This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming book on discrimination against youth. It introduces the topic of adultism, which is bias towards adults, and what it looks like in schools.
Adultism is the reason schools exist. When children and youth packed factories, farm fields, mines, and service jobs around the western world in the late 19th century, many adults could not find jobs. This caused adults to rally against child labor and for public schools. A lot of adults said they wanted to end children ending up on the streets without an “occupation”- especially after newspapers reported that was the case. Schools suddenly became popular as places where young people could have productive experiences throughout the day. In the early 20th century they were made compulsory in many Western nations. Moving children from compulsory labor occupations into compulsory learning occupations without their input, ideas, or contributions in any way paved the way to the state of education today. That was just the first effect of adultism in schools.
Around the world, corporal punishment is legal in schools. Corporal punishment is any physical punishment administered to students. This includes spanking, slapping, smacking, pulling ears, pinching, shaking, hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords, slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles. Corporal punishment also means forcing a child to stand for a long time or forcing a child to stay in an uncomfortable position. It can mean forcing a child to stand motionless or forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones. Corporal punishment can also mean forcing a child to retain body wastes; forcing a child to perform strenuous exercise, or; forcing a child to ingest soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice. In schools where students received corporal punishment, students often have no format to appeal such punishment. They frequently do not have the ability to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the claims made against them, and they may not have the ability to raise concerns over the severity of the punishment being administered for their presumed violations.
Corporal punishment is one of the most obvious physical impacts of adultism, but it is not the only one. One hundred years ago, because of the influence of Italian educator Maria Montessori, educators began paying attention to the physical apparatuses young people were expected to learn with. Their desks got lower, the chalkboards were holdable, and drinking foundations were built at their height. These types of accommodation ended where young people were expected to stop interacting with adults. School board meeting rooms were built for adults; school counselor offices were built for adults; cafeteria food preparation areas were built for adults. Even in high schools students are expected to be "of average adult height" in order to operate learning instruments such as microscopes, computers, and other devices. Research suggests that within in school students comprise an average of 93% of the human population, with adults accounting for the other seven percent. There is an awful lot of accommodation of that seven percent!
Adultism is apparent when large numbers of young people of any age are not allowed to congregate, cooperate and coordinate. Schools today are rooted in age segregation that disallows young people from socially and educationally interacting with each other. With few formal opportunities to socialize, young people may learn to distrust their peers and seek the approval of adults only. Some adults in schools lose the ability to distinguish between conspiracy and community, and they make continuous efforts to keep students from interacting with each other in schools.
Adultism drives adult behavior throughout schools, as well as a lot of student behavior. Teaching styles frequently represent adults’ values and skills rather than young peoples’ perspectives and capabilities. Adults determine what is valuable for students to learn and how young people need to demonstrate their learning. They enforce inequities between students and teachers in everyday behavior, too: When teachers yell at students, they are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating unsafe learning environments. Ultimately, students in schools are subjected to their parents’ and their teachers’ assessments of their performance in the classroom, and have no formal input into grading or graduations. Searching for adult approval in order to receive the most praise or achieve the best grades, students routinely appease adults with sufficient class work without actually engaging in the content being taught. They find solidarity with the adults who control their classrooms while betraying the trust of their peers as they tattle and compare each other.
Finally, and perhaps ultimately, adultism undermines the very purpose of educating students in schools. Student engagement has been shown to directly affect academic achievement. When students experience adultism, their engagement is severely affected in negative ways, no matter the environment. Classroom management, learning activities and student discipline are all affected by adultism, in all grade levels. In response to all of the bias towards adults throughout their educations, some young people completely acquiesce to adult expectations. Others completely abandon or apparently rebel against these expectations by routinely performing lowly in school through behavior or academic achievement, and through dropping out. Dropping out of school is the ultimate impact of adultism in schools.
In addition to those such as Montessori, who was almost uniquely oriented against adultism in schools, educators have rallied against adultism in schools without naming it as such for more than a hundred years. Massively influential, thought often misunderstood, American school philosopher John Dewey constantly promoted a curriculum for schools that was footed in student realities instead of adult conveniences. He once wrote, "Nature wants children to be children before they are men... Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them." This situates him squarely on the side of anti-adultist teachers. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose theories on teaching oppressed people continue to inform school change, justly sought authentic learning for students, too. His attitude could be summarized by his singular belief that, "the educator for liberation has to stop thinking they are the unilateral educator of the educatees." This positions the student as the holder and determiner of learning, and that is anti-adultist. While some theories address students' roles indirectly, and others head-on push against the overbearing domination of adults, in schools, all are valuable as allies in this struggle.
It is because of all these realities that adultism makes schools today ineffective in every way.
Is there anything you'd add, take away, criticize, or expand on? I'd love to hear your thoughts!
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