by Sinéad Murphy
PLZ I DONT LIKE THIS – This message was typed by a nine-year-old child, over and over again. In capitals and with relentless economy. An unmistakable SOS.
Where was this child and what was happening to her?
She was at home. In her Geography class. On Microsoft Teams.
I saw her cry for help in an article published by Conservative Woman on February 5th. The article outlined what a day at school is now like for a nine year-old boy called Simon, who lives with his mother on the 12th floor of a council tower block.
Simon’s day is a cruel one – on that, most of us would agree. But do we see just how cruel? With neither video nor audio available for the Geography lesson, PLZ I DONT LIKE THIS, typed repeatedly into the chatbox by one of Simon’s classmates, is as close to a scream as this child had the tools for.
Members of our Government thoughtlessly describe the ‘challenges’ of remote learning: the difficulties of keeping children interested and active. But in this child’s scream, there is not the disengagement and inertia presumed by their careless acknowledgements. In this child’s scream, there is actual DISTRESS.
So-called ‘home-schooling,’ for many if not most of our children, is not a less effective version of normal schooling or a less fun version of normal schooling. It is another thing altogether – complete with its own curriculum. And it is driving our children to despair.
The President of the British Paediatric Neurology Association has described a recent ‘explosion’ in tics and Tourette’s Syndrome among children in the UK. These tics are coping mechanisms, repeated behaviours to give familiar shape to experiences that are new and threatening. A tic says PLZ I DONT LIKE THIS, over and over again – just not, usually, in those words.
So, the nine-year-old in her Geography lesson who fashioned a typeface scream from out of her solitary distress did so on behalf of countless of her kind. Her great effort, on such a paltry forum as her tiny Teams chatbox, poorly overseen by a teacher with little time and bad tech, must surely be amplified by anyone who has the chance.
Conservative Woman, to its great credit, was the first to take up her cause. I would like to follow suit and try to understand what, exactly, is being taught to our children and why it is so many cannot bear it.
Simon begins his school day by sliding the couple of feet from his bed to his computer – so the Conservative Woman article begins. We are not told that he gets dressed. Nor even that he goes to the bathroom. He turns on the screen, watches a few YouTube videos, then logs on to Microsoft Teams and registers for his first class of the day by typing ‘Hi Miss’ into the chatbox.
Has Simon woken up yet? Has he looked out of his window? Has he spoken? Or has he moved seamlessly between a dream land and a virtual land without traversing any real land at all?
The NHS website describes a condition called ‘derealisation,’ which comprises an inability to discern and respond to what is real as distinct from what is fictional or virtual. When you suffer from derealisation, you are unable to encounter the world with the immediacy and vibrancy that real people, objects and events might be expected to elicit. Everything is vague, fuzzy. Time and space are distorted: objects that would usually be experienced as in the background, stand out and dominate; events that have just happened seem to have taken place in the distant past.
Derealisation is not a condition into which you slip easily. It must be actively imbued and assiduously practised. Simon, from the outset of his home-school day, is being instilled with derealisation and given ample opportunity to get good at it. Conventional experiences of time and space are scrambled by so long spent in interacting with a two-dimensional world inside a tiny room in which he is accustomed to being asleep. Heretofore intuitive distinctions, between reality and virtuality and fiction, become overlaid with a spectrum along which are gradations of salience and immediacy – Simon’s teacher is a real person who he knows quite well, but he can neither see nor hear her; the footballer on his YouTube video is a celebrity he has never met but he can see him in high definition and hear the ball ping off his boot; his mother, who will come in to give him his lunch, shares his living quarters but none of his daily experiences.
From long periods of interaction via a screen, children become sophisticated negotiators of spaces and times in which the binary distinction of the real and the unreal is not primary.
On the NHS website, derealization is twinned with ‘depersonalisation.’ Sufferers from depersonalization have the feeling of being outside of themselves, of observing what they do and say as if from a distance. This produces a jarring in their experience of themselves in the world, akin to talking on the phone while hearing your own echo.
Again, depersonalization is not a condition into which you naturally slide; it too must be actively transmitted. And it is being transmitted to Simon. The ease of his morning transition from his bed to his desk obviates the rituals of what we call ‘getting ready’. Nothing awakens Simon to himself. He is bounced from unconsciousness to virtuality without ever coming to. He does not even speak, only touches and types.
When Simon finally does say something later that day, how odd it will sound to him. When at last he does move about deliberately, without the ergonomic scaffolding of the mouse and the keyboard and the touch screen, how clunky he will feel to himself. How unwieldy. After a day of home-schooling, nothing that Simon says or does will seem to himself to quite fit. It will be too loud somehow, and too large. Tacit inhabiting of himself will give way to disorienting self-awareness.
Derealisation and depersonalisation together comprise what the NHS describes as ‘dissociation’. The infrastructure of home-schooling – the slightness of the transitions in and out of school and the minimal inputs required by the technology – make dissociation into the foundation of the home-school curriculum, on which the rest of its edifice is built.
Simon’s first lesson of the home-school day is Science. His teacher sends through a document, which the class is expected to download. It is a multiple-choice questionnaire, and they have 30 minutes to complete it. If the children need help, which most of them do, they must type a question into the chatbox. The teacher tries to answer as many questions as he can, but there is not much time and there are many technical difficulties. At the end of the 30 minutes, Simon has not received any answers to his chatbox queries and has guessed at four out of the 20 questions. Next week, he may be told whether his guesses were correct. Or not. Either way, it does not matter.
We make a mistake if we focus on what Simon has not learnt during his Science lesson. He has not learnt much about the make-up of plant cells – that is true, and inevitable. But he has learnt something, of far wider relevance. He has learnt that it does not matter. Whatever is being taught does not matter – how could it, plucked from an already abstract National Curriculum, suspended onto a slide that appears, out of nowhere and in no context, on a screen in your bedroom on the 12th floor. But Simon also learns that whether or not he understands what is being taught does not matter, and whether or not he completes the teacher’s task does not matter. None of it matters, which Simon learns quickly and well.
The lesson that things do not matter is not easily taught, especially not to a nine-year-old. Its demoralising effect goes against the native energy of youth. It must be carefully and doggedly instilled if it is to take. Simon’s Science lesson has been effective in instilling it.
Simon’s next class is Geography. There is a long time spent in waiting for everyone to log on. Some never do. Then there is more time spent in waiting for the teacher to solve problems with her technology. Finally, she manages to share a screen image of the Earth with its various layers – crust, mantle, core. The task is to name each layer. Simon waits for others to write their answers first, and copies them. Many of the children ask for help. The teacher mutes herself for everyone so that she can speak individually to one of them. The others wait in silence. Or type PLZ I DON’T LIKE THIS, over and over again. By the time the teacher returns, the class is at an end.
Simon’s Geography lesson is the cruellest one of all, the most painful for the children to sit through. In the context of their general remoteness, from the world, from each other, even from themselves, their teacher’s switching off their audio-link gives them the experience of an even greater remoteness. Of the outer reaches of remoteness. Of an isolation within what is an already aching isolation. Simon and the other children are not just left alone in their Geography lesson. They are switched off. Shut out.
Simon’s Geography lesson teaches him little or nothing about the Earth’s layers. Of course it doesn’t – confined to the 12th floor, what can the Earth’s layers really mean to Simon? What it does teach him is his radical aloneness, via a practical experiment in the sudden and total severance of his last thin thread of human contact.
Lunch, for Simon, is a sandwich in front of the screen, watching clips of Premier League highlights.
Then it is time for P.E. Simon is sent a video of someone doing star-jumps. He is expected to copy them in his room. But there is no room in Simon’s room. His efforts to recreate a star are hindered by the nearness of his bed to his desk and of his desk to the door.
Next to Simon’s efforts to make like a star in a bedroom too cramped for his arms and legs to extend, the sublime skills of his favourite Premier League stars shine brighter and more tantalisingly than ever before. Vicarious physicality effortlessly carries the day.
Simon quickly abandons his P.E. class, but not before he has learnt its valuable lesson: the literal and leaden limits of the physical. Simon’s P.E. class teaches him to despise his body, with its physical limits, its non-sublimity. A lump of meat in a meat space. Apt for nothing at all.
The final lesson of Simon’s home-school day is Drama. Simon used to love Drama, the article tells us. He used to enjoy doing acting exercises with his friends. Now, he is sent scenes from the National Theatre, which he does not understand at all. He watches funny videos of his own choosing instead.
Simon’s Drama class should be cancelled; you cannot do acting exercises with your friends on Microsoft Teams. But it is not cancelled. Instead, something is substituted for the collaborative inventiveness that Simon has so enjoyed about Drama: a heavy dose of the National Theatre, utterly uninteresting to Simon and his classmates, and inevitably leading them to turn on something more entertaining.
And the lesson of Simon’s home-school Drama class is thereby imparted: imaginative collaboration is exchangeable with personal entertainment; active creativity, replaceable by passive consumption. How long will Simon’s enthusiasm for acting exercises survive this lesson in lazy amusement?
And so ends Simon’s home-school day.
We tend to assume that oppression works by depriving us of things, by preventing us from doing things. The great theatre of government by decree is currently buttressing this assumption very well, with Boris Johnson and chosen ministers taking their positions on centre-stage, warning us not to meet our friends, admonishing us for going for a walk on the beach.
This basic assumption causes us to analyse the home-schooling of our children in terms of what it takes away from them: sustained exposure to educational content, personal edification by teachers, interaction with peers.
But oppression also works by giving us things – opportunities, skills, insights – and by allowing us to do things – connect with each other; access information and advice. We stop short at resisting these things as oppressive because we cannot shake off the basic assumption: that oppression is essentially privative, and that anything we are given or allowed cannot, therefore, be oppressive.
We must rid ourselves of this misguided assumption. Only then will we criticise and resist home-schooling – not for what it takes away from our children but for all the tyrannous lessons that it gives to them.
The oppression of home-schooling lies much more with what it does teach our children than with what it does not teach them.
We ought not to overlook this any longer. For, bad and all as it would be for home-schooling to continue as an ineffectual effort to educate our children, it is infinitely worse that it continues as a very effective effort to educate our children, according to a curriculum that we would almost certainly reject if we could see it.
It is true, Simon’s situation is a more deprived one than that of many children. Yet the lessons that Simon learns from home-schooling – dissociation, demoralisation, isolation, de-physicalisation and passive consumption – are being taught to every child who is currently schooled remotely. Not quite as intensely, perhaps – that is all.
It is true also that home-schooling is about to end – so we are told, at least, and for now. Our children return to school on March 8th. But they will not return to normal school. With phasing and testing and masking and distancing, they will return to new-normal-school, or to Covid-safe-school, whatever you want to call it. And when they do, we ought not merely to regret what it will deprive our children of: team sports, perhaps, or free use of the school hall. For it will certainly be actively teaching lessons that we very likely would not agree to if its curriculum were published.
Official reports state that every year more than 100,000 children leave compulsory education in the UK without having achieved functional literacy – the ability to read a bank statement, for instance, or to fill out a government claim-form. This failure of normal schooling is not to be understated, nor its oppressive effects underestimated.
But however execrable it is that children are denied an education, it is worse if they are given a false education. To not teach them things is bad; to teach them bad things is excruciating.
A short film from 2011, by director Babak Anvari, enacts very well the horror of active oppression by schooling. In it, a group of children about Simon’s age begin to be taught a new lesson. It is written on the board by the teacher. It is that two plus two equals five. The children are asked to repeat this lesson. When they object, they are silenced. When one child resists, he is killed. In the end, the children are repeating the lesson dutifully. The last shot is of a copy book, in which one of the children has written out the new lesson correctly, then hurriedly scratches out the ‘5’ and replaces it with ‘4’. We glory in his resistance, though we fear for his future.
Simon’s classmate, who typed her SOS in the chatbox, is like this child-resistor. She will not be taught the home-school curriculum. She does not like it and will not submit. We glory in her resistance, though we fear for her future.
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.