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A Peter Pan Education:

A classroom where we never grow up

Photo by Nick Kenrick 

     “If children could be cloistered with other children, stripped of responsibility and independence, encouraged to develop only the trivializing emotions of greed, envy, jealousy, and fear, they would grow older but never truly grow up” (Gatto 671). This chilling reality presented by John Taylor Gatto, an ex-elementary school teacher of thirty years, has understandably caused some furor among teachers and parents. Gatto claims that our grade school systems are outdated, and designed to create robotic consumers who are predictable and obedient, but he takes his claim a step further when he says the best way to insure good consumers is to keep them perpetually adolescent (671). If this were true, we would surely be seeing the results of such a phenomenon.

     Fast forward several years to college hallways and classrooms where “something strange is happening…a movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense” (Lukainoff and Haidt 1). Authors Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt address a problem with college students requesting to be protected from potentially offensive material in an article published in The Atlantic, “How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental Health on Campus.” It may be a fair assumption that this problem is actually a symptom of an underlying issue that began well before the college student ever set foot on campus. Teachers, forced to filter out material that might offend, are limited in their ability to effectively inspire students to engage with their own ideas and the ideas of others in order to better understand themselves and prepare them for life after graduation; it is fostering perpetual adolescence, limiting education, and resulting in a steady increase in student mental health concerns. Is grade school offering a hand in the coddling requested by our college students?

     Gatto describes “our schools—with their long-term, cell-block-style, forced confinement of both students and teachers—as virtual factories of childishness” (666). Rigid rules about time, memorizing information only to receive a grade, and reading carefully selected course material encourages dependency upon structured robotic systems. Our Prussian-inspired schools have been successful in eliminating creativity, free-thinking, curiosity, and adventure, leaving both students and teachers bored within the confines of this outdated system (666). The dangers of this kind of system are countless. Teaching children to conform and reflexively obey is the perfect recipe for creating people who no longer question or think for themselves, who will easily be persuaded by whoever happens to be standing in front (the location of the person to be obeyed, as taught by the classroom layout).

     There is convincing evidence that grade school structures are fulfilling Gatto’s theory, creating students ill prepared for campus life and interaction with the unforgiving world around them. It would be unfair, though, to assume all responsibility lies solely on the shoulders of our educational systems. Lukianoff and Haidt participate in analysis of the recent changes in childhood and parenting styles offering insight into another potential causation for perpetual adolescence. With the increase in crime in the last forty years, children have become more closely monitored. Time that was once spent outdoors is now spent inside where they can be protected by their parents, teaching children to fear the world outside, and to rest assured that adults will do all they can to protect them from harm (6). This also means more time spent with technology instead of other children, creating dependency on screens for companionship and entertainment. Hiding behind computer screens and internet personas offers yet another form of protection from facing the world head on. While this generational shift has surely had its influence, there has been another significant shift in parenting styles, unmentioned by Lukianoff and Haidt: the absence of parental figures.

     Changes in the economy that have forced the dual-income model of parenting as well as the increase in divorce rates have also detrimentally affected how children are being raised into mature adults. The average elementary school teacher today finding it harder to deal with the parents than the students themselves. The necessary salary increase requiring both parents have full time jobs, along with the commonality of broken homes, is resulting in children who are being raised by daycare systems and elementary school programs. These parents, unsure of their own child’s tendencies due to their forced absence, are in constant defense of their child’s behavior as an over-compensation. Schools began presenting participation trophies and rewarding all children regardless of effort or ability to appease parents who were only able to make it to one game all season, which simultaneously eliminated the value of hard work and accomplishment, and taught the wrong life lesson to the undeserving child. Psychologist studies of the effects of participation trophies have proven them to be more harmful in early emotional development than originally thought. Showing that children who receive a reward when they know they shouldn’t experience embarrassment and lowered self-esteem. We have surely seen the results of these concerns demonstrated by the increase in mental health concerns among today’s youth.

     “If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons….schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health” (Lukianoff and Haidt). There has been an undeniable trending increase in young adults suffering from emotional distress both on and off campus. If this increase finds its causation rooted in early development, and structures of elementary education, we may find it easier to approach a solution and effectively redirect students to learn the necessary tools to mentally cope with triggering situations. Students seem unable to handle the difficult topics, requesting to be protected from anything that might make them feel uncomfortable. College campuses are surely not creating solutions when they cater to these tendencies, rather, students need to be introduced to the difficult topics of life in a healthy way. To be taught by those they look up to that there are ways to cope with troublesome topics, and that they can be handled rather than avoided. The solution lies in teaching students to find their “safe space” within their own mind. Lukianoff and Haidt express this as “the thinking cure,” the modern version of the ancient practices of self-awareness exemplified by Buddhism and Stoicism (10). If we could successfully retrain young students to find healthy bunkers within their own minds as a retreat when things get difficult, we could right the wrong that’s been done them by their upbringing, and their early childhood education. They will never truly grow up until they learn to accept the difficult topics and control their own internal reactions to them.

     Their weakness, and fragility, the direct result of an overprotected childhood, and the limitations in mental exploration created by grade school systems, are not who they are, but rather, a symptom of the forced adolescence that was pushed upon them. They were never trusted with the “real stuff,” being told as far back as they can remember that those things were the adult topics of life. While the guardians in their life never noticed that they were failing to successfully hide adult realities of life from them, they began teaching them to never face anything head on, but rather force the world to bend so that you can feel everything is going to be okay. It is difficult to hide the fact that a marriage is falling apart when daddy goes to live somewhere else, and through all the silence on the topic, due to its adult nature, no child was unaffected. They simply shifted into an existence where they knew the truth but were never told. It is no wonder then, that young college students, never trusted with the real topics of life, chaperoned, protected, raised by daycare and technology, are begging to to be held just a little longer.

     While the average college student might push back claiming that it is the duty of education to make them feel safe and to teach unbiasedly those topics which are easily digested, they fail to realize the purpose of higher education. They are not sitting in a college classroom to learn more useless facts, but to be challenged, pushed to the edge of comfort, and to emerge stronger. To learn that there is immeasurable value in the opportunity to get close to their own ideas, and to hold on tighter when someone attempts to discredit them or take them away. This is often the time for the last steps in discovering one’s most authentic self before being bombarded with the struggles of life. It is now that we must let go of forced childhood, and all of the tendencies that come with it. Not to lose the beauty of childlike temperance and curiosity, but to grow up into independent critical thinkers who are ready for the varying degrees of difficulties that may come.

     When asked “Who, then, is to blame?” Gatto responds with a certain “we all are” he claims that the boredom created in the overly structured confinement of the classroom that results in the hindering of our growth into adulthood is something we all have the power to overcome (666). We need only recognize it as such, and learn our roles in the solution. Elementary students must learn to solve their own problem of boredom, college students must find solace in their own minds, teachers must learn to inspire not only teach, (and be allowed to do so without fear of offending) and parents must learn to show their children that they can never protect them from all challenges, only teach them how to withstand hardship when it comes. We may not have to redesign schools from the ground up, there may be a way to infiltrate from the inside by inspiring students to think for themselves, to become close to their own beliefs, take risks, examine and welcome opposition because they know the truth will withstand questioning. We must direct them inward, giving them access to a self-created space in which to find safety.

Works Cited:

Gatto, John Taylor. “Against School.” The Writer’s Presence A Pod of Readings. Edited        by Donald McQuade and Robert Atwan. 7th ed. Bedford/St. Marti 2012.

Haidt, Jonathan, and Greg Lukianoff. “How Trigger Warnings Are Hurting Mental  Health on Campus.” The Atlantic, September 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/. Accessed 4 Oct. 2016 

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