School, Education, and Young People’s Oppression

At the last European Young People’s Workshop, led by Emily Bloch¹ in August 2012, I led a topic group on education and schools. I began by sharing my thinking about learning and schools. Here are some of my thoughts:

All people are born wired to learn². We love to learn and try new things. You can see this with young children—how they want to experiment and try everything. They are not concerned with getting it right or succeeding; they just want to try. If they don’t get it right or they make a “mistake,” they will discharge, learn from it, and try again with more understanding. This is how we would naturally be if the oppressive system didn’t hurt us. Learning would be one of the most fun things we could do. We would love to learn and use our minds, especially with other people. 

School is the main institution of young people’s oppression. Schools are not set up well for young people to learn. Instead they perpetuate young people’s oppression. They separate young people from each other. They train young people to be part of capitalism and the oppressive society. They reinforce racism, classism, and sexism and have been a major tool of colonization.

Many of the adults who work in schools care a lot about young people and would like them to have good lives. However, because of the oppressive system, teachers get little support and become agents of young people’s oppression. The natural way young people learn is not the way schools are set up—for example, having to sit all day at desks listening to a teacher. When young people don’t “behave” or conform to this oppressive system, they get punished. They are often labeled by the “mental health” system and put on psychiatric drugs. Neither the students nor the teachers are the problem with schools. The oppressive system is the problem.

In schools young people get separated from each other by age and by competition for marks. Racism, classism, sexism, and other oppressions play a big role in this separation. School defines intelligence in a narrow way, which makes most young people feel not smart. The few who are told they are “smart” are held up as models in a weird way and isolated from other young people. 

As young people we are supposed to do what we’re told and not question what the adults in the education system tell us. This gives us the message that we’re powerless. 

We start to believe the messages that we, and other young people, are not smart and not powerful. 

Different young people make different decisions about how they will deal with how oppressive school is. Some young people end up working hard on schoolwork, which gives them certain opportunities but also prevents them from having some time and freedom to follow other interests. Others end up not spending as much time and attention on school work and have more time for other interests but may miss out on some of the opportunities that working hard at school provides. Both of these decisions are made partly out of distress and partly out of good thinking. Both are rigid and also smart in certain ways. Neither is better or worse, and no young person is smarter or less smart because of what he or she has done in school and with schoolwork.

School is a place where many young people are together and get to see each other every day. Because of this, they can be places where friendships form between young people. There can also be adults who think well about young people and develop relationships with them that are important in the young people’s lives. Schools can be a place where young people discover things that they like to learn. Because young people are so great, lots of interesting and good things can happen in schools. 

WHAT SCHOOLS SHOULD BE LIKE

After I talked, we had a go-around about what people liked about school and what was hard about it. Then I talked about how young people have lots of good ideas for how school and education should look. I said that the education system should be designed by and for the people it affects the most, which is young people, with lots of support and input from teachers and other adults. 

After that we had a go-around on what the young people thought should be different about schools and what they thought schools should look like. Here is what they said:

  • Schools should teach more practical knowledge.

  • As young people, we should have more choice about when we learn.

  • Student councils should have more power and maybe even money.

  • Teachers should listen to young people more. (Now when we talk to our head teachers, nothing happens.)

  • I hate the way we’re put in a room at our own desk and made to write important exams. It could be so much better if someone held our hand.

  • Young people should be able to choose the subjects they want to learn, and for how long. 

  • Young people should be inspired to learn instead of forced to.

  • My school is surrounded by nature, and we have classes outside if it’s good weather. More schools should have classes outside.

  • Schools should have a maximum of four hundred or five hundred young people. Classes should be smaller—not more than fifteen people. That way we would have a better bond with our teacher, which would result in better learning and less pushing.

Here are some of my own thoughts about what I’d like to see in schools:

  • Respectful, trust-based, non-hierarchical relationships between adults and young people 

  • No letter or number grades or marks

  • A focus on the learning process rather than on end results

  • No separation by age; being able to learn with whichever young people we want, no matter what age they are 

  • An understanding that learning is a lifelong endeavor that can happen in and out of school; school not being mandatory 

  • A ratio of at least one adult to five young people 

  • More support and respect from the world for teachers and the important role they play 

  • An understanding that everyone, whatever his or her age, is both a learner and a teacher and leader 

  • More funding for education

  • All education being public education

  • Resources being distributed in a better way (more resources for communities targeted by oppression)

  • Much wider talk about oppression and the history of different groups targeted by oppression 

  • Communities, and people of all ages and skills, being involved in education

  • Many opportunities for young people to be listened to

  • Young people having real power in the way their school runs

  • No mandatory curriculum; young people deciding when and what they want to learn, being able to fully follow their passions.

Mari Piggott|
International Liberation Reference  Person for Young People
Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada 


1 Emily Bloch is the International Liberation Reference Person for Young Adults.
2 “Wired to learn” means natural learners.


Last modified: 2017-05-06 23:35:41-07