Are our schools churning out crops of tidy Stepford kids?

Posted Wednesday, Sep. 04, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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A powerful essay by Elizabeth Weil in the New Republic posits that “American Schools Are Failing Nonconformist Kids.”

Weil examines the growing role that “emotional regulation” — an educational tool pioneered by the KIPP charter school network and also known as self-regulation, grit, motivation, discipline — is playing in classroom management, as teachers try to keep order and foster learning.

The new ideal student, she says, is a compliant “good citizen” who keeps her head down and who “doesn’t externalize problems or talk too much or challenge the rules too frequently or move around excessively or complain about the curriculum or have passionate outbursts.”

Rather than following external cues, scholar 2.0 has an inner compass keeping her on the straight and narrow. If she strays, some internal malfunction has occurred — one requiring therapy, tutoring or medication.

So a disobedient kid isn’t just playing the outlaw, Ferris Bueller-style; she’s somehow broken, damaged.

To build a case around the rise of the Stepford kid and the denigration of the maverick, Weil points to the popularity of education books like Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, which names quiet tenacity as the key to flourishing.

She also points to the escalating diagnoses of ADHD and sensory-processing disorder, which perhaps lead educators to cordon off those who don’t meet strict behavioral expectations.

She recounts her own experience at a parent-teacher conference, when a second-grade teacher recommended occupational therapy because her daughter “was not gently going along with the sit-still, raise-your-hand-to-speak-during-circle-time program.”

“Have you disciplined her?” Weil’s husband asked.

After the teacher replied that he hadn’t, Weil “began to realize we’d crossed some weird threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them.”

You might think that sparing the rod (or whatever the contemporary equivalent is: not confiscating the iPhone, maybe) would at least create a free, exploratory space — a place where kids could experiment with different identities.

But if they are told in the same breath that unruliness is a psychic shortcoming, one they need an adult’s help to address, the pressure to blend in actually grows.

Weil suggests that the desire to fashion kids into self-regulating machines reflects adult fears that our own lives are out of control. (We’re awash in temptations, she argues, including the siren calls of technology and cheap, tasty food.)

Add to that the breakdown of traditional modes of punishment. Since the students’ rights revolution of the mid-1970s, teachers who take hard-line tactics with wayward kids live in fear of the retort: “My dad’s gonna sue.”

Sweet, Rousseau-like theories about children’s natural goodness uncomfortably shift the blame for misbehavior onto the school and curriculum — not a popular angle with teachers.

So that leaves internal discipline. Give kids a skill set that allows them to regulate themselves. Interpret mischief as psychological defect. Therapize and medicate as needed.

I’m not advocating that we coddle disruptive kids. But I do wish authority figures would take the time to remind us that life isn’t only — only — about buckling down and getting things done. It is also about passion and inspiration, two untrammeled furies that resist a lot of self-regulation.

Katy Waldman is a Slate assistant editor.

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