By Joanna Gore
Joanna Gore spent three months in a school experiencing what the children experience on a day-to-day level – such things as endless lining up, eating dinner, sitting with 'back straight, hands on head, bottoms on the floor', playing in the sand, having her hair pulled and sneaking sherbet in assembly. She shows how children find ingenious, playful, creative and effective ways to resist and so get to play a part in social change.
ISBN 0 9513997 8 0
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About the book
Joanna Gore spent three months in a primary school as a pupil, doing what the children did. She ate in the dinner hall with the children, she didn’t go into the staff room, she sat on the floor in assemblies, she didn’t tell children off when they did something ‘wrong’ and she learned their dance techniques at the disco. The children felt sufficiently at ease with her swear in front of her and criticise the teachers. They enjoyed helping her out like any other new girl, and got a sense of significance in telling her what to do; their knowledge of school procedures naturally far outweighed hers.
What she learnt from this experience is at the same time predictable and astonishing. There is an assumption in our society that children are not yet quite "people," they have first to be socialised and conditioned. Even though we know what goes on in primary schools, because of this assumption we tend to accept it all as sensible and necessary. It is only when you read Joanna Gore's account of it from the point of view of a participant observer, someone who is living as far as possible the same life as the children while she is describing it, that the injustice of it becomes apparent.
And it is not only unjust, it is also counterproductive. Children learn to stand in lines, to ask for permission to go to the lavatory, to sit, for the most part, in silence, but they also learn the skills of what the anthropologist James C. Scott calls "peasant rebellion," that is to say foot-dragging, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander and sabotage.
The book is "an ethnographic investigation into power, control and resistance", and there are many academic references to support Joanna Gore's analysis (mostly confined to footnotes). For the non-anthropologist it reads as cheerful, accessible and totally damning criticism of our primary education system, full of illustrative incident and children's comments.
This is not in some repressive Victorian monstrosity of a school, it is in a comparatively forward-looking school of the nineteen-nineties. There is a chapter which compares the atmosphere of a school with the atmosphere of a mental hospital. Both have a great deal in common with prisons.
This book illuminates the idiocy of it all.