A Psychiatrically Incompetent Generation

10 June 2016
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Patrick Neustatter

I'm a Family Physician in Stafford Virginia. I'm the son of a shrink, and maybe it rubbed off. But I don't think that's the only reason I find myself diagnosing a whole lot of grade school and college kids with depression, anxiety, panic attacks, anorexia, obsessive-compulsive and attention deficit disorders - not to mention all those quasi-psychosomatic disorders like irritable bowel disease, asthma, headaches etc.

Sure our modern society as a whole is enough to make you crazy on its own with its ever increasing competitiveness and consumerism and our allowing our kids to be highjacked by the sensationalist media. But then you add a school that, far from teaching kids skills to deal with these brickbats of life, is more and more a literacy boot camp, where children are tested to destruction. I think this has a lot to do with why we're creating a generation that is psychiatrically incompetent.

A Different Way

This has been my opinion for a while, watching my two daughters go through grade school in Fredericksburg, but I'm all fired up about it since I went to the 80 year reunion commemorating the founding of this whacky school I went to in England - Dartington Hall School in Devon - and got to talk with some of my fellow students.

Dartington Hall School was one of a series of alternative schools founded around the 1920's. Sympathy for this kind of education may be in my blood to some extent as the archetypal progressive school, Summerhill, was co-founded by my grandmother who was A.S.Neill's first wife. My sister went to school there and my parents were strong protagonists.

Neill was a Scotsman and teacher who rebelled against the wanton repression and intimidation he saw in the Scottish school system. In a dramatic gesture he burned the tawse (a leather strap affair used to beat the kids) in the classroom stove one day and went on to found his "do as you like" school Summerhill in England in 1921 - heavily influenced by the currently popular psychoanalysts of the time such as Reich, Steckel and Adler.

Several other so called "progressive" schools were founded in Britain around this time including Bertrand Russell's Beacon Hill. As part of this movement, son of a Yorkshire farmer, Leonard Elmhirst, who married, and used the inherited millions of  daughter of a Texas oil millionaire Whitney Strait, founded Dartington Hall School as part of his vision of a self-sufficient urban community with a school that would "depart from established educational practices".   

Here was a place where classes weren't compulsory - though Jack (Hamshere), a nuclear physicist from the Rutherford Laboratories, had us all thinking we were going to be like him and coming to his voluntary extra-curricular classes in the evenings out of sheer fascination, and in former days younger pupils would attend the more senior pupils' classics classes in the principals' sitting room, voluntarily in the evenings, because they were inspired to learn.

Here was a place that was  self-governing, where the vote of the youngest pupil carried the same weight as the principal's, a place where I would find myself feeding calves on the school farm every morning, a place where I learned to fell and split trees under the tutelage of Bob Penn, a wizened old forester in leather gaiters, a place with co-ed nude bathing, where we made pipe bombs and fire cans and underground camps and swam in the river and hitchhiked to nearby Dartmoor and did a million things that would horrify any school administrator  or lawyer in this timorous, litigious, risk averse era.

But we somehow survived these disparate activities. Combined with the easy-going atmosphere that allowed us to learn when we had the inspiration, we learned self-discipline, creativity, judgment and many arty-crafty skills that have been far more use to us in later life, when school is just a distant memory.

I contrast this with the education I see my daughters going through, an education that doggedly ignores the wisdom of William Yates' observation that "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire." I see their pails filled to overflowing with information to regurgitate at the will of the examiner - just to show they can do it - in a process that seems guaranteed to dowse any "fire" they should happen to have. And what they're learning is epitomized by advanced placement algebra, the  height of useless esoterica and not anything that will be the slightest bit useful to the vast majority once they've done with their education.

I see them urged by the schools into sports, band, plays and a  zillion other extracurricular activities - all valid activities in themselves, but which together make for a frenzied schedule and inappropriate time pressure, all as an 'essential' prerequisite to getting into a 'good' college.

As Garrison Kiellor quips, 'Kids don't have boredom nowadays. They're scheduled and have therapists instead.'

Things are getting worse.

The trend is toward 'too much time spent preparing for state tests and not enough emphasis on social and emotional learning,' says Maureen Musser, associate professor of education at Willamette University in Oregon, commenting on a survey of middle-school teachers on the effects of the American 'No Child Left Behind' scheme.

NCLB seems to be the epitome of where education shouldn't be going. It is creating a competitive environment, encouraging focus on learning what's needed to get through the exams - at the expense of arts, crafts and even recess. There is too much focus on testing rather than 'survival skills' laments Musser, such as getting along with others, a strong work ethic and reliability.

As a relatively recent innovation, NCLB, even if facing a lot of criticism, cannot be blamed for all the serious emotional disturbance we see in schools - which affects up to 9% of pupils according to the President's New Freedom Commission on Mental Health in 2003.

Things are worse in college it seems. It's estimated that as many as 20 percent of the general student population seek counselling  to help with psychological distress, and the counselling center at Texas A&M University reported in 2004 a 300 percent increase in students presenting in crisis.

Presumably these kids didn't go crazy overnight. This seems evidence to me that  the school rat-race  - admittedly combined with other unhealthy pressures of modern day society - has a lot to do with it.

There is a lot of research and comment on the stresses and strains imposed on teachers by NCLB and how they are not teaching but merely implementing the manual. But there is  precious little in the literature on how this affects the kids - though there are some red flags out there like the dramatic 18.2% increase in suicides in kids from 1 to 19 between 2003 and 2004.  Maybe this is a challenge the plethora of workers in the field could take up? 

I could only wish that my kids - perhaps all kids in American schools - could experience the disheveled, creative, irreverent but nurturing culture of somewhere like Dartington or Summerhill - so that they might be eccentric. But not crazy.

 

 

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