On Trauma, School Disease, and the Way Forward
My wife - and hence our entire family - went through a serious bout with breast cancer two years ago. It came as quite a shock, though a gene mutation, previously unknown to us and which carries a high risk for the disease, is apparently common within her family. We became instant breast cancer treatment experts (though I wouldn't ask us for medical advice), and developed even more expertise on the vagaries of the American health care system. She, and we, survived two rounds of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy, insertion and removal of a Mediport (that I, with the black humor that became common in our house, joked was useful for pouring grain alcohol into her system along with the chemo regimen), had a hysterectomy and ovaries removed (the gene carries a very high risk of ovarian cancer). She lost her hair twice. We experienced CATscans, biopsies, MRIs, PETscans, blood draws, tests for genetic markers, and a wig, which lasted all of three days.
Not to be undone, not four months after my wife's episode came to a close, I suffered a major heart attack, died, and came back. Pinch me, I'm still here! We are both survivors, for which we are thankful, and doing fine (it's all relative), but we'd both be lying if we asserted that these traumatic experiences did not exact a serious toll on our psyches.
There is so much trauma in the world. There is trauma of war and that bred by war, and of civil strife. There is trauma born of poverty and starvation. There is trauma of disease, some of it striking quickly and some of it slowly debilitating.
There are natural and, sometimes, not-so-natural disasters, those that are exacerbated by unthinking human action. There are tsunamis and tornados and flash floods and earthquakes that arrive without any warning, with dire impacts on towns, cities, and nations. There are other such disasters in the making, such as hurricanes or melting ice floes on the Red River, that we get to watch approach with dread days or weeks in advance.
If we are fortunate enough to have avoided these, there is often trauma closer to home. There is the death of loved ones - grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts, siblings, sons and daughters (the worst of all, in my judgment), close friends, or even, for some, just beloved pets. Dear friends move away, or we ourselves find ourselves in such circumstances that we are forced to move. We lose jobs, income status changes, access to health care becomes tenuous. Houses are foreclosed upon. Around us, there is domestic violence, alcohol or drug abuse, or just the plain witness of degradation in the way once-loving couples sometimes speak to or of each other.
There are totally unexpected automobile accidents, sometimes our fault and sometimes not, and in addition to our injuries or those of others, we find ourselves ridden with guilt, shame, and/or anger, not in any particular order. And then there is the long slide of ageing.
Most of these are also experienced by children, either directly or indirectly. It is estimated that roughly 40% of U.S. children will have at least one potentially traumatizing experience by age 18 - the death of a parent or sibling, ongoing physical abuse and/or neglect, sexual abuse, or the experience of a serious accident, natural disaster, or domestic violence or other violent crime. At any given time, it is estimated that more than eight million U.S. children suffer from serious diagnosable, trauma-related psychiatric problems.
It is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit that so many of us, children and adults alike, manage to weather the storms, though often with significant scarring. It has sometimes crossed my mind that our society's inability to deal creatively with major social issues - from war to poverty to ecological devastation - stems from our collective incapacity to think straight because of the impacts of past injuries and insults to our psyches. Healing from trauma requires both time and energy, and a hefty dose of compassion, and sometimes, or so it seems, all three are in very short supply.
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Recently I have had the privilege of setting up a support group for a physician in my community. His work is to make disability determinations for soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. He sees men (and, occasionally, women) who have lost limbs, carry shrapnel in their bodies, suffer from chronic pain, and, more often than official statistics reveal, are subject to significant alcohol or drug abuse and addiction. For many of the soldiers the determination can take up to 60 days, requiring them to stay on or close to the base when they would prefer to be at home with their loved ones and family. More than a few leave before a determination is made.
His employment is fraught with tension. His responsibility as a physician compels him to attempt to ensure his patients get the health care services they require. But institutional forces are arrayed against him. Finding greater levels of disability means the government has to pay out higher levels of disability pay.
But there's more. With demand for combat soldiers increasing, even those with injuries and disabilities are being called back for additional tours of service. So, for some, a finding of lesser disability can mean the soldier returns to harm's way.
My friend sees many patients with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But he has also discovered, to his chagrin, that getting appointments with military psychologists so that a diagnosis can in fact be established is difficult. Worse, he has been warned against making too many referrals, and can face repercussions for doing so.
In order to get around the PTSD diagnosis (and responsibility for treatment, disability payments, and barriers to redeployment), the military has invented a new pseudo-diagnosis: Post-Deployment Stress (PDS). Since PDS is not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association, there is no requirement that sufferers receive a course of treatment, no recognition that a soldier's mental state can affect his (or her) family, and no restriction on ordering soldiers back to active duty. And, to be honest, there are soldiers who prefer it this way, because they fear the stigma attached to a recognized mental health diagnosis.
Still, there is a truth to be found here, and it is not one that is confined to the military. It has been estimated that full-blown PTSD (the diagnosis of which was only introduced into psychiatry in 1981) affects at least 7% of Americans. But what if several times that number are affected by the civilian equivalent of undiagnosed PDS? And what if men and women carry this condition from childhood and, like many soldiers, not as a result of a single traumatic episode, but rather as a consequence of repetitive and chronic stress over which the child had no control?
What if the childhood equivalent of PDS is often specifically a consequence of the experience of "education"?
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Faced with repetitive and ongoing stress over which we have no control, we "invent" for ourselves three strategies to cope. The first is to maintain a state of hyper-arousal. We continually scan the environment for the place from which we may receive the next blow. We are constantly on our guard, taut, waiting. We look about for the next threat, which may by lurking just around the corner; we become oblivious to everything else. We put so much energy into this vigilance that we can't successfully engage in the tasks at hand, or explore new horizons freely.
The second strategy, really an extension of the first, is to try to ward off the threat. We become defiant, lash out blindly, do what we can (given our limited state of knowledge) to change the dynamics, to create some new equilibrium, even in maintaining a relentless, energy-draining, and often unthinking opposition to stressors in the environment. And once we are overly sensitized, we might find ourselves responding to even small stresses with ever-larger responses.
The third strategy is simply to try to block it all out. Become as small as possible, curl up in a ball, and hope (against the evidence of our experience) that the threat will go away. We may dissociate - daydream, turn off the emotions, become numb and immobile, space out. If we can't hide physically from the source of stress, maybe we can hide from the pain it causes us, and, ultimately, dispossess ourselves. We do so because there is simply no other way to escape.
Until we find the strategy that is right for us, we may experiment with all three, though given the pain we are trying to avoid, it is unlikely we will ever make an entirely conscious choice. In fact, once we have adopted one or the other strategy fully, our ability to envision choices or even to determine whether and when our chosen strategy is actually required or effective will become significantly circumscribed. And, regardless of the strategy chosen, at the end we are just dumber, with opportunities for creativity and the expression of intelligence, and for expanding ourselves, forever lost.
If what you've just read fits a description of how you or children you know navigated first or second grade or third grade, you have gotten the point. You might also recognize that I've provided a virtual textbook description of the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) (perhaps coupled with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, ODD). Now this is not going to turn into a rant about unfeeling and time-challenged physicians, unscrupulous drug companies, and money-grubbing school administrators, an airing of all of which has its proper time and place.
I do believe there is a medical condition at least somewhat akin to ADHD, but I would suggest that it afflicts only a small fraction of those being treated for it. The evidence for this view is easy to come by. Anyone who has spent substantial time around the homeschooling community can cite dozens if not hundreds of instances where children, formerly treated with psychoactive and mind-altering substances while enrolled in schools, return to their homes, withdraw from the addictive drugs prescribed to them, and have the symptoms for which they had formerly been treated 'spontaneously', as if magically, disappear. We could say they are cured, or, more correctly, in remission... from the disease of school.
We shouldn't make too light of this matter. What I am asserting, strongly, is that what is frequently being ascribed to a brain disease or anomaly is in fact an unfortunate but often, under the circumstances, quite understandable adaptation to chronic stress, stress that, in school, children are unable to escape. And the longer they remain in these stressful circumstances, the more difficult it becomes to fully heal.
There are many children who, through habituation, find themselves able to perform under these trying conditions without adopting maladaptive behaviors, though it must always be remembered that tolerance of ongoing stress, however engendered, is likely to mute healthy responses to experience. It is rather predictable in the main who those able to survive most intact will be: those without an actual organic brain syndrome, who have not been subjected to traumatizing experiences outside of school, whose families are stable, supportive, economically secure, surrounded by loving friends of many ages and extended families, where kindness, empathy and relationships are valued, modeled, and taught. With exceptions of course, such children will learn inside the boxes, though at some not-so-insignificant personal cost. They will learn despite school rather than because of it, though they may be hobbled or limited by the school affliction. For those without such salutary conditions on the outside, school is simply so much more 'piling on'.
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Schools are firmly embedded in the cultural, social, and economic milieu within which they operate. Within the past 150 years, their chief non-scholastic functions have been at least as important as their educational ones: to ensure that parents living in nuclear families can participate in the workforce, and so that children will not be competing for jobs with their parents in that workforce.
More than a few contemporary social critics have lamented the decline of the nuclear family. There may be some justice in this lament, but from an historical perspective, it is the virtual disappearance of the extended family, and of neighborhoods and communities that is of far greater import.
There never was a "golden age" in which as a rule extended families were able to provide for all of their children's physical, emotional, spiritual, and educational needs. But what they were able to provide was a social nexus that relied on cooperation rather than competition, and some measure of protection. Children had their own special roles to play, and examples of adults performing a variety of social and familial roles, and a space that, at its best, emphasized relationships, tolerance, and generosity. And, in the context of the extended family and community, there were both rituals and role models for situations in which one experienced trauma and adversity.
Even as contemporary culture threatens what remains of community and family life, and heaps economic stresses on top of that, schools have become the central organizing nexus of American life, and the eviscerated avatar of the extended family. Schools have become obsessively focused upon what their guardians have come to believe is cognitive development, while at the same time disregarding children's emotional and physical needs. Instead of enabling and empowering children, it too often emotionally impoverishes them. Touch of any kind is forbidden, and even the suggestion of it is considered potentially deviant. The idea that a child can regulate her own bodily functions is absolutely anathema. All school time from first bell through dismissal has become so programmed that children have little opportunity to build real interpersonal rapport, and certainly none with people who are not the same age. Free time in friendly neighborhoods has disappeared in an avalanche of homework. The incessant emphasis on individuality and individual performance, competition, passing and failure conveys, despite any single teacher's good intentions, a general disrespect for the importance of relationships and the development of compassion or empathy.
And, to be fair, in the press schoolteachers, often well-intentioned, have less and less control over the process and the product of their work, if they ever really had any.
What we are left with is the relentless march of regimentation, and a resigned acceptance by children that education simply means not being listened to. In the struggle to deal with the stresses and humiliations they early begin to associate with education, and an impoverished home and community life that often fails to provide the resilient ground necessary for recovery, children and, later, adults, become acclimated to their own powerlessness. Recent estimates are that teenagers now experience clinical depression at rates some ten times greater than only two generations ago. And the medical community has come to the growing recognition that individuals who experience high levels of stress or trauma early in life, and are powerless to change it, are more likely to experience heart disease, obesity, cancer, immune system problems, and other physical sequelae as adults.
The transgenerational transmission of trauma (from parent to child) is now an accepted part of the psychosocial landscape and the medical literature. It is not so much of a stretch to suggest similar effects of chronic stress upon children, of school disease, being transmitted as well. Whether, in addition, there are epigenetic impacts (the 'turning on' of specific, and often negative, genetic proclivities that will be passed down) is something about which at this time we can only speculate. I have my hunches.
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We know what to do about it, don't we?
Homeschooling is a both creative tonic and therapeutic intervention for the preservation and restoration of health - the health of children, parents, families, and communities. It begins with the knowledge that we, as parents, are indeed experts, and, in the context of an abundant home and community life, can take responsibility for the health and healthy development of our children. It acknowledges that each of our children is utterly unique, and that the cultivation of this uniqueness is our gift to the world.
It continues with the shared knowledge that there is no such thing as healthy cognitive development in children absent the fostering of a rich physical, emotional, and spiritual life (or its secular equivalent), and that such development is dependent upon vibrant, self-chosen social networks characterized by diversity in age and interest. It is based in a secure understanding that healthy learning most often occurs in the convergence of a community of learners, both children and adults, filled with mentors, models, and individuals prepared to share their leadings, passions, and even obsessions.
Successful homeschooling flows from a firmly rooted faith that our children are blessed with everything they need in order to learn, and that most of our job as parents consists of enabling them to discover it for themselves. And, for us, it means reclaiming rather than dispossessing ourselves as well.
Homeschooling means rejecting the educational re-enactment of survival of the fittest (and wealthiest) and thrives on an appreciation that the cultivation of cooperation, mutual goodwill, and the balancing of interests, beginning in healthy families, is critical to the survival of the species. Homeschooling recognizes that there is an ecology of learning, and that failure to honor it, places the health of our children and communities in peril.
I began this essay with a meditation on the reality of trauma in our world. You and your children will experience it at one time or another. But the purposeful infliction of trauma or of chronic stress in the name of education will not make you or your children more resilient. So if there is one thing I want you to take away from this essay, it is to strive as much as you can to remove trauma and stress from the business of learning. If the math problem isn't figured out today, it will still be there next week, next month, next year. If your child is struggling with languages, chances are that France will still be around for another 50 years, and if she really intends to learn the language, I trust that it will remain open to prolonged stays. View lack of understanding today as symbolic of entire worlds yet to be captured through our respective developmental telescopes. And they will be. Whether we are six or 60, there is so much yet to be seen, until as the poet Keats reminds us (even as he fails a history test), we and our children can be
...like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He stared at the Pacific - and all his men
Look'd at each other with a wild surmise -
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.