Monday, November 9, 2009

Adulthood and its Discontents

The most recent episode of The A Life, about asexuality and school, got me thinking about my own life between the ages of 6 and 18. We're all told that "adulthood" (and I do air quotes here for a reason) will be better than school, however, it's astonishing how similar "adulthood" is to childhood. I've found myself wondering why I've stayed so long at a job that has convinced me that hell is really on earth (Warning: Hell isn't red, it's beige). And I think it's for the same reason that women may not fight their attackers: I've been set up to think and behave a certain way, and I can't easily slough it off, even if I want to. All throughout school, this is the message I was given:

"Sit down, shut up, and do as you're told. If you have a problem, keep it to yourself. If you have a valid concern, which you won't, there's nothing that can be done about it. If you follow our unwritten rules perfectly, you will be rewarded with neglect. If you dare to question anything you will be tormented and abused. We're right, you're wrong."

And this is supposed to be our "preparation for adulthood" and for the workplace? What kind of horror is this "adulthood", that it would suit us well to become silent victims of circumstance? While some lucky few among us might be told to think for ourselves in school, that message can be easily lost in the strength of the message above. It's astounding that I'm capable of even one independent thought, and it's not surprising that I second-guess myself constantly and feel comfortable beating myself up. Adulthood is a range of ages beyond 18. "Adulthood" is a means of social control. Adulthood has something to do with freedom, responsibility, and citizenship. "Adulthood" has something to do with accepting your fate and your "place", the place that was marked out for you in elementary school.

I took a break in the middle of writing this post. I was going to come back and do a more explicit tie-in to asexuality, but in the meantime, I'd read a few pages of this book A People's History of the United States. And in the couple of pages I read were some criticisms of school as a breeding ground for yes-men. Oddly enough, observers in the 1800s had similar things to say about school as I do. Howard Zinn writes:

...the spread of public school education enabled the learning of writing, reading, and arithmetic for a whole generation of workers, skilled and semiskilled, who would be the literate labor force of the new industrial age. It was important that these people learn obedience to authority. A journalist observer in the 1890s wrote: "The unkindly spirit of the teacher is strikingly apparent; the pupils, being completely subjugated to her will, are silent and motionless, the spiritual atmosphere of the classroom is damp and chilly"

...Joel Spring, in his book Education and the Rise of the Corporate State, says: "The development of a factory-like system in the nineteenth-century schoolroom was not accidental." (263)

From an early age, we're trained to be on "search and destroy" mode for people's differences. At the risk of sounding like a bad movie review, it's a testament to the human spirit that there are some tolerant and open-minded people in the world as it is, even if there might not be as many of them as we'd prefer. The dichotomy of destroyer and destroyed is something I would like to leave behind with the 1890s.


Carolyn said...

This post really got me thinking about society works, because there is something that bugs me about your description of adulthood, but I also recognize that you're simply much better at thinking outside the box than I am. I personally have had the experience that the difference between childhood and adulthood is that when you're a kid there is someone who's fighting for you, and in adulthood there isn't, but that doesn't mean people are necessarily fighting against you. Conceptualizing adulthood as a means of social control seems to be saying that society is built with the express purpose to aschew change at every turn, but can't it just be that society is not built to constantly attempt to change? Children are taught to respect everything we currently know because the people teaching have struggled to gain even this knowledge so think of it as the height of knowledge (which it is, until the kids realized something can be done better).

Ily said...

Thanks for commenting, I'm relieved that someone did! :-) It's only recently that I've realized that my experiences as a child might influence me as an adult. Maybe that sounds obvious, but I guess I always assumed that once I grew up I would somehow be "beyond" the messages I got as a child. It's funny because I really have no idea what other people's childhoods were like. Were other kids told that they were perfect just as they were? I somehow doubt it, but I really have no idea. Maybe it's yet another thing that should be talked about more. You say thinking outside the box like it's a good thing, but I've always had a very different way of thinking from the people around me, and as a kid, this was not valued or encouraged AT ALL. And thinking back on that fact makes me sad. People say school is important for kids because of the "social" aspect. We could have been taught to respect others, to be open-minded about people, to be tolerant, etc. But at least in my experience, we never were. Isn't that more important than "Lord of the Flies" and (true story) making up songs about the natural resources of Ghana? Everyone says "kids are cruel", but it's not like people become more virtuous with age. In my opinion, cruel kids become cruel adults. Why shouldn't they? No one ever teaches them otherwise.

In theory, public schools should be an equalizing force. But it seems like they just enforce the same inequality that a lot of us face as adults. I guess if I could sum up this post in a sentence, it would be that we can do better, and deserve better.

Anonymous said...

I like your post very much. A good topic to talk about. I also think that there's not that much difference between childhood and adulthood. I think it was Eduardo Galeano who said "With 7 years of age I ended my studies." which indicates that after you enter school, you lose your freedom of thought. I also remember how I wrote in my yearbook "If this was the place I ought to learn socializing, it horribly failed". If children are taught to be always the best, always competing, then that's what they'll do as adults and that's how society (will)look like.Were I live inequality in the school system is one of the highest in the world, it's a system were people decide about children of 10 years of age, whether they'll enter the "workers"school, the "technicians" ot the "graduates" school. If you're the child of a worker family you'll probably do the same and most uni-students have parents who studied at a uni,too....and are rich....etc. A system which was established at the end of the 19th century in Germany.
Anyway, this shows just how there really is a kind of indoctrination, and purposeful creation of "classes" and the things they "have to know".

Ily said...

Thank you! Schools are very unequal here as well...public schools are supported by property taxes, so wealthy communities get much better schools. It perpetuates a vicious cycle.

maymay said...

We're all told that "adulthood" (and I do air quotes here for a reason) will be better than school, however, it's astonishing how similar "adulthood" is to childhood.

This is SO true. I was writing about this very thing on my own blog not long ago, where I talk a little about my own experience as a 2nd grader trying to get out of school. The post is called "On Youth, Sexuality, Education, and Your Fears", and I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts since I basically rail against the idea that "adulthood" is so arbitrarily defined as "a range of ages beyond 18."

Ily said...

Good to hear from you again maymay, I will check out your post!