I grew up in small town Saskatchewan, where looking back I can now see how the public school setting really supported the unjust power structures in society. The students I attended school with from the various surrounding are with were mostly middle to upper class and of 2 parent families with European ancestry. It was very apparent early on in my public education that you would be judged on your ability to conform as a student in the classroom and on your appearance as a citizen, that looked good and spent money and time to do so. I say these two things critically now, but as a child I strongly believed in both concepts, unknowingly. Personally being very proud of my ability to complete school tasks swiftly, stand in line perfectly and follow the rules in class and at recess without question. I also placed great value in fitting in based on appearance through all the horrendous trends of the 80’s and 90’s, from Pace-setters to Hyper-color T-shirts to Mushroom cuts. This idea of competitive consumerism became very clear to me in reading the book “The Rebel Sell” by Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter from 2004.
I remember labeling those that did not conform to following the rules as “bad” students, most likely due to their academic struggles leading to misbehaviour. I’m sure many of these students would rather misbehave and be a class entertainer instead of being labelled “dumb.” Also, students that did not wear the latest trends were mistreated and bullied, without any of us aware that this was likely an economic reality as opposed to a fashion choice by the individual. In other words, school taught many of us: good grades = smart, bad grades = dumb and at recess and in the hallways we learned: nice clothes and hair = cool, not nice clothes or messy hair = not cool, despite peoples potential and personality. Although I dressed mostly in acceptable clothing and had often the latest hair (mullet, rat-tail, mushroom, long…) and did well academically, I was short. So I could fit in based on dress and academic ability but struggled to keep up in physical growth. And this was where I was vulnerable, my height. I was short and was infinitely teased and bullied based on my height, especially in the athletic realm. This like many other social factors was something I could do nothing about, but I was unaware of the relationship of all the “ism’s” as bodyism, is very similar to sexism, classism, intellectualism, racism or homophobism. Which is a perfect example of “intersection of social oppression” based on our Unit 1 readings - Critical Theory for Busy Caring People. We judge others to attempt to gain status but in the end are judged as well, as many of us were told, but didn’t fully grasp in Sunday School “judge not lest ye be judged.” This idea is well displayed in the song “Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm” by the Crash Test Dummies.
I enjoyed my school experience but feel that I never really was taught to question the status quo; to ask if the way things are happening is the way it should be. We were consistently told that this is how it is and this implied that this is how it should stay, in school, the community and at home. I feel very similar about my education to become a teacher in University, that challenging the status quo was not a part of our job. We were to teach students to solve word problems carefully, learn indigenous content, be nice to each other, colour the maps neatly, draw your graphs perfectly, teach the curriculum but not to question the current state of affairs of politics, economics or social norms.
It was through my own personal experiences with counter culture (skateboarding, punk rock music, travel and more) during high school and my gap year (x 4!) and in learning different cultural histories that I learned that society has a deeper underlying structure or organization. Once I started teaching ,the difference in how students are at a great advantage or disadvantage in society based on their early life experiences (or parents / grand-parents experiences) and socio-economic standing became more obvious with each class I taught. Johnny from the trailer court could not afford nice clothes and his ability to read was more related to his access to books than his ability. Suzy didn’t participate in Physical Education because she was taught to be very self-conscious of her appearance and that attitude was consistently reinforced by her peers and the structure of the school system. As schools compare marks, appearance and athletic abilities, very similarly do adults compare jobs, wages and social status. These seem directly related, as what we learn as children translates into adulthood. We all tend to compete in this societal race instead of cooperating and working together to help each other improve and ultimately challenge higher authorities that would exploit us (and the environment) for their own personal gain.
On the other side of the equation in looking at how schools work to challenge unjust power structures and ideas, I indirectly learned about the large diversity of personalities in our society and that each individual should be treated like all others, although it took some life experience to fully realize this perspective. These ideas were consecrated, as I started to read outside the curriculum, travel and experience urban environments, different cultures and countries and very different belief systems and life-styles after high school. In looking back on my school experience afterwards, it was the stories of individual students that really helped to evolve my understanding of how inequality in our society relates directly to disadvantage within our social training centres, public school.
In obtaining my Education Degree, I also came to appreciate that having a diverse country of people live mostly in harmony and participate meaningfully does involve social normalizing. Which I think can be captured by the quote often attributed to Churchhill (or not?) “that democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others.” That our modern public education system is far from perfect, but it is better than the alternative of no education (without considering traditional education of indigenous peoples worldwide). We all need to learn socially acceptable behaviours and ways to function to have a working society. As it is believed, that we live in the most peaceful time throughout all of human history, as Steven Pinker asserts in his articles and TedTalks, I believe this is a testimate to public education in modern civilization
Furthermore, one learns that the student with not so fashionable clothing was good as a science partner, and was funny and kind. Another fellow who was not of European ancestry was an excellent athlete that could play guitar really well. The kid who talked funny (or with dirty clothes, or that was skinny / obese, in drama, etc) had many qualities that were very admirable. It was exposure to all these people in a public school setting that created issues at first, but ultimately, helps you learn the individual circumstances and stories, regardless of race, class, sexual orientation or gender. I feel like schools, especially in urban centres, really teach tolerance and acceptance to a much greater degree than our grandparents, parents or us were exposed to. In this light, if citizens can see their common plight of carving out a good life and finding happiness for all people in a community, province, country or the world, despite corporate / big business interests, and personal differences, then we can work together to not accept social injustice and create less income disparity, long term environmental sustainability and social justice for all.
I feel very lucky to teach in a woodshop where although I know that I am training students to complete tasks much like in the workforce, I also empower these youth with real hands-on skills to improve their own personal situations and mindset, weather fixing your own fence or learning to enjoy a job well done. Students learn the power of their own efforts to produce meaningful projects and ideas, not necessarily for economic gain but for personal growth and satisfaction. As change starts at the personal and local level and rises from that point upwards and onwards, students can learn once you have enough to live well it is in developing a meaningful philosophy on life that leads to happiness much more than a large bank account. (“Does Money Buy Happiness”, The Atlantic, Jan / Feb 2003).