If the Dunce Cap Fits
As our country examines and hopefully dismantles systems of oppression, education needs to pay attention.
The dunce cap, in its first use, was designed to help students focus. There was a sincere belief that it could cure the underachiever. Over time, teachers used the dunce cap as an assignation of shame and to motivate students, because, you know, humiliation is a great motivator. So what's a dunce? In the OED, dunce is defined as both "one who shows no capacity for learning" and "one whose study of books has left him dull and stupid." As it turns out, the dunce cap may have been a useful invention but merely placed upon the wrong head. Making kids dull has been a primary function in education's long and inglorious history.
“In Adam’s fall, we sinned all” is how the first textbook, The New-England Primer, introduced the letter ‘A’ to young learners. Published in 1688 and apparently inspired by God’s wrath, obedience is the primer’s point and purpose. Each of the twenty six letters of the alphabet are accompanied by a biblical admonishment. In an efficient two-for-one, teachers could instill both literacy and oppression. If a student wasn’t sufficiently warned into submission by letter ‘J’—“Job feels the rod, yet blesses God”—surely the most rebellious youth would submit by the letter ‘Y’ with this festive offering: “While Youth do cheer, death may be near”. In the modern world where texts can be muddy about their intent, this primer is clear. “Repeat after me” and “Do as I say.” Things aren't much better today.
Children and schools are at odds with each other. Children are by nature divergent thinkers; and yet, schools demand convergent thinking. Every student must learn the same "common core" at the same speed for no real purpose anyone has made abundantly clear—least of all to the students. More "advanced" students can take "advanced" courses that have a similarly dulling effect. Mind numbing textbooks and rote learning cow children into submission; and then to add insult to injury, we rank them by test scores (authored by for-profit companies) that are more closely correlated with family income than student intelligence, ability, or potential.
Please note that my indictment of education is not an indictment of teachers any more than defunding police departments is a wholesale indictment of police; but when something is broken, we should fix it. Teachers have little to no autonomy to create authentic learning experiences, which makes their tireless commitment to their students even more remarkable. With an anchor tied to their waists, teachers manage to stay afloat for the sake of our children.
When schools talk about "at risk" students, they think they're only talking about black, brown, and poor. In truth, all students are "at risk" who remain in schools that repress their spirits and dull their intellects. Rural, urban, and suburban students are all at risk. Education is oppressive and needs to look in the mirror and have a very difficult and overdue conversation with itself. I'll throw out the first question: Are we nurturing systems or are we nurturing children?
Markus Hunt is an educator, writer, speaker, and musician living in Aurora, Colorado.