School rebellion opens door to knowledge


Our eldest child just started secondary school. Not long ago the school didn’t have a uniform, but nowadays you can’t attract the “aspiring” families if you’re not serious about modelling the corporate world.

Parents seeking “good” careers for their children are increasingly aware of the importance of correct procedures and work ethic. “Good schools” encourage hours of homework every night and are driven by “disciplined structures” and “excellence”.

Better yet, your kid might make the “advanced” or “discovery” stream and leave behind the distractions caused by those kids who may not be aspiring for money and status. Of course many kids want to make it, but simply don’t come from the sort of middle-class background that might give them a fair chance. If the parents work hard, afford tutors, and enforce discipline, they’re at least making an "investment" for the future that might pay off. Perhaps.

Encouraging achievement need not be too related to learning. As the physicist Jeff Schmidt says in his book Disciplined Minds, the system promotes students "with know-how rather than with know-why".

In the world of crisis-ridden capitalism, in which profit margins are reliant on worker flexibility, a self-disciplined workforce is increasingly valued. Schools are entrusted with promoting a culture of self-regulation and self-control, often, writes educator Paula Salvio “couched in student-centered and even ‘humanistic’ language”. But so begins what Faith Agostinone Wilson, another education academic, calls the “forced, permanent adjustment to the system”.

Somewhere along the schooling journey, many kids and young people realise that knowledge is about discovery and agency. They open a magical door to learning, occasionally prompted by teachers who are also rebels.

Much rebellion is understandably without cause — not unlike how individual workers sabotage production. Much of it is at the expense of fellow students. Finding common cause and forging links of solidarity is not an easy task in such an alienating environment as school.

For most students, it’s a matter of making the most of school, celebrating the friendships and peer relations that make being young great. For most families, there’s a constant feeling of anxiety.

Alternatively, some students and families choose to rebel. They engage in a constant battle with the system, often isolated. They fight against uniforms, against homework, for meaningful wellbeing policies, against funding shortages, and even support teachers in their disputes.

It’s this sort of rebellion that makes sense of school.

This year’s Marxism conference in Melbourne over the Easter weekend hopes to harness some of this spirit, by organising a School of Rebellion for young people and children to take part in.

The School of Rebellion isn’t about testing and “achievement” but about learning and agency. It’s not a school, like most others, where education is bound to commerce and productivity but rather one where knowledge and learning are connected to justice and authentic democracy.

The School of Rebellion isn’t framed by competition but by solidarity. The School of Rebellion aims to provide a framework for children and young people to investigate the world, blossom their creativity and challenge conformity. The school will include a range of workshops, exploring visual arts, poetry, writing, reading, philosophy and social justice.

The School of Rebellion is a challenge to the capitalist school, where education is an instrument, in the words of Paulo Freire, "to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity".

Instead the school, inspired in part by Freire’s words, will be about "the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world".

The capitalist school sees the student as wage slave, client and consumer. The School of Rebellion sees students as agents of social transformation and liberation. The capitalist school aims to produce a work ready, disciplined and commodity thirsty citizen. The School of Rebellion aims to encourage constructive, collective and organised rebellion.

The Latin American writer, Eduardo Galeano, best summed up the fate of children under capitalism: "Day after day, children are denied the right to be children. The world treats rich kids as if they were money, teaching them to act the way money acts. The world treats poor kids as if they were garbage, to turn them into garbage. And those in the middle, neither rich nor poor, are chained to televisions and trained to live the life of prisoners. The few children who manage to be children must have a lot of magic and a lot of luck."

By coming to understand the world and recognising the need to change it, children and young people can challenge a career-centred education and become agents of change. Such agency opens a magical door to knowledge.

[This article is reprinted from Socialist Alternative magazine. To register for the School of Rebellion at the Marxism 2013 conference, click here.]

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