Category Archives: Students

Are Charter Schools An “Innovation”?

Charter school supporters and promoters never tire of repeating the banality that “charter schools are an innovation.”

“Innovation” has become one of many hackneyed buzzwords in the neoliberal lexicon. Everyone is under intense pressure to blindly embrace “innovation” at full velocity, no matter how irresponsible.

Other closely-related and worn-out neoliberal catchwords include: “data-driven,” “results-oriented,” “performance-based,” “competition,” “choice,” “efficiency,” and “accountability.” Ludicrous phrases like “systems leader” are also appearing on the neoliberal scene.

Not surprisingly, the neoliberal world has become a comi-tragedy, a joke, a cynical dystopia saturated with dysfunction and irrationalism of all sorts; everything is upside down and incoherent, causing many to experience mental, emotional, and physical problems.

Neoliberalism offers only a bleak scenario for society, something no amount of voting in an outmoded and discredited political system can change. The only thing the two-party system of the rich has achieved effectively over the years is preventing progress that favors the people. Progress will again be a casualty in the November 2018 elections.

While they are constantly cast as an “innovation,” charter schools are nothing more than pay-the-rich schemes that are multiplying with each passing year. They are “innovative” only in the sense that they reject evidence more than others and have invented new forms of fraud, corruption, and racketeering that go beyond what any other sector has seen. Not a day goes by without an arrest or scandal in one or more of the nation’s 7,000 charter schools, which make up less than 8% of all schools in the U.S. It is not surprising that hundreds of deunionized and deregulated charter schools close each year, leaving many families angry, stressed, and abandoned.

For 25 years, these privately-managed “schools” which annually transfer billions of dollars in public funds to major owners of capital, have had nothing to do with “saving the kids,” “providing choices,” “improving schools,” or closing the 170-year old “achievement gap.” Their track record is consistently substandard and controversial. Charter school supporters and promoters are constantly on the defensive.

The main thing that charter schools have done is make major owners of capital much wealthier at the expense of the public interest. A vast amount of money has been taken out of the economy and handed over to a handful of wealthy individuals through the mechanism of charter schools, which are really contract schools; i.e., a form of outsourced education. Taking money out of the economy and further concentrating it in the hands of wealthy private interests makes it harder for society and the economy to function in a manner that serves the general interests of society. It undermines the future of society because it deprives society of the socially-produced wealth germane to extended reproduction.

Charter schools should be rejected with all the contempt they deserve. They are parasitic economic arrangements that have emerged in the context of a continually failing economy and discredited political system. Far from solving any problems, they have only created more problems. They are not a progressive breakthrough. They are not about “the kids.” “Innovation” in the neoliberal period means imposing more capital-centered arrangements on people. It has nothing to do with opening the path of progress to society.

Political Graffiti Exposing Anti-Palestinian Racism

Supporters of a private Toronto school that publicly promotes racism against Palestinians, flies an Israeli flag and then complains of “anti-Semitism” when pro-Palestinian graffiti is scrawled on its walls should give their heads a shake.

The Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center and B’nai Brith labeled messages scrawled on Leo Baeck Day School “hateful” and “anti-Semitic”, but fair-minded individuals should be more concerned with the hatred taught inside the school.

Recently someone wrote “Free Palestine” and “Long Live Palestine” on the school’s sign and flagpole.  On a picture of a rally with Israeli flags at or near Leo Baeck (reports differ) someone wrote “Long Life [sic] to the Hamas.”

Saying it received a call to its “Anti-Hate Hotline”, B’nai Brith claimed the school was “defaced with antisemitic epithets”. FSWC and CIJA also put out statements denouncing “hatred”. A number of city councillors and MPs repeated their message with Mayor John Tory writing, “there is no place for hate” in Toronto.

But none of these groups or politicians mentioned the hate taught inside the school itself.

Leo Baeck is a bastion of indoctrination and activism that meets most of the criteria of anti-Palestinian racism, as defined by the UK’s Jewish Voice for Labour.

An Israeli flag flies in front of the school and its publicity says it “instills” a “love of Israel” and “a deep and meaningful connection to … the State of Israel” among students.The school has an Israel Engagement Committee and in 2012 it received United Jewish Appeal Toronto’s inaugural Israel Engagement Community Award. That same year the Israeli Consul General in Toronto, DJ Schneiweiss, attended the launch of a new campus at Leo Baeck.

A 2012 Canadian Jewish News article titled “Leo Baeck adopts more Israel-centric curriculum” quoted the head of the school saying “one of the reasons people choose our school is a commitment to the State of Israel.” But, principal Eric Petersie told the paper, graduates felt unprepared to respond to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement on university campuses so the school increased its Israeli teachings.

Leo Baeck was the first school to join UJA Federation Toronto’s shinshinim (emissary) program, which began in 2007. Partly funded by the Jewish Agency for Israel, the program sends young Israelis to interact with Canadian students and staff. Last year the school hosted Idan Aharon and Roni Alkalay for three days a week. According to the Canadian Jewish News, “one of the ways Leo Baeck and the Young Emissary Program ensure that students understand the realities of Israel is by re-introducing the previous year’s shinshinim to students by way of live video chat from their Israel Defence Forces barracks dressed in their military uniforms.”

The school promotes the Israeli military in other ways. Last year’s Grade 8 class organized a school-wide fundraiser to support Beit Halochem Canada/Aid to Disabled Veterans of Israel and a choir “paid tribute to Israel’s fallen heroes.”

In another crude form of anti-Palestinianism, Leo Baeck works with the explicitly racist Jewish National Fund, which excludes the 20-25% of non-Jewish Israelis from its vast landholdings mostly stolen from Palestinians in 1948. Some “students took  virtual walk across Israel in school thanks to JNF map and guidance”, noted a 2015 tweet.  But, the JNF map shown to the nine and ten-year-olds encompasses the illegally occupied West Bank and Gaza, effectively denying Palestinians the right to a state on even 22 percent of their historic homeland. In all likelihood, Leo Baeck works with JNF Canada’s Education Department, which has produced puzzles and board games to convince young minds of its colonialist worldview, and organizes celebrations of JNF day at Jewish schools.

While B’nai Brith, FSWC and CIJA’s statements on the graffiti present the school as sacrosanct, apolitical terrain, they didn’t object when a politician used it as a backdrop to express their anti-Palestinian bonafides. During a 2012 tour of Leo Baeck then Liberal  party leadership contender Justin Trudeau criticized Iran, celebrated Israel and distanced himself from his brother Alexandre’s support for Palestinians.

Over the past year the Canadian Jewish News has published at least three stories about the growing attention devoted to Israel education at Jewish schools. A 2017 cover story titled “What to teach Jewish students about Israel?” detailed the growing importance given to classes on Israel at Jewish day schools. While students have long been “taught from a young age to see Israel as the land of milk and honey”, in recent years Jewish day schools have ramped up their indoctrination in reaction to “anti-Israel student groups on campuses throughout North America.”

When a school engages in partisan political activity in support of a foreign country, when it supports racism and intolerance against an oppressed people, when it indoctrinates children in these views, surely it cannot be surprised that some would be upset, and might illustrate their displeasure.

One can debate the merits of writing political graffiti on school grounds, but what news reports described was certainly not anti-Semitic.

“A Cruel Choice”: Why Israel Targets Palestinian Schools

Several Palestinian students, along with teachers and officials, were wounded in the Israeli army attack on a school south of Nablus in the West Bank on October 15. The students of Al- Sawiya Al-Lebban Mixed School were challenging an Israeli military order to shut down their school based on the ever-versatile accusation of the school being a “site of popular terror and rioting.”

“Popular terror,” is an Israeli army code for protests. The students, of course, have every right to protest, not just the Israeli military Occupation but also the encroaching colonization of the settlements of Alie and Ma’ale Levona. These two illegal Jewish settlements have unlawfully confiscated thousands of dunams of land belonging to the villages of As-Sawiya and Al-Lebban.

“The Israeli citizens”, that the Occupation army is set to protect by shutting down the school, are, in fact, the very armed Jewish settlers who have been terrorizing this West Bank region for years.

According to a 2016 study commissioned by the United Nations, at least 2,500 Palestinian students from 35 West Bank communities must cross through Israeli military checkpoints to reach their schools every day. About half of these students have reported army harassment and violence for merely attempting to get to their classes or back home.

However, this is only half of the story, as violent Jewish settlers are always on the lookout for Palestinian kids. These settlers, who “also set up their own checkpoints”, engage in regular violence as well, by “throwing stones” at children, or “physically pushing (Palestinian children) around.”

“UNICEF’s protective presence teams have reported that their volunteers have been subjected to physical attacks, harassment, arrest and detention, and death threats,” according to the same UN report.

In other words, even the ‘protectors’ themselves often fall victim to the army and Jewish settler terror tactics.

Add to this that Area C – a major part of the West Bank that is under full Israeli military control – represents the pinnacle of Palestinian suffering. An estimated 50,000 children face numerous hurdles, including the lack of facilities, access, violence, closure and unjustified demolition orders.

The school of Al Sawiya Al Lebban located in Area C is, therefore, under the total mercy of the Israeli military, which has no tolerance for any form of resistance, including non-violent popular protests by school children.

What is truly uplifting, however, is that, despite the Israeli military Occupation and ongoing restrictions on Palestinian freedom, the Palestinian population remains one of the most educated in the Middle East.

According to the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the literacy rate in Palestine (estimated at 96.3%) is one of the highest in the Middle East and the illiteracy rate (3.7% among individuals over the age of 15) is one of the lowest in the world.

If these statistics are not heartening enough, bearing in mind the ongoing Israeli war on Palestinian school and curricula, consider this: the besieged and war-stricken Gaza Strip has an even higher literacy rate than the West Bank, as they both stand at 96.6% and 96% respectively.

In truth, this should not come as a total surprise. The first wave of Palestinian refugees that were ethnically-cleansed from historic Palestine were so keen on ensuring their children strive to continue their education, they established school tents, operated by volunteer teachers as early as 1948.

Palestinians understand well that education is their greatest weapon to obtain their long-denied freedom. Israel, too, is aware of this dichotomy, knowing that an empowered Palestinian population is far more capable of challenging Israeli dominance than a subdued one, thus the relentless and systematic targeting of the Palestinian educational system.

Israel’s strategy in destroying the infrastructure of Palestinian schooling system is centered on the allegation of ‘terror’: that is, Palestinians teach ‘terror’ in their schools; Palestinian school books celebrate ‘terrorists’; schools are sites for ‘popular terror’ and various other accusations that, per Israeli logic, compels the army to seal off schools, demolish facilities, arrest and shoot students.

Take, for example, the recent comments made by the Israeli mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, who is now leading a government campaign aimed at shutting down operations by the UN organization that caters for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA.

“It is time to remove UNRWA from Jerusalem,” Barkat announced early October.

Without any evidence whatsoever, Barkat claimed that “UNRWA is strengthening terror,” and that “the children of Jerusalem are taught under their auspices, terror, and this must be stopped.”

Of course, Barkat is being dishonest. The jibe at UNRWA in Jerusalem is part of a larger Israeli-US campaign aimed at shutting down an organization that proved central to the status and welfare of Palestinian refugees.

According to this skewed thinking, without UNRWA, Palestinian refugees would have no legal platform, thus closing down UNRWA is closing down the chapter of Palestinian refugees and their Right of Return altogether.

The link between the shutting down of Al Sawiya Al Lebban, the targeting of UNRWA by Israel and the US, the numerous checkpoints separating students from their schools in the West Bank and more, have more in common than Israel’s false allegation of ‘terror.’

Israeli writer, Orly Noy, summed up the Israeli logic in one sentence. “By destroying schools in Palestinian villages in Area C and elsewhere, Israel is forcing Palestinians to make a cruel choice — between their land and their children’s futures,” she wrote earlier this year.

It is this brutal logic that has guided the Israeli government strategy regarding Palestinian education for 70 years. It is a war that cannot be discussed or understood outside the larger war on Palestinian identity, freedom, and, in fact, the very existence of the Palestinian people.

The students’ fight for their right to education in Al Sawiya Al Lebban Mixed School is by no means an isolated skirmish involving Palestinian school kids and trigger-happy Israeli soldiers. Rather, it is at the heart of the Palestinian people’s fight for their freedom.

Why China will win the Artificial Intelligence Race

Two Artificial Intelligence-driven Internet paradigms may emerge in the near future. One will be based on logic, smart enterprises and human merit while the other may morph into an Orwellian control tool. Even former Google CEO Eric Schmidt has foreseen a bifurcation of the Internet by 2028 and China’s eventual triumph in the AI race by 2030.

In the meantime, the US seems more interested in deflecting the smart questions of today than in building the smart factories of tomorrow.  Nothing embodies this better than the recent attempt by MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the Qatar Computing Research Institute (QCRI) to create an AI-based filter to “stamp out fake-news outlets before the stories spread too widely.”

But what exactly constitutes fake news? Does it include media-colluded lies over Iraqi possession of weapons of mass destruction in 2002? Or the egregiously fraudulent Nurse Nayirah testimony a decade earlier? Will the binary logic of “either you are with us or against us” be used to certify news sources?

According to US President Donald J. Trump, fake news is a 24/7 specialty of the CNN, Washington Post and just about every other US mainstream media. The author agrees with Trump on this note. As a futurist, he relies heavily on credible news sources.  The CNN and WaPo therefore rarely feature on the trusted list. At the same time, the author squarely blames Trump for the ongoing US-China trade war. This raises several questions: How will MIT’s AI filtration system treat editorial divergences in the same publication? Will they all be feathered and tarred as “fake news” once a threshold – 150 articles according to the new system – is crossed? How will it evaluate analytical gems in the unregulated alternative media and open source fora? Will social media evidences, planted and generated by a critical mass of trolls, be machine-aggregated to determine true news?

It is also disturbing to note that this digital commissariat is being partly developed by Qatar – a nation that has been routinely singled out for its human rights abuses, use of slave labour, rampant anti-Semitism, runaway fake news and support of jihadi terrorism.  While Qatar and the US media have incessantly accused Syria of wielding chemical weapons, experts from MIT and the UN have adduced otherwise. How will such contradictory reports be treated in the future as more Gulf Arab money pour into MIT and its cohort research institutions?

Not Made-in-America

The future of US artificial intelligence and its emerging technologies is overwhelmingly dependent on foreign talent drawn from Asia and Eastern Europe.  This is unsurprising as 44 million US citizens are currently saddled with a staggering $1.53 trillion in student loans – with a projected 40 percent default rate by 2023.

The US student loan bubble is expanding in tandem with the rising un-employability of young Americans. Fake news overload naturally leads to pervasive intellectual stupefaction.  US policy-makers will ignore this ominous trend, just as they ignore the perennial national slide in global indices that measure the quality of life, education and human capital yields. Can the human mind – incessantly subjected to politicized fairy tales and violent belief systems – be capable of continual innovation?  It is, of course, easier to blame an external bogeyman over a purely internal malaise. Herein lies the utility of fake news; one that will be filtered by a digital nanny and policed by thousands of ideologically-biased fact-checkers.  Funded, of course, by the US deep state!

Somehow no known form of intelligence – artificial or otherwise – has impressed US policy-makers on the national security dimensions of the immigrant-citizen digital divide. High-achieving immigrant communities, for example, may be targeted by irate citizens during a period of intense economic distress, precipitating a reverse brain-drain to their countries of origin.

Even otherwise, the children of highly-skilled naturalized immigrants face a variety of discriminatory practices when they come of age. The most notorious of this is the “Asia fail” intake regimen at vaunted US universities where smart second-generation Asian Americans are routinely sacrificed on the altars of artificial diversity and multiculturalism.  In future, a digital panopticon may selectively reject meritorious applicants based on “inappropriate” social media posts made a lifetime ago.  Any litigation-unearthed bias in the admissions process can be blamed on a technical glitch. Or on the Russians!

Forget about merit! The prevalent imperative is to develop next generation rubber-stampers for the privileged 0.1%.

Divergent Futures

Just like the Internet, the middle classes of a rump US-led Greater Eurabia and a China-led world may have separate trajectories by 2030.  With China experiencing a middle class boom and record numbers of STEM graduates, AI is poised to boost the quantity and quality of a new generation of digital scientists.

At the same time, the search algorithms of Google, YouTube, Facebook and its cohorts are making it harder for individuals to access critical open source data and analyses.  The convenient pretext here is “fake news” and the need to protect society from misleading information.  Why think… when a state-led AI Commissar can do the thinking for you? Ironically, the West routinely charges China for this very practice. How is it possible then for China to develop rapidly and become a leader in AI?  In the core Asian societies, the art of “constructive criticism” incentivises erudition, knowledge and a face-saving approach.  Knowledge is also unfettered by ideology or provenance.

The US, on the other hand, is hopelessly trying to find a balance between its ideological dictates, visceral populism and next-generation knowledge. Talent and AI are sacrificed in the process. According to Google’s Eric Schmidt, “Iran… produces some of the smartest and top computer scientists in the world. I want them here. I want them working for Alphabet and Google. It’s crazy not to let these people in.”

It is even crazier to think that a smart society can be moulded by AI-mediated claptrap and news filters.  This is why China will win the AI race, and Asia will prevail in the Internet of Ideas (IoI).

Why Liberal Jews in Israel and the US have made Lara Alqasem a Cause Celebre

An American student of Palestinian descent detained in Israel’s airport for nearly a fortnight has become an unexpected cause celebre. Lara Alqasem was refused entry under legislation passed last year against boycott activists, and Israeli courts are now deciding whether allowing her to study human rights at an Israeli university threatens public order.

Usually those held at the border are swiftly deported, but Ms Alqasem appealed against the decision, becoming in the process an improbable “prisoner of conscience” for the boycott cause.

The Israeli government, led by strategic affairs minister Gilad Erdan, claims that the 22-year-old is a leader of the growing international boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. Activists like Ms Alqasem, he argues, demonise Israel.

Two lower courts have already ruled against the student. Israel’s supreme court has postponed her deportation until Wednesday while it reconsiders the evidence. But refusing to go quietly, Ms Alqasem is attracting increasing international attention to her plight.

So far Israeli officials have shown only that Ms Alqasem once belonged to a small Palestinian solidarity group at a Florida university that backed boycotting a hummus company over its donations to the Israeli army.

Under pressure, Ms Alqasem has disavowed a boycott of Israel, citing as proof her decision to enroll in a masters programme in Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

Given the blanket hostility in Israel to the boycott movement, Ms Alqasem has found a surprisingly wide array of allies in her legal struggle.

Members of the small Zionist-left Meretz party visited her and demanded she be allowed to attend the course, which began on Sunday.

Ami Ayalon, a retired head of the Shin Bet, the secret police that oversees security checks at Israel’s borders, warned that the agency was now “a problem for democracy” in repeatedly denying foreigners entry.

Vice-chancellors of eight Israeli universities sent a letter of protest to the government and 500 academics at Hebrew University submitted a petition decrying Ms Alqasem’s incarceration.

The solidarity has been unprecedented – and perplexing.

Israeli officials control entry not only to Israel but also to the occupied Palestinian territories. For decades, foreigners with Arab-sounding names – like Ms Alqasem – have been routinely harassed or turned back at the borders, with barely a peep from most on the Israeli left.

And over the same period, Israel has stripped many thousands of Palestinians from the occupied territories of the right to return to their homeland after living abroad. These abuses, too, have rarely troubled consciences in Israel.

So what makes Ms Alqasem’s case different? The answer confers little credit on liberal Israelis.

Israel’s universities are worried that the academic boycott has highlighted their long-term complicity in Israel’s occupation and is gradually eroding their international standing. Joint research projects with foreign universities are in jeopardy, as is their lucrative income from programmes they wish to expand for overseas students.

The universities want to co-opt Ms Alqasem as a poster girl for academic freedom in Israel.

They hope she will provide cover for their guilty secret: that they have stood by, or actively assisted, as Israel made a mockery of academic freedom for Palestinians under occupation. Research shows that Israel’s universities have strong ties to the nation’s military, which regularly attacks Palestinian places of learning and limits Palestinians’ freedom to study by enforcing strict movement restrictions.

Jewish liberals in Israel and the US, meanwhile, are concerned at the entrenchment of the Israeli far-right’s rule. In recent weeks, a wave of Israeli and American Jewish activists have been detained and questioned at the border over their politics.

Those liberals desperately need to draw a red line, halting the expansion of racial profiling into political forms of profiling that undermine their own status. If the courts uphold the fundamental rights of Ms Alqasem, their own rights will be more secure too.

That was why progressive Jewish leaders in the US added their own voices last week, signing a petition calling for Ms Alqasem to be allowed to study in Israel.

But the case has shone a light not only on the self-interested opportunism of Israeli liberals but also on the hypocrisy of leaders of progressive American Jewish communities.

Ms Alqasem was identified as a boycott activist via a McCarthyite website called Canary Mission, which has murky ties to the Israeli government.

Since it launched in 2014 under the slogan “If you’re racist, the world should know”, the site has built an online database profiling thousands of US academics and students, including Jewish ones, critical of Israel.

Its aim is to terrify US academia into silence on Israel. The site explicitly threatens to send letters to prospective employers accusing its targets – those who show solidarity with Palestinians – of being antisemitic.

Until recently, this blacklist had passed largely unremarked outside pro-Palestinian circles. But since its role in helping Israeli officials bar Jewish and non-Jewish activists became clear, interest in its provenance has grown.

This month the Forward, an American Jewish publication, unmasked several of Canary Mission’s major donors. They include the communal funds of Jewish federations representing liberal communities in San Francisco and Los Angeles.

The trail leads back to a shadowy registered charity in Israel called Megamot Shalom, which aims to “protect the image of the state of Israel”.

Simone Zimmerman, an American Jewish peace activist who was detained at the border by Israeli officials in August, lamented that the American Jewish establishment’s secret support for Canary Mission “reeks of hypocrisy and betrayal”.

Supposedly liberal Jewish institutions in Israel and the US wish to be seen battling racism and aiding good causes, including the rights of a Palestinian-American student after she repudiated a boycott of Israel.

But covertly they support and finance projects intended to silence criticism of Israel and enforce the oppression of Palestinians they say they want to help.

Ms Alqasem has been turned into a pawn in the struggle between Jewish liberals and Israeli ultra-nationalists. Israel’s continuing violations of the wider rights of Palestinians – to enter and freely move around their homeland, and to receive an education – are simply not part of the discussion.

• First published in The National

The Sessional Curse: Universities and the Casual Work Force

Universities have become bastions of sessional torment, feeding grounds for despair.  The term “sessional” is merely a euphemised way of describing an academic employee who has no ongoing employment other than what is offered, a person ever at the mercy of the subject or course coordinator of a department.  They are the toiling poor, the barrel scrapers, the trudged upon and demanded.

The problem here is loathsomely international.  In 2014, CBC News noted the increasing use of contracted sessionals in the university curriculum in Canada.  The case of Kimberley Ellis Hale was cited, an instructor in sociology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Ontario, who had essentially slaved for sixteen years on a precarious contract.  Despite those years of service, “she has no job security.  She still needs to apply to teach her courses every semester.  She gets none of the perks a full time professor gets”.

As with Canada, the United Kingdom’s tertiary education system sees approximately half of all academic staff employed on low-paid temporary contracts.  In the United States, half-time work characterises half of faculty staff while the majority do not fall within a “tenure track” category.  The doors to employment security are, for the most part, barred.

In Australia, as a consequence largely of shifts that took place in university education in the early 1990s, teaching and research institutions became servers of market goals and ideologies, overseen by a none-too-benevolent master in the form of the Commonwealth.  Casual academic staff are the “proletariat of the academic profession”, something akin to a tribe abandoned and lost.  “It seems,” reflect Jane Kenway and Diana Langmead rather ruefully, “that the triumph of economics over university education is now complete.”

Central to this is fragmentation and increased expectation: the former, focused on splitting management from workers and ongoing workers from casual employees; the latter, on converting the academic into a consultant, entrepreneur and wearer of all hats of incongruous size and meaning, all the while inflating workloads on diminishing returns.

Casual academic staff are, according to research done by Robyn Day, David Peetz and Glenda Strachan, “not integrated with the permanent academic labour market and that discipline is a key determinant of the level of ‘frustration’ of casual academic staff.”

With this environment comes a subservience peppered by anxiety.  Free thinking is feared and despised; grovelling and silence is rewarded, if only sporadically.  Colleagues compete for diminishing resources; the casual labour force fears the loss of favour and, to that end, remain consciously indifferent to university policy that might well undermine pedagogy and research.  Resistance and protest is, in some cases brutally, quelled.

Little wonder then, that university politburos and their over-remunerated consultancies insist on collective binges of wellness days, the psychobabble that substitutes decent policies for crank panaceas.  (We care for you by showing how we detest you.)  “Searching for wellness and well-being on most university websites,” write Brad Wright and Matthew Winslade in The Conversation, “will lead to a dedicated page detailing a wealth of independent strategies and programs focusing on specific areas of health, such as mental health or workplace safety.”

These grotesque exercises serve one purpose: to demonstrate the ongoing failings of a university system to either care for teaching and research staff and, in a grim spinoff, the students themselves.  Staff employed on a casual basis will emit levels of psychological distress so acute as to be contagious; the students, in turn, will react.

The university politburos are, however, on to this, appropriating such fairly meaningless concepts as the “healthy university“.  Issuing from the 2015 International Conference on Health Promoting Universities and Colleges in Canada, such holistic approaches find ample room in conference proceedings but serve to remain stuck in a management, public relations void.  While the Okanagan Charter arising from the gathering was fed by the thoughts of health professionals, researchers, students and policy makers from 45 countries, local implementation remains within the purview of the management classes long lost to academic thought.

The dictates of finance and delivery are all powerful.  Quality can be left to hang.  While a tenured or ongoing employee at academic rank might well be given a set number of courses to teach, those same courses, and number, can be taught by a sessional staff member for a fraction of the price.

The academic sweatshop, in other words, burgeons with desperate members hoping for admission.  Managers and higher academics, noting this, see chances to mine the pool of labour, and boast accordingly of having lesser teaching loads to enable them to pursue fictional and, in most cases, the stodge that counts as research. (Evaluators, take note.)

The sessional curse also extends to undermining the broader university environment.  While fat cat managers gorge themselves upon increasing salaries to cut ribbons, imbibe, identify appropriate paperclips and fill rooms with their insipid and, in the end, irrelevant presences, the pay for the sessional academic remains fairly constant in its impecuniousness.

Hours are capped; students are not permitted, depending on the policy of the department, any attention beyond an hour in terms of marking and consultations. The learning process, in other words, is cut at its most vital point, discouraging the sessional from marking the paper in any way beyond the bare limit whilst depriving the student of the rigour necessary to benefit from that said education.

This age of education is marked by the struggling part-timer and the looting manager barricaded behind protocols of control and discipline (do not, academics are told, challenge the management line).  Any reconciling of these is impossible on current trajectories and requires an enthusiastic, collectively orchestrated coup d’état.

Criminalizing Childhood: School Safety Measures Aren’t Making the Schools Any Safer

Every day in communities across the United States, children and adolescents spend the majority of their waking hours in schools that have increasingly come to resemble places of detention more than places of learning. From metal detectors to drug tests, from increased policing to all-seeing electronic surveillance, the public schools of the twenty-first century reflect a society that has become fixated on crime, security and violence.

— Annette Fuentes, Investigative Journalist, Lockdown High: When the Schoolhouse becomes a Jailhouse, February 12, 2013

It used to be that if you talked back to a teacher, or played a prank on a classmate, or just failed to do your homework, you might find yourself in detention or doing an extra writing assignment after school.

Of course, that was before school shootings became a part of our national lexicon.

Nowadays, as a result of the government’s profit-driven campaign to keep the nation “safe” from drugs, weapons and terrorism, students are not only punished for minor transgressions such as playing cops and robbers on the playground, bringing LEGOs to school, or having a food fight, but they are being punished with suspension, expulsion, and even arrest.

Welcome to Compliance 101: the police state’s primer in how to churn out compliant citizens and transform the nation’s school’s into quasi-prisons through the use of surveillance cameras, metal detectors, police patrols, zero tolerance policies, lock downs, drug sniffing dogs, strip searches and active shooter drills.

If you were wondering, these police state tactics have not made the schools any safer.

Rather, they’ve turned the schools into authoritarian microcosms of the police state, containing almost every aspect of the militarized, intolerant, senseless, overcriminalized, legalistic, surveillance-riddled, totalitarian landscape that plagues those of us on the “outside.”

If your child is fortunate enough to survive his encounter with the public schools, you should count yourself fortunate.

Most students are not so lucky.

From the moment a child enters one of the nation’s 98,000 public schools to the moment he or she graduates, they will be exposed to a steady diet of draconian zero tolerance policies that criminalize childish behavior, overreaching anti-bullying statutes that criminalize speech, school resource officers (police) tasked with disciplining and/or arresting so-called “disorderly” students, standardized testing that emphasizes rote answers over critical thinking, politically correct mindsets that teach young people to censor themselves and those around them, and extensive biometric and surveillance systems that, coupled with the rest, acclimate young people to a world in which they have no freedom of thought, speech or movement.

By the time the average young person in America finishes their public school education, nearly one out of every three of them will have been arrested.

More than 3 million students are suspended or expelled from schools every year, often for minor misbehavior, such as “disruptive behavior” or “insubordination.”

Black students are three times more likely than white students to face suspension and expulsion.

Zero tolerance policies that were intended to make schools safer by discouraging the use of actual drugs and weapons by students have turned students into suspects to be treated as criminals by school officials and law enforcement alike, while criminalizing childish behavior.

For instance, 9-year-old Patrick Timoney was sent to the principal’s office and threatened with suspension after school officials discovered that one of his LEGOs was holding a 2-inch toy gun.

David Morales, an 8-year-old Rhode Island student, ran afoul of his school’s zero tolerance policies after he wore a hat to school decorated with an American flag and tiny plastic Army figures in honor of American troops. School officials declared the hat out of bounds because the toy soldiers were carrying miniature guns.

A 7-year-old New Jersey boy, described by school officials as “a nice kid” and “a good student,” was reported to the police and charged with possessing an imitation firearm after he brought a toy Nerf-style gun to school. The gun shoots soft ping pong-type balls.

Things have gotten so bad that it doesn’t even take a toy gun to raise the ire of school officials.

A high school sophomore was suspended for violating the school’s no-cell-phone policy after he took a call from his father, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army who was serving in Iraq at the time.

A 12-year-old New York student was hauled out of school in handcuffs for doodling on her desk with an erasable marker.

In Houston, an 8th grader was suspended for wearing rosary beads to school in memory of her grandmother (the school has a zero tolerance policy against the rosary, which the school insists can be interpreted as a sign of gang involvement).

Six-year-old Cub Scout Zachary Christie was sentenced to 45 days in reform school after bringing a camping utensil to school that can serve as a fork, knife or spoon.

Even imaginary weapons (hand-drawn pictures of guns, pencils twirled in a “threatening” manner, imaginary bows and arrows, even fingers positioned like guns) can also land a student in detention.

Equally outrageous was the case in New Jersey where several kindergartners were suspended from school for three days for playing a make-believe game of “cops and robbers” during recess and using their fingers as guns.

With the distinctions between student offenses erased, and all offenses expellable, we now find ourselves in the midst of what Time magazine described as a “national crackdown on Alka-Seltzer.” Students have actually been suspended from school for possession of the fizzy tablets in violation of zero tolerance drug policies.

Students have also been penalized for such inane “crimes” as bringing nail clippers to school, using Listerine or Scope, and carrying fold-out combs that resemble switchblades.

A 13-year-old boy in Manassas, Virginia, who accepted a Certs breath mint from a classmate, was actually suspended and required to attend drug-awareness classes, while a 12-year-old boy who said he brought powdered sugar to school for a science project was charged with a felony for possessing a look-alike drug.

Acts of kindness, concern, basic manners or just engaging in childish behavior can also result in suspensions.

One 13-year-old was given detention for exposing the school to “liability” by sharing his lunch with a hungry friend. A third grader was suspended for shaving her head in sympathy for a friend who had lost her hair to chemotherapy. And then there was the high school senior who was suspended for saying “bless you” after a fellow classmate sneezed.

In South Carolina, where it’s against the law to disturb a school, more than a thousand students a year—some as young as 7 years old—“face criminal charges for not following directions, loitering, cursing, or the vague allegation of acting ‘obnoxiously.’ If charged as adults, they can be held in jail for up to 90 days.”

Another 12-year-old was handcuffed and jailed after he stomped in a puddle, splashing classmates.

Things get even worse when you add police to the mix.

Thanks to a combination of media hype, political pandering and financial incentives, the use of armed police officers (a.k.a. school resource officers) to patrol school hallways has risen dramatically in the years since the Columbine school shooting (nearly 20,000 by 2003).

What this means, notes Mother Jones, is greater police “involvement in routine discipline matters that principals and parents used to address without involvement from law enforcement officers.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, these school resource officers (SROs) have become de facto wardens in the elementary, middle and high schools, doling out their own brand of justice to the so-called “criminals” in their midst with the help of tasers, pepperspray, batons and brute force.

As a result, students are not only being ticketed, fined and sent to court for behavior perceived as defiant, disruptive or disorderly such as spraying perfume and writing on a desk, but they are also finding themselves subjected to police tactics such as handcuffs, leg shackles, tasers and excessive force for “acting up.”

In the absence of school-appropriate guidelines, police are more and more “stepping in to deal with minor rulebreaking: sagging pants, disrespectful comments, brief physical skirmishes. What previously might have resulted in a detention or a visit to the principal’s office was replaced with excruciating pain and temporary blindness, often followed by a trip to the courthouse.”

The horror stories are legion.

One SRO is accused of punching a 13-year-old student in the face for cutting in the cafeteria line. That same cop put another student in a chokehold a week later, allegedly knocking the student unconscious and causing a brain injury.

In Pennsylvania, a student was tased after ignoring an order to put his cell phone away.

On any given day when school is in session, kids who “act up” in class are pinned face down on the floor, locked in dark closets, tied up with straps, bungee cords and duct tape, handcuffed, leg shackled, tasered or otherwise restrained, immobilized or placed in solitary confinement in order to bring them under “control.”

Roughly 1500 kids are tied up or locked down every day by school officials in the United States.

At least 500 students are locked up in some form of solitary confinement every day, whether it be a padded room, a closet or a duffel bag. In many cases, parents are rarely notified when such methods are used.

In almost every case, these undeniably harsh methods are used to punish kids for simply failing to follow directions or throwing tantrums.

Very rarely do the kids pose any credible danger to themselves or others.

For example, a 4-year-old Virginia preschooler was handcuffed, leg shackled and transported to the sheriff’s office after reportedly throwing blocks and climbing on top of the furniture. School officials claim the restraints were necessary to protect the adults from injury.

A 6-year-old kindergarten student in a Georgia public school was handcuffed, transported to the police station, and charged with simple battery of a schoolteacher and criminal damage to property for throwing a temper tantrum at school.

Unbelievably, these tactics are all legal, at least when employed by school officials or school resource officers in the nation’s public schools.

According to a ProPublica investigative report, such harsh punishments are part of a widespread phenomenon plaguing school districts across the country.

Indeed, as investigative reporter Heather Vogell points out, this is a local story everywhere.

It’s happening in my town.

It’s happening in your town.

It’s happening in every school district in America.

This is the end product of all those so-called school “safety” policies, which run the gamut from zero tolerance policies that punish all infractions harshly to surveillance cameras, metal detectors, random searches, drug-sniffing dogs, school-wide lockdowns, active-shooter drills and militarized police officers.

Mind you, this is all part of the government’s plan to “harden” the schools.

What exactly does hardening the schools entail?

More strident zero tolerance policiesgreater numbers of school cops, and all the trappings of a prison complex (unsurmountable fences, entrapment areas, no windows or trees, etc.).

Schools acting like prisons.

School officials acting like wardens.

Students treated like inmates and punished like hardened criminals.

Even in the face of parental outrage, lawsuits, legislative reforms, investigative reports and endless cases showing that these tactics are not working and “should never be used for punishment or discipline,” full-grown adults—police officers and teachers alike—insist that the reason they continue to handcuff, lock up and restrain little kids is because they fear for their safety and the safety of others.

“Fear for one’s safety” has become such a hackneyed and threadbare excuse for behavior that is inexcusable.

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that explanation covers a multitude of sins, whether it’s poorly trained police officers who shoot first and ask questions later, or school officials who are ill-equipped to deal with children who act like children, meaning they don’t always listen, they sometimes throw tantrums, and they have a hard time sitting still.

Unfortunately, advocates for such harsh police tactics and weaponry like to trot out the line that school safety should be our first priority lest we find ourselves with another Sandy Hook. What they will not tell you is that such shootings are rare. As one congressional report found, the schools are, generally speaking, safe places for children.

In their zeal to crack down on guns and lock down the schools, these cheerleaders for police state tactics in the schools might also fail to mention the lucrative, multi-million dollar deals being cut with military contractors such as Taser International to equip these school cops with tasers, tanks, rifles and $100,000 shooting detection systems.

Indeed, the transformation of hometown police departments into extensions of the military has been mirrored in the public schools, where school police have been gifted with high-powered M16 rifles, MRAP armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and other military gear. One Texas school district even boasts its own 12-member SWAT team.

According to one law review article on the school-to-prison pipeline:

Many school districts have formed their own police departments, some so large they rival the forces of major United States cities in size. For example, the safety division in New York City’s public schools is so large that if it were a local police department, it would be the fifth-largest police force in the country.

The ramifications are far-reaching.

The term “school-to-prison pipeline” refers to a phenomenon in which children who are suspended or expelled from school have a greater likelihood of ending up in jail.

As if it weren’t bad enough that the nation’s schools have come to resemble prisons, the government is also contracting with private prisons to lock up our young people for behaviour that once would have merited a stern lecture. Nearly 40 percent of those young people who are arrested will serve time in a private prison, where the emphasis is on making profits for large megacorporations above all else.

This profit-driven system of incarceration has also given rise to a growth in juvenile prisons and financial incentives for jailing young people.

Indeed, young people have become easy targets for the private prison industry, which profits from criminalizing childish behavior and jailing young people. For instance, two Pennsylvania judges made headlines when it was revealed that they had been conspiring with two businessmen in a $2.6 million “kids for cash” scandal that resulted in more than 2500 children being found guilty and jailed in for-profit private prisons.

So what’s the answer, not only for the here-and-now—the children growing up in these quasi-prisons—but for the future of this country?

Peter Gray, a professor of psychology at Boston College, believes that school is a prison that is damaging our kids, and it’s hard to disagree, especially with the numbers of police officers being assigned to schools on the rise.

Clearly, the pathology that characterizes the American police state has passed down to the schools. Now in addition to the government and its agents viewing the citizenry as suspects to be probed, poked, pinched, tasered, searched, seized, stripped and generally manhandled, all with the general blessing of the court, our children in the public schools are also fair game.

Instead of raising up a generation of freedom fighters, however, we seem to be busy churning out newly minted citizens of the American police state who are being taught the hard way what it means to comply, fear and march in lockstep with the government’s dictates.

After all, how do you convince a child who has been routinely handcuffed, shackled, tied down, locked up, and immobilized by government officials—all before he reaches the age of adulthood—that he has any rights at all, let alone the right to challenge wrongdoing, resist oppression and defend himself against injustice?

Most of all, how do you persuade a fellow American that the government works for him when for most of his young life, he has been incarcerated in an institution that teaches young people to be obedient and compliant citizens who don’t talk back, don’t question and don’t challenge authority?

What can be done?

Without a doubt, change is needed, but that will mean taking on the teachers’ unions, the school unions, the educators’ associations, and the police unions, not to mention the politicians dependent on their votes and all of the corporations that profit mightily from an industrial school complex.

As we’ve seen with other issues, any significant reforms will have to start locally and trickle upwards.

As I point out in my book Battlefield America: The War on the American People, with every school police raid and overzealous punishment that is carried out in the name of school safety, the lesson being imparted is that Americans—especially young people—have no rights at all against the state or the police.

If we do not rein in the police state’s influence in the schools, the future to which we are sending our children will be characterized by a brutal, totalitarian regime.

Bizarre Israeli Analyses of Syrian Curriculum Circulate in the Middle East

My friend, a senior UN official based in Amman, Jordan, recently received a newsletter from an Israeli institution – “IMPACT-se”. Their report was called, ‘modestly’, “Reformulating School Textbooks During the Civil War”.

It is full of analyses of the Syrian curriculum.

Interesting stuff, without any doubt: Manipulative, negative, but interesting. It made it to many other places in the Middle East; to Lebanon, for instance, where even the word “Israel” is hardly ever pronounced.

Predictably, being compiled in Israel, the report trashes Syria, its ideology, and the determined anti-imperialist stand of President al-Assad.

However, that may backfire. Excerpts that are quoted from the Syrian curriculum would impress both education experts, as well as the general public, if they were to get their hands and eyes on them. And I am trying to facilitate precisely that, in this essay.

Children in Damascus taking summer programme

What the report found outrageous and deplorable, others could find very reasonable and positive. Let’s read.  Here is what the “IMPACT-se” is quoting, while ringing alarm bells:

Saddam Hussein took power, and his period witnessed a number of wars in the Arab Gulf area. The first was with Iran, called the First Gulf War (1980–88), which occurred through incitement by the US, in order to weaken both countries. History, Grade 12, 2017–18, p. 105.

Well put, isn’t it? But it gets much better, philosophically. Imagine, this brilliant intellectual stuff is actually served to all Syrian children in their public schools, while in Europe and North America; kids are fed with neo-colonialist mainstream propaganda. No wonder that Syrian children are much better versed in what is happening in the world. No wonder that millions of Syrian refugees are now ready to return home, after the abuse they received abroad, and after realizing how indoctrinated and brainwashed by Western propaganda, the people all over the world are.

“IMPACT-se” continues quoting the Syrian curriculum, naively thinking that the words engraved there, will terrify the entire world:

This competition and struggle worsened as the capitalist system developed and new occupying forces such as the US, took control over international politics. It exploited its scientific, technological, economic and military supremacy in order to expand its influence and [gain] control over the capabilities of the peoples of the world. This was done in cooperation with its allies, to increase its presence in the international arena as the only undisputed superpower. National Education, Grade 8, 2017–18, p. 81. (The US) strives to maintain its supremacy by monopolizing developing technology, controlling wealth and energy sources in the world, most importantly oil, and forcing its hegemony on the international community. National Education, Grade 8, 2017–18, p. 82.

This could be easily written by the progressive economist Peter Koenig, by the international lawyer Christopher Black, or, why not, by myself.

The people, who worked on the Syrian curriculum, combined two things brilliantly: 1) indisputable facts, 2) elegant simplicity! Actually, this curriculum should be offered not only to the Middle East kids, but all over the world.

A girl child taking extra class in the summer in Damascus

Look how skillfully and honestly it summarizes modern history:

After the disappearance of international balance and unipolar hegemony took control of the world, the US began searching for excuses to justify its intervention in other countries. It occupied Afghanistan in 2002, under the pretext of fighting against “terrorism” in order to realize its political and economic goals. One of the goals was to build an advanced military base close to countries which the US considers to be dangerous (Russia, China, India, Iran and North Korea). In addition, Afghanistan had many assets (such as iron ore and gas). In 2003, the US—helped by a group of countries—declared war on Iraq under the pretext that Iraq was holding weapons of mass destruction and aiding terrorism. The occupation came after an unjust siege and air strikes over Iraqi cities and institutions, without authorization from the UN general assembly and the Security Council. National Education, Grade 8, 2017–18, p. 82

Making the world become one form, one structure and one model, which is the most powerful model now controlling the world, economically and militarily—the American model. The hegemony of the capitalist system . . . turning the world into a consumer market for Western products and ideas, while stripping the nation of its principles, customs and traditions, abolishing its personality and identity, first diluting and then gradually eliminating nations and cultures. National Education, Grade 12, 2017–18, p. 31.

According to “IMPACT-se”, this is supposed to scare random readers, providing proof how evil the ‘regime in Damascus’ is!

The opposite is true.

An international (non-Western) educator, who is presently based in the Middle East, explained to me over a cup of coffee. I think that this statement is actually a good summary of what many others that are studying the Syrian curriculum really feel:

Education reflects the vision of a given society.  The heart of what a society expects from its citizens is in the curriculum.  Having carefully read the analysis of the new Syrian curriculum and textbooks reinforces my strong conviction of how great a society Syria really is.

*****

Let us see the ‘other side’; those who are critical of Syrian education, those who are making a living from such criticism and from antagonizing the system.

ESCWA (United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia), based in Beirut, Lebanon, has an initiative defined as ‘the future of Syria for the peace-building phase’. This ‘process’ involves Syrian experts from all walks of life.

But who are these experts? In 2018, during the expert’s meeting on education, the list included these specialists:

– Former professors (education and law) of Aleppo University

– Former professor of Damascus University

– Head of an education NGO in Lebanon

– Academics and researchers now based in Turkey and Germany

– Independent consultants

Clearly, if at this meeting any participants were Syrians, they were ‘former some things’. Meaning exiles, anti-government cadres, and mostly pegged to some Western organization (predominantly the organizations based in France or Germany). Not one person from the legitimate government of Syria was invited! A typical Western approach: “about them, without them”.

And these people who are serving Western interests, are supposed to help to define a component on education which is considered vital to “reconciliation and social cohesion in post-war Syria”.

Predictably, instead of promoting reconciliation, the speeches were full of hate, bitter and aggressive, anti-Syrian and pro-Western. ‘Experts’ used terminology such as: ‘Hegemony of the Syrian regime’, ‘The Ba’ath Party is only concerned about ideology, never giving Syrians an identity’ (they were actually demanding that religions would serve as ‘identity’, replacing the presently secular Syrian state), ‘We need to talk about the truth of what happened in 2011, what led to the war in 2011. Without that nothing makes sense’ (but the ‘truth about 2011’ in their minds has definitely nothing to do with the fact that the West encouraged the anti-government rebellion, injected jihadi cadres and triggered the brutal civil war aimed at overthrowing a social state).

Their main point seems to be: ‘The war has strengthened the culture of hatred’.

Correct, but not because of the Syrian state, but, because of people like those ‘experts’!

What do they really want? Religion instead of secularism, capitalism instead of socialism, and, of course, the Western perception of ‘democracy’, instead of a patriotic and pan-Arab independent vision of the state.

*****

No matter how one turns it, the Syrian education system, including its curriculum, appears to be greatly superior to those in the neighboring countries. Perhaps that is why it is being placed under scrutiny and under attack.

After all, wasn’t the main goal of the West, in 2011 and after, to destroy yet another socialist, internationalist state that was primarily serving its people?

And the state of Israel? What is “IMPACT-se” mainly complaining about? What is irking it most in the Syrian curriculum? Perhaps this, in its own words and analyses:

The Syrian curriculum bases Syrian national identity on the principles of a continued struggle to realize one Arab Nation that includes all Arab states, constituting one country, the “Arab Homeland.” The textbooks present the borders dividing the Arab states as artificial, having been imposed by European colonialism.

For most of us, this is actually not bad, is it?

Or possibly this:

The current borders are political ones, drawn through the policy of the colonial powers that had controlled the region, especially France and Britain. They do not overlap the natural borders that used to separate the Arab Homeland from the neighboring countries. So, important changes took place in these borders to the benefit of those countries and to the detriment of the Arab land. Geography of the Arab Homeland and the World, Grade 12, 2017–2018, p. 13.”

What is incredibly impressive, is how the Syrian curriculum addresses the Soviet period of its close ally – Russia:

We shall become acquainted with the reality of Russia prior to the Communist Revolution, and the causes which led to its political, economic, social and intellectual renaissance, from World War I until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the establishment of the Russian Federation in 1991. History, Grade 8, 2017–18, p. 98.

The Socialist Revolution in Russia broke out in order to confront the imperial regime. It declared the establishment of the first socialist country in 1917. [The Revolution] was based on the rule of the workers and the peasants, and it had a global impact, as it supported national liberation movements. History of the Modern and Contemporary World, Grade 11, 2017–18, p. 168.

Gorbachev took over the leadership of the state and party in 1988, and aspired to implement a plan of economic, social and ideological reconstruction. However, the imperialistic countries conspired against the destiny of the Soviet Union and took advantage of the administrative corruption and the circumstances of multiple nationalities, leading to its dissolution in 1991 and the establishment of the Russian Federation in its place. History, Grade 8, 2017–18, pp. 99–100.

Actually, if I could, if I were to be allowed to, I’d love my publishing house (Badak Merah) to publish the Syrian curriculum, or at least its part on history and politics, for everyone outside Syria to read.

What the Israeli “IMPACT-se” sees as alarming or negative, most of people all over the world and particularly in the Arab region, would definitely perceive as truthful, optimistic and worth fighting for.

Are the experts from “IMPACT-se” so naïve that they do not realize it? Or is there something else going on? Perhaps we will never find out.

With or without text books children flock to school in newly liberated Aleppo, January 2017

No matter what: thank you for reminding us of the great Syrian curriculum! It clearly shows how great a nation Syria is!

• First published by NEO – New Eastern Outlook

• Photos: Yayoi Segi

Education and the Mental Health Epidemic

Across the western world June is exam time; in Britain, written tests taken in halls of silence and tension have triggered a mini-epidemic of anxiety rooted conditions. Pupils have reported mental exhaustion, panic attacks, crying, nosebleeds, sleepless nights, hair loss and outbreaks of acne.

Over the past 25 years, depression and anxiety amongst teenagers in the UK has increased by 70%. This pattern is repeated across the developed world, and is the result of a cocktail of pressures, pressures that result in 10% of under 18-year-olds in America being dependent on mental health medication.

In parts of Asia things are just as bad or worse: the pressure to achieve high marks in exams in Hong Kong is driving some students to suicide: “71 students took their lives between 2013 and 2016,” reports The South China Morning Post. In Singapore, which produces children who excel in standardized tests, an 11-year-old jumped to his death from the 17th floor of an apartment building in 2016 because he was afraid to tell his parents his exam results. The inquest heard that the boy’s parents relentlessly pushed him to achieve at school: his mother would cane him for every mark he received under 70%. In 2015 a record 27 suicides were reported amongst children between 10 and 19, which was double the previous year’s total.

Suicide or attempted suicide is a raw scream revealing the internal agony a child is living with; pain that he/she feels suffocated by, and unable to openly acknowledge. In most cases children don’t kill themselves, they just become ill, some, chronically. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that neuropsychiatric conditions are the primary cause of disability in under 25-year-olds worldwide and says that globally between 10% and 20% “of children and adolescents experience mental disorders,” feeding what are often long-term conditions. Research shows that 75% of all mental health issues begin before a person reaches 18, with 50% taking root before age 15.

Engines of conformity

There are various interconnected reasons for this mental health epidemic; the burden to conform and the relentless pressure to succeed are primary causes and are present throughout institutionalized education. For many young people education has become a bi-word for competition and anxiety, school or university a place where uniformity is demanded and individuality denied: a hostile place in which pressure and stress dominate.

Despite the best efforts of teachers, many of whom are doing wonderful work, the goal of academic institutions in many countries has been reduced to passing exams and achieving good-to-high grades. This is anathema to what education ought to be. At the heart of education should be the aim of creating happy human beings free from fear. This requires establishing environments that allow an individual to discover innate talents, to explore him/herself and slowly, perhaps clumsily, give expression to that; a stimulating, nurturing space where mistakes can be made, failure allowed, independent thinking fostered and responsibility for society and the natural environment engendered.

Like all aspects of contemporary life, education has been tainted by the values of a particular approach to life, a materialistic methodology that fosters negative tendencies instead of feeding the good and liberating the spirit. Competition is encouraged instead of cooperation, placing people in opposition to one another, cultivating division instead of unity. Individual success is championed at the expense of group well-being and life is reduced to a battleground ruled by desire and the pursuit of pleasure.

The focus within this paradigm of misery is on material success and the accumulation of status and things. Hedonism is sold as the source of all happiness, feeding perpetual discontent. It is an extremely narrow approach to life that denies mystery and wonder, pours cynicism on the miraculous and attempts to crush self-investigation and silence opposition.

Whilst the majority of humanity suffer and struggle to live healthy fulfilling lives within this mode of living, there are those who, economically at least, profit handsomely. As a result, and failing to recognize that they too are trapped, they do everything to maintain it; they are the wealthy and powerful, the ‘ruling elite’. Money begets power and political influence under the pervading paradigm; such influence is used to shape (and draft) government policies that strengthen systems, which maintain the existing unhealthy order.

To uphold the status quo, freedom of thought and true individuality is curtailed, social conformity insisted upon. The major tools of conditioning are the media, which is commonly owned by corporations or controlled by governments, organized religion, and education. The policies of schools and colleges are set by central government, and, consistent with the pervasive ideology politicians ensure that conformity and competition are built into the working methodology.

Students are set in competition with one another, with established standards and with themselves, and are regularly forced to sit written examinations to evaluate how much they can remember or know, about any particular subject. Taking exams dictates the passage of a child’s education and establishes the benchmark against which young people are judged, and by extension often judge themselves. Using tests as a way of assessing a person’s ability and knowledge is archaic; sitting exams exerts colossal pressure, and although some may be able to cope and ‘do well’ the majority feel suffocated.

In Britain, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) relates that in 2016/17 Childline delivered “3,135 counseling sessions on exam stress – a rise of 11% over the past 2 years.” Children aged between 12 and 18 reported that exam stress was causing “depression and anxiety, panic attacks, low-self-esteem, self harming and suicidal thoughts.” This pattern is common in many developed and developing countries, where ideologically-driven corporate governments obsessed with trade, continue to pursue methods, that are, by design, detrimental to the well being of children.

Instead of policies rooted in competition, cooperation and sharing need to be encouraged in all aspects of education and standardized exams consigned to the past. The educational environment needs to be one in which children are encouraged to support each other, to share their own particular gifts with the group and build a sense of social responsibility. Many teachers naturally employ such inclusive methods, but working within divisive systems, which promote individual success, conformity and competition, their efforts are often frustrated.

An Alternative way

A more enlightened approach to education is found in Finland. Here, children don’t start school until they are seven, there is no streaming or selection in schools, so children of varying abilities work side by side, no homework is set, school holidays are long and there is only one standardized test, administered in the final year of high school. The result is happier children than in countries where testing, homework, selection and competition reign supreme. Not only are children happier (according to the World Happiness Report, Finland is the happiest country in the world), they achieve higher academic marks than students in many other countries; according to The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) organized annually by the OECD, Finland ranks fourth for reading and 5th for Math in the world; 93% of students graduate from High School, compared to 78% in Canada and 75% in America.

Teachers in Finland are well qualified – all have a Master’s Degree – and are highly valued. They are not dictated to by misguided politicians who come and go, but are trusted to do their job independently, and the country has a long-term approach to education policy, which “means plans remain in place for a significant amount of time, giving them a chance to work, ” says Russell Hobby, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers.

An education system is part of a society’s overall approach to living. As well as being a happy place to live and having a relaxed attitude to education, Finland has some of the lowest levels of wealth and income inequality in the world and the highest level of community trust. In contrast, Britain, USA, Singapore and Hong Kong have some of the highest levels of inequality. The Finland education system is inseparable from the culture, which it serves. Saku Tuominen, director of the HundrEd project says that Finland has “a ‘socially cohesive’, equitable and efficient society, and it gets a consistently reliable school system to match.”

Systems of education built around the ideals of the market that use competition, selection and examinations are contributing to a collective atmosphere of division, injustice and anxiety. Such methodologies need to be fundamentally changed, replaced by creative environments in which children and young adults can simply be, without pressure to achieve or become anything in particular. In such an atmosphere, true intelligence, which is beyond the limitations of knowledge, can flower.

The Death of Radicality

For the majority of young Americans, progressivism has taken on a uniquely bourgeois focus that detracts from any radical thought. Historical movements for change, such as anti-imperialism or racial justice, have been either discarded or fronted in the perspective of individual “wokeness”; student political radicality has been overtaken by the radical chic.

Progressive students are very much willing to fight for social justice and against oppression, so long as it doesn’t cut too deep into their education or career prospects. Students idolize historical radicals and mourn contemporary tragedies—often very loudly and publicly, so that the whole world might know where they stand. The new accessibility of social media combined with the constant need for validation has given young people a new character of political involvement: one in which overlaying a rainbow flag on a profile picture suffices in supporting the struggle for LGBT+ rights. But beyond the occasional quote, namedrop, or moral support, progressive students often lack anything political beyond a vague resistance to oppression.

Thankfully, this false consciousness is not harmful in itself—but trouble comes when these “woke” inanities are mistaken for substantive progress.

The presentation of these organizations as legitimate means of progress deludes us into thinking that the few clubs and interest groups we join count towards changing society. If we fall into this deluded trap, the idea that these moments constitute real action, then we should abandon hope and shelve any idea of progress for the future.

Living a “woke” life for these few years at colleges only conditions us for a “woke” life beyond college: one devoid of meaningful progressiveness or radicality. The majority of students clearly prefer the ease of being able to signal their virtue via prominent displays of alignment with progressive values over directly acting on their claimed beliefs against the slightest resistance: see the walkout. We now value appearing fashionably left-wing over being moored in sound progressive and leftist ideology. The new radical chic is of being woke, being an ally, and being anti-Trump—and it is sapping young people’s radical spirit at an alarming rate.

Being “woke” as a student is no longer a realization of political consciousness, but instead a declaration of morality. The term began as a very real and succinct description of a realization of the societal diseases around oneself. The first recorded usage of “woke” in a political setting came from a Black union representative from the American Mine Workers, whose condition was probably less than ideal. For a majority of Americans, however, our lives are far from that of Black trade-unionists in the 40’s. We’ve appropriated this term, which originated as an accurate description of political consciousness, for our own twisted method of virtue signalling.

The degeneration of the term “woke” goes hand-in-hand with the self-affirming nature of “allies” in the United States. In theory, an ally is someone who supports an oppressed group, to which they do not personally belong, in their struggle for societal emancipation. Taken out of context, there is nothing wrong with being an “ally”. One doesn’t have to be part of an oppressed group to support them in their liberation movement—indeed, change for an oppressed group often depends on the allyship of other members of society. It goes without saying that the majority of progressive American youths would gladly support any number of identity groups against the forces of oppression. Why then, is it that we need to declare ourselves as “allies”? It seems that we as young progressives have passed the point where the announcement of allyship turned from genuine concern for the oppressed into another form of self-validating virtue signalling.

The most common criticisms of Trump—rudeness, vulgarity, and personal distastefulness—damningly reveal the focus of the “woke” and the “allies” of students. Attacking Trump over the superficial is far easier than digging into the nitty-gritty of his atrocious policy-making. However, it almost seems as if any attack on Trump, whether for his personality or for his policies, is boiled down in the minds of progressive youths into a simple attack on Trump.

Nuanced and ideologically grounded responses to Trump are notably lacking across university and high school campuses. If we only respond to the daily outbursts from Trump, what will happen when the next neo-conservative crypto-fascist comes around with a shred of tact?

Given our track record, we’d probably be fine with it, so long as we called them out for every time they swore at a reporter or made a sexist comment or had sex with some porn-star. Our attacks that we levy at Trump must be from a theoretically sound perspective, lest we forget what we stand for as progressives and radicals. If we hope to stand against the looming reactionary darkness, we should best bring the torch of solid ideology with us to light the way.

Of course, all this hinges on the assumption that progressive students are willing to fight for what they believe in. Perhaps it gives us too much credit to assume that we are capable and willing to fight for social justice. Given that we have chosen the path of hollow platitudes over thorough ideological considerations, maybe the current expressions of wokeness and virtue signalling are the highest form we could hope to achieve.

The administration gives us the means and methods to develop our own principles. Few other schools have whole days dedicated to discussions of social issues. Yet, we continue to view our political and social selves from the perspective of what clubs or affinity groups we participate in rather than personal convictions and well-founded beliefs.

No one stands in the way of progressive students’ personal ideological development, but solid progressive politics are still lacking. There is hardly a stigma against progressive politics in American schools. If anything, one would expect that the few conservatives on those campuses would have the least capability to develop their beliefs and understanding of the world.

Despite all the factors stacked against them, a disproportionate number of my philosophically and ideologically inclined friends are conservatives. It seems as if the overwhelming progressive culture of youth politics has made us complacent with holding fists in the air and feeling guilty for being white or not a person of color. Clearly, we have the capability to reach out and seize well-read and thought-out politics, but progressives have made a choice not to. Our own political habits have made us lazy and self-satisfied, and that could be the death knell for the future of American radicality.

Ultimately, it is the burden of students themselves to take up the mantle of progressivism that they have claimed. It is no longer enough to be woke or an ally. If we truly want to be the ideological future, then it is essential that we cast off the self-affirming norms so commonplace today. Now more than ever, political consciousness in all forms must be developed as fast as possible—and not just holding a fist up.