by Pat Farenga
More than one educator has said or written publicly that they have misgivings about forcing children to learn on demand in school; however, this is a minority view and students are viewed now, more than ever, as little learning machines to be tinkered with. Children eat, socialize, go to the bathroom, think, read, study, move from place to place, and, if they are lucky, exercise when school says. Further, school doesn’t just dictate what students can think about and ranks them on how they present those thoughts, it also justifies student captivity by claiming that it is necessary to treat children this way in order to create good citizens, and it uses the law to compel school attendance by children. Since the compulsory school system was invented many people have criticized these claims by educationists (my favorite is from the 1920s, when a schoolmaster claimed that school is vital for democracy, and Rita Sherman, a homeschooling mother, replied, “How can one learn about democracy in a place where it isn’t practiced?”), yet school continues its dominion over children’s lives and parents’ imaginations as to what children are capable of achieving.
Today school is more encompassing of children’s lives than ever, but school has little tolerance for children acting like children being kept in tight quarters; they are routinely drugged, ridiculed, mistreated, and punished harshly for offenses that no adult would tolerate in civil society (for some examples see, “19 Crazy Things That School Children Are Being Arrested For”). If that statement seems hard to believe, please view the documentary The War on Kids so you can see how unjust the school system can be to children. Cevin Soling, the filmmaker of The War on Kids, has written a new, brief, and powerful handbook that is bound to anger those who view children as a restive population in need of subjugation by educationists: The Student Resistance Handbook.
Soling opens the book with this quote, “Those who expect students to willing endure compulsory schooling, and the associated deprivation of rights and assault on dignity, have no regard for the human spirit and no respect for the souls of children,” and then he notes that “the purpose of this handbook is to promote the most basic civil rights to youth by empowering them to change the structure of compulsory schooling that denies these rights to them. . . . The philosophy of this handbook is that the primary task of those unjustly deprived of liberty is to engage in the struggle for liberty. Knowledge without liberty is meaningless.”
Soling is well aware that students who engage in the actions he describes may suffer serious consequences and,“Given the hysteria in schools and abject contempt for youth in American society, it is reasonable to expect that reactions could be wildly disproportionate to the acts perpetrated.” A quick view of the article or film I mention in the preceding paragraph show how true that last statement is. But then, what to do? For those who disagree with such institutional practices and are in a position to remove their children from public school and have them learn in a private or home school that promises a different learning environment, the answer can be clear. But for the vast majority of children in America there are no such choices and so they must endure the 12-year sentence of schooling we impose upon all people under a certain age (which used to be ages 6 to 16 but is now being stretched to 18 and as young as 4 as some states compel school attendance for even longer stretches). Soling writes directly to an audience of elementary and high school age students. By removing the patina of caring for children that school uses to justify its existence, he also exposes how our legal system hypocritically supports “student rights”:
Fascism is defined as an autocratic system of organization where dissent is suppressed and loyalty is demanded. Clearly, public schools are fascist institutions. Children are required by law to be in a state of captivity where they cannot act in any way that disrupts the process of indoctrination. Arbitrary rules must be followed at all times and abstract rewards and punishments are dispensed in the form of grades. Justice is dispensed arbitrarily by the teacher and the school administration. In many states, teachers have immunity from prosecution.
. . . The fundamental problem is that most people believe that schools dispense valuable information and willfully fail to comprehend that even if that were true, the fascist environment poisons every constructive intention of the school. . . .
. . . The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed that schools have the power to act against student behavior that interferes with their “educational mission.” The spirit of this was first asserted in Tinker v. Des Moines (1969). Consistent with the Supreme Court’s hypocrisy, the decision that schools may punish and prevent any kind of disruptive behavior was heralded as a major student victory because it allowed for innocuous nonverbal gestures. Even today this abusive dictum is hailed as a significant landmark for the protection of student rights. . . .
. . . The most fundamental and important learning experience is to engage in opposing fascism in any form whenever it rears its ugly head. Fascism is a cancer that threatens liberty everywhere. Any act that directly challenges or undermines fascism is heroic. . . .
. . . Any institution that demands the surrender of one’s will, for any purpose, is irredeemably corrupt and must be taken down. Dialogue with teachers and administrators is a waste of time because they will either deny they are in a position of complete power or they will insist that it is necessary for the good of the students.
. . . Schools make children believe they are defective because they suffer when they are placed in an oppressive environment. That is just plain sick. In addition to approving the torture of children held in a captive environment, the defenders of schooling blame children for the mental health consequences of the abuse they endure.
Soling peppers his chapters with cartoons and clever quotes to engage the reader, such as these by Thomas Paine (“The greatest tyrannies are always perpetrated in the name of the noblest causes”) and Benjamin Franklin (“It is the first responsibility of every citizen to question authority”), as well as from students themselves (“I’m wearing black for my first day of school because it’s actually the funeral for my happiness”). In short, snappy prose Soling outlines the tactics for nonviolent protest and persuasion, how to use public statements, symbolic displays, systemic disruption (“Foment Dissent within Faculty Ranks”), resistance and non-cooperation, overload the system, target individuals, and how to handle punishment (this section suggests that the student record conversations and take notes about the punishment, and offers ways to cope with questioning, strip searches, spanking, paddling, corporal punishment, and quitting school).
This is not a timid book, and it is certain to raise the hackles of many supporters of school who feel children must be seen and not heard, and that teaching them to disrupt unjust situations in school and advocate for themselves is just not the good, polite behavior school expects from children. However, when adults like John Taylor Gatto write and talk about the destructiveness of school upon children and how he, as a teacher, subverted the school regime to help his student’s learn what, when, how, and from whom they wished, he is applauded by adults and some educators. When Sir Ken Robinson talks about how schools kill creativity he is awarded with accolades from school people and millions of views of his YouTube video. But if a child talks about how school demeans him or her, or if they simply say they don’t like school, he or she is most likely told to put up with the situation because “that’s the way it is.” The Student Resistance Handbook is a strong dose of real action wedded to rational thought that any student can benefit from, even if they are unlikely to act upon any of its content other than agree with the chapter “Bad Arguments in Defense of Schooling.” At least they’ll know there are others who think as they do about school.
It is the potential for action that makes this book scary for adults who think, “Do we really want students to petition local school boards, renounce school honors, or target individual school personnel as a way to resist school?” (I want to note here that John Holt refused not only school honors later in his life, but he also refused to tell people where he went to school and what he studied as one of his practical, small actions to reduce the power of school in our lives. You can read more details about why he did this in his book Instead of Education: Ways To Help People Do Things Better.) Rather than work with the play toys of power—student government—Soling wants students to work with the real objects of power to achieve real goals that have repercussions in the world. This is something homeschoolers have leveraged for their own children—helping them to engage in real work in the world, rather than imagined tasks in a text. Homeschoolers are known to involve their school-age children during school hours in public, political protests against unfair rules for homeschooling and other political issues. I applaud and fully support homeschoolers for doing so, and I hope homeschoolers will support school students who can also benefit from such actions.
The big difference is school students won’t have many, or any, adults and teachers on their side. Soling makes no bones about this: “If teachers and administrators want to reach out and negotiate with you, it will be based on a lie. They will only want to negotiate the terms of your surrender;” or “While some teachers might appear sympathetic and want to actively engage in dialogue, despite their sincerity, their intent will always be to make you compromise your principles.” Soling provides many ideas and resources to students to “fight back and make those who support schools experience the same misery that they make you endure, and thereby enable you to attain some degree of control over your own life.” Soling defines victory as no one being forced to attend school and notes, “Given the rise of viable alternatives to school, this endgame is not completely far-fetched.” Though I doubt the shift to alternatives to compulsory schooling will happen in my life, I do have great hope for such a victory and I agree with Soling: “Engaging in the struggle for these minimal expectations is a form of victory. The only failure is abandoning your ideals or settling for less.” Soling’s hope is that if school continues to become unbearable for students, and students make school unbearable for teachers and administrators, that will force it to change.
If we truly believe—as John Taylor Gatto and Sir Ken Robinson believe today—that school debilitates personal initiative and abilities and, in addition, as John Holt and Ivan Illich noted in the 1970s, that school perpetuates class-based social problems, then we need a new system, or concept, of education to replace the factory-model schools we continue to use. We should be listening to what the students claim school is like for them today, and support student efforts to make school a more humane and equitable place for learning. Soling offers a clear roadmap for students who want to engage in civil disobedience, not illegal activities, in order to gain agency in their lives beyond being a “good student.” He is careful to show how repealing school policies like Zero Tolerance and random drug testing can be done using legal and administrative means, but if those fail then, “Make their lives as hellish as yours.”
This isn’t nice behavior by students, of course, and that’s the point: school isn’t being well behaved towards students, either. Some of the ideas Soling presents have been attempted by individuals in real life or have been depicted in movies (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off might be viewed as an instructional video supplement to this handbook), but I think Soling is the first person to collect and codify these ideas into a course of action for students. If you’re a dissatisfied student in school I suggest you read this book to discover what you might be able to do to improve your situation; if you’re a parent or educator, I suggest you read this book to consider what school can be like to children and to see that their statement of “I hate school” can be based on being marginalized by school. If you’re a homeschooler or alternative school student, I suggest you read this book to see what you’re missing or what you left, and then to share it with your school friends who want to resist school.
Pat Farenga is a writer and education activist who worked closely with the late author and teacher John Holt and continues his work today as the president of HoltGWS LLC. After Holt died, Pat published Growing Without Schooling magazine (GWS) from 1985 until 2001. (GWS was the nation’s first periodical about learning without going to school, started by Holt in 1977.) The Farengas unschooled their daughters, now ages 27, 24 and 21.Pat speaks as a homeschooling expert at education conferences around the world, as well as on commercial radio and television talk shows. His media appearances include The Today Show, Good Morning America, Voice of America, Geraldo, NPR’s Learning Matters, CNN’s Parenting Today, The Dr. Drew Pinsky Show, and Fox and Friends.