What about socialization?

The prison-like social dynamics of school

In the articles I wrote previously, I showed how inefficient and often counterproductive the school system is in its operations as an institute for learning. But this time, I want to address something that’s arguably even worse, namely the terrible social dynamics around schools; and their detrimental effects on the development of young minds.

Fear

Let’s start with the elephant in the (class)room, namely the uncomfortable truth that hundreds of thousands of kids actually fear for their physical safety, every day they go to school. Schools are the only institutions in society, other than prisons, where you’re likely to be physically attacked by the other inmates if you don’t conform to their social norms.

We all know how it works, too. Occasionally doing something that the other kids consider weird, is guaranteed to result in ridicule and insults. That’s a given and most of us have experienced that first hand.

But consistently not fitting in, being branded the weird kid in school, means becoming the target of choice for bullying. And in that case you may also get stolen from, spit on, pushed, shoved, hit, scratched, tripped up, or even beaten up on a regular basis, in addition to being ostracized. Because of this, many school kids live in constant fear of this happening to them.

Let that sink in for a moment. Truly appreciating the severity of this fact and its implications should be enough to make any sane person extremely uncomfortable. But the reality is that this is not news to anybody. Which is why it’s incredibly odd that this problem is not higher on the political agenda.

Physical safety

You would think that the physical safety of our kids would be our number one priority, wherever they go. And usually, that is very much the case. In other parts of society, we do just about everything in our power to make sure our kids are as safe as possible.

We spend tons of resources on technological innovations that make our kids just that little bit safer. A nice illustration of this can be found in the progression of kids’ car seats since the 1950’s:

Kids’ car seats have gotten quite a lot safer.

As you can see, kids’ car seats have gotten a lot safer over the years. Schools, however, have not. Bullying is still as prevalent as ever. About 1 in 3 kids report getting bullied and 2 out of 3 have personally witnessed someone else being bullied at some point during the school year.

So our kids spend the bulk of their time in institutions where they are more likely than not, to experience aggressive behavior first-hand, demonstrating to them that the pressure to conform to social norms is substantiated by an ever-present threat of violence.

We would never accept this from any other place. No matter how great it looks from the outside, we would never consider sending our kids to a place where a reasonable standard of physical safety could not be guaranteed. Not once, let alone every day. So why do schools get a pass?

Maybe we think that it won’t happen to our kids. Maybe we went through the school system ourselves and we consider this element of it a rite of passage; a necessary part to a kid’s development because “they have to learn how to stand up for themselves”.

Fighting the bully

Some parents even make their bullied kid take martial arts classes, like karate or kick-boxing, using the same rhetoric: “they have to learn how to stand up for themselves”.

By the rhetoric, you would think that we were talking about a shy kid taking lessons in assertiveness. While in reality, of course, these parents are trying to make their kids comfortable with exercising violence so they can physically defend themselves in the schools they are forced to attend every day. It’s tragic that this is seen as a solution.

Most parents will never even find out that their kids are bullied, though. Kids don’t tell their parents, because they know there is nothing to be gained from that.

Why would kids tell their parents that they’re being bullied? What good would that do? If the parent goes and talks to the principal or confronts the bully directly, that won’t do much. The bullying won’t stop. In fact, it’s likely to get worse. The victim will be ridiculed for ‘crying to’ his parents, which is seen as pathetic, as ultimate defeat.There really is no scenario where telling the parents will end well for the kid, unless the parents end up pulling him or her out of school, and that is very unlikely to happen.

Because of this, parents are almost complicit in the bullying, in the kid’s mind. After all, they are the ones who force him to be in this environment every day in the first place, ensuring that the bullying can continue.

Social dynamics

The life-lasting, detrimental effects of bullying have been well-documented, so there is no need to repeat those here. But besides the direct effects of bullying on the victim, there are also indirect effects on everybody else that are almost never talked about. One of those effects is that the fear of being bullied or ostracized creates a social dynamic that is centered around conformity.

Almost all of school age kids’ behavior revolves around trying to fit in. And the reason for that is, that you have to work to not make yourself an easy target, if you want to avoid being bullied or socially ostracized. Fitting in is essential to achieving this goal.

After all, the weird kids are the ones that get picked on, so conforming to the group, doing what they do, talking the way they talk and trying to not stand out in any way that would be considered uncool, is the safest way to go. So conformity becomes one of the driving forces in a kid’s life. Most kids eventually even gang up into ‘cliques’ for social protection, making the parallels with life in prison even more obvious.

But mom, all the other kids…

A good illustration of this school-induced obsession with conformity can be observed when kids try to use the argument “but all the other kids have/do it” to get their parents to let them have or do something. Parents usually scoff at this argument, because they think it’s ridiculous. They admonish their kids: “Never just blindly follow the group, you have to be your own person”.

This is easy for the parents to say, because they live in the real world, where thinking for yourself is considered a virtue; and there is not such a high price to pay for being the odd one out.

For kids, however, this is not the case. They spend most of their days in a place where being the odd one out severely diminishes your quality of life, because you open yourself up to being picked on, laughed at, humiliated, ostracized, stolen from or even physically hurt. To them, the fact that all the other kids do something, is the most convincing of all arguments.

So kids will go to great lengths to fit in and to not be considered uncool. Lots of things are required to achieve that goal: having cool clothes, having lots of friends, physical attractiveness, athletic achievement and sometimes even acquiring some ‘street cred’ by committing an act of defiance, demonstrating your courage and coolness .

You know what’s not on that list, though? Academic achievement. Because there are few things as profoundly uncool as obeying the teachers, studying hard and getting straight A’s. In fact, it’s more likely to make you a target for bullying, so don’t be surprised if your kid is slacking.

It’s ironic how we send our kids to school, expecting them to learn critical thinking, self-expression and courageously standing up for their beliefs and opinions, while the only behavior that is actually enforced by school’s social dynamics is the opposite: conformity.

Solutions

It would be easy to read about all these problems, only to sigh and think that there is little that can be done about them because these social dynamics are just part of the natural state of things. Like this is how social interactions between young people always have to go. Nothing could be further from the truth.

School is about as far from the natural state of things as anything could possibly get. Rounding up all the kids in a particular area, taking them away from their families, segregating them by age and forcing them in a classroom against their will, where they will be isolated from the rest of the world and made to sit still and memorize trivial facts they don’t care about for 12 years straight… None of that is natural in any way.

The whole reason adult social dynamics are so very different from the social dynamics observed in schools, is that, as adults, our interactions are all voluntary. If we don’t like the way people treat us in our neighborhood, at our jobs, at our sports clubs, at church or at the grocery store, we are free to leave. And we will. We don’t have to settle for whatever toxic environment we find ourselves in, but rather we can seek out places we like to be and where people like us. Go where you’re celebrated, not merely tolerated; is a commonly heard advice among adults.

This advice is completely meaningless for kids, though. They are forced to attend schools and whether or not they like being there does not seem to matter much to anybody at all. They are not free to leave this toxic environment and go where they’re celebrated. They are just going to have to cope.

The freedom to leave is the greatest and most elemental of all freedoms. It’s what makes free markets work, because your freedom to leave keeps businesses on their toes. It’s what makes relationships work, because your freedom to leave makes sure people won’t abuse you. Yet kids are denied this elemental freedom every day. Whether they love it (doubtful) or hate it (most likely), they will be sent to school every day for 12 years straight.

And this is why the social interactions in schools are so similar to the social interactions you find in that other institution where you’re not allowed to leave: prison. Turns out forced association is not a great basis for pleasant and constructive social interactions.

In conclusion: school is a completely artificially created environment that by its very nature is conducive to bullying. Seeing that it’s also a terrible preparation for the real world, there really is no reason to keep using this archaic institution any longer. It is high time to start vacating the school system. Learn how in one of my previous articles, where I discuss 3 superior alternatives to school.