March for Our Lives: The Limitations of the Children’s Crusade

by Benjamin Studebaker

In West Virginia, teachers whose wages had stagnated for years struck for–and received–a 5% pay rise. In Britain academics struck for–and it appears shall receive, at least for now–the continued maintenance of their defined benefit pension plans. But in much of America the students are walking out not to fight for public education but to fight for gun control.  At a time when American students are saddled with unsustainable student loan debt, when voucher programs divert public investment away from public schools, and when states respond to teacher shortages by lowering standards and hiring scabs, American students are focused on a social issue.

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It’s not like this in Britain. In the UK, students and faculty get political explicitly to prevent the education system from being “marketised”. British student politics is about fighting to make sure public schools get funded, teachers get paid, and students don’t get burdened with debt. It’s about preserving education’s independence from market forces. In America students have sat back and done little while the public schools and universities have been pillaged. And then they come out for gun control, and I’m meant to find this inspiring?

I’m sorry guys, I can’t get there. It’s a sad thing to admit, but at this point gun control has become another means by which we deflect attention away from what’s really going on. Kids are killing each other because our public schools are run like prisons by overworked, underpaid, and under-trained teachers and administrators. American schools have become all about test scores and the human needs of students have become an afterthought. If we took the guns away, the kids would have a harder time killing each other, but they’d still be miserable. It’s the misery that most warrants our attention, not its result.

When I was in high school, I was mad. There were too many adults who didn’t respect me, who heavily structured my day around activities that were meaningless. I sat there in French class as our incompetent French teacher–who couldn’t really speak either English or French, who scheduled unannounced tests on material we’d never covered, who spent two weeks each semester administering oral exams to one student at a time while the rest of us were stuck in class with nothing to do–pretended to teach us. Five years of French, and I couldn’t speak a lick of it. I daydreamed about walking out. Walking to the student parking lot, getting in my car, and just driving away. Why didn’t I do it? Because the adults told us over and over that if we did anything like that we’d be severely punished, and I believed them. Senior Year, I dropped that class, and that helped a little. But it’s not as if there was a pile of wonderful alternatives. The school didn’t have the money to fund a bunch of great electives. I replaced French with a study hall and spent the hour helping one of my favorite teachers prepare material for his classes. I still had to go to a social studies class where the teacher called the girls “wenches” and tried to pass off Glenn Beck clips as “educational”.

They blamed us for our own misery. We should stop bullying each other and just reach out to the loner kids. It was our fault our school wasn’t a happy place. Don’t blame the teachers, don’t blame the administrators, and definitely don’t blame Governor Mike Pence. It was our job to fix the school, within their parameters. There were good teachers and good administrators, but they were fighting a losing battle because our state and our governor set them up to fail by taking their resources in the years immediately following the worst economic crisis in a century. When our schools most needed support from our state, Pence pulled the plug. Today you don’t even need an education degree to teach in Indiana, and organisations like Teach for America shovel unqualified college students into classrooms to fill voids. A bill signed into law three days ago allows people to teach in Indiana without even a license.

American schools are prisons for children. They’re inhumane, authoritarian, and deeply stultifying. They’re only getting worse. And our kids are so used to this–so accustomed to the daily subjugation that is the high school experience–that none of this stuff drives them to protest or do anything. No, it takes someone shooting kids.

The kids are right to protest, but they should be protesting about so much more than just the guns. Adults should be taking the lead–not just on gun control, but on a constructive suite of education reforms designed with students in mind, to make the educational experience endurable. We need to fund the schools, pay the teachers, raise the teaching standards, scrap the tests, increase the menu of electives and the power students have to determine their own schedules. Our education system alienates and marginalises children and drives them to hurt themselves and others with words, guns, and everything in between.

The problem in our schools isn’t mainly about mental health. It’s not mainly about guns. It’s about a system which treats human beings like human garbage. Both parties have supported more vouchers and tests, more regimentation and structure. Nobody on the American political scene understands the problem or takes it seriously. In the American education debate, the blind lead the blind, and we wander in circles. The people who vote have already graduated high school. Most have forgotten what it is, believing the nostalgic lies fed to us on TV and in movie theaters. Until the student’s point of view is at the center of our thinking, we are just designing new kinds of prisons for innocent people. Yes, I don’t want guns in our prisons. But should our schools be prisons in the first place? What would kinder, gentler schools look like? These are the questions we should be asking. March for Our Lives is well-meaning, but it doesn’t help us get where we need to go.