Schools and Socialization
Warning: Not for the faint of heart.
The following is an outtake from my chapter on education and schools in The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey. I was always torn about whether to include it because it was so upsetting and my wife persuaded me to take it out. You judge whether it should have been included or not. Here it is.
I have my own horror story. In high school, we were segregated by gender for Phys. Ed. class. Our Phys. Ed. instructor was a lazy man who often would sit in his office off the gym through the whole class and not pay attention to what was happening. Incidentally, every year when I go back to visit my home town, I drop in on my favorite high-school teacher, who was the vice-principal at the time. When I told him the story I’m about to tell you, he told me that the Phys. Ed. teacher often slept when hidden away in his office. Maybe he was sleeping the day this happened. It happened in 11th or 12th grade–I don’t remember which. I tried to forget.
I was called “the brain” by many of my classmates, and not usually with a complimentary tone. Our gym had ropes hanging from the ceiling. We were milling around when suddenly three or four boys picked me up and held me horizontal. They then put my neck through a hangman’s noose that they had tied in one of the ropes. When I looked into their eyes, they seemed to be weighing whether to hang me. I decided that my best strategy was not to protest or make any noise at all but to let them figure out that this was crazy. I don’t know that they did figure out that it was crazy. The look on their faces as they took my head out of the noose was more the look of someone saying, “I guess we shouldn’t hang him” the same way they might have said, “I guess I’ll have vanilla ice-cream today.” My friends, incidentally, although they were in that class, did not intervene. One of them, if I recall correctly, did look concerned, but it’s possible that he thought, as I did, that he had better not make any sudden moves. And for whatever reason, I didn’t go to the vice-principal and tell him and I didn’t tell my parents, even though my father taught in that same 300-person school, or siblings. I told no one. In fact, I didn’t talk about it until I was 38 years old and in a men’s therapy group.
I wasn’t always the victim either. I inflicted my share of cruelty. My 8th grade teacher, Miss Boas, treated most of us badly, hitting us with a stick when she had a bad day and we gave wrong answers. But the one person she singled out for special abuse was Esther. Esther was a plain looking girl without a lot of self-confidence, but probably within the normal range. When Esther gave a wrong answer, Miss Boas would sometimes hit her especially hard with her stick and a few times came down the aisle, pulled Esther out of her seat and shook her violently. As I tell this story, I sincerely regret that I didn’t do something to block Miss Boas, to prevent her from treating Esther that way. I sometimes pictured sticking out my foot to trip Miss Boas as she went down the aisle. I didn’t have the guts. But I did way worse, as did many of the kids in my class; we piled on Esther. We would say her name with dripping sarcastic cruelty, the way we had learned from Miss Boas. Who says schools don’t teach values? Miss Boas taught us well. By the end of that year, Esther was almost a basket case.
If these stories were told by a few of my friends and me, that would be bad enough. But they are widespread. Everyone has them. Next time you go to a parents’ evening at school, pay attention to how some of the parents–usually the working-class parents, I have noticed–conduct themselves around teachers. You will often see the same fear and concentration-camp caution that those parents learned as children.