Rebel Without a Clue: Autonomy and Authority in the American Public School

The American high school dropout is an unconscious revolutionary. Instead of casting aspersions upon the dropout, we should attempt to decode this behavior that is condemned by parents, school authorities, educational experts, religious leaders, politicians, and peers. To understand the distress of the American high school student requires us to examine the politics of quitting school. Leaving school is a political act. Its political causes cannot be investigated in a context of isolating and blaming the individual.

The high school dropout is a revolutionary without having recovered the sense of dignity of failure, in a system of authoritarian control. Blaming the dropout is to blame the victim of institutional abuse of power exercised within youth indoctrination centers carrying the misnomer, school. Is it possible that the problem is mainly systemic and not due to the personal faults of the dropout? Is it possible that the education system itself contributes to young people dropping out of high school? Is it possible that capitalism is the root cause?

Everything in childhood is preparation for and achievement of mental enclosure, everything being not only the systems by which capitalism operates but also the cultural indoctrination, the countless messages conveyed to us through all forms of media and social interaction. Education in capitalist society is the closing down of the beautiful human experience characterized by the internally-shameless joy of being. It seeks to enclose the mind, making its capitalist desires and needs those of each person. The enclosure of the Commons is re-enacted through each child and every crushed longing for community, authenticity, and collective joy.

This brings us to the function of the state-mandated public school. “Everyone has a boss” must be imparted to children as early in cognitive development as possible. The few parents, who have not provided the desired suppression of the child’s budding autonomy by age five, are required to place their children in schools under the control of the state for the time in which parents are under the control of corporations.

The “women’s emancipation” of the 1970s was co-opted by converting women’s liberation into women’s subordination to the corporation and indoctrinated with competitive dollar-chasing capitalist ideology. Why does this matter? This matters because women were sent out of the home; they were no longer allowing themselves to be subjected to domestic oppression by the “man of the house”. The system of nuclear family oppression was dependent upon men as workers exploited by capital, and women also exploited by capital as biological machines reproducing the workforce as they were suppressed by patriarchy at home. Thus, although women were not directly exploited by capital, they had been suppressed by the system of patriarchy. As patriarchy was challenged during the late sixties and seventies, capital had a challenge as to how the ruling class would re-oppress women, and that challenge was achieved through Third Wave Feminism which was the commodification of feminism.

Here we return again to the school. Men and women were at work, oppressed by the corporation. Children were in daycare or school. The school became the incubator for training obedience to authority which would be switched from teacher to boss soon enough. The successful American does not even know what democracy or freedom is. They are totally indoctrinated by the school, the mass media, parents, peers, religious authorities, and the entertainment industry into “working the socioeconomic system for their own private, personal benefit”. Working the system is called success. Working the system is knowing how and discovering opportunities to please bosses or to sidestep them — never to challenge the power system. The high school dropout is rebelling against authority. The entire American cultural indoctrination system is about learning deference to authority, and then sneaking around it or working through the system to rise up the power hierarchy.

The anxiety produced by the need to succeed is intensified in high school where tremendous pressure is put on students to accept the responsibility of applying their living being, attention, and energy to making themselves rentable to capital, or else “flip burgers”. Students are reminded almost daily that they can’t get a decent job without a high school diploma, and they can’t get into college to enable them to get a better-paying job if they make bad grades. If not before, by the time the student is fifteen years old, he must begin making a career choice. He must take subjects in school that will further this career choice.

After years of being enclosed in a building, continuously under the eyes of authority with little opportunity for self-expression or curiosity outside what is allowed by authority and where “bad behavior” is punished, many students come to view school as a prison, a regimented and structured extension of their home life under parental authority. The corporation is also a prison. In the U.S., Americans think that the freedom to change prison cells (jobs), to negotiate with the prison guards (bosses) to change prison cells from one corporation to another is democracy and freedom. That’s some heavy-duty indoctrination. As preparation for corporate enslavement and acceptance of the concept of “freedom to change jobs”, in high school and college, students are allowed by the prison guards to choose among various prison cells called “elective courses”.

Although the student is allowed some flexibility in his subject choices, elective classes are also conducted by authorities, success (“good grades”) still matters, the class is structured time-wise and topic-wise, and “bad behavior” is still punished. These classes are merely a facade of freedom of choice, mirroring the freedom to change jobs myth. They often augment the career choice, but even if the elective course is something of interest outside the student’s career choice, it is still structured like required courses. It is a part of the scholastic prison environment, not separate from it. Elective courses serve to create the illusion of choice, masking the true intention of education as assembly line indoctrination of the masses.

Most dropouts never realize the full cause of their rebellion against the capitalist education system and often succumb to society’s view of them as failures. They’re trouble-makers, or stupid, or lazy, or just don’t “have what it takes to succeed”. The reality is they don’t understand capitalism and how it functions by exploitation and abuse of the person. They don’t understand wage and debt slavery. They don’t understand that they are not people in this system but instead, are commodities. They don’t know that the prison environment in school is meant to acclimate them to living in a corporate prison, serving capital until they retire or die. They don’t understand these things, but they do sense something is wrong… something so wrong that they are willing to sacrifice the possibility of a career that might allow them to financially exist under capitalism.

Why is the high school dropout an unconscious rebel who doesn’t fully understand his rebellion or his pressing need to escape the education system? Although he might grasp he has a problem accepting authority and being confined for seven to eight hours a day, five days a week, he assumes he cannot “fit in” or be a functioning member of “normal society”. He assumes that his behavior is dysfunctional and at fault because that is what he’s been told by all the authority figures in his life – parents, teachers, guidance counsellors and in many cases, medical professionals in psychiatry if he’s been made to seek professional counselling by his parents. These authority figures are people who themselves have been indoctrinated in capitalist culture since birth. They have all been taught to believe that non-conformity to societal norms and expectations is a personal flaw and a behavioral problem. This is part of the capitalist propaganda fed to us from birth, each authority figure being a servant of and slave to this abusive economic system. These figures were each part of the education prison before they accepted the economic prison in which they participate.

The prison environment of capitalism is normalized by all institutions and cultural influences from birth. What is accepted as “normal” is not normal. If the person had a choice, could he knowingly accept that living in a prison one’s entire life is normal? The non-conforming dropout is actually exhibiting rational human behavior. It is those who “fit in” who are not normal, but no one teaches us the truth. No one questions “normal”, and thus, no one ever thinks to examine the effects of capitalism on the individual. The economic system is shielded by those it imprisons and enslaves – countless clones, generation after generation sentenced to a strict diet of propaganda supported by various fraudulent institutions owned or controlled by the capitalist elite, the ruling class.

The state doesn’t care what happens to the working class or their children. Children as young as three years old are self harming. ((Donna Ferguson. “Children as young as three are self-harming, say teachers“, The Guardian, January 23, 2018.)) A current fad among teenagers is eating and vaping (smoking) Tide Pods, concentrated laundry detergent in dissolvable plastic “pods”. ((Lindsey Bever.  “Teens are daring each other to eat tide pods. We don’t need to tell you that’s a bad idea.” The Washington Post, January 17, 2018.)), ((Baillie Parry. “So Now People Are Vaping With Tide Pods And I’m Done with 2018,” PizzaBottle, January 24, 2018.)) Self-harming high school dropouts, school shooters, and the working class shooting up the workplace – these things are connected to the education indoctrination system and capitalism which are the catalysts to irrational behavior.

The USA is politically dead, its people having rolled over, accepting corporate-state repression and exploitation and not even thinking to question it. People don’t question what they don’t notice, what they’ve been taught to think of as normal. The U.S. has no student movement, and it has no organized political movement of any kind. Why students and workers are silent is partially because they don’t know that life under capitalism is not normal, but their silence does not make oppression vanish. The rage of students and the working class is coming out in angry bursts of violent antisocial behavior. Instead of high school students organizing to take over the schools and to rid themselves of teachers and administrators, they are either quitting school or taking up guns, randomly engaging in deadly violence as well as self-harming.

The working class are committing suicide in record numbers and also engaging in mass shootings instead of organizing against their corporate captors. These tragic events are political events. These are the politics of ignorance and isolation, unrecognized oppression and social and economic stress. In the absence of organized resistance to the enslavement of youth in public schools and adults trapped in debt and wage slavery, we observe tragic, unconscious personal expressions of political resistance.

The isolation and ignorance of American students and the working class in general is not an accident of nature. These political conditions have been achieved through intentional social engineering and perpetrated by an obedient educated professional class hired by the power elite to manage schools and the mass media. A primary function of both the schools and the mass media is to ensure that the American working class grow up knowing nothing and are distracted by consumerism, Hollywood movies, television, and professional sports. After years of mass indoctrination through education, the various forms of media ensure the lessons learned are not forgotten and are carried over into adulthood, just as they reinforce the power structure, attitudes, and opinions students learn in school.

These are the conditions the state wants: the people randomly hurting or killing themselves rather than consciously and well-informed, organizing against the state and its educational and economic systems. The state wants the people unaware of any correlations between self-harming or violence and the actual systemic causes of these destructive behaviors. The people become rebels without a clue.

Every psychological question is also a political question. That is where professional and academic psychology is in total denial. Psychology, pedagogy, political science, and the entire educated class is in denial. The great scandal is the almost uniform silence of the entire conglomeration of educated professionals associated with schooling and education: teachers, administrators, school psychologists, boards of education, academics of all sorts, and politicians whose silence is broken only with pointless thoughts and prayers after mass shootings.

Children entering kindergarten at age five or six are entering the state-run child abuse center. You have no right to exist on your own terms. You are a bad child who will become a bad person if you do not obey parents and the school bosses.

You must succeed in school and learn to chase dollars which are controlled by the rich, and you must chase approval by the authorities. You must sacrifice your autonomy, your imagination and creativity and all qualities that make you glow with awe and wonder, empathy and compassion. You must snuff out the essence and light of your humanity, and accept all of this as normal life.

Western state-run public schooling is emotional and psychological child abuse. The marks it leaves are not readily seen and not always immediate, but they are manifesting in self-harm, family-related and school shootings, the Tide Pod Challenge, and other ways not touched upon in this essay like self-medicating, addictions, depression, all topics that could easily make up thousands of words in dozens of other essays.

The message to America sent to us by the school dropout is that we’re doing it all wrong. There is nothing normal about normal. Approximately 1.3 million high school students tell us each year that something is wrong at school by leaving school. The dropout is sensitizing us to the abuses of corporate and state power, but only if we are free to receive the message by being willing to examine the dropout’s behavior, and instead of shaming and condemning it, asking why it is happening.

When all of life is mediated by culture, we live inside a psychological virtual world. We don’t necessarily need computer technology to live in a virtual world. All Americans are indoctrinated into a virtual world of delusions. One of those delusions is that when we encounter the brutality of work and school, we are told to blame ourselves, or to blame others at work such as co-workers or immediate bosses. Americans know nothing about systems of power and abuse, know nothing about the abuses of the education system because schools do not teach students that they are being abused. That’s how power systems work. They teach the children to blame themselves.

As Assata Shakur exclaimed:

The schools we go to are reflections of the society that created them. Nobody is going to give you the education you need to overthrow them. Nobody is going to teach you your true history, teach you your true heroes, if they know that that knowledge will help set you free. ((Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography 1987.))

A primary function of the state-mandated public school is to not teach students the realities that 1.3 million students each know only by leaving school. The great tragedy of the American school is not those who drop out, but those who stay.

Susan Cain’s introduction to human rights activism was as a high school student participating in the Memphis, Tennessee Sanitation Workers’ Strike during its peak in March 1968. Along with her activist friends, she participated in a children’s workshop group conducted by the local community theatre during the summer months of 1968 that made live theatre performances for children accessible to lower-income families. Susan later attended the University of Memphis studying French, Theatre, and Operatic Voice, meeting a few local musicians and discovering she preferred being a blues singer. She retains an active interest in human rights and U.S. foreign policy, now writing about national and international political “blues” She also writes short stories, vignettes, and poetry for personal enjoyment. Mark Mason is a high school dropout. The Vietnam War years put him on the anti-war barricades while living in Los Angeles. Curiosity about the human condition led him into formal studies of human and early primate evolution at the University of California. Mark was living in the San Francisco Bay area in 20011 when he joined the Occupy protest movement. News media were everywhere at this time as police beat protesters. Subsequently, Mark has appeared on ABC-TV News, RT, Press TV, and other international TV and print news outlets offering his independent analyses of US foreign and domestic policies. A lifelong advocate for wilderness protection, he enjoys exploring deserts of the American Southwest. Read other articles by Susan Cain and Mark Mason.