Education High School Reform

Infantilization of a Generation

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Infantilizing of a Generation

(This is part 3 of a 5 part series on why our school system is horribly broken)

“Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.  ” – From my story below (I know quoting myself = classy)

 In the book “When Helping Hurts” the authors talk about how treating people like a charity case makes them more likely to act like a charity case.  In other words – by addressing physical needs without addressing someone’s worth we make people feel worthless.

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I believe schools are making a similar mistake with a majority of their students.  Day in and day out most students are constantly reminded that they are not as smart as “those” kids.  In addition to this they are reminded by school policies that they can’t be trusted.  Stay inside the box and stay on task because we can’t trust you to use your own judgement.

Would you feel like an important person with real value if you sat through that message 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, year after year?

I Just Snapped

I still vividly remember this negative messaging in action during World History class.

I went to a small Christian school and there were basically two groups of students: the “smart” class and the “other” class. Due to scheduling these two classes were often separated from each other even for non-honors classes.  I took Art instead of Band, and I ended up being grouped with the slower students for a few classes.  One of those classes was World History in 10th grade.


About two-thirds of the way through the school year our teacher got frustrated that we were not covering as much material as the “smart” class.  She started talking down to the class and complaining about our short-comings.  I noticed a bunch of heads start to drop and just accept this criticism.

The problem was her criticism was not justified.  Our class was twice as big and students did current events at the start of class, so we spent twice as much time on current events.  The school didn’t have enough money to buy all new textbooks so she was actually teaching out of a textbook that the “smart” class had and we didn’t.  This teacher also regularly showed up 2-5 minutes late for the start of class.

We were behind mainly because of these factors – factors outside of the students’ control.  Yet many of the students in the class were just accepting the teacher’s criticism as another example of their shortcomings.

Something about this struck me deep down in that moment.  I couldn’t put my finger on the specifics at the time, but something just seemed horribly wrong.  And I just snapped.

For reference you need to know that I was usually a model student and very polite to my teachers.  But something about this moment just broke through all of my filters and restraints.  Before I realized what I was doing I had started to tell off our teacher listing all of the reasons I listed above as the real reasons for our slow progress.  When I was finished I was sure I was going to get detention.

Instead there was an awkward silence and the teacher just started teaching the lesson.  I guess she realized I was right and figured it was best to let the subject drop.

I still think about that moment regularly.

Now that I have had time to process it I realize that I was so angry about this because I could literally see people whom I knew were very bright drop their heads and believe that they were a problem.  They did not believe that they had caused a problem, but that they were a problem.  And I knew that this was just wrong.

This teacher was usually a good teacher, but she and many of the students had subconsciously bought into a lie.  The lie is that the “other” students need help and aren’t as able as the smart students.

These students may have been worse at school, but there were a lot of bright and talented people  in that room.  School is set up so that students who don’t do well on tests and struggle with traditional learning are problems.  It is set up so that even good teachers often have to treat valuable talented people as problems.

If you were these students would you think you had a lot to contribute to the world?  Or would you want to escape the world by watching TV, playing video games, or smoking pot?

Picture via:
Picture via: flicker – Al Ibrahim 

The process of demoralization and infantilization is insidious because it is self-reinforcing.   Students are given negative messages because they do poorly (comments, looks, grades, etc).  This negative feedback often negatively impacts the student’s future performance which in turn invites more negative feedback.  And then the process repeats itself.


The Alternative

“What makes a child gifted and talented may not always be good grades in school, but a different way of looking at the world and learning.” – Chuck Grassley

Instead of spending 8 hours a day telling students who aren’t good at school they are “other”, why don’t we spend 8 hours showing them how they can help people and add value to the world?  Every student should know he has the power to drastically improve the lives of people around him if he or she chooses.

We need to stop treating students who don’t do well on largely meaningless tests as less valuable.  Instead we need to let them know they can add immense value to the people around them.

Next Post: Tests, Tests, Tests

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