Twelve years in the education freezer: do we ever get out?

Twelve years in the education freezer: do we ever get out?

Twelve years in the education freezer: do we ever get out?

University educators, Professor William Foley and Dr Lyndy Summerhaze bring their observations and expertise to a distressing situation facing kids today.

In a New York Times article on 27 September 2015, Josh Max talked about his experience as a kid in grade 4 in a special education class[1]. He detailed the violence and the abusive environment he found in that school, and how in a rare moment of receiving kindness and warmth from the other kids, he dissolved into tears at that feeling of being cared for and valued. Josh told how the school felt like jail and how when he moved on to to a regular school for grade 7, he felt ‘his time had been served.’

Josh’s recounting of his experiences got us pondering our own experience of education. While we were not ‘special ed’, our own experience was not much different, nor is it very different for any child in school – because the bottom line here is that our system of education is devoid of love.

Josh burst into tears when he felt a very tangible love from his fellow students as they slid to him half a bologna sandwich and turkey on rye, an apple and a bag of chips on finding out that he’d forgotten his lunch: the system itself never provided that kind of love and care. And it can’t, because it was never designed in love; it was designed to produce good, disciplined, reliable workers. And discipline is at the core of it. If you don’t conform to the discipline expected, you can get consigned to ‘special ed,’ like Josh, and left there until you learn to conform. You ‘serve your time’ and once you are reformed, you get released. But do you? Regular school is just as much a prison, but the successful students there have learned to internalize the discipline, resign themselves to the loveless-ness and in various ways make the best of it.

There are very many great teachers who genuinely love teaching kids, bringing connection and inspiration, who can see and deeply feel the devastation caused by the way the current system operates. And there are countless teachers out there who have not closed down their awareness to the fact that young children still have their powerful ability to feel and know the truth about what is going on in our world. Our children are gloriously sensitive beings – open, trusting, bundles of love.

But our society, with its aggressive striving, competition and alienation, is anything but love.

On the whole, we have built a system of education in the image of our society in order to reproduce that society, with all of its dysfunction and very little of the love that we are all capable of. And we put our precious young at very tender ages into that system in order to ‘socialize’ them, yet it literally indoctrinates them into accepting the dysfunctional ways of our society, when everything inside them is telling them that this is not a true way of living.

The lack of love hurts them deeply and they begin to be moulded by this hurt. Instead of communicating, connecting with and understanding our children, they are frequently shut down and met with disapproval if they express other than school-authorized behaviours.

We don’t recognise this as a form of cruelty, or in fact a reaction on our part to not knowing how to respond to what we see. And consequently, in response to this lack of love, some quickly conform to the lure of recognition and reward that the current system of education offers and they go on to be the ‘successful’ professionals: doctors, lawyers, professors, teachers, that then get to make the laws, run the schools, and the country. Others resign themselves to their fate, get by, awaiting the day they are liberated from school – but as with the professionals, the hurts can remain with them all their lives.

Some rebel, like Josh or others with ADD or ADHD, but the system has ways of dealing with malcontents, just as prison does. It’s either the type of confinement called ‘special ed’ – as for Josh – or worse, drug therapy to make difficult kids tractable. The education system presents these interventions as ‘care’, but it is a very strange kind of care indeed when loveless-ness is the cause, and we shy away from seeing our own part in it. Every teacher, administrator and parent could choose to re-establish a genuine relationship with love, care, and worth that is the birthright of everybody and the foundation of all true learning.

The hurt and harm caused from the way we run our current education system is present across the board, from special education to the elite public schools:

Guardian columnist and commentator George Monbiot recently testified on YouTube that he was still dealing with the emotional scarring that came from attending an elite boarding school. He spoke of the ‘acceptable cruelty’ that operates in these schools, leaving their inmates with hurt, with difficulty in forming true relationships, and with intimacy problems. You have children who have been taught to harden and deny their own feelings, and so deny the feelings of others. These ‘disabled’ students, he said, grow up to take on the leadership roles in our society[2].

Some may object to the claim that our system of education is loveless, maintaining this characterisation is too strong. But would you make the same claim for our prison system? We doubt it. Both are about discipline and the needs of the system first, not the people involved and are built on exactly the same plan, sometimes even architecturally. Governments have been known to employ the same architect for their prisons and schools. As in prisons, children are physically and psychologically institutionalized in schools. The structure is highly authoritarian, with the teacher and principal in the role of wardens, dishing out rewards and punishments. Everything is controlled and monitored, rather than a harmonious schooling environment being reflected and encouraged.

Silence and order are mandated; individual choices require a superior’s permission, and if that is violated, sanctions will follow.

School children are imprisoned not by bars and walls but by the energy of the loveless-ness that is the predominant shaper of the system.

Prison is in fact anything that shuts off the expression of love, its expansion and evolution. Anything that is not expressed from love has the effect of imprisoning us from the fullness of who we are.

We may believe that the prevailing system is in the children’s best interests, that in our love for them we are preparing them for the realities of the world: discipline, hard work, resilience, fitting in and subservience to authority. In reality, we are just impressing upon them the same miseries and dysfunctions that we have resigned ourselves to, but have largely lost the feeling of, because we have hardened ourselves to the hurts the education system has visited on us and we re-cycle upon others.

Can we stop and let ourselves feel what school was really like for us? Have we ever allowed ourselves to fully feel the fear and stress we experienced over tests and assignments, the disappointments when we did badly and the short-lived elation if we did do well in the knowing that yet another test or assignment was around the corner?

The fear and contraction felt when a teacher didn’t like us, or when they lashed out, can be an intense experience for a young and tender, expansive and loving child, as can be the feeling of coming under such regimentation in movement and speech in class. And what about the unceasing tension from competition, if not for grades, then for best dressed, hottest look, best sportsman or most popular girl. Have these feelings ever left us, and do they still influence our behaviour today?

Do we really want to see our kids condemned to twelve or more years ‘serving their time’ in a quasi-prison environment, numbing themselves more and more as they suppress the real hurt they are feeling? Have we forgotten what it really felt like for us? It doesn’t have to be this way. We can turn our education system around by making it about love and the kids first, not the needs of the institution and the system first. This will take time and obviously require a long and honest look at the values of our society that inform our education system. Our kids are the most precious things we have, and the way of the future. We truly are worth it.

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  • By Lyndy Summerhaze, PhD, BA (1st class hons; University medal) Dip.Mus.Ed, Practitioner of Universal Medicine Therapies, EPA Recognised

    Lyndy loves truth, people, and great conversation. She works as a tutor in English Literature and is a practitioner of the healing arts.

  • By William Foley, University Professor: BA, Brown University MA, PhD University of California, Berkeley Fellow, Australian Academy of the Humanities

    I am a Professor of Linguistics. I am interested in how peoples of different cultural and linguistic backgrounds communicate and how we can increase understanding and brotherhood across these differences.

  • Photography: Shannon Everest