Authoritarian Schooling: A Catalogue of Damage compiled by David Gribble





Peasant resistance






For her MSc in 2003 Joanne Stephanie Gore spent three months in a primary school as a pupil, doing what the children do every day, such as frequently lining up, sitting with 'back straight, hands on head, bottoms on the floor,' playing in the sand, having her hair pulled and sneaking sherbet in assembly. Little of what she experienced is surprising, but when you realise it is happening to an adult, it becomes shocking. If our priorities were right, it should surely be even more shocking that it happens to children as a matter of course.

What Joanna Gore saw the children learning from the way they were treated was a technique described by James C. Scott in his book, Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. Peasant resistance 'takes the form of such things as foot-dragging, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage. . . . Furthermore, peasants are always using small advantages to push the boundaries of their relationship, to see what they can get away with and then "melting" back into the population for protective cover.' (Leave me Alone, p. 33)

John Holt describes a demonstration of this technique in How Children Fail. He tells of a man 'who spent some time in a German concentration camp during the war. He and his fellow prisoners, trying to save both their lives and something of their human dignity, and to resist, despite their impotence, the demands of their jailers, evolved a kind of camp personality as a way of dealing with them. They adopted an air of amiable dull-wittedness, of smiling foolishness, of cooperative and willing incompetence like the good soldier Schweik. Told to do something, they listened attentively, nodded their heads eagerly, and asked questions that showed they had not understood a word of what had been said. When they could not safely do this any longer, they did as far as possible the opposite of what they had been told to do, or did it, but as badly as they dared. They realised that this did not much impede the German war effort, or even the administration of the camp; but it gave them a way of preserving a small part of their integrity in a hopeless situation.' (How Children Fail, p 154)

This technique, which James C. Scott calls 'weapons of the weak' is just what children need in school in order to maintain some sense of personal autonomy, and they use it even when there is no other reward.

Joanna Gore observed both infants (aged five to seven) and juniors (eight to eleven).

Infants often told juniors what the rules were; the juniors obviously knew these rules but defied them anyway, which was disconcerting for the infants, as they were yet to understand such open ideas of resistance.

. . .

Once something is embodied, it becomes part of the self and harder to see, and it is therefore less likely to be resisted. For example, the juniors had embodied movement around the school in lines; they moved in line without consciously thinking about it. At first infants resisted this control of their bodies, but they did so less as time went on. The control of movement, bodily and within space by the teachers, was therefore gradually internalised, and resistance was reduced. However, it is important to remember that resistance itself is also constituted, that it is learned and embodied over time within the fabric of oneself, and juniors who have learnt to control themselves in the manner they have embodied also occasionally try to resist this bodily control.

. . .

In schools power relations, hierarchy and control are exercised, displayed and constituted through spatial constructs such as seating, differential access, restriction of movement and noise. Juniors have embodied some of the control over their movement. Infants have embodied less, and so infants are less adept at performing controlled actions while at the same time chatting with friends.
       Infants' resistance is generally more overt than juniors, such as when they refuse to communicate or move. However, they usually follow the teachers' instructions, judge by adults' morals and try to enforce the school rules on others. Resistance is built up over time, in relation to restriction. By the time infants become juniors they have learnt to resist covertly.

Leave me Alone, p 32

Gore's book contains many examples of this covert resistance. For instance, this is what happened at the beginning of the working day:

Once at their tables, the children were supposed to stay at them and do their work. This was resisted in many ingenious ways. The children would get up to borrow rubbers, pencils or sharpeners from other members of the class, usually from the other side of the room, so that they could legitimately walk over there. They would take the long route, chatting on their way. They would blow their noses at the sink, having to return moments later to finish it off. They would ask to go to the toilet over and over again, especially if a friend had just gone. The infants also asked to go to the toilet at the same time as their friends and would immediately go again if they could get away with it. Children would go backwards and forwards to their trays, and infants often went to the home corner and fiddled for a while, looking busy. These antics took up a large portion of the day. I followed four girls one day, taking note of how much work they actually got done in between these escapades. At the end of the day they each had four sheets of paper on which they had written perhaps a single line, or at most a paragraph. Much more of their school time was spent inventing new ways to resist the institution than on formal learning.

Ibid, p 28

And again:

Margaritte has two pieces of paper. Mr. Grain [a junior school teacher] comes and takes one back, she whispers, 'Be selfish, then.' Later she goes over to his desk and steals another, smiling over at me. She goes back and takes another five and shoves them behind the shelf. Mr Grain sees her and tells her to go outside. She does, but a few minutes later the door opens and her hand comes in, reaches over his desk and takes yet more paper out.

Ibid, p 51

The teachers trained the children to behave in certain ways, but the children often managed to conform superficially at the same time as following their own agenda.

The embodiment of such constructs was shown by the way the children (especially the juniors) moved around the school. They walked in lines and it looked as though they were not aware of what they were actually doing with their bodies. Of course they were, but they went through the actions that the teachers expected, while simultaneously carrying on their own conversations and activities with their peers. A child might be facing the back of the line deep in animated conversation with a friend; however she would notice and follow the person who had moved in front of her in line without stopping talking. Juniors would go into the classroom, get a book from the shelf without looking and sit on the carpet, all of the while still engrossed in conversation with their friends. The infants were also to a certain extent able to do this but were more likely to wander off and forget the routine they were supposed to be following. Juniors would be following the routine at the same time as sharing sherbet out, playing with and hiding toys, fighting with the opposite sex or throwing things across the room, for example. Being an adult, and therefore somebody who had embodied much more of the required decorum, I found it difficult to join in. I found that I was far more trained to listen to the teacher, and really had to fight feelings of guilt and fear if I was to sit and chat about best friends while the teacher was addressing us. The children had also learnt to answer questions the teacher asked when addressing the whole class without actually listening. Teachers would often say, for example, 'Did everybody hear that?' 'Is everybody ready?' or 'Can everybody hear me?' The children automatically shouted 'Yeees' in unison, even though they obviously hadn't listened to a word. This indicates why children, once they were ready to work, often asked each other and the teacher what they were supposed to do even though the purpose of carpet-time had been to explain exactly this.

Ibid, pp 20-21

John Holt goes further than Joanna Gore in his condemnation of this situation. 'When a child gets the right answers by illegitimate means,' he says, 'and gets credit for knowing what he doesn't know, and knows he doesn't know, it does double harm. First, he doesn't learn, his confusions are not cleared up: secondly, he comes to believe that a combination of bluffing, guessing, mind reading, snatching at clues, and getting answers from other people is what he is supposed to do at school; that this is that school is all about; that nothing else is possible.' (How Children Fail, p 146). Gore herself found it difficult not to attend to the teacher: the children had mastered the art of appearing to attend when they were not listening at all. Adults expect the information they are given to be significant: children in school have learnt that the information they are given is of almost no use to them. This is an extremely negative lesson to have learnt, but what is particularly depressing about it is that for most children, in most schools, it is absolutely correct most of the information they are given really is of almost no use to them.

This development of peasant rebellion perhaps it would not be unfair to say 'this teaching of peasant rebellion' is exemplified in Leave me Alone over and over again, but it is not the only damage done by conventional primary school methods. 'Every day when the children came into school,' says Joanna Gore, 'the first thing the juniors had to do was to empty their pockets of money, toys, bus passes and food, and hand everything over to the teacher. It was given back at the end of the day. . . . In school, confiscating your belongings in order to exercise control is called "looking after it for you."'

Confiscating your belongings in order to exercise control is tantamount to denying your individuality. If it was really necessary to look after the children's possessions because otherwise they would be stolen, there was a deeper problem to be addressed.

And perhaps most worryingly of all, the teachers were not expected to adhere to the same moral standards as the pupils.

'Stay in your seat,' says class code of conduct rule 6, 'and ask permission to move sensibly and quietly round the room.' Such restrictions are to be enforced by the teachers through eye contact, verbal reminders, warnings, ostracism (sitting outside) and punishment. The anti-bullying statement gives the school's definition of bullying: 'Preventing somebody from doing what they want or going where they choose, frightening somebody with threats, hurting somebody's feelings by looking at them unkindly.' It is interesting that, according to the policy, these very actions are prerequisites for the job of teacher or helper.

Leave me Alone, p 40

Joanna Gore understands it to be the duty of teachers to prevent children from doing what they want to do or going where they want to go, to frighten them with threats and to hurt their feelings by looking at them unkindly. No wonder the children feel the need to rebel.