Overcoming the shame of not going to school, and progressing education activism.

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I’m going to write about something quite painful today.

Painful, but important.

I’m going to talk about the shame that you can feel for doing something different to what others expect, to what you yourself expect. In this case, I’m going to talk about the shame of not going to school, of your children not going to school, of home education, but really this could apply to lots of different examples of diverging from the social narrative of ‘normal’.

As we live and grow, we internalise a lot of norms and values around us. They come to be the barometer by which we measure our selves and others, the indicators of good and bad, right and wrong, winning and losing. They tell us what we think we need to know to make the ‘right’ choices and to get life ‘right’.

There is a very strong social message about schooling, how important it is, the bad things that will happen if you don’t do school right, or heaven forbid if you don’t show up. This story is told through politics, through families, through international development strategies, through schooling experiences and school rules. The telling of it is pretty relentless, and any challenges to it are likely to end badly. We are told this story by people we love, they were told this story too, we’ve all been told it many, many times.

The story runs a pretty tight binary as well: school = good, not going to school = bad. There isn’t really any grey zone in the popular narrative of this.

The problem with social norms and values is, sometimes – maybe often times – their foundations are a bit shaky. They may come from a place that we don’t even know, a time generations before our own births. They may have been dreamed up by people without our best interests at heart. They may originate in other ideas that today we would totally disagree with. Only thing is, because of the way we learn and internalise norms and values, we can believe these things to be truths, that they tell us what is natural, what is normal, what is essential. When we think of them as ‘truths’ rather than as ideas, it can prevent us from thinking critically about them, from challenging them. When we believe in them and they are the basis of how we see ourselves and others, it makes it difficult to say, or to even realise that we can say: “Is this actually true?”

And if through circumstance, because our own critical thinking has been unlocked somehow from the standard model of norms and values – maybe because of our actual needs and being, or the needs and being of someone we know and care for, or because we are presented with information that radically challenges/undermines the norms and values around us, it can be painful.

It can be painful, and it can be scary.

And if we decide, on the basis of this information, to actually start living in a way that contrasts with the general social norms and values, although consciously we can know what we are doing makes complete sense to us, the subconscious internalisation of the norms and values that tell us it is wrong, risky, deviant, bad, can mean that we experience shame in living in a way that is most true to us.

We can feel shame or fear, even though we know what we are doing makes sense. Even though we know that based on the information we have, it is the path worth walking. We can know this on an intellectual basis. In terms of our heart though, we can still hurt by going against the norm. We can feel fearful, anxious. It can diminish our sense of self worth and challenge what we know of ourselves.

Lets talk about what happens when we move away from the education system, to create something else.

It is well documented, in many many places, that the existing education system that we have in the UK, is highly problematic. This is told to us by teachers, by educationalists, by headteachers, by psychologists, by students themselves, by parents, by mental health campaigners, by people from other countries with different systems, by people involved in alternative models education.

It makes complete sense to get to work on this. It makes complete sense to want something different for your own children, for society. It makes complete sense to do work to maybe change the system, probably to create something entirely different.

It makes sense to not want to send your children into the education system. It is a very rational and meaningful conclusion to reach.

Despite this, for the reasons given above, actually doing this work, making the decision as a family that you will do something other than school, to home educate, to manifest a new and different system of education to what currently exists, can cause us pain.

We learnt for lots and lots of years that not going to school was deviant, risky, likely to result in FAILURE. Even though we know that the existing system is troubled and flawed, deeply embedded in our subconscious is the feeling that not going to school is bad, and will result in bad things happening to us, and overcoming that feeling, the creeping sense of shame, can be a daily challenge.

There are certain things that I find helps with overcoming this feeling. Even as I write this now I can feel it lingering around my heart. That I am even writing about ‘not going to school’ triggers a little adrenaline. And the reality is that until we reach a point where there is a general awakening and acceptance across society that our education system needs radical change – a shift in the narrative, norms and values about schooling – we are likely to always feel a little of this. So what can we do to help?

For this I take guidance from other movements that are working at overcoming false social beliefs, norms and values, where something is being moved out of the ‘deviant’ and into the light.

Lets take the LGBT+ movement, for example. Being gay used to be a criminal offence, in our very recent history. Being trans has only in very very recent years started to gain socially transformative traction. What can we learn from the progress of LGBT+ folk that might help us in our own work?

Here are my thoughts:

  1. This can be a painful process, there is no way around that. We need to find ways to sit with that discomfort, to feel it, whilst knowing that it isn’t telling us that something is wrong.
  2. Self-care is important. Sometimes its worth putting ourselves out there, other times it makes more sense to work amongst ourselves, with like minded people that enable us to make progress rather than answer for and explain ourselves constantly. Community matters. Sometimes we need to just focus on ourselves and our own immediate families needs and to forget the wider context for a while.
  3. Being visible helps in ‘normalisation’. Showing up, sharing photos, living ‘without shame’ even if we feel scared inside, makes a difference. It gives others courage, it demonstrates another way, it fundamentally challenges peoples beliefs which can cause tipping points in progressing social norms.
  4. We can organise, cooperate, and support each other. There is a risk with trail blazing that the internalised/subconscious feelings of being deviant can prevent us from being open, honest and loving to each other. It can make us feel easily threatened and defensive. If we can move beyond that to working together, that has great potential consequences.
  5. We can educate ourselves to reassure ourselves that we are not alone. There is a long history to educational activism. People have been working on these issues in different ways, around the world, for many years. Connecting with that work, learning from what has already happened, what has already been thought about and done, can give us context to what is happening now and encourage us that we are not by any means the first or the only ones on this path. Knowing the history of the education system, alternatives to schooling, the history of childhood, can inspire us and help us reframing our own norms and beliefs.
  6. We can be compassionate and empathetic to those around us who may be unaware of the issues, who don’t understand life without school, or who feel stuck between a rock and a hard place because for whatever reason, separating from the existing education system isn’t an option at this time. School vs not school is a binary concept that is unhelpful, and frankly, unrealistic in the current circumstances> Because of the nature of the issue there is a lot of grey zone, it is’t as simple as black and white, right and wrong. Being aware of that can help mitigate the sense of frustration that things aren’t moving quickly enough, or that people just ‘aren’t getting it’, and frees us up to do what we can, from where we are, with what we have.

Keep on keeping on folks, wherever you are in your journey, however your work looks, small acts add up. And remember, if you’re not going to school, you are not alone.

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