BRAIN DAMAGE: SOME REFLECTIONS ON SCHOOL

“It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry… I believe that it would be possible to rob even a healthy beast of prey of its voraciousness, if it were possible, with the aid of a whip, to force the beast to devour continuously, even when not hungry…” – Albert Einstein

One of the things that I wish wish WISH had been told to me when I was at school was just how little power they truly possess. I have a number of anarchists and trouble-makers in my family but none of them ever thought to explain that school authority is wholly a bluff: if they are unable to physically harm you then they are unable to harm you full-stop, all they’ve got are tactics to waste your time, and given that that’s all they do anyway, so what? If you are committed to the sort of future school prepares you for – a dull one – then of course it matters, school-reports matter, grades matter, unimportant exams are important, but I never did want that life and who would? But the veneer of Seriousness with which the empty-headed empty-hearted school institution cloaks itself is overwhelming and contagious: so although I broke the rules, I always felt an inordinate level of fear in doing so; what if I got caught? The whole time I was at school, I really thought that a Detention meant something; they waste hours and hours and hours and hours and hours of my time but what a disgrace should they waste one more! And then there’s that dread word “expulsion’ – imagine the terror, the soul-shattering shame of being expelled! If I’m very naughty they’ll throw me out of prison!

Mark Twain said something to the effect that irreverence is the beginning of liberty. If you, as a school-student, are able to obtain an accurate picture of the school’s structure then you are free to laugh at it, and to laugh when it punishes you for laughing at it, and to laugh when it punishes you for laughing at its punishments for laughing at it and, crucially, to keep on laughing: there is no point, no moment, no depth, at which school has the power to compel you to take it seriously, not unless you surrender that part of you. Which you may very well decide to do: the mocking prankster role is one type of rebellion, only one, and there may be other equally fruitful ways to approach a large hive-minded organisation that wants you as one of its drones. Having seen through its threats and deceits you may decide to nonetheless work as hard as you can for those dangled carrots but to do so on the condition of mutual respect: after all, being a teen or a pre-teen does not a priori disqualify you from the status of “human,” and there is a way humans talk to each other, and there is a way humans do not talk to each other. (A hint: there are very few people on this planet whom I would call “Sir” or “Mr./Mrs. So-and-so”; still, if someone wanted to be thus addressed I would be happy to do so, on the condition that the weird and archaic courtesy is reciprocated.) Any teacher who refuses to allow “his” or “her” students to question everything forfeits the right to be taken seriously; forfeits, in fact, the right to be considered a teacher at all. Understand also that should a teacher ever make you feel even an iota of fear – through shouting, threats, sarcasm, lies or other forms of intimidation – then that teacher has just handed you his head on a plate: because your fear is as nothing compared to one particularly modern terror that scourges every level of the pyramid, the fear of… lawyers. The recent rise of the lawsuit is a terrible and degrading thing but still it is an option that is available, and you shouldn’t hesitate to let it be known that you know that, and you at least have nothing to lose. Of course you shouldn’t be petulant about it –“I’m gonna sue you! I’m gonna sue you!” – not least because petulance, like undue seriousness and fear of inconsequential consequences, is one of the diseases with which they seek to infect you in order to justify their control over you. The image of the whining moody adolescent is a modern invention, one carefully inculcated by the media, designed to sidetrack the genuine exhilarations and depressions of early life into predictable and therefore controllable expressions of childishness. Write your own script.

The problem with the idea of demanding from the school-system an acceptance of one’s humanity is that disrespect for the same is built into the system at a very deep level. Homo sapiens is in the cosmically bizarre position of having criminalised itself: the human body is illegal, the naked ape-form is not for the likes of us, try going out without your clothes on and you’ll soon find yourself where animals belong: in a cage. People, then, present themselves through their clothes. The fabric of my trousers, the colour of my socks, the badges on my lapels, this is how I let the world know who I am: and this is what school stomps upon. Any and every claim by school authorities that they are engaged in the business of education – “e-ducation,” leading out, leading the true and dynamic Self out from the shackles of infancy and ignorance – is refuted, is shown to be an absurd lie, by the fact of the school-uniform. Not content to tell the young what they should be thinking and when and how, they tell them what they should look like, and this is how the young should look: the same.

So we’re back to rebellion. It’s easy to mock school-uniform by approaching the rules in a strictly literal-minded manner: does your school prohibit Edwardian pocket-watches? Well then wear Edwardian pocket-watches! Personally I always hated the tie: on top of every other indignity I was expected to wake up every morning and wrap a noose around my neck as a precondition to receiving the holy nectar of Learning! Then one day I found a gloriously long “Tom Baker scarf”-type tie, it trailed from my throat to the floor, it was so silly that suddenly I didn’t mind my having to wear a tie, and suddenly my teachers did mind. Of course the nature of these sorts of games is that the opposition is always one step behind you. My tie wouldn’t stand a chance these days: see http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/8051982.stm. The “Schoolwear Association” observes that schools are switching to clip-on ties, “because of fears of ties getting caught in equipment or strangling pupils.” Gotta love that “or”! “Clip-on ties also allow schools to create a more standardised appearance, says the association, stopping pupils from being more creative in how they wear their ties.” There you go, straight out of the horse’s arse: creativity is something to be stopped. Only a dulled serf would stand still for this sort of thing, but that’s the tendency of school: to dull, to degrade, to make you stand still.

And to isolate you. “Two sincere people can change the world” – I read that once in an underground newspaper produced in the 1960s. If no-one’s engaged in and motivated by the schooling process – and certainly it’s rare to find many students who radiate an active happiness during the happiest days of their life – then it ought to be possible for more than two people to stand together in resistance to the meat-grinder. One of the ways in which they could this might be, say, to start an underground newspaper: to determine for themselves which essays they will write, which ideas they will entertain, to develop their own curricula, to grade themselves not with a percentage-mark but with a sustained enthusiasm, with a product they won’t throw away at the end of the day. To embark upon a personal course of study brings you face-to-face with a shocking realisation: nothing is boring! I suffered this revelation several times during the course of my own education: firstly when I read an Alan Moore interview around the time of his doomed “Big Numbers” project, an interview in which he talked at length about… maths. And made it sound interesting. Which was impossible. Because maths was the most boring thing in the world, maths was being given “exercises” with all the intellectual validity of sudoku puzzles and sitting in silence for an hour and a half “exercising” – and here was Mr. Moore (“Sir!”) talking about Mandelbrot Sets and Koch Snowflakes and why weren’t we taught this in school? Science Class similarly was a grey, grey affair; well, Science is the process of enquiry into the universe, the universe! How Satanic a pact do you have to have entered into to make Existence itself seem dull? A quick dose of quantum weirdness and superstring mystery solves that. Nothing is boring.

The more there are of you, the more discontented and proud and organised and humourous you are, the more you can do. The Right Reverend John Taylor Gatto suggests refusing to sit standardised tests: tests that don’t care what you as an individual know or want to know, but ensure that you as a statistic contain approximately the same factoids as your peers. Having gotten into the habit of refusing, there’s no end to the impositions you can collectively Just Say No to; go on strike for better pay; demand brighter-coloured walls and the right to paint them yourselves, you’re always told that this is your school; have everyone in town swap school-uniforms and turn up at the wrong building one morning… And so on. But, face it, “two sincere people” is a lot to ask for. It’s a sad fact, but most people do not and will not fight: there are plenty of revolutionary kids, they wear their revolution as a T-shirt slogan and that’s all they do with it. Another anecdote: back towards the end of my school days, when I’d more or less figured the thing out and when my school had a certain perspective on me too, I’d tend to take off one day per week, bunk off and educate myself with books and bicycles and drugs, and come in the next day and write myself an absence-note because my teacher was legally required to get one from me, and I’d sign it from my parents because she’d get in trouble if I didn’t, and sometimes I’d go a bit too far – “Jason was absent yesterday as he was suffering a severe case of existential exhilaration” – so she’d ask me to rewrite it; one day this other kid came in after a day off, he handed in a note he’d written himself and our teacher shouted at him and this kid just buckled, face down, red cheeks, “Sorry Miss… Sorry Miss… Won’t do it again Miss…” Good luck finding even one ally.

So you find yourself discontented and effectively alone in your discontent. The school authorities will have tried various predictable tactics – punishments, patronising mockery, nothing that’s going to overturn any Will more determined than a slug’s. But they have one more trick up their sleeve and that’s the one you’ve got to look out for: “You’re not with us, boy? Then you must be against us!” They won’t give you time to formulate the thought, “No, actually I don’t give a fuck about you either way.” No, they’re off: “You’re a rebel! And rebels like you have a number of subcultural options available: have you thought about the Goth look, I think it’d suit you. Drink to excess because that’s the rebellious thing to do; hate your parents! Hate me! Go on protest marches, shout at the walls! Sign petitions!” and so on. I remember my headmaster having a genuine gleam of appreciation in his eyes as he described me as an anarchist. He truly did respect me for seeing through his game; but that didn’t mean he wasn’t trying to nudge me onto some other equally futile game. “No, actually I don’t give a fuck about you either way.” The key to resistance, here as elsewhere, is to develop your inner aristocrat. Robert Anton Wilson, back in the Seventies, talked about how the dominant conflict in society, then and in the future, was and is between two forces that he labelled The Revolution Of Higher Expectations and The Revolution Of Lower Expectations. The nature of school and the totalitarian interests it serves is to convince you that things are getting worse and things are only going to get worse, BUT do what you’re told and keep your head down and you might get a job, a job! You’ll be ever so lucky to have a job. Reject this. Reject the notion that the only solution to an economic crisis is to cut, cut, cut; after all there are two ways to procure money, one is to spend less, the other is to make more, so legalise all victimless crimes because there are entire industries waiting in the wings if only the law-makers weren’t engaged in enforcing a morality that isn’t necessarily mine or yours. Reject this. Insist on improvement. Timothy Leary, in “The Delicious Grace Of Moving One’s Hand,” tells of the time he and his friends, tripping at the mansion they occupied until police harassment forced them out, noticed – for the first time really noticed – the road leading up to the gates of that mansion, and they realised – really realised – that none of them actually wanted that road to be there. So what they didn’t do was, they didn’t write to their political overlords asking them to send trained men to remove that road. No, nor did they invest in megaphones and spend their evenings shouting at the road while bearing placards which read: “F**K THIS BL**DY ROAD.” Nor did they sit around crying over the horrible awful unfairness of the whole damn thing. No: they went to the tool-shed for tools then they got down on their hands and knees and… Well, here’s Dr. Leary with the rest: “Well, man, you know, that was really a trip because we got down one inch, two inches, three inches, six inches, eight inches, you know. There was the macadam, the tar, then the concrete. So we were radioing back to our green planet: ‘Well, we haven’t discovered earth yet, but keep in touch!’ Right. And after about two hours of sweating, we broke through and we put our hand down, and wow, it was earth. We radioed back, ‘Well, this is terra, believe it or not.’ And then we made an interesting discovery. If you take the pickaxe and you just get a hole started, and you go underneath it, it just crumbles off, see? You know, you don’t even have to do anything to the macadam road. Just like dig the earth underneath it a little, and it will go crack.” “Underminers” indeed. Do not accept the unacceptable. Create a future better than the present…

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