We Don’t Need No Thought Control

A week ago I put up a video describing an act of suppression, then at the behest of someone who is presumably trying to make things right I suppressed my own video. I’ve since confirmed what I already suspected, namely that this suppression is systemic, affecting not just a few individuals but an entire community institution. That institution is the government-administered secondary school, or what we in America call the public high school.

Suppose a kid is enrolled in a creative writing class here in Colorado and hands in a short story that involves sexual assault or parental abuse or suicide. The teacher is obligated by law to ask the kid if there’s an element of truth to the story:  have you been assaulted; are you being abused; are you considering suicide? Teachers who have been in the system for awhile explicitly warn their students in advance: if you address these topics, I will have to investigate. The implicit message to the kid is clear: I shouldn’t write about certain topics.

Suppose a kid, enrolled in a filmmaking class here in Boulder County, makes a movie that depicts sex or drugs or violence. This kid will not be allowed to show the film during class or in any other official school-authorized function. If the film depicts illicit activities being performed at the school, the filmmaker will be questioned by the authorities to ascertain whether this kid has perpetrated or witnessed events similar to those shown in the film. Again, the message is clear: don’t make movies about certain topics.

It’s clear what motivates the high schools to impose these restrictions on students’ self-expression: fear. Next month marks the ten year anniversary of the Columbine massacre, which here in Colorado isn’t just a media spectacle but a local tragedy. If a teacher has any inkling that a student might be involved in anything dangerous and fails to act, then the teacher and the school are held legally responsible for their inaction.

But we’re talking about fiction here. Don’t these dangerous themes — sex, anger, depression, alternate states of consciousness, rules and their violation — occupy the subjective realities of high school kids? Aren’t these the themes that dominate the TV shows and movies these kids watch every day? Doesn’t the transition into maturity demand that kids come to terms with these themes in their own distinct ways? Isn’t the creation of fiction one way to explore dangerous alternatives experimentally, without actually putting oneself in danger?

It’s hard for me to argue with my kid when she says she doesn’t want to take creative writing or filmmaking at her high school. I can see why she’d rather do this sort of creative exploration on her own time. In the short novel she wrote last November the body count pushes a hundred: I hate to think what sorts of repercussions would have ensued had she turned that thing in for a writing class.

As a psychologist, I’m interested in how creative passion is either amplified or short-circuited by the responses one’s work elicits in others. In my view, this systemic suppression of self-expression is part of what’s wrong with the schools and the lawyers who run them. Somehow I doubt that many parents would agree with me.

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4 Comments on “We Don’t Need No Thought Control”

  1. NB Says:

    Hi John,

    The litigation culture in the US is well known. I’m sure it dampens creativity.

    However, how far do these questions, say about a kid who has written about suicide or homicide, go? Do they just ask and if the kid says everything’s fine then that’s it?

    I don’t think there’s legal requirement for teachers in the UK to do this stuff. But, if something like Columbine happened, then teachers, social workers etc will get lynched by the tabloids. A recent UK case called Baby P isn’t exactly the same thing but gives you the idea… The tabs went mad for apparent mistakes and cover-ups by social workers involving the death of a baby at the hands of his mother and boyfriend.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is – if it’s just a few questions, then perhaps it’s okay.

    Perhaps the problem is that it’s a legal requirement. That means that personal judgement is taken from the teacher. I know that the UK Labour Government thinks that it you just keep legislating (and centralising information in expensive and intrusive databases) then the problem will go away. It won’t – or if it does, then a whole lot of other problems appear.

    “Suppose a kid, enrolled in a filmmaking class here in Boulder County, makes a movie that depicts sex or drugs or violence. This kid will not be allowed to show the film during class or in any other official school-authorized function. If the film depicts illicit activities being performed at the school, the filmmaker will be questioned by the authorities to ascertain whether this kid has perpetrated or witnessed events similar to those shown in the film. Again, the message is clear: don’t make movies about certain topics.”

    Now this is definitely censorship. I can understand why your daughter would not want to enrol in a film class. Do these kids have the right to cite the fifth?

  2. john doyle Says:

    “if it’s just a few questions, then perhaps it’s okay.”

    What are you, NB, the voice of reason? Okay fine, let’s take a more nuanced approach at least for now.

    Certainly the suppression of kids’ artistic expression doesn’t last forever and for everyone, as evidenced by the torture and carnage that comes out of the Hollywood television and movie studios. Of course most of it is drek, completely disconnected from the real-world experience or emotional life or unconscious imaginings of the writers and directors. Probably this is true of most high school writers as well, their having been immersed in crappy media their whole lives. “Adult content” typically means lots of gore and sex plugged into juvenile sensibilities — who better to create this sort of thing than actual juveniles? Maybe I fall under a similar accusation, churning up puerile controversy and sensationalism best suited for tabloids in order to attract more attention to my blog, rather than engaging the subject in a sensitive and balanced manner. Nah, to hell with that…

    But, returning to the “just a few questions” proposition, of course it’s hard to argue against teachers being sensitized to the telltale signs of troubled youth. I’m concerned that institutional sensitivity often masks and promotes a culture of suspicion. Suppose you’re a teacher and you attend a workshop on spotting troubled kids. The seminar leader informs you that a kid who writes about abuse or dangerous sex or controlled substances or guns might be telling you something personal, implicitly asking you for help. How often is there really a direct link between a kid’s fictional writing and his/her real life — 10%? 5% Surely it’s not very frequent. But you’ve now been trained in profiling troubled and dangerous kids, and you’ve put on notice that if you fail to act on your suspicions you could be held ethically and legally accountable. Isn’t it likely that you’ll now regard this creative writer in your class with some degree of suspicion from now on? Even if you ask your screening questions — everything okay at home, Ricky? — you know kids aren’t always forthright. What’s Ricky hiding? When’s he going to blow? I think this culture of suspicion probably hovers over the students themselves as well — Ricky turned in a story about THAT?!

    My wife just attended a seminar intended for adults working with kids in churches. Part of the seminar dealt with identifying adult pedophiles. Does this adult spend a lot of time with kids? Does he (and usually it is a male) hug kids or otherwise demonstrate his affection? Does he compliment kids’ appearance? Better watch out for Mr. Jones — he fits the profile. And of course this profiling information gets communicated to the kids as well: any adult who’s too interested and friendly is probably a pervert.

    In brief then, my objection is this: at what point does well-meaning and well-informed caution turn the corner from concern to suspicion, impeding rather than enhancing self-expression and interpersonal connection? There must be a balance, but at this point I think the balance around here is tipped too far toward suspicion. In any number of ways, American culture frequently seems conflicted between openness and paranoia. Paranoia seems to have the upper hand lately. I think part of the younger crowd’s nostalgia about the fifties has to do with this sense of a lost innocence and openness in America. But that nostalgia always carries the ominous overtones of the cultural hegemony, racism, heteronormativity, and McCarthyism that also marked the era.

  3. Robert LaRue Says:

    Teachers are constantly torn between caring and protecting oneself and one’s career… and we are legally pushed to contact the authorities when the slightest suspicion arises. Great way to build relationships with students… and to teach about the real world, eh?

    I empathize with the perception that avoiding classroom (inhibited) instruction frees one to be fully creative… but would suggest that classrooms can be structured, sequential introductions to techniques and historical perspectives that lay the groundwork for creativity and originality.

    Of course, budget crunches in the local school district may kill off any new classes anyway! Maybewe get more active in John’s original idea of organizing an independent after school student film maker group… with just enough adults involved to facilitate some resources.

  4. NB Says:

    “In brief then, my objection is this: at what point does well-meaning and well-informed caution turn the corner from concern to suspicion, impeding rather than enhancing self-expression and interpersonal connection? There must be a balance, but at this point I think the balance around here is tipped too far toward suspicion.”

    Well, I do agree with you John. And this is what I mean about the legal dimension. It may be helpful to have some training – although I agree that the whole thing still smacks of Edgar Hoover – but making it a legal requirement to profile and then act on that profile is appalling. A profile is not the full picture. But try telling the authorities (and the kids!) that.

    “Paranoia seems to have the upper hand lately. I think part of the younger crowd’s nostalgia about the fifties has to do with this sense of a lost innocence and openness in America. But that nostalgia always carries the ominous overtones of the cultural hegemony, racism, heteronormativity, and McCarthyism that also marked the era.”

    McCarthyism thrived on profiling, of course. But isn’t the general view of the 1950s now that of a decade of paranoia, repression, hypocrisy beneath an apple pie crust? Are today’s kids really hungry for the 1950s (ie the homely bits, The Lone Ranger)? Perhaps innocence is structurally set up for betrayal… and paranoia seems to be the pathological end point of the loss of innocence.

    Maybe these days we give kids something else. They have to be cool, wise-ass etc, have a keen knowledge of dress codes and a plethora of pop culture references (there’s whole industries behind this now). That’s a loss of innocence again. Except this time we denied them the innocence in the first place. Is this why they might be a little nostalgic for a time they never knew, except through the warping of TV shows? Back to the binding comfort of mama’s apron.

    Seeing Watchmen the other day (which, for the record, is good and awful in equal parts) I was struck less by the alternate 1985 of airships and so on, but by how the careful 80s styling (of hair particularly) made me feel as if the 80s were so distant that they were an alternate reality as well. It made me feel nostalgic, for a decade that was pretty rubbish, and old. But the 80s aren’t so distant really: Reaganomics and Thatcherism have given us our present economic crisis!


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