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The Pandemic School: Children's Rights and the Politics of Public Education

By Andrew and Ashlee Barwell

Classrooms, curriculum, teachers, and tests: these hallmarks of public school are antithetical to learning and liberty but necessary for indoctrination and subjugation.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, government-funded secular schools were established throughout Western Europe and North America, with the dual purpose of instilling obedience, conformity, and dependency in children and enabling parents—specifically mothers—to enter the workforce in greater numbers. Public education systems were a resounding success for the emerging nation-states of the modern Western world: their economies were stimulated by the influx of workers and cohorts of easily governable labourers were created. While their methods may have softened, the raison d’etre of public schools is the same today as it was at their inception: pacifying the population and preserving governmental power.[1]

An ever-growing body of compelling research demonstrates that schooling is not necessary for learning to take place, nor is it the optimal way for children to learn and meet their potential.[2] In fact, schooling is detrimental to children’s mental health.[3] Yet, astonishingly and tragically, school is still in session for most children in the Western world.

The upheaval of the public school system resulting from the pandemic has shaken our collective confidence in the institution, and this could become a silver lining on the cloud of the past eighteen months. We have an opportunity to define what the “new normal” will be in childhood learning and it can be one in which our children—and all citizens—are liberated from the institutionalization and abuse that generations have endured in the name of schooling the masses.

Indeed, the education of our children will be the frontline in the battle for a truly free and just society in the post-pandemic world.

As the Corona virus circulated the globe killing millions, it left humanity in a perpetual state of fear. Equally as frightening to many, though, were the wide-ranging infringements on our fundamental liberties that constituted the pandemic response of democratic governments in the global North. Children have been subjected to the most egregious violations in the name of Covid safetyism.[4] Forcing schoolchildren to wear masks for hours at a time can potentially: impede verbal and nonverbal communication and, by extension, language development and social skills; interfere with the ability to breathe comfortably; and lead to the heightened state of anxiety all humans feel when they cannot see the faces of those around them.[5]

Home with their children as they suffered through online learning, parents had a front seat to the tedium and torment of curriculum-based, standardized education. Tedium and torment are, of course, features of the school system not bugs. And whether schooled online or in-person, children were robbed of the only thing school actually offers: opportunities to play and socialize with peers. Parents are recognizing and remembering that school is something children tolerate, not thrive in, and removing them from the system in record numbers. But nonetheless, criticism of Covid-19 regulations and their negative impacts on children has been concerningly muted in public discourse.

As citizens in liberal societies, we have an obligation to hold the government accountable for its decisions and we are currently failing. It is no longer possible to claim that the primary purpose of public school is the cognitive development of children. The primary concern of ministries of education and unions of teachers is not the wellbeing of children but, rather, perpetuating and justifying their own existence.[6]

Our inability and reluctance to question those in power is a product of growing up institutionalized ourselves: we have been conditioned to trust and obey authorities and conform to social pressures.

Furthermore, we have learned dependency on the government and its services. Working- and middle-class parents require state-sponsored childcare in order to stay employed. And, lacking “the village” of supportive adults needed to facilitate a child’s education, most parents understandably do not want to sacrifice their careers and be solely responsible for their children’s education. Hence, the government’s monopoly on education.

Peter Gray defines education as “the sum of everything a person learns that supports them towards living a satisfying and meaningful life.”[7] No longer can we allow our political leaders (whose children mostly go to private schools) to determine what a meaningful and satisfying life can be for our children. Life is too precious to spend most the day subjected to schooling—denied the liberty to learn what you want, when you want, how you want. We are born biologically prepared to educate ourselves and doing so is a human right. As John Holt, the grandfather of Unschooling, so eloquently put it in his book Instead of Education: "Next to the right to life itself, the most fundamental of all human rights is the right to control our own minds and thoughts...Whoever takes that right away from us, as the educators do, attacks the very centre of our being and does us a most profound and lasting injury. He tells us, in effect, that we cannot be trusted even to think, that for all our lives we must depend on others to tell us the meaning of our world and our lives, and that any meaning we may make for ourselves, out of our own experience, has no value.[8]

The burden of proof that compulsory schooling is helpful not harmful is on the Ministry of Education and now is the time for parents to ask them to show their work. When they cannot defend their methods, we must defend children's right to direct their own education—their right to control their own minds and thoughts.

We must liberate our learners and, in doing so, give them a fighting chance to heal the post-pandemic world.

References and Further Reading

[1] For an overview of the history of education in the West, see: Peter Gray, “A Brief History of Education,” Psychology Today, August 2008, https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/freedom-learn/200808/brief-history-education. For a historical overview of schooling in Canada (available free online), see: Karen L. Robson, “A Historical Overview of Education in Canada,” in Sociology of Education in Canada, https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/robsonsoced/chapter/__unknown__-3/. Full-length studies discussing the dual purposes of public education in America include: Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, Schooling in Capitalist America: Educational Reform and the Contradictions of Economic Life, 1977 and John Taylor Gatto, The Underground History of American Education, Volume 1: An Intimate Investigation into the Prison of Modern Schooling, 2017. [2] The research is summarized in Peter Gray, Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life, 2015. [3] Anxiety and depression can result from: the lack of agency children experience in their daily lives; the stress of having ones knowledge and development routinely tested; toxic social relationships and forced association with peers; strain on relationship with parents from daily absence, homework struggles, and unhealthy attachments to peers; not having the chance to develop internal, intrinsic motivation; spending too much time sedentary indoors without daily or even weekly nature immersion. For discussion of relevant studies, see: Peter Gray, “What Have We Done to Childhood?” in Free to Learn. See also Peter Gray’s online blog on Psychology Today for a variety of articles discussing the ways in which schooling is detrimental to mental health: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/freedom-learn . See also: Alfie Kohn, Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes, 1994 and Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate, Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, 2013. [4] “Safetyism” is defined as a culture or belief system in which safety (which includes emotional safety) has become a sacred value, which means that people become unwilling to make trade-offs demanded by other practical and moral concerns. Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure, 2018. [5] Dr. Carka Peeters et al., “Rapid Response: Psychosocial, Biological, and Immunological Risks for Children and Pupils Make Long-Term Wearing of Mouth Masks Difficult to Maintain,” British Medical Journal, 2020; 370, https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m3021 ; John Tierny, “Much to Forgive: Adults Have Failed Children in Foisting Unnecessary, Harmful, Covid-19 Restrictions on Them,” City Journal, April 2021, https://www.city-journal.org/masking-children-unnecessary-and-harmful ; WHO and UNICEF, “Coronavirus Disease (Covid-19): Children and Masks,” August 2020, https://www.who.int/news-room/q-a-detail/q-a-children-and-masks-related-to-covid-19 ; Raymond J. Roberge, Jung-Hyun Kim, and Aitor Coca, “Protective Facemask Impact on Human Thermoregulation: An Overview,” The Annals of Occupational Hygiene, 56 (1): 1-2-112, January 2012, https://academic.oup.com/annweh/article/56/1/102/166254. [6] Many teachers care deeply about and are dedicated to the wellbeing of their children. The curriculum of Teacher’s Colleges does not, however, include anything that questions the very premises of the teaching profession itself: that teaching, lessons, and classrooms are required for learning. So, while they participate in the forced confinement of children and their subjection to curriculum and testing, they are unknowingly harming the students they genuinely care about. Another tragedy of the system. Furthermore, teachers’ unions are labour unions first-and-foremost, concerned with the working conditions and financial compensation of members. [7] The Alliance for Self Directed Education, “What is Self-Directed Education?” https://www.self-directed.org/sde/. [8] John Holt, Instead of Education: Ways to Help People Do Things Better, 1976, https://www.amazon.ca/Instead-Education-People-Things-Better/dp/1591810094.

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