Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The End of Summer Vacation

I don't mean the calendar end, as much as the end of summer vacation itself; the end of giving kids 10 weeks off between academic years; the call for year-round schooling (and year-round social control).

It seems like everyone re-reads Tom Sawyer or Huck Finn during the summer. Ann Applebaum at WaPo has a great column today illustrating the medicalization of deviance, Labeling Theory in action, and why such characters are viewed so "suspiciously" by today's power-elite:

But try, if you can, to strip away the haze of nostalgia and sentiment through which we generally perceive Mark Twain's world, and imagine how a boy like Tom Sawyer would be regarded today. As far as I can tell, fight[ing] is not just "inappropriate behavior," to use current playground terminology, but is also one of the many symptoms of "oppositional defiant disorder" (ODD), a condition that Tom manifests throughout the book.

And Tom is not merely ODD: He clearly has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as well, judging by his inability to concentrate in school...In fact, Tom manifests many disturbing behaviors. He blames his half-brother for his poor decisions, demonstrating an inability to take responsibility for his actions. He provokes his peers, often using aggression. He deliberately ignores rules and demonstrates defiance toward adults. He is frequently dishonest, at one point even pretending to be dead. Worst of all, he skips school -- behavior that might, in time, lead him to be diagnosed with conduct disorder (CD), from which his friend Huck Finn clearly suffers.
Not just that, but arrested by the police. Police routinely arrest truants today, and schools increasingly mete out punishment in terms of suspension (which is basically rewarding them, if you think about it, but that's another post).
I have reread both "Tom Sawyer" and "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" several times in recent years, precisely because Twain draws such fascinating portraits of children whose behavior is familiar, even if we now describe it differently. As a mother of boys, I find this weirdly reassuring: Although ADHD and ODD are often dismissed as recently "invented" disorders, they describe personality types and traits that have always existed. A certain kind of boy has always had trouble paying attention in school. A certain kind of boy has always picked fights with friends, gone smoking in the woods and floated down the river on rafts.
Exactly. The only thing that has changed are the labels, and increasingly this means "medicalized" conditions by which pharmaceuticals, as a form of social control, are prescribed. And worse, there aren't any options for kids who don't "fit in" today.
Nothing like that is available to children who don't fit in today. Instead of striking out into the wilderness like Huck Finn, they get sent to psychologists and prescribed medication -- if they are lucky enough to have parents who can afford that sort of thing. Every effort will rightly be made to help them pay attention, listen to the teacher, stop picking fights in the playground. Nowadays, there aren't any other options.
It's all part of the unforgiving culture we subject children and adolescents to today; conform (and pass that standardized test) or be drugged into submission. And summer vacation, which most kids have either completed or are on the last days of, is also under assault as well.

Why? Because long-term research suggests that low income kids disproportionately suffer academically over the long run because of it.
Deprived of healthy stimulation, millions of low-income kids lose a significant amount of what they learn during the school year. Call it "summer learning loss," as the academics do, or "the summer slide," but by any name summer vacation is among the most pernicious, if least acknowledged, causes of achievement gaps in America's schools. Children with access to high-quality experiences keep exercising their minds and bodies at sleepaway camp, on family vacations, in museums and libraries and enrichment classes. Meanwhile, children without resources languish on street corners or in front of glowing screens. By the time the bell rings on a new school year, the poorer kids have fallen weeks, if not months, behind. And even well-off American students may be falling behind their peers around the world.
On the one hand, I find the fact that our public education system is still set up on an Agrarian calendar to be the height of absurdity. Child labor was needed during the summer for harvest, which is why most didn't go back until after Labor Day or even mid-September. In a post-industrial world and economy, it makes no sense to have 10-12 weeks off so kids can help in harvesting new Wii or Nintendo DS technologies.

On the other hand, what is summer if not an escape from the relentless, myopic, standardized test environment we've created in most public schools today? Would kids "slide" academically if we created options for lower income kids to attend the same kinds of "camps" middle and upper class kids attend? Has "the summer slide" become a euphemism for challenging the status quo? Fundamentally, isn't the point of summer to break away from the strict, rat-control psychology of educational social control?

Guess I just answered my own questions. No wonder summer vacation is under assault, and no wonder Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn would be viewed by today's psychiatric-industrial complex as ODD and in need of drug therapy. Quite simply, they're bad for business.

Will the last school kid out there who aspires to be an artist or critical thinker please turn off the lights on the way out?

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