The Home-to-Prison Pipeline

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A School Called the Cops on a Black 12-Year-Old for Having a Toy Gun in His Own Home (Vice.com)
I Refuse to Be the Pajama Police (weareteachers.com)

Someone needs to come up with a new term to describe clichés that have been overused to the point where they’re a whole level worse than your garden-variety cliché. I’m not sure if the saying “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have” would qualify for such a classification, but I’d nominate it anyway just because I heard it ad nauseum when I was younger, and my preferred dress of t-shirts and sweatpants wasn’t seen as “professional” enough at the school I went to. I’ve been teaching for over fifteen years now, and the only days I haven’t worn t-shirts and sweatpants to my classes were the ones that fell on Halloween and I was feeling brave enough to wear a costume, so my teachers back then, as was the case with a whole lot of other things about me as a person, were wrong.

Even if that school didn’t have formal uniforms, the fact that they tied personal clothing choices to future jobs did its work in reminding everyone of one of the most common arguments in favour of school uniforms, that going to school is a young person’s “job,” and those young people should “dress accordingly.” Setting aside that Mister Rogers blew that premise out of the water ages ago, there is something sickening in the notion that from the moment a young person enters their first year of schooling, kindergarten or earlier, that child is in what is seen by so many people as essentially a form of job training. Even if the child isn’t necessarily being made to perform tasks in a manner similar to that which may occur at a job, the other conceptions and structures that embody the school-concept will at least result in the child being socialized as if they are being prepared to hold a job when they are older.

I’ve worked with a lot of students over the years who have had no desire to hold a job, and I’m not just referring to older people who come back to college after a period of decades to take classes just for their own personal fulfillment. More than a few students I’ve taught have said that their ultimate goal was to do charitable work, usually of a religious nature. Several have said that they wanted to be a stay-at-home parent after graduation, and were only going to college to help them be more effective parents when the time came, especially when it came to assisting their future children’s education by helping them with homework.

The word “work” came up several times in that last paragraph, and for good reason. The purpose of education is for those of us who teach to help our students prepare for the work they want to do, both now and in the future. I described my own teaching as work, and believe me, it is very tough work, but I’m one of the lucky people who gets to do something I love as my main form of work. Even if I complain about the constraints I’m under right now thanks to the pandemic, I’m still incredibly grateful to have these opportunities to help younger people achieve the goals they have for their lives.

There’s a reason why Mister Rogers said play is the work of childhood. He didn’t say that play is the job of childhood, because “job” and “work” are not interchangeable terms. For all the talk of how “hard work” is valued in our culture, what often goes unsaid is that the only work that much of our society deems laudable is that work which is done to help the powerful maintain, if not expand, their power. Needless to say, there’s a whole lot of socialist analysis that can be done on these dichotomies, but the important thing to keep in mind is that by school systems adopting a “job” framework for education, there is an implicit effort on the part of the schools to inculcate in their students not just a presumption of capitalist frameworks (and the alleged superiority of capitalism to other systems), but also the students’ own responsibility of perpetuating the existing power regimes through their own work. That doesn’t just include the jobs they may have during and after their schooling, but even the work they do from their earliest years.

As I’ve been researching my next book, I’ve done a lot of reading about all the pernicious effects of the pro-business school “reform” movements of recent decades, as well as their historical predecessors, and since I never miss an opportunity for a cheap plug, you can find out more about my reading and other research by subscribing to my Patreon. I’ve been reading this weekend about the psychological damage that schools like the one I went to can do to their students, and one of the things that I think hasn’t been talked about enough these past couple of decades is that a lot of the values of those schools are being forced on more and more schools, public and private alike (but especially in some of the new charter school chains), leading to childhood become an increasingly miserable experience for recent generations of young people. The children of less-advantaged parents are basically getting all the toxic elements of that schooling, without the benefits of higher education opportunities or ability to make more money from the work they do later in life.

The way that some modern schools micromanage their students’ behaviour is nothing short of appalling, and this phenomenon was already getting worse, and more widespread, in the years preceding the pandemic. This kind of management is part and parcel of the whole corporate mindset, designed to cut off all avenues of thought in students’ minds that deviate from their bosses’ (or, in the case of these schools, administrators’) plans for shaping those beneath them in the power chain to be obedient workers whose sole purpose in life is to serve those in power. As much as I favour teaching in-person classes to online classes — and I feel like I would have had the same preference as a student, if Zoom meetings and such had been around when I was younger — it’s hard to read the experiences of some of the children being hurt the most by this kind of authoritarian education hellscape (look up the hashtag #FuckKIPP on Twitter for a taste of some of the most egregious examples of what’s going on these days) and not wish that these students get to take classes at home for years to come, instead of having to endure the nightmarish “schools” they’re forced to attend today.

Part of me was expecting the absurdity of continuing to enforce dress codes as students learn from home, although I suspect that some of these teachers who are insisting that their students show that they’re wearing shoes may be secret foot fetishists. That a child could be criminally charged for holding a green Nerf “gun” in his own house is the kind of thing that should be cause for immediate dismissal of everyone who would be so reckless and stupid. Given how quickly some people rushed to defend these actions, though, my guess is that this episode will quickly turn into a new normal, and that this is only the first of these incidents that we’re going to hear about as schools continue meeting online during the pandemic.

The message these schools and teachers, and the power structures that support them, are sending to their students is clear: We own you, body and soul, and any deviation from what we expect of you, even in the privacy of your own home, will be severely punished. At this point, some of these schools might as well change their school uniforms to orange jumpsuits, because even if their students aren’t being groomed to enter a real prison, then the way their minds are being bound up and cut off will essentially make a prison out of the whole world for them, regardless of what kind of job they get later in life.

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