Why school? (Petit Rorqual)

By: Anonymous
Originally published on October 2 2015
Original French text here: https://petitrorqual.wordpress.com/2015/10/02/pourquoi-lecole/#_ftn1

In her book Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune [1] , Kristin Ross lays out the discourses and images of a revolutionary project that she describes as a lived experience of “equality in action”. If the issue was then the dismantling of the state’s bureaucratic apparatus, the first step was to address one of its central elements: school. Ross dedicates a whole chapter to what the Commune planned on doing and undoing within it: to open up its enclosures to the subject of shared (communal) luxury. In other words that echo the strong imagery associated with that impassioned moment: to plant apricot trees amidst the ruins of the great column [2] .

To open the school onto the street, the neighbourhood, the workshop, the workplace, not in order to synchronize children’s actions and knowledge to the market’s expectations, but to incite girls and boys to discover other spaces, for them to learn of their own hands how to grasp and shape the stuff of this world. This living learning arises at any point during an encounter or a gesture, such is the spirit of Jacotot’s approach to teaching: “Thought, for Jacotot, is not divided into specific competences and domains for specialists–-it is similar in all of its exercises and can be shared by all. The something that one learns and to which one relates everything else can very well be a literal thing” (Ross, 76-77), or deeply abstract as well. At any rate, be it from a piece of wood, a section of equation or a leap, learning is possible from the moment one draws it out to bridge the space between matter and mind.

With regards to this communal school, we’ve been mainly thwarted by its facade of towering bureaucracy. In its early days, our family avoided planning. Our lack of design in parenting led us to assume a kind of idiocy, a reliance upon the efficiency of the body following one, then two children. At that point, we’d finally learned something: to dodge formal subjects as well as the imposed rules that structure the daily life of children and of those committed to them. We have also be saved on several occasions: daycare educators grabbed us by the scruff of our neck when we became overwhelmed. In the strange brew of early childhood, we were saved by the complete and unexpected fantasy of their presence, by their playful euphemisms (“she was a little ‘sensitive’ today”) at times when we were disposed to desolating bluntness.

We found ourselves awash upon the shores of school a little worse for wear but alive. We told ourselves, “just try hard, it’ll be ok”. We got to work with the exhilarated insistence of novelty, as well as the intransigence of the life before us: kitchens aren’t only hospitable to parties, but to decisions, outrages, reconciliations, sticky rice under the little one’s high chair, and homework. We wanted our school to be a public one, believing that it is where living amongst others begins. It was never meant to be an elite training ground for a better-priced elsewhere, because it never was about escaping, but living in common, fairness, proximity. It wouldn’t be easy, in the end, nor would it be transparent.

This is my account from October 19, 2008:

We’re filling out our first form. Pen in mouth, eyes on the ceiling, hesitant to write our true thoughts. It is for our son’s enrolment in school next year. The questions baffle us, we balk, “his strengths, his weaknesses”, that’s not ok. Our child is unique, they should take him whole, as is, we will not deliver him in a spare parts. We want the best, we wonder what is best. The form, including its margins, is filled up slowly. Our writing takes place under the kitchen lamp. It’s late, our son is four years old, time now for school to come to the table.

Seven years later, I think back to this moment when the child removes from his backpack an umpteenth crumpled response plan devised without us, elaborated without him, yet to help him to…to what already? To complete mindless exercises, to repeat pointless actions, to not make mistakes without having been shown the logic of the rules that created them, all this shrouded in disarming opacity. The margin of this new form holds our annotations, our questions and comments about an action beyond our control and about which we have no illusions.

Last year, when homework had withered into an exhausted battle, my hands in the ratatouille and his in a copy of dull verbs, arose an outcry. He was protesting that school was taking everything, all the space and all the time, all of life, that it had become more important than anything while not deserving it. We’d set down our respective tools, I, to listen, and him, to collect his thoughts, teeming for some time now. He spoke of space and time, graphed from wall to wall, without being left the opportunity for children, “humans, just smaller”,  to sprout their own inventions; he tells the story of practices of micro-resistance deployed in order to break open that space, to not get in line as soon as the bell rings, to slow down, to refuse the life we’ve imposed upon them.

A while later at a PCLH meeting [Profs contre la hausse, an independent group of teachers against tuition hikes], I heard several elementary school teachers react against a social worker who was there to explain the implementation of the LEAN management technique at her CSSS; two women spoke up to share how their work and the very possibility of doing it “freely” was being limited by optimization measures being applied to their every action. I realized that what had been imposed upon children and what they were bringing home to me, was also taking hold of the teachers, that dispossession and isolation were common conditions. That all this bullshit and trouble we’d been grappling with could be understood in relation to a debilitating management model.

This fall, elementary and high school teachers are mobilizing. Thankfully, this mobilization is transgressing the controlled framework of the negotiation of collective agreements, which is healthy. A link has been forged between their imposed conditions and those lived by worried parents who are in solidarity with the “je protège mon école publique” [I protect my public school] movement; children are also appropriating this collective expression. I hope that by it, they might put their foot in the door and participate in sowing the political on the school grounds whereby imaginings of a new life can germinate.

Last week, our son was sweating tears and anxiety over another cover letter, his own to write. At the age of 11, he’s now in the sixth grade of elementary school and must submit his application to high schools that may or may not choose him. He has chosen. He has his reasons that are his own but that we understand. This time, he’s the one staring up at the ceiling, pen in mouth. He’s grasping for words, he’s straining to say who he is. He’s resisting our words and searching for ones in which he believes. It’s a painful anxiety, but it’s still beautiful.

In the span of seven years, the pen has passed from our hands to his. It’s quite an emancipation. This emancipation occurred at school, though by no will of its own. To defend this very public school today is to stand for an inextricably individual and collective power, to be able to decide to do or not do, to claim the right to somehow be that which isn’t nothing.

[1] Kristin Ross, 2015, Communal Luxury: The Political Imaginary of the Paris Commune, London/New York, Verso.

[2] At the peak of the Commune, the Vendome column, symbol of national and centralized monumental space, was destroyed. Kristin Ross wrote “Indeed, we might think of the demolition of the column as an initial clearing of the terrain for communal luxury.” (Ross, 93)

Photos: Robert Doisneau, La Libellule, École de la rue de Verneuil, Paris, mai 1956; Doisneau (ablog.com/doisneau-photographie-en-classe-a107163446)


Translated from the original French by Language and Dissent, a collectively-run blog supporting the anti-austerity struggle in Quebec. These are amateur translations written by volunteers; we have done our best to translate these pieces fairly and coherently, but the final texts may have their flaws. If you find any important errors in any of these texts, we would be very grateful if you would share them with us via email (languageanddissent [at] gmail [dot] com). Please read and distribute these texts in the spirit in which they were intended; that of solidarity and the sharing of information.

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