Scare tactics and school zones

Fifteen miles per hour is very, very slow, for a car.  It occurred to me that in as hurried a world as this one, it’s quite amazing that (most) drivers are willing to slow down their vehicles that much in order to avoid endangering children outside of a school.

Then yesterday I heard a story about something that happened inside a school – a teacher using the threat of humiliation to motivate a group of fourth grade students to memorize answers to the single-digit multiplication problems.

I know better than to be surprised by this kind of occurrence, but still I find myself astonished that a person who would choose teaching elementary school as a profession would also choose to frighten 9 year-olds for the sake of calculation.

But it’s really easy to make my assessment of the situation about bad choice/good choice, bad teacher/good teacher.  As long as we’re snarling about the bad choices and the bad teachers, we keep this kind of practice in place, just as if we left it to drivers to decide how quickly to proceed through a school zone, we’d be constantly complaining about the people who choose to speed.  It wouldn’t make the zone any safer.  The 15 mph zone was born of a cultural agreement that the physical safety of young children is worth drastic measures.  Such an understanding doesn’t make drivers or teachers less responsible for their own choices and actions.  It just creates an environment that encourages a certain kind of behavior.  (And I don’t think that most people slow down to 15 in a school zone because they don’t want to break the law.  I think they do it because they believe that if they don’t, they could hurt a child.)

It’s no longer acceptable for teachers in schools to physically strike children, and we’ll make sure kids don’t get hit by cars outside.  But it’s still acceptable for children to be threatened with humiliation or punishment in the name of learning.  Parents are not empowered to be as upset about any emotional or intellectual tolls that may be exacted on their children as they are if their children are physically hurt.  Recourse for non-physical injury is limited to complaining, hand-wringing, hoping a psychologist might be able to help.  But if a child is hit by a car, or otherwise physically injured, there’s hell to pay.  Why the bias?  Why are we willing to tolerate some kinds of injury and not others?

For one thing, we’re not convinced that there’s cause and effect involved when the injury is not physically apparent.  We don’t connect the dots between humiliation tactics in the elementary classroom and anxiety disorders outside the classroom.  We think people are just anxious or not anxious.  And we don’t attribute the disappearance of intellectual curiosity to the treatment of intellectual material in the elementary classroom.  We think kids just lose curiosity and motivation as they get older.  (Or we don’t ever notice that they ever had them, and we attribute kids’ lack of apparent intellectual prowess to genetics, as though people are just either smart or not.)

But even if we do recognize a connection between what happens in the classroom and a child’s emotional and intellectual health, we can’t see the toll taken.  Physical damage is visible; it’s right in your face, urgent and immediate.  The image of a child hit by a car is potent, terrifying.  What we can see is far more upsetting than what we can’t, but it’s not necessarily more costly. It’s just easier to tolerate an emotional or intellectual toll because we can’t see it.  (And kids know that they’re expected to conceal it, keep it quiet, so it only shows itself when it’s reached a fever pitch.)

I wonder what would happen if we could figure out how to quantify and visualize the potential cost of early distress in the emotional and intellectual realms.  What if, for example, you saw a picture of a child standing beside several years’ worth of anxiety medication?  Or side by side photographs of the same child wearing the clothing associated with two different professions; one a profession for which she’d need a steady diet of intellectual stimulation and support, free of fear tactics, and a second she’d be more likely to end up in after a young life spent avoiding anything that might make her look or feel stupid?

The emotional and intellectual equivalent of the 15 mile per hour zone is a long, long way from where we are now.  But if we’re to get there, it will be because we turn our attention from blaming the bad drivers – the teachers whose choices we don’t like – toward confronting the terrific toll taken by our cultural acceptance of the intentional frightening of children.