Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Nanny State Gone Wild—More Stupid Rules to Make School More Unpleasant

Image from Flickr, by KazVorpal

Last week, in her column “The Answer Sheet,” Valerie Straus listed “eight weird things schools banned this year.” Some of the bans were absurd overreactions to freak accidents that were unlikely to ever occur again and that could be averted much more simply through greater caution by students and teachers. For example, frilly socks were banned at Kingshold Primary School in Gloucester, England, after a child tripped over her dangles and fell, according to the Independent. In another bizarre example, Castle View School in Essex, England, prohibited triangular flapjacks (in England, flapjacks are hard cookies, not pancakes) after one was tossed and hit a student in the eye, the independent reported. To “solve” this dangerous problem, school officials are now requiring that flapjacks be square—apparently these officials had cut geometry class the day they talked about how squares have more sharp corners than triangles.

Other bans stemmed from the hysteria over bullying, (here and here), and are equally misguided. The Eagle-Tribune wrote that the Wyndham School District in New Hampshire, for example, has banned dodge ball and other “human target” games as a way to reduce bullying. Yet bullying (as well as run of the mill teasing, harassing and meanness) can occur in virtually any game or sport. A child can choose to slide tackle in soccer out of poor sportsmanship, vindictiveness or outright hatred of the victim. A batter or runner can be hit by the ball in baseball, kickball or softball for similar reasons. A person jumping rope can be deliberately tripped by the rope turners. A person playing hopscotch can be tripped by pebbles or a banana peel tossed onto the playing field. Where does it end?

However, another way of parsing this perplexing ban is that dodge ball does not just provide an opportunity for a few bullies to gang up on one kid. It also provides an opportunity for a kid with any grievance whatsoever, including having been victimized by bullies, to target his tormentor in return. However, it seems like Wyndham School District is assuming that the victims of bullying truly are the feeble weaklings their tormentors say they are and, therefore, lack the capability of fighting back on the playing field (or the common sense to opt out of contact sports in which their tormentors are playing).

The other great hysteria around children—molestation (see here, and here)—has led to the banning of adult hugging in St. Mary’s County Public Schools, in Maryland, according to Southern Maryland News. According to the ban, adults may hug any child they wish, as long as it’s their own, but better keep their slimy, pervy hands off of everyone else’s children. While this might seem a prudent rule for teachers of middle and high school students to avoid any perception of prurient interest in the students, the situation is significantly different for elementary school teachers, whose students have much greater need for regular physical reassurances that they are loved and cared for. Personally, I do not want my son in a kindergarten class with an icy robot teacher who tells him to put on his own bandage, wipe his own tears and just go grab a hug from his friend whenever he’s feeling insecure or sad.

Speaking of prurient interest, thank God Kenilworth Junior High school, in Petaluma, California, has had the hindsight to ban girls’ leggings (stretch pants) which, when they bend over and the fabric stretches, provide more hindsight for their classmates than the fashion police feel is tolerable. ABC News suggested it was causing “distractions” in the classroom (i.e., boys, and no doubt some girls, too, were more interested in their classmates’ butts than their history lessons). This reminds me of my own school days, when only the most popular brands of tight-fitting pants and shorts were banned for similar reasons. Of course this begs the question: if teenagers are more interested in each other’s butts than the curriculum, shouldn’t something be done to make the curriculum more exciting and meaningful to them? It also highlights a fact that most adults and educators are constantly trying to suppress or deny: Teenagers are sexual beings. They have lusts, like adults. Banning one particular style of clothing will not change this. They will still be titillated by their peers’ looks and think about how cute so and so is, even after banning every other provocative and popular article of clothing for our students own protection.

Every generation comes up with its own popular genre of music and older generations routinely poo poo it as trash. . . When I was young. . . that was real music back then! Lawrence Welk and Frank Sinatra kick ass on Elvis and Frankie. But wait, what about the 60s? Music then was revolutionary. It was political. It was part of the anti-war movement, and today’s music is just a bunch of misogynistic, homophobic, violence-glorifying dreck. And why should our schools promote such anti-social messages? Thus, Arcadia High School in Southern California has banned Lady Gaga’s “Starstruck,” as well as 19 other songs at prom, because they are degrading to women.

While there is certainly some logic and perhaps even ethical basis for avoiding overtly misogynistic music, it is, in reality, completely arbitrary and pointless. The overwhelming majority of popular music throughout history has been mindless dreck if you really pay attention to the lyrics, including during the “revolutionary” 60s, when the majority of songs were insipid odes to puppy love and rants about being jilted. And the 60s, as well as the 50s and most other generations have had a subset of music with antisocial, misogynistic, racist, homophobic and otherwise offensive lyrics (though sometimes the offensive lyrics are meant to be satirical). Banning 19 songs leaves the thousands of others that still violate whatever arbitrary moral guidelines the thought police have set.

St. Mary’s County Public schools has also banned birthday invitations so as to not make the uninvited kids feel bad. This reminds me of an administrator who said that kids’ names shouldn’t be written on the board to remind them they have detentions and that you should never tell a student he is failing because such forms of communication could humiliate students. It also reminds me about some anarchists in the 1990s who tried to create an End to Unhappiness Festival and movement.

Sorry folks, but unhappiness, embarrassment, feeling left out, and bad news are all unavoidable conditions of life. People die. Conflicts occur. Relationships end. Reformers make life harder for regular people.  . . “Daddy, where is Mommy?” . . . “Er, well son, she’s certainly not dead. You don’t have to worry about that. Absolutely not dead. Not in the slightest.  . . Hey, let’s make some birthday invitations.”

Obviously, as educators we have a responsibility to address academic and disciplinary matters with tact and appropriateness, including not deliberately humiliating a student. However, getting caught being naughty and earning an F are inherently embarrassing situations and, even if a teacher is tactful and appropriate in her response, a student may still end up feeling embarrassed. Likewise, does the school really believe that the uninvited kids aren’t going to find out about the party anyway and still feel bad?

All of these bans have far more to do with social control, prejudice and paranoia about lawsuits than protecting children. This is perhaps best illustrated by Strauss’ last example, where two students’ pictures were removed from the yearbook at White Cloud High School in Michigan because their “baby bumps” (i.e., pregnant bellies) “sent a bad message to other students. However, according to New York Magazine, Superintendent Barry Seabrook felt that the girls’ photos would be an advertisement that their abstinence-based sex education program was a failure. So much for “evidence-based” education reform.

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