to be directed, distracted and kept in line.
Despite a general consensus that zero tolerance policies have failed to have any appreciable impact on student safety, schools have doubled down on these policies to the detriment of children all across the nation. Indeed, the zero tolerance mindset is so entrenched among school administrators all over America that we are now seeing school officials reaching into the personal lives of students to police their behavior at all times. For example, 13,000 students in the Glendale Unified School District in California are now being subjected to constant social media monitoring by school officials. Superintendent Richard Sheehan has hired private firm Geo Listening to analyze the public social media posts of students both off and on campus. Whether on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or any other social media platform, students will have their posts and comments analyzed for evidence of “bullying, cyber-bullying, hate and shaming activities, depression, harm and self harm, self hate and suicide, crime, vandalism, substance abuse and truancy.”
Unfortunately, the Glendale program is simply one component of a larger framework in which all student activity is treated as an open book by school administrators. What we are witnessing is a paradigm shift in American society, in which no personal activity is safe from the prying eyes of government agents and their corporate allies. Every decision and action, no matter how innocent, is scrutinized, analyzed, filed, stored, and eventually held against you when those in power feel like it.
When one pulls back the veil of zero tolerance, one can see the real culprit is the corporate-state, which has been meticulously applying the zero tolerance mindset to not just public schools in America, but our workplaces, our political forums, our social interactions and even our own homes. The end result is a society which is completely pacified and willing to march in lockstep with the corporate-state.
Government officials have worked hard to indoctrinate Americans into the belief that everything you do is suspect, and anything you do can be held against you at a later date. This mindset is clear in all aspects of society, from zero tolerance policies in our nation’s schools, to SWAT team raids in our neighborhoods, from the NSA’s surveillance of all Americans’ communications, to the corporate-state’s insistence that people aren’t capable of managing their own affairs. More and more people are becoming suspicious of others, quick to judge, and more than willing to follow the government’s dictates, however irrational and immoral they may be.
This manner of thinking has been slowly adopted by many Americans, but more worrisome is the manner in which it’s being foisted upon our nation’s youth. We are now living in an era in which childhood as it was once understood, a time to learn, to make mistakes, to try and fail, to try again and succeed, has been replaced by the worst elements of corporate and government culture. Children are treated as workers and prisoners, collected, corralled and controlled by teachers who increasingly act as bureaucrats, forced to fit every child into the exact same mold, regardless of their personal abilities and talents. This mindset is apparent among the proponents of the Common Core Testing Standards which threaten to unleash a new system of standardized testing on a new generation of kids.
As communications consultant Luba Vangelova has noted, the key attributes of a productive member of society are “a zest for life, creativity, perseverance, empathy, effective communication and the ability to cooperate with others. These are things that can’t be measured well – if at all – by tests.” Our obsession with testing leaves children without basic reasoning and analysis skills. They are taught to parrot information, rather than produce arguments. Their value is tied to letter grades and numbers.
Psychologist Peter Gray takes this criticism further, noting that children today are rarely allowed the opportunity to engage in undirected creative activity, also known as playing. Gray notes that since the 1960s, time for play has taken a backseat in the lives of children in favor of rigid curriculums revolving around high-stakes testing. Even sports, which were once simply games played on the fly by a mixed group of neighborhood kids, have taken on the rigidity of life in a factory or cubicle. The obsession with quantifying childhood progress has gone so far that charter schools in DC are beginning to conduct high stakes testing for three and four year old children.
Over the same time period, incidences of childhood mental illness have steadily increased. The number of children and young adults suffering from major depression and generalized anxiety disorder have increased between five and eightfold since the 1950s. The suicide rate for 15 – 24 year olds has doubled, while the suicide rate for those under the age of 15 has quadrupled.
The rise in these mental illnesses is coupled with a decrease in empathy and an increase in narcissism in young people, indicating that their ability to work with others — as is necessary in a society — has been muted. We’re raising a generation of anxious individuals who expect their life’s direction to come to them from orders from above. In short, we’re creating a generation ingrained with an authoritarian mindset.
This authoritarian mindset is an unavoidable consequence of the American education system. Indeed, while so-called education reformers insist on more tests, pushing schools to emulate the Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean educational systems, they miss a big piece of the puzzle: educators in those countries consider their systems a failure. Despite performing better than American children on certain international standardized tests, Chinese educators have noted that Chinese students have also demonstrated a “lack of social and practical skills, absence of self-discipline and imagination, loss of curiosity and passion for learning.”
Despite this fact, states are pushing ahead with programs like Common Core, which not only threatens our children’s quality of education, but their privacy as well. A great deal of data will be collected under new guidelines proposed by the program. While the purposes of the data collection appear legitimate on their face, mainly focused on keeping track of student progress, we must keep in mind that we are living in the era of Big Data, in which information becomes currency between the government and their corporate benefactors. The data collected on students goes beyond test scores and includes “social security numbers, attendance records, records of interaction with school counselors, identification of learning disabilities, and even disciplinary records.” Of course, having all of this information about every misstep or mistake one has made through his whole life does not bode well in a society in which government and corporate authorities are happy to punish any minor mishap.
We are living in an era where every personal decision, such as where to work, where to shop, where to play, who to love, who to befriend, who to worship, what to believe, and what to say, is open to scrutiny by government officials and corporate managers. It’s a poisonous mentality for those hoping to preserve democracy, and it’s being foisted upon our children, whether in the form of bureaucrats fashioning one-size-fits-all educational standards, or police officers investigating innocent activities such as children playing in the street as possible crimes.
This situation will only get worse as our children are taught to accept the police state as normal. Between the regimes of zero tolerance, the surveillance of students both in school and in their homes, and the value placed in standardized testing over teaching analytical thinking skills, we are raising a generation which is being encouraged to adopt the authoritarian mindset which pollutes the minds of our government and corporate leaders. By allowing our children to be subject to the forces of the market and the dictates of the state, we are ensuring tyranny within a generation or two, if not sooner.