Miseries of School: An Ongoing Anthology of Accounts, True and Fictitious

Extollager

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Oliver Twist!
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Jane Eyre!
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Wackford Squeers's academy, Dotheboys Hall!
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Gradgrind!
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C. S. Lewis's autobiography's account of "Belsen"! Maybe your own experience. The miseries of school.

C. T. Randall's thread on moral blind spots won't let go of me.

moral blind spots

Once you start trying to think about bad things of which our culture is oblivious or that our culture is more or less willing to shrug off, quite a few come to mind.

I got to thinking about school -- in the United States, that'd be kindergarten through twelfth grade. A person might start kindergarten at the age of 5 and have turned 18, or be nearly 18, when he or she graduates from high school.

This thread invites discussion of three related things:

(1)Personal narratives relating to one's own experiences, or the experiences of people one knows, relating to various forms of suffering encountered in school
(2)Nonfiction accounts of unhappiness in school from any time or place, as long as the word school is appropriate; thus, so as to keep this thread, already capacious, from being even more expansive, accounts of troubles inflicted by live-in tutors in the old days, etc. would not be appropriate
(3)Fictional accounts of unhappiness in school, e.g. from great Victorian novels, etc.


I'm starting from this, that it seems certain that a great deal of unhappiness is (still) experienced by some children in school, whether from individual bullies or gangs, unfair teachers, and so on. Children who begin school as reasonably cheerful little beings become fearful, or cruel, aggressive, dishonest, etc. after being in school. Some of them will cut themselves or even kill themselves.

It may be suggested that gathering a bunch of young people based simply on age and keeping them together in a compulsory situation is not going to work out well for some of them. I am more than a bit skeptical of the claims -- not so often trotted out now as 25 years ago? -- about the benefits of school for "socialization" even if its outcomes with regard to the attainment of knowledge were, admittedly, not so hot.

Yes, I realize that school is a refuge for some youngsters from bad families, and, for many, a place more or less passively accepted with good and not so good elements -- which is pretty much what it was for me, by the way. It's remarkable to me how much I don't seem to remember of school, considering how many hours I spent in school.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (2007-2008!), the average American student puts in almost seven hours a day, and 180 days, in school per year. That suggests, for grades 1-12, a total of 2,160 days, or 15,120 hours.

Obviously an institution like this is going to have a great impact on someone's life. "Like this" -- but what, in fact IS like school? Is anything like school?

Yet we think of it as natural or as a necessity, though compulsory school attendance such as this is, historically speaking, an abnormality.

Now, those hours will probably be divided up into various subjects, especially in later grades (the "platoon school"). The "lessons" of 19th-early 20th-century factories were applied to schools.

(I have only glanced at this item, but it appears to give much of the content of Education and the Cult of Efficiency, a book I read about 40 years ago:
Raymond Callahan: “Education and the Cult of Efficiency” – RE-EXAMINING EDUCATIONAL POLICY)

The point is that the structure of school is not necessarily based on attention to the way individuals learn and flourish. I am glad that homeschooling is available in all 50 states so that some children can benefit from it. Likely enough their parents are pretty well-educated as compared to their predecessors, at least as regards possession of post-high school education.)

We'll probably get glimpses of other places and times in nonfiction and fiction. I have some ideas myself for posting.

The above is some context. It's not the intention of this thread to get into lengthy discussions of educational policy -- please! What I hope to see is plentiful interesting anecdote and source-citing for the topic's three aspects as listed above.

If you present any personal information, be sure before posting that you are comfortable with it being publicly available.

It's fine if someone wants to start a thread for good things about teachers, education, etc. As a retired career teacher myself, I hope there are many people here who had really good school experiences.
 
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Extollager

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George Orwell, in "Such, Such Were the Joys," about St. Cyprian's:

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......the greatest outrage of all was the teaching of history.


There was in those days a piece of nonsense called the Harrow History Prize, an annual competition for which many preparatory schools entered. It was a tradition for St Cyprian's to win it every year, as well we might, for we had mugged up every paper that had been set since the competition started, and the supply of possible questions was not inexhaustible. They were the kind of stupid question that is answered by rapping out a name of quotation. Who plundered the Begams? Who was beheaded in an open boat? Who caught the Whigs bathing and ran away with their clothes? Almost all our historical teaching ran on this level. History was a series of unrelated, unintelligible but — in some way that was never explained to us — important facts with resounding phrases tied to them. Disraeli brought peace with honour. Clive was astonished at his moderation. Pitt called in the New World to redress the balance of the Old. And the dates, and the mnemonic devices. (Did you know, for example, that the initial letters of ‘A black Negress was my aunt: there's her house behind the barn’ are also the initial letters of the battles in the Wars of the Roses?) Flip, who ‘took’ the higher forms in history, revelled in this kind of thing. I recall positive orgies of dates, with the keener boys leaping up and down in their places in their eagerness to shout out the right answers, and at the same time not feeling the faintest interest in the meaning of the mysterious events they were naming.


‘1587’


‘Massacre of St Bartholomew!’


‘1707?’


‘Death of Aurangzeeb!’


‘1713?’


‘Treaty of Utrecht!’


‘1773?’


‘Boston Tea Party!’


‘1520?’


‘Oo, Mum, please, Mum—’


‘Please, Mum, please Mum! Let me tell him, Mum!’


‘Well! 1520?’


‘Field of the Cloth of Gold!’


And so on.


But history and such secondary subjects were not bad fun. It was in ‘classics’ that the real strain came. Looking back, I realize that I then worked harder than I have ever done since, and yet at the time it never seemed possible to made quite the effort that was demanded of one. We would sit round the long shiny table, made of some very pale-coloured hard wood, with Sambo goading, threatening, exhorting, sometimes joking, very occasionally praising, but always prodding, prodding away at one's mind to keep it up to the right pitch of concentration, as one keeps a sleepy person awake by sticking pins in him.


‘Go on, you little slacker! Go on, you idle, worthless little boy! The whole trouble with you is that you're bone and horn idle. You eat too much, that's why. You wolf down enormous meals, and then when you come here you're half asleep. Go on, now, put your back into it. You're not thinking. Your brain doesn't sweat.’


He would tap away at one's skull with his silver pencil, which, in my memory, seems to have been about the size of a banana, and which certainly was heavy enough to raise a bump: or he would pull the short hairs round one's ears, or, occasionally, reach out under the table and kick one's shin. On some days nothing seemed to go right, and then it would be ‘ All right, then, I know what you want. You've been asking for it the whole morning. Come along, you useless little slacker. Come into the study.’ And then whack, whack, whack, and back one would come, red-wealed and smarting — in later years Sambo had abandoned his riding-crop in favour of a thin rattan cane which hurt very much more — to settle down to work again. This did not happen very often, but I do remember, more than once, being led out of the room in the middle of a Latin sentence, receiving a beating and then going straight ahead with the same sentence, just like that. It is a mistake to think such methods do not work. They work very well for their special purpose. Indeed, I doubt whether classical education ever has been or can be successfully carried on without corporal punishment. The boys themselves believed in its efficacy. There was a boy named Beacham, with no brains to speak of, but evidently in acute need of a scholarship. Sambo was flogging him towards the goal as one might do with a foundered horse. He went up for a scholarship at Uppingham, came back with a consciousness of having done badly, and a day or two later received a severe beating for idleness. ‘I wish I'd had that caning before I went up for the exam,’ he said sadly — a remark which I felt to be contemptible, but which I perfectly well understood.
 
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Extollager

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Philip Hamerton's autobiography contains passages relating to cruelty to a pet dog at Doncaster School, I see. The author (1834-1894) was an essayist and art critic.

Philip Gilbert Hamerton
 

sknox

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I wonder: would you carry the critique into high school?

If so, would you carry it into college?

If so, would you carry it into graduate school?
 

Hugh

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Most of those who call the shots in the UK politically and economically have been through the British Boarding School System in which from the age of 8 (or younger) until 17, boys (and girls too) from well-off families would spend 8 months of the year in these institutions. Until relatively recently there was little room for visits in those eight months. The books below have attempted to provide insight into the psychological effect of this parental abandonment....

"The Making of Them" by Nick Duffell

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0953790401/?tag=brite-21

From the Publisher
Publisher and reviewer comments
"Nick Duffell's tender and ruthless analysis of the effect of boarding school life on girls and boys, both at the time and later in life, will strike many painful chords and unlock many painful memories. On almost every page one encounters a sentence, a quotation or an incident that prompts a mental, "Oh my God, yes!" This book should be read by everyone who was sent to boarding school, above all by those who barely survived the ordeal. " ( Angela Lambert, Former ITN reporter, columnist for The Independent, and Daily Mail, author of 8 books)
A remarkable new book which will be essential reading to anyone interested in the nature and culture of English, their education system, their attitude to children, and the psychological and social effects of sending their privileged sons and daughters away to boarding schools.

From the Author
Socio-historical and psychological reasons for UK boarding
At the dawn of the 21st century British society is still shaped by a private education system devised to gentrify the Victorian middle classes and produce gentlemen to run the Empire. Yet it is not on the political agenda. It is rarely the subject of public debate, and we remain blind to its psychological implications. Can we afford to go on ignoring this issue? Will we continue to sacrifice the welfare of our children to satisfy our antiquated social aspirations?
Why do the British still send their children away to boarding school? What are the attitudes underpinning this practice which mystifies foreigners? What does it mean for a child to be sent away from home and immediately have to survive in an unfamiliar custom-ridden world, without love, family life or privacy? Will it be the making of him, or will it be a trauma from which he may never recover?
In this thought-provoking book psychotherapist and ex-boarder Nick Duffell reveals the bewildering dilemmas confronting the boarding school child, and discovers a dark secret at the heart of the British psyche. Drawing on more than a decade of working with Boarding School Survivors, he describes the process towards living beyond strategic survival, and offers pointers towards a philosophy of education which honours the needs and the intelligence of the natural child.
 

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Hugh

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And here's the other one:

"Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege" by Nick Duffell

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1138788716/?tag=brite-21

Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege discusses how ex-boarders can be amongst the most challenging clients for therapists; even experienced therapists may unwittingly struggle to skilfully address the needs of this client group. It looks at the effect on adults of being sent away to board in childhood and the problems associated with boarding, which have only recently been acknowledged by mainstream mental health professionals.

This practice-based book is illustrated by case studies, diagrams and exercises and is divided into three parts: ‘Recognition; Acceptance; Change’. It aims to help readers understand the emotional processes of boarding and the psychological aspects of survival, outlining the steps toward recovery and the repercussions of survival. The book also explores how ex-boarders frequently struggle with intimate relationships with spouses and partners and offers interventions and strategies for those working with ex-boarder clients.

Trauma, Abandonment and Privilege will be of interest to therapists, counsellors and mental health workers across the UK. It will also be relevant to those who are well acquainted with boarding schools based on the UK model, for example in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and India.
 

Extollager

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I wonder: would you carry the critique into high school?

If so, would you carry it into college?

If so, would you carry it into graduate school?
I'd stick with kindergarten through high school, since grades 1-12 (in the US) are customary. The school-leaving age here is 17, which I suppose means, more or less, that attendance is compulsory through the junior year of high school.

School-leaving age - Wikipedia

I would prefer that this thread, already pretty expansive, omit post-secondary school education, which isn't compulsory.

By "compulsory," I mean that the state maintains its right to keep the child in its own schools or private schools. (The states do permit home education, which is not a topic for this thread. In not a few cases, children are educated at home because of problems such as this thread has identified and will identify.)
 

Extollager

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Hugh, I will ask my university library to buy at least one of those Duffell books.
 

Edward M. Grant

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The point is that the structure of school is not necessarily based on attention to the way individuals learn and flourish.
It was never meant to be. In most Western countries, the government school system is based on the Prussian system whose main goal was to produce large numbers of compliant drones for the factories and military, and a smaller number of less-dumbed-down managers and officers to tell those drones what to do.

It's an indoctrination system, not an education system. It actively harms smart kids, and does little to help dumb kids. If it benefits anyone, it's the midwits who are smart enough to learn some things but not smart enough to teach themselves.
 

sknox

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Got it. The key variable here is compulsion. I have to agree that *any* system of compulsion is necessarily going to be repressive and have some unfortunate consequences for its victims.

Which makes "stay in school!" a curious imperative.
 

Edward M. Grant

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You don't have to force kids to learn. They're naturally curious and inquisitive. If schools were actually teaching kids useful things, they'd want to go there, not to get away.

You do have to force kids to sit in a classroom and be indoctrinated. None of them want to do that.

Either way, government schools have a very short lifespan. One way or another, they'll be gone in twenty years.
 

Extollager

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Edward, thanks for your comments. The present thread should develop primarily for discussion of the what rather than the why -- in other words, it's primarily for accounts of experiences of schooling past and present, real-world or fictional. Discussing why educational systems do what they do might swamp this thread at the expense of the more (auto)biographical and literary accounts. I hope you don't mind my making this suggestion. I'm going to start a separate thread for the why.

Here it is:

Why Is School the Way It Is?
 
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nixie

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My worst moment at school: I was 8 years old, the teacher decided the majority of the class had mastered writing with a ballpoint (the three lefties hadn't) time to move on to a fountain pen. Disaster for me, completely indecipherable blue blots all over the page, left hand covered in ink, the other two had the same result. The teacher said we had deliberately sabotaged our work and brought out the belt (long leathered strap) and gave us the strap 3 on each hand, not gentle taps, both hands covered in blisters. Mum went up to school next day, I had two weeks off and never went back into her class, a friend told me my mum was asked to leave after threatening to wrap the belt round said teacher's neck.

By the time I went to secondary school corporal punishment was being phased out, banned by the time I was in third year.
When I see people petitioning to bring it back, it sends shudders through me, some teachers were complete sadists and I hope it is never brought back.
 

sknox

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>You don't have to force kids to learn. They're naturally curious and inquisitive.
Curiosity and inquisitiveness is not the same thing as learning. Any master electrician training an apprentice will vouch for that.

>If schools were actually teaching kids useful things, they'd want to go there, not to get away.
Children tend not to be real big on utility. And the things they find useful are often transient. Let the kids follow their head and we'd have a nation of Minecraft experts.

Yes there are bad teachers, but one must surely grant the reverse: there are also good teachers. And there are a great many teachers who are good for a while then just mediocre or get plain burned out. School is not a single thing.

The phrase is "mass compulsory education" and people tend to focus on the middle word, but that first word is also a problem. It assumes first that *everyone* can be educated equally and at the same time with the same material. But the more egregious error is the assumption that there will be enough good teachers to teach millions of children. There won't and there isn't.

Teaching is a rare skill. When you require everyone be educated, the immediate corollary is that some will be taught badly. A further corollary is that any given teacher for any random classroom will be fine for some of the students, terrible for a few, and be remembered fondly by others.

This is why all attempts at institutional reforms fail. Teaching is a gift and we don't have enough gifted. You can establish curricula, increase pay, shrink class size, but that one fact is irreducible. Happily, education is not formulaic. Just as good people can come from bad parents, so can good students come from bad schools. It happens all the time. Even more good students come from mediocre schools. In the end, it's more about the student as an individual human being than it is about institutions or even about teachers.
 

Dave

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In the end, it's more about the student as an individual human being than it is about institutions or even about teachers.
An excellent teacher, thriving in an excellent institution, will recognise what motivates that individual human being, their potential and their limitations. They can then use their knowledge of the wide range of different learning techniques, and use the most appropriate to that pupil.

However, when teaching is instead governed by the ideology of political masters, and a regimented and narrow national curriculum is set, then that teacher's hands are tied to use only those techniques and that curriculum which is currently deemed to be fashionable.
 

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