Adultism In Schools

This post is an excerpt from my forthcoming Complete Guide to Adultism on what adultism looks like in schools.

Adultism is the reason schools exist. When children and
youth packed factories, farm fields, mines, and service jobs around the western
world in the late 19th century, many adults could not find jobs. This caused
adults to rally against child labor and for public schools. A lot of adults
said they wanted to end children ending up on the streets without an
“occupation”- especially after newspapers reported that was the case. Schools
suddenly became popular as places where young people could have productive experiences
throughout the day. In the early 20th century they were made compulsory in many
Western nations. Moving children from compulsory labor occupations into
compulsory learning occupations without their input, ideas, or contributions in
any way paved the way to the state of education today. That was just the first
effect of adultism in schools.  

In nineteen states across the U.S. corporal punishment is
legal in schools. Corporal punishment is any physical punishment administered
to students. This includes spanking, slapping, smacking, pulling ears,
pinching, shaking, hitting with rulers, belts, wooden spoons, extension cords,
slippers, hairbrushes, pins, sticks, whips, rubber hoses, flyswatters, wire
hangers, stones, bats, canes, or paddles. Corporal punishment also means
forcing a child to stand for a long time or forcing a child to stay in an
uncomfortable position. It can mean forcing a child to stand motionless or
forcing a child to kneel on rice, corn, floor grates, pencils or stones.
Corporal punishment can also mean forcing a child to retain body wastes;
forcing a child to perform strenuous exercise, or; forcing a child to ingest
soap, hot sauce, or lemon juice. In schools where students received corporal
punishment, students often have no format to appeal such punishment. They
frequently do not have the ability to raise concerns over the legitimacy of the
claims made against them, and they may not have the ability to raise concerns
over the severity of the punishment being administered for their presumed

Corporal punishment may be one of the most obvious physical
impacts of adultism, but it is not the only one. One hundred years ago, because
of the influence of Italian educator Maria
, educators began paying attention to the physical apparatuses
young people were expected to learn with. Their desks got lower, the
chalkboards were holdable, and drinking foundations were built at their height.
These types of accommodation ended where young people were expected
to stop interacting with adults. School board meeting rooms were built for
adults; school counselor offices were built for adults; cafeteria food
preparation areas were built for adults. Even in high schools students are
expected to be “of average adult height” in order to operate learning
instruments such as microscopes, computers, and other devices. Research
suggests that within in school students comprise an average of 93% of the human
population, with adults accounting for the other seven percent. There is an
awful lot of accommodation of that  seven

Adultism is apparent when large numbers of young people of
any age are not allowed to congregate, cooperate and coordinate. Schools today
are rooted in age segregation that disallows young people from socially and
educationally interacting with each other. With few formal opportunities to
socialize, young people may learn to distrust their peers and seek the approval
of adults only. Some adults in schools lose the ability to distinguish between
conspiracy and community, and they make continuous efforts to keep students
from interacting with each other in schools. 

Adultism drives adult behavior throughout schools, as well
as a lot of student behavior. Teaching styles frequently represent adults’
values and skills rather than young peoples’ perspectives and capabilities.
Adults determine what is valuable for students to learn and how young people
need to demonstrate their learning. They enforce inequities between students
and teachers in everyday behavior, too: When teachers yell at students, they
are controlling classrooms; when students yell at teachers, they are creating
unsafe learning environments. Ultimately, students in schools are subjected to
their parents’ and their teachers’ assessments of their performance in the
classroom, and have no formal input into grading or graduations. Searching for
adult approval in order to receive the most praise or achieve the best grades,
students routinely appease adults with sufficient class work without actually
engaging in the content being taught. They find solidarity with the adults who
control their classrooms while betraying the trust of their peers as they
tattle and compare each other.  

Finally, and perhaps ultimately, adultism undermines the
very purpose of educating students in schools. Student engagement has been
shown to directly affect academic achievement. When students experience
adultism, their engagement is severely affected in negative ways, no matter the
environment. Classroom management, learning activities and student discipline
are all affected by adultism, in all grade levels. In response to all of the
bias towards adults throughout their educations, some young people completely
acquiesce to adult expectations. Others completely abandon or apparently rebel
against these expectations by routinely performing lowly in school through
behavior or academic achievement, and through dropping out. Dropping out of
school is the ultimate impact of adultism in schools.  

In addition to those such as Montessori, who was almost uniquely oriented against adultism in schools, educators have rallied against adultism in schools without naming it as such for more than a hundred years. Massively influential, thought often misunderstood, American school philosopher John Dewey constantly promoted a curriculum for schools that was footed in student realities instead of adult conveniences. He once wrote, “Nature wants children to be children before they are men… Childhood has ways of seeing, thinking, and feeling, peculiar to itself, nothing can be more foolish than to substitute our ways for them.” This situates him squarely on the side of anti-adultist teachers. Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator whose theories on teaching oppressed people continue to inform school change, justly sought authentic learning for students, too. His attitude could be summarized by his singular belief that, “the educator for liberation has to die as the unilateral educator of the educatees.” This positions the student as the holder and determiner of learning, and that is anti-adultist. While some theories address students’ roles indirectly, and others head-on push against the overbearing domination of adults, in schools, all are valuable as allies in this struggle.

It is because of all these realities that adultism makes
schools today ineffective in every way.

Is there anything you’d add, take away, criticize, or expand on?

Published by Adam F.C. Fletcher

I'm a speaker, writer, trainer, researcher and advocate who researches, writes and shares about education, youth, and history.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: