‘School phobia’ is a dreadful label for some children's perfectly understandable response to being compelled to go to school against their will. They are not phobic, any more than a conscientious objector is a coward; they are refusing – and in most cases very nobly. Over the years, I have spoken to many worried parents of school-refusing children. The outrages these children have been subjected to in the name of ‘education’ disgust me. They have been saddled with a pseudo-medical label that has deliberate connotations of ‘mental illness’ – with all the stigma and the implied (and not-so-implied) menace that goes with that. Their perfectly reasonable dissent, and their desperately courageous resistance to being hurt and harmed has been cynically redefined as ‘overdependence,’ ‘psychological instability,’ and ‘immaturity.’ They have been psychologically tortured under the guise of psychiatric or psychological ‘treatment’ for a non-existent ailment. Their parents – also demeaned by labels such as ‘overprotective’ – have been threatened with court action unless they physically force their terrified, traumatised children into school every day. Many such parents who have sought my advice have themselves been in a terrible state of stress and trauma. Why don't they just comply? Because they know that forcing their child to go so school is immoral, psychologically harmful, and inimical to their child's education.
Or do they know that? Parents often do not seem to know it consciously. Or if they do, they also ‘know’ the contradictory idea that it is right and important for children to be schooled, because the law, the psychiatric, psychological, and educational professions all say so. They may be nice people in many respects, but as a result of their own parents' coercion, they are simply unable to see how damaging and wrong it is to force a child to go to school.
Ask parents what they would think of a system which not only imprisons innocent people (some of whom are terrified and suffer lifelong trauma as a result) for many years but then forces them to obey every whim of the warders, takes up their time with mind-numbing makework, leaving them almost no time for their own pursuits, and in some cases even force-feeds inmates, and so on. Thinking of vicious tyrants like Saddam Hussein, most will be incensed. They will rail against the brutality and immorality of such a system. Until you tell them that you were referring to our own dear school system. Then they will think that you are guilty of hyperbole, and that anyway, schoolchildren get nights and weekends out, unlike ‘real’ prisoners. Oh, well that's all right then! They are only imprisoned for five days out of seven. Super. And I suppose that the knowledge that they are to be locked up for five days a week for eleven years does not remotely affect them on the days when they are ‘free’? False. The psychological effects of school hang like a pall over children's lives, twisting their thinking and stunting their intellectual and psychological growth, whether it is a school day or not.
How would you feel if you were told today that you must go to school for the next eleven years, that you must attend all the classes I have deemed necessary for you, that you must submit to humiliating procedures and that you will probably be in fear for your physical safety much of the time. But worse, that you will have to put your own life on hold for eleven years in order to jump through the hoops that will be set up for you?
Even this comparison fails to capture some of the more destructive effects of compulsory schooling on children. Childhood is both the most important and the most vulnerable period of life. Children are at the beginning of their lives and do not have the inner resources that you might use to palliate an eleven-year imprisonment. Furthermore you are not in the position of having an overwhelming need to please your parents. As adults, most of us have to a significant extent escaped the need not to disappoint our parents or invoke their wrath. But children cannot throw off the need for their parents' love and approval without terrible emotional cost.
Even given that I am free from parental coercion, being forced to go to school would ruin my life. I should have to give up doing and thinking about what I want to do and think about, when and where I want to. Life is all too short and precious to waste doing things we don't want to do. In spending seven hours a day, five days a week, doing lessons that are at best only accidentally related to things I am interested in, I should be enacting someone else's notion of what I should do and of who I am. I should have no mental energy left to spend another seven hours at home thinking about the things I really want to think about. This would be very debilitating, and would adversely affect me at weekends too, because all the time, I should have in mind that on Monday morning, I must be back at school. The knowledge that there is a time limit – that on Monday morning I must be back at school – would make it very difficult to start any major project or train of thought during weekends and short holidays. (And that is assuming that there is no homework. I once spent virtually an entire six-week summer holiday solving 590 sets of simultaneous equations, only to return to school to find that the teacher, having had second thoughts about the drudgery of marking the work he had ordered, exercised his right to choose and claimed to have been joking. I wasn't laughing.) I used to feel an increasing sense of dread as the weekend or school holiday wore on. I used to feel physically sick every Sunday night.
Was I labelled ‘school phobic’? No. My mother thought I loved school, because I did quite well and didn't make a fuss about going. She was very surprised when, some years ago, I told her that I had loathed school. As William Blake wrote,
And because I am happy, & dance & sing.
They think they have done me no injury...
Children whose parents would neither dream of forcing them to go to school nor of preventing them from going, and who support their children in anything they want to do, and who do not allow themselves to be drawn by the school system into a conspiracy against their children, have a very different experience of school if they do choose to go. Not having to worry about their parents' approval (for they will have it anyway), they are free to take their teachers just as seriously as they deserve. They are free to do what they think right instead of deferring to authority. They are free to leave.
Sadly, there are very few such children, for most parents cannot bring themselves to cede this elementary aspect of self-determination: they wouldn't dream of allowing their children to leave school just because they want to, or indeed to attend just because they want to. Some of the children become deeply miserable as a result; some rebel; some really do go mad in the end. Is this surprising? I have, if anything, more hope for children who kick and scream when their parents drag them into school than for children who respond only inwardly, as I did, for the kickers and screamers are still fighting; they still have a sense of self; they have not been successfully crushed and moulded by the system. They are like the character played by Jack Nicholson in the very important film One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. And teachers and parents who calmly conspire in this despicable treatment of fellow human beings (yes, children are human beings too) are like the serenely evil psychiatric nurse in that film.
So I, as an adult and a psychologist, want to say to any children out there who hate school: you are not alone. Most people hate it too, but usually they don't feel entitled to say so, and many can't bear to think about it so they hardly even know how they feel. You are not mad – you don't have a Deep Psychological Problem (though you might develop one if you stay in school against your will!); and you are not bad for wanting to live your life the way you choose, doing what you think right – that is what everyone should be doing. You are not the problem: coercion is the problem. Being forced to go to school is the problem.
Contrary to popular belief, school is not compulsory in most Western countries.
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