Thinking Outside the Schoolhouse


Mrs. McGurk[1] is standing at the board and dragging her three-pronged wooden chalk holder across the blackboard—it looks like the Devil’s prosthetic hand. Her body is large and conceals half the space, her batwing swings as she scrapes the bars that will imprison “the quick brown fox [that] jumps over the lazy dog.” She is drawing three-story lined containers for her sample of Harcourt Brace Jovanovich script. When we return from recess we will be forced to copy what she’s written on the board on our own pieces of lined paper. My six-year-old body fills with dread—I stink at handwriting! I always get ‘C’s in handwriting!—despondent and anxious, I shuffle out of the classroom with the rest of the kids and head out to the playground.

Outside, the girls are playing hop-scotch: Jumping single-hop, double-hop, in and out of boxes. Another group of kids is playing four-square, bouncing a giant pinkish-red ball to one another, each contained within his respective box. Rashana is leaning against the wall, crying again…her long black hair, fragrant with the unfamiliar smell of Indian spices, and her foreign textured blouses make her an easy target. I head over to monkey bars, where I grab a bar with both hands, pull my legs up and through—with my knees overtop one bar, and my toes tucked under the next—to hang upside-down and think. The whistle blows and we march back in to the factory. It might not be fun, but it’s functional.

*                                              *                                              *

DeMarrais and LeCompte’s (1999) description of “functionalism and the purposes of schooling” (p 6) is resonant of my personal experiences in elementary and secondary school. They write, “Functionalists view educational systems as one of the structures which carry out the function of the transmission of attitudes, values, skills, and norms from one generation to another…[they] perpetuate the ‘accepted’ culture” (pp 6-7). This effort to reproduce the majority culture through my schooling, in retrospect, can be identified in the hidden and written curricula that shaped our lessons and the social climate of our schools. It was not only accepted culture that was propagated, but also a student’s proper place within the social environment.

My kindergarten teacher, institutionalized her personal racism by implementing racial segregation in her classroom. Our class was made up of twenty or more students from working poor families; only one of us was not white. Mrs. G declared on the first day of class that she, Nina, had a behavior problem and therefore needed to be isolated from the rest of the class. While the rest of the class (the white majority) sat around circular tables—shared space—Nina[2] (the African-American minority) sat alone, at a much smaller and isolated station. She rarely made a sound.

In that class we were all from the same economic strata—we were poor—but because Nina was the only ‘minority’ in the class, the methods for reproducing (or withholding) cultural capital rather than economic capital were more apparent. Nina’s prescribed physical space and Mrs. G’s relentless policing of that space are good examples of the ‘symbolic violence’ described by Bourdieu; indeed, some might argue that this segregation of Nina was violent on multiple levels, that is, not merely symbolic. Its intention was clear, and as Levinson (1996) writes,

Such symbolic violence has a stultifying effect upon its recipients. As they develop a sense of their social position, and the relatively degraded value of their own cultural-linguistic resources in given social situations, non-elite persons also tend to develop a “sense of their social limits.” As these limits become permanently inscribed in a person’s “habitus,” he or she learns to self-censor and self-silence in the company of those with greater social standing (p 8).

And so kindergarten was not only about learning the ABCs and 123s, it was about learning our ‘place’ and those of us who resisted the assignment, had our backs pinned against the wall.

*                                              *                                              *

Recess is over, Rashana has had to peel herself away from the wall and wipe her tears, I put myself right-side-up, and we all file back into class. “Okay, class, we’re going to practice our handwriting. I want you to copy what I’ve written on the board…” No way, I think to myself, I’m writing my own story. Mrs. McGurk waddles up and down the aisles between our desks, watching us work. It doesn’t take long for her to seize upon my dangerous rebellion and stomp it out with brute force: “What are YOU doing?” she bellows. “I’m writing my own story,” I say. “Write what’s on the board” she orders. “But I want to write my own story,” I whine. “Get up! Go stand in the hall!” she shouts. “What did I do,” I whimper. “Get out! You’re going to learn some discipline!” she shouts and kicks my little orange chair across the room.

*                                              *                                              *

Do schools kill creativity? Does the educational project necessarily have to be one that ‘teaches us to be stupid’ as Henry (2000) asserts? Emile Durkheim invites us to take a step back and recognize the distinction between what we hope education to be and how it unfolds actually in institutions of learning. He asks, “Can it be said, then, that the fact is not the ideal; that if education has varied, it is because men have mistaken what it should be?” (p57) Educational institutions are products of the society/culture/nation/world in which they are situated; to anticipate or demand an educational ideal implies a demand for an environment (society/polity etcetera) that is itself ideal.

Educational institutions cannot be divorced from the individuals that populate them—as teachers, students, and administrators—or from their social and political context. My school was filled with ‘regular’ folks who were simply doing their jobs. At that time, in the late 70s and 80s, among teachers in the New Jersey suburbs, their job was to teach kids the pledge of allegiance, to write inside the lines, memorize the multiplication tables, and to tow the invisible lines that contained us in our respective social and class categories. I do not suspect that my teachers woke up each morning, looked in the mirror, and said, “Today I will reproduce the modes of production! I will give Sally an ‘A’ for displaying the correct symbols of cultural capital, and I will punish James for being so foreign and strange.” Rather, I think it is more likely, that they found themselves lost in the day-to-day work, didn’t spend much time self-reflecting or interrogating their own pedagogies…perhaps this is an unfair accusation but as I sift through my memories of school, I don’t happen upon one teacher who encouraged us to think critically or who promoted creativity.

*                                              *                                              *

I have the flu. My whole family is hanging out together watching the World News. The fever is making me feel slightly delirious, on the screen there are images of scud missiles streaking across the greenish-black, smoky night sky. Wolf Blitzer is in the foreground; his posture hunkered, reporting on the events. It’s the First Gulf War. Tomorrow, at school, there will be a pep-rally in support of the troops. Those of us who choose not to participate in the pep-rally in support of the war are taunted in the hallways, while the teachers and administrators look the other way.

*                                              *                                              *

Was Mrs. McGurk right? Was I lacking discipline? Have I managed finally to ‘learn it’? “What does discipline mean? […] Discipline does not mean suppression, control, conformity, or adjustment to a pattern or an ideology; it means a mind that sees ‘what is’ and learns from ‘what is.’ Such a mind has to be extraordinarily alert, aware. That is what it means to have discipline” (Krishnamurti, p26). Can students reasonably see ‘what is’ if they are forced only to copy what has already been written? Creativity arises when one is able to see past the invisible boundaries that have been set to limit our thinking and keep us in ‘our place.’ Is it fruitful, does society truly benefit from an educational system that stifles, even punishes, creativity? Why do institutions resist alternate ways of seeing and thinking? “But creative intellect is mysterious, devious, and irritating,” (Henry, p56) and it scratches at the project that aims to reproduce the modes of production, to preserve the social system as it has been set.

The social climate in the United States has changed considerably since I was a kid, scheming up ways to challenge Mrs. McGurk. Hasn’t it? As I reflect on my schooling I see much evidence that it was an enterprise focused on reproduction but I do have hope—as I’ve experienced more radical educators outside my primary and secondary school experiences—that Cohen’s (2000) assertion that, “a few individuals have managed to develop a commitment to the life of the mind despite the ends and means of education institutions sheds light only on man’s [sic] evolutionary capacity and little else” (p 104) will soon appear as a dated sentiment belonging to an unenlightened past…. Did you hear that? Is someone knocking at the door? Emile! How are you? What? “The fact is not the ideal.”


[1] I have not changed the names of my former teachers; let them be exposed!

[2] Nina was not the name of my classmate—I don’t remember her real name or anyone else’s real name. I chose to cal her Nina after Nina Simone; hopefully my old kindergarten classmate was not broken by the multiple acts of ‘symbolic violence’ she endured.

Yes, I just posted a paper I wrote for a class. If you are interested in checking out any of the works referenced above, shoot me an email and I’ll send you the complete citation.

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About kalisaddhu

"The Method is to Know the Mind." View all posts by kalisaddhu

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