Dropping in: Thoughts on critical consciousness, whiteness, and unschooling versus an unjust system

The other night I went with my husband and friends to see Kraftwerk, the a foundational electronic music group whose top hits–which they performed with great energy that night–are from the late 1970s and early 1980s. I knew he would like it–he told me going would be like if I had a chance to go see Janis Joplin or Joni Mitchell. And I suppose with that comparison I shouldn’t be surprised at the energy in the crowd, the packed but polite dance floor, the whoops and screams and joy expressed instead of what I had pictured: a bunch of former goths trying to play it cool and dress up like they once did.

My mistake is important I think because this concert did not feel primarily energized by nostalgia despite high levels of nostalgia: old songs and quite corny 3-D imagery to go with the concert that included images of a space ship landing next to the theater we were in. Instead, the concert felt energized by a very present sense of injustice, the songs seemed to represent not their originary moments of the rapidly increasing role of technology in our lives, but rather the present moment of NSA spying, internet freedom, and the gutting of the middle class.

One of the critical theory perspectives I’ve found useful in general life is this take on returning, replaying the past over and over because there is something still there unresolved, a problem or a critique or a question that hasn’t fully been answered. This Kraftwerk concert played that out beautifully. In attendance were people I felt like I would be friends with if I got to know them, people critical of mainstream culture, people who think the system is messed up and try to find jobs or art forms or lifestyles that intervene in its orderly workings. They were also generally in the middle age range, people who want things to change but are also trying to pay the rent and perhaps put a little money in their kids’ college accounts. Part of the fervor, in my view, was a chance to replay the promise made to yourself as a teenager or in your early twenties that you wouldn’t cave, that you would live life differently and not buy into an unjust and corrupt system. Dancing with hundreds of other people with (and I’m generalizing and projecting here) a high level of critical consciousness but also a certain degree of caving and taking on jobs and roles in the system felt like a renewal of the promise of teenage counter-cultural refusal. Kraftwerk speaks to this promise, as my husband so succinctly puts it, by acting like they fully and totally embrace and celebrate technology in order to critique its all-pervasive and sometimes brutal role in our lives. They have fun with technology, and you can feel both the fun and critique in the overhwelming 3-D imagery of digital processes set against totally abstract blank space, the beat you can dance to against an emptiness and erasure and simplicity that is nihilistic. The song “Radioactivity,” with Fukushima added (in alternation with Hiroshima from the original 1975 lyrics) to a list of places destroyed by nuclear disaster, hammers in this critique but maintains the dance beat and bright fun 3-D images, allowing you to feel unified with a crowd in despair over man-made cruelty while at the same time you keep living your life, doing your job whatever it is. The concert overall didn’t feel revolutionary, it felt ironic and at the same time hopeful that with more pushing things could change. (I’m being generous here, but my husband who loves the music puts it more bluntly: “Open to interpretation, but I don’t feel the hope/change part from Kraftwerk or most industrial music, more of a nihilistic/”it is what it is” attitude overlayed with a Nietzchean call to overcome- either master your position in this world that is being overtaken by technology or you will be mastered by it.”)

The people in the crowd were also mainly white. This speaks to the fanbase of industrial dance music in the US, which has been one of the less inclusive scenes in electronic music (they are popular around the world including Japan and South America and participate in, for example, the No Nukes Fest in Tokyo 2012). For me this speaks to the problems with Kraftwerk’s kind of ironic abstraction. A place like Fukushima can be added to a list of (un)natural disasters, something we as white American television viewers often simply lament and perhaps donate money to help with an awareness of technology and capitalism gone wrong but a lack of ability to throw a wrench in the works and really stop it. At the same time, abstracting this place as a name on a list allows the same kind of annihilation as a brief media clip and sanctions white, Western ignorance of nuance, history, and difference. It can distance the listener from what that place as a home means and for whom, what memories will be lost, and from the political failures of regulation that contribute to past and ongoing problems with clean-up.

I don’t know that much about Fukushima, so like my previous projecting this critique of the concert is much more self-reflective than about other fans. I do know about Oakland, where the concert happened. Oakland is not just in a city where a spaceship might eerily and playfully land like in the 3-D graphics, but a city whose police force’s longterm history of corruption and racism contributes to some of the worst crime rates, intense “de facto” segregation, and a wide gap between rents in popular, white neighborhoods and those majority and historically Black. As someone who has lived in multiple American cities with similar racialized housing discrepancies, I know that I’ve made choices to live in more expensive areas to be safe. And I know that my partner and I have made the choice to take jobs with more compromises and more pay in order to be able to live in areas that are “safe.” I don’t know where I stand on these ethical decisions personally, but I know my choices are part of a larger pattern that many of the people at this concert have probably also participated in. The sense that this unity in critique of technology and dance was a return to a past promise is based not just on some abstract system getting you down, but on specific choices with real consequences for other people, choices made in specific places like Oakland where housing and job choice and rent paid translate into racial disparities in education, housing, and the experience of violence. I enjoyed the concert, but I’m not satisfied with the level of critique; by not paying any attention to race, specific histories and specific political and historical geographies, I believe this kind of art appeases the white semi-middle-class need to feel critical of an unjust system without actually having to self-reflect and deal with that system.

I write this here because it will be my first post on “books that save your life”–music this time–and because I feel similarly about housing and segregation as I do about school. These are systems that have racial and economic disparities. The concert vividly played out for me the need to critique these kinds of problems, people’s need to be together and confirm each other’s views of these problems via cultural expression like music and dancing. But I wasn’t satisfied with the level of critique and I continue to be troubled, to doubt and question and ask more questions, about the relationship between unschooling and an unjust school system.

I really believe in unschooling, I think it’s the right choice for us as a family, for me as an individual who wants to be engaged with my daughter all day, and for my daughter as a kid who wants to take her time, working on one project for hours at a time and who wants to be outside, learning by studying the world around her. However, I’ve learned a lot about the problems with American education and in particular the racial de facto segregation and underfunding of primarily Black schools, and I’m worried that unschooling and alternative schooling as an individual choice reinforces a racist system in the same ways I think my housing choices often do. I’m worried that I’m mirroring the actions of parents who say, we are going to get our kid into this good public school or we’ll pay through the nose for private school (parents who can, parents who are intensely focused on upward mobility). Again, I don’t think there is blame in these individual choices because people want the best for their children.  But these choices are part of a pattern that doesn’t address the fundamental problem: we don’t live in a just society at all when our schools are so drastically unequal. I’m worried that unschooling is a version of experimental electronic music—fun, critical, insightful, and powerful, but maybe too distanced from the more serious and intricate problems involved. At the same time, I just can’t imagine sending my daughter to school—even or maybe especially a really “good” high test scores school—and making her sit and obey all day.

I think a better analogy for unschooling (better than the good public or else private school comparison) probably comes from the homebirth movement, another of my passions. In a very recent article in Harper’s, writer Heidi Julavits details the many and deep problems with contemporary medical school training and its emphasis on algorithmic diagnosis, i.e. identifying a primary symptom and only considering a chain of tests and medications stemming from that symptom rather than listening to the patient’s whole story of intersecting symptoms and complications. She warns that patients will simply stop going to doctors if they continue to be ignored and misdiagnosed, comparing brief, unfounded diagnoses that do more harm than good to the dramatic rise in C-sections in the US. She sees the homebirth movement as primarily a resistance to hospital procedures and a rejection of hospital birth. While it can be this, it is also much much more. It is not a rejection of “the” system, it is a recognition that there are many alternatives and that “the” normal system—doctors, hospital birth policies, even school—has a relatively short, contingent, and shifting history. I don’t see homebirth (anymore) as primarily a rejection of hospital birth; I see it as a gift to be able to access the wide knowledge, incredible listening ability, and confident healing abilities of homebirth midwives.

So I’d like to rethink unschooling as not just a rejection or abandonment of the school system, an escape to preserve your own health or privilege, but as participating in an alternative framework with a long history. I recently talked to someone whose partner, a Navajo woman, considered unschooling for their children because the schooling system has been nothing but bad for Navajo people for a long time. As a white middle-class person in the US I have benefited—materially, emotionally, culturally—from the school system over and over again, so I cannot appropriate Native perspectives on school here. Indeed, it took a lot of my own determination and many years of reading and learning for me to know and understand easily what it means to say that the school system has failed and even been abusive toward Native American kids. No one taught me that in school. Which is why I see unschooling as more than a cop out, rejection, or escape from school; it is instead participation in a wider and more loving world of education. Wider and more loving both on the small scale of a family who listens to each other and respects each other, but also wider and more loving because it gives me room to unlearn the omissions of mainstream American history that the school system promotes, and to not force them on my daughter.

Deborah A. Miranda (Ohlone/Costanoan-Esselen) in her book Bad Indians: A Tribal Memoir structures the chapter “Genealogy of Violence, Part II” around quotes from California missions about teaching California Indians to beat their children. She intersperses these into a haunting story of abuse from her own childhood. Two quotes stand out, from the Mission San Antonio, referring here to the California Indians enslaved in the mission system: “They likewise love their children; in fact, it can be said that this love is so excessive that it is a vice, for the majority lack the courage to punish their children’s wrongdoings and knavery” and “Some parents who are a little better instructed punish their children as they deserve while others denounce them to the missionary fathers or to the alcaldes” (34-35).

I see unschooling as a way of unlearning (sometimes physically but often emotionally violent) discipline, of education via love and respect, something with a long history. It’s a particular, faulty, ever-changing practice of a viable alternative to the school system, not simple critique, rejection, and dissatisfaction.

I recently spoke with my sister about her upcoming trip to a California mission for my niece’s fourth grade mission project, something required of all California fourth-grader students. They are driving quite a long distance to visit a mission, which will be a fun trip for both of them. I mentioned Miranda’s book, not specifically, but by saying “I’m reading a book where someone who is California Indian talks about all of the problems with those mission project and how the missions were a slavery system.” My sister’s reply was first to scoff and say “I bet,” then say, “Well, I’ve heard this mission has more participation from nearby Native peoples so it shouldn’t be as kitschy.” It took me a long time to process that statement, which in tone was clearly a shutting-down of my critical voice, a shutting-down and reorientation of critique that I think is at the heart of culturally practicing and reinforcing white privilege. I think the priorities for my sister (and I’m perhaps projecting and assuming a bit here) are to go to the “best” mission, whatever that means, and to get the project done efficiently and have fun. To go to a Mission with Native participation makes the trip a more authentic, less kitschy experience which will make my niece’s mission project stand out in the crowd. Nothing in the dichotomy of kitschy or authentic implies a real engagement with histories of violence and their role in present-day injustice, and I didn’t get a chance to talk about that. I can’t answer the question of how to confront histories of extreme violence with a fourth-grader, but I do know that the term “kitschy” totally evades the question, and that this is a moment of reorienting the history toward tourism and your own school-mandated priorities rather than the problem of long-term injustice.

I find it disturbing to squeeze in a trip to a Mission, and briefly and at a mandated age cover the complex and violent history of those places, because you are required to produce a project. There is a rich alternative to the mandated curriculum, one that an unschooled kid could pursue at whatever age they become interested (maybe that’s age 30, who knows), and one that perhaps could be more respectful of not only history but the ways that history plays out in the present. To me, this all comes down to two strands of critique. In one, you can say “yeah technology is messed up, so are doctors, so is the school system and the housing system, yeah the missions are kitschy” and at least recognize the problems in general, like Kraftwerk’s abstractions. In another, you can devote real time, even a lifetime of education, to not only dropping out of these systems but also dropping into a wider world, immersing yourself into alternative ways of being, alternative systems that have been covered over or beaten out of people. I will hope that that immersion is what happens on my niece’s trip. I don’t know what my daughter’s taste in music will be or what her exploration of the California missions might look like or how she will feel about technology, but I do know there is a wide and deep range of choices and alternatives, each with real consequences. I hope that we will take the time to talk and ask questions and explore them together.

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About Kaitlin

I am primarily a stay at home mom. I also have a Phd in Eglish. Everyday I’m learning about myself, my family, and my community. I write about parenting, childhood, education, autism, homeschooling, politics, anti-racism, and feminism. Critiquing coercive and damaging cultural norms like misogyny, racism, sexism, capitalist exploitation, ableism, and childism helps me seek out a life of peace, justice, and empathy.
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