welcome to the patriarchy, love mom

In the end, after all the days of buildup and song practice and excitement and charging the camera battery, I missed it.

Josephine was in her upholstered seat doing a potty dance of Saturday Night Fever proportions, so I ran her up the aisle to the bathroom. He got called up first.

And so it was his father who captured Oscar walking across his first stage with his first diploma, his “graduation” out of preschool and into the formal school system of kindergarten. Fitting, perhaps.

Felicitations, says the scroll, in fancy letters. I unrolled it and smiled, at the formality of his name printed across the page.

I cringed too. There he goes.

Madeleine Grumet’s 1988 opus Bitter Milk: Women & Teaching, says that schooling serves as the delivery of children to the patriarchy.

I picked up the book a couple of weeks back, just as the kids’ preschool year was coming to a close. As an educator, and a student before that, and now a student yet again – someone who has been wrapped up in some form of the system for 35 years – OUCH.

And yet I nodded even as I flinched, reading the words. Grumet put her finger on the piece of this societal project of education that I’ve never been able to quite name, nor shake.

School is the foundation of much of what many of us IN the system want to see change, in schools and in society.

Schooling is powerfully self-replicating, making almost all of us complicit in its protection of its own practices.

Everyone has an opinion about school. Most of us have critiques of school, and schools, and schooling. But no matter the critiques and the shifts – whole language through critical pedagogy to ed reform and a call for standardization – no matter the politics and policies and the thousands of good intentions and spirited efforts and debates, schools march on, surprisingly same from decade to decade. Especially from the vantage point of a six or seven year old kid.

Think about it. The world of kids in the 1950s was relatively different than it is today. According to our cultural myths, at least, they had mothers at home, were sent outside to play, and had apparent run of their neighbourhoods. They’d never seen a carseat or a DS and most would have had more ashtrays in their homes than screens. Some would have never seen a television. They had fewer toys and books, and from the age of four or five, they were expected to entertain themselves in groups for extended hours of the day. If they’d gone with their fathers to work, which would have been seldom as fathers were not expected to be involved or engaged parents, they’d have encountered masculine, hierarchical environments where people performed discrete tasks.

Less supervision and less attention to their interests, feelings, and desires were simply the norms of the day. They were expected to behave and interact differently from children in this generation.

But when those children of the 1950s went to school, they would have encountered expectations very similar to those Oscar will encounter in September. Admittedly, the disciplinary shift is vast. Oscar’s cohort will not expect to be rapped on the knuckles if they breach the rules of the classroom. But those rules and the subjects they creates – subjects who sit, raise their hands, complete discrete tasks independently, and participate in various overt and subtle hierarchies of skill and tribe and class – are remarkably similar.

In spite of the fact that those rules and skills no longer even make for an advantage in the post-1950s job market. What the educational system seems to do best is reproduce itself, getting further and further from cultural value all the time.

We send them into the school system, most of us, with great hopes. Learning. Education. Talisman words. They promise development of our children’s potential, inculcation into the mysteries of consciousness. The lure of the Tree of Knowledge.

What they get – what we all get – is something…other…than that. We get people who learn their place in our culture. In the – however much I flinch at the word – patriarchy, with its implicit hierarchy of gendered behaviours and classed behaviours and racialized behaviours, even as we in our schools and culture pay lip service to inclusion and acceptance and celebration of difference.

That, in the end, is the worldview of the mothers, of the feminized voices within society.

Grumet’s premise is that it is schools – and female primary and elementary teachers, for the most part – who serve to reinforce the nature/culture binary that privileges masculinized “cultured” behaviours over the intersubjectivity of mothers and children, the living with-and-through-another that marks most humans’ early days.

In school, we learn to give over curiosity to passive acceptance, rewarded by praise. We learn to “other” other people, by grades and behavioural sanctions and the message that classrooms as we understand them cannot seem to fail to impart: Some of You Are Doing It Wrong. Some of You are Not Worthy. Some Animals are More Equal Than Others.

It naturalizes the separation of subject and object, of us and them, me and you. It works because it buries its own traces, creating subjects who believe it is simply the way of the world to stand apart, against intersubjectivity and the interwoven world of shared interests. Schools function symbolically, guiding us to adulthood and away not just from the literal worlds of our mothers but from the symbiosis these worlds and their mutual dependence represent.

      “Contradicting the inferential nature of paternity, the paternal project of curriculum is to claim the child, to teach him or her
to master the language, the rules, the games and the names of the fathers. Contradicting the symbiotic nature of maternity,
the maternal project of curriculum is to relinquish the child so that both mother and child can become more
independent of each other.” (Grumet, 1988, p. 21).

In other words, schooling creates subjects who internalize the subject/object divide that reinforces patriarchy and so-called culture through the knowledge acquisition and gendering processes that schools and teachers are constructed to see as natural. And parents, products and subjects of the same system, go along, delivering our children to the same inequitable and flawed system even as we gripe collectively about its flaws and failures.

I’ve watched it start this year, in Oscar, as he moved to five days a week in a preschool physically attached to the school he’ll attend next year. He learned excellent French. He also learned a lot about what boys should do. About being shy to be wrong. And about colouring in the lines and thinking skies need to be blue. He learned you can’t talk all the way through Circle Time. And he learned how to court the powerful, how to curry favour in a pecking order and how to spot difference that makes others vulnerable. There was something violent about it all. And yet familiar, utterly familiar.

But that is only because I went through the same process myself. As did you, probably. And so the system goes, self-replicating because we don’t know anything else.

So here I am: mother, educator, student of educational theory. And I have the mother of all dilemmas on my hands.

It’s good, part of me says, to know all these things that school teaches. Not the information ones. The social relations. The power rules. Certainly, we expect O not to talk when others are talking here at home, and it’s useful to know how to handle yourself in a hierarchy.

But. But.

Learning these things makes you subject to them, no matter which end you come out on. I learned all that crap so well that it’s taken me years to begin to unpack it, to live without waiting for a grade, for an external deadline, for a sense of how I measure up against others. I do not want this for my children. I do not want them to be like me.

And so another part of me sits watching this march of normativity start up, and blows smoke at the spectacle and asks Really? All these years of trying to critique the system from within, and you’re going to go ahead and subject your own child and children to the whole shebang?

Really? Can you not come up with an alternative solution?

And when I look that voice in the eye, I am ashamed.

We could homeschool, I suppose, or preferably, unschool. I think unschooling is probably – if not necessarily overtly – about trying to uncouple the patriarchy from the educational process. But I am both a product and a purveyor of education in its traditional forms. I have been – gently, maybe, but nonetheless – delivering other people’s children to the patriarchy for years.

A part of what I know how to do, professionally, is a form of serving at the pleasure of the patriarchy itself. I am complicit.

Could I be otherwise? Do I want to be? That, Hamlet, is the question.

I do not believe learning is inherently a patriarchal process, even if the notion of the Tree of Knowledge might be. We do lots of critiques in my classrooms, just as we do in our house. My children, like my students, will inevitably be exposed to the idea that the world and its power relations are constructed, not natural. But could I go further than that, if I were willing and able to carve out the space in this next few years to try to educate my kids myself?

Or would I inevitably replicate what I know, what’s been done to me in the name of learning and becoming “educated”?

Part of me suspects I would. And I wonder if I wouldn’t rather have a nice gentle primary teacher do that to them rather than me?

Part of me prefers my autonomous life, my space. I was no idealized mother, when my children were infants. I work from home, now, but alone. Part of me fears that I do not know how to function without the patriarchal separation of the domestic and the professional, no matter how specious and unnecessary it may be.

In the end, I suspect that I will deliver my children over to some version of a 1950s classroom. Anything else would shock me. And I assume there will be good in it, and bad, just as there was for most of us.

Yet, sitting here thinking about tiny diplomas and the patriarchy and the world I’d like to live in, I recognize that schooling is a choice.

And I marvel and cringe at the power of a system that makes it so difficult for even those of us most deeply embedded in and privileged by its operations to see other options. Patriarchy for the win, indeed.

Do you think Grumet’s assessment is fair?

Those of you who have homeschooled, or unschooled…what was it like? What are its strengths and weaknesses, in practice? Do you end up replicating what you know?

And…what role do you think educational technologies could play in shifting some of the power relations involved in children’s learning? Do the peer-to-peer capacities and real audiences of social media offer any real challenge to the traditional practices of hierarchy in education?



19 Comments welcome to the patriarchy, love mom

  1. JoVE

    Homeschoolers (and I use the term broadly to include everything from unschooling to more structured approaches) often talk about a process of ‘deschooling’.

    Just as you notice how the system is self replicating, once you step out, there is a period of adjusting, of noticing how things could be different. It’s a difficult process. It goes back and forth.

    We worry about whether we are doing the right things with/for our kids. We find ourselves measuring ourselves against what schools do as if that standard is meaningful, even when we are highly critical of it.

    Also, there is a lot of variety in how people do homeschooling (including unschooling).

    For me, it allows a focus on learning and curiosity. Grades don’t happen here. And it’s made me think of parenting much more as a relationship than as a job.

    1. bon

      i do think the scheduling of trotting out for a 9-4 day does turn parenting (in those moments of the day, at least) into a chore. at least in my house. which i hate, b/c that conflict of desires (mine to go, already, and Oscar’s in particular to dawdle and remain here, no matter how he seems to enjoy himself when he gets there) disturbs me.

      yet i’m curious. how scheduled are your days? can you give me a vision of the days when you get outside the box and don’t do what schools would do?

  2. Andrea_R

    “Thank you for home schooling me, Mom. I know how to keep learning.”

    This from my 23 year old son, now a parent whose child will also be homeschooled.

    He sees, now with adult opened eyes, how many f his peers are “falling for it” and floating through life .

    We wanted more for him and his siblings, now he wants more for his daughter.

    The down side of unschooling? It happens on their timetable not yours. It leaves you feeling bereft because most of the rest of society just “doesn’t get it”. It laves you feeling like most people do not understand and never will. It leaves you restless.

    take the blue pill or the red pill?

    1. bon

      thanks for the comment, Andrea. and the input.

      i think it’s hard for those of us who’ve spent our lives – and careers – trying to make the best we can of the education system to see the ways in which it limits our learning as much as fosters it. even when we see it, i find it terribly hard to see beyond it.

      i find myself wishing i didn’t see the flaws, in all honesty. because i’m left acknowledging that i’m making a choice in choosing the norm of the system, without feeling like it’s really a choice at all.

      this post is part of the processing and wondering aloud.

  3. Pingback: Flamingo House Happenings » Blog Archive » I Have a Headache – But It’s Not Because of the Patriarchy

  4. Rob Paterson

    Great question Bon – looking over my daughter’s shoulder at my grand kids – one of whom is already bored out her mind at daycare. So what to do when the entire culture is on the other side?

    I think that we might need more critical mass for support on our side – how can we connect all those like you to each other and si get more support?

    Also, so long as you and Dave “go” to work and so long as it is only you and Dave or Hope and Charlie – not enough local mass to carry the burden of the endless curiosity of small kids

    I worry that Sophia will get into trouble because she is so bright – a good thing and a curse. So this conversation is not an idel one for me and I know not for you and Dave

    Keep talking xox Rob

    1. bon

      damn straight about the critical mass.

      what i want, really, is to keep working in education for a public education that will be different. b/c the choice to opt out – while absolutely a huge commitment and sacrifice of a sort – is also a privilege. one that i have. one that was not available to my mother, however, when i was a kid.

      i have thought for awhile that a small group of unschoolers would be cool. though probably fraught. but still cool. then i could keep working away at the “shifting what education means” stuff without necessarily having my kids participate in the system as it is.

  5. Kimberly

    I come from a long line of highly “educated” men AND women (my great-grandmother on my dad’s side was a doctor who graduated from U Chicago Med school in 1896). Degrees are highly valued, but mostly because “you can’t get a good job these days without a doctorate”.

    Nevertheless, my family is more than a little supportive of my desire to home-school my kids, because of the conformity they see in the “system”. Not necessarily patriarchy, but the lock-step of the education system which tries to fit everyone into the same mold and “dumbs-down” much of substance in order to meet the needs of the average student.

    Perhaps the main thing that you are perceiving as the constant in education, especially primary and secondary, is conformity with the establishment, whatever that is. Conformity looks the same, no matter what the standard is.

    Until very recently, learning was not conflated with education/degrees, but now it is. Is is possible for someone who has only an 8th grade education to be quite learned? All you have to do is look at people 100 years ago who had no access to higher education. Often they were reading the classics and philosophy after having quit school after primary school.

    You don’t need school to learn, but you need school to teach conformity to a style and an establishment.

    My two cents.

    1. bon

      Kimberly, i wrote a reply to this a couple of days ago and my own blog ate the comment. sigh. ;)

      i think you’re quite right about conformity, no matter the differences in the way we perceive that. and i full agree that learning and education don’t necessarily go hand in hand.

      i don’t worry about my kids learning. i worry that an education may teach them how NOT to learn.

  6. Mike

    Hi bon,
    You have written a powerful piece. I have read about and know how schools reproduce our patriarchal society, etc… I have written about it. Yet, your very personal musings have made it seem more real and have me thinking deeply. I might even have my teacher candidates read this post in my course in fall. So, thanks for thinking out loud and sharing.

    In terms of home-schooling, I only have experience seeing kids come from that environment into the public system. However that was long ago,and I have changed personally in the past several years, so I can’t comment (except to say there are certainly some parents who should not be home-schooling – but that is another story, and a matter of opinion).

    In terms of ed tech changing schooling – I think it can, and is, however, often it is used to do the old things in a new way The old mind set is often too entrenched. We get a shiny new IWB and the interactivity added is the teacher moving things around on it when kids watch, or come up one at a time to touch it… nothing has changed. Until educators really stand back and think about schooling and their roles in it, we will march on with the industrial model. I am, perhaps naively, optimistic that the education system can and will change, that is why I do what I do. There are changes happening in pockets here and there, and it will be a lot of work to keep the momentum. System wide changes … I don’t think we are getting there soon, we only have to look at what is going on around us, the rich and powerful still hold sway. I still am a believer in public education, working to change it is still worthwhile. Good luck with your decision making & thanks for the thought provoking piece.

  7. Will Richardson

    I’ve been walking around with a pinch of school induced nausea for the last 8 years, yet I keep sending them back. Why is that? All the answers I come up with make me feel even worse. You’ve articulated the angst so beautifully here Bonnie that if nothing else, I feel less alone in the struggle. Small comfort in the long run.

    I keep wondering if 10-15 years down the road I’ll look at my kids and wish I’d done it differently. Wish I’d had the guts (?), the sense (?), the love (?) to have put them on a different path, one that as much as I hope for the system to embrace, I fully realize it can’t. Ironic on many levels.

    1. bon

      it’s an irony that’s hard to swallow, isn’t it? i keep hoping that maybe all those of us who are in some way or another a part of the educational system, constructive critics from our various perspectives, help make it better. on the grand scale, i don’t find it hard to believe…i really don’t. but when i look my own two in the eyes? the urgency of it all seems to overwhelm my own satisfaction with small improvements…

  8. Julia Simens

    It is hard to be in the system and see clearly how it is way too much about conformity. Conformity looks the same, no matter what age or school a child is in. But this also holds true for some families that homeschool. What works best for one child might not work for the other child in the household.

    I would love to see all kids on different paths so they would all have happier and healthier childhoods. I work as a school counselor and many times the concern is not the child it is the child not doing the expectations of the teacher.

    Some days are long…

    Thanks for this article. As a mother of two and in the system, it is good to know we are not alone in our wishes for the best of the children.

  9. Sheila Stewart

    Thank you for writing this! I feel less alone now too! I left behind teaching at the elementary level years ago only to return my own kids to the “system”. And now with one out of high school and one just in, I often find it difficult to reflect on the adjustments and angst I have had to work through to support them on the schooling path. Even as teens, it takes them a full two weeks to “unschool” in the summer. Is this right that it seems so necessary?

    I feel like I am always on the sidelines working in various ways to recognize and support good change in education/schools and often wonder how I stay at it! Have to say that technology and social media seemed to have come along at the right time for me–like a window has opened to help find hope for needed change in education systems and in the structures that affect the relationships within. It may not happen in time for my kids, but I try not to think about that….

    Will be reflecting on this post some more!


    1. bon

      Sheila…thanks for your kind words and input.

      technologies and needed change…maybe. i do think the possibility is there, though i’m wary of tech determinism even when it’s utopic. social media is what i study, yet i don’t yet see my way clear to a sense of how to make this into any kind of systematized free education.

      so many questions. i wonder how many of us are left with things we try not to think about, in terms of our own kids?

  10. monika hardy

    dear bon,

    what a touching post. thank you for sharing.
    my kids are 16. there are so many things i wish i would have known earlier. things i would have done different.

    well – perhaps.
    i wonder if the unleashing of the web and access over the last 5 years even – is what has made possible what some kids in our district have been visualizing – working on. school as life, community as school. unschooling in school.
    i wonder if change hasn’t happened yet because, well, now is the time. the web is allowing things we couldn’t do before. in particular, it’s allowing us to differentiate to infinity.

    i don’t know.
    i know so little.
    but i know enough that i can’t not do this. and i believe your kids can catch this wave, without leaving public ed.

    if you’re so inclined.. what we’ve been working on – awakening indispensable people.
    here per post: http://tinyurl.com/6fdaxc6
    here per shorter (poorly done) video set:

    if you haven’t seen Priya Ravi’s wisdom and salt water, i highly recommend it. it’s a session with some parents talking about unschooling. extremely potent, and insightful, about listening to your kids.

    warm regards sweet…

  11. Veronica Mitchell

    I have been thinking about this post since you wrote it, but I’m not sure I can express my thoughts beyond a few general impressions.

    First, as so often when I read your blog, I am struck by how often we share similar criticisms of society from very different perspectives. I belong to an extremely normative religion with an authoritarian understanding of God, but I am as unnerved by many of the things my kids learn: the herd mentality, the subjection of curiosity to orderliness, the fear of standing out as either too smart or too dumb. Our agreements in the midst of so many disagreements makes me even more cynical about ideological purity as anyone’s goal.

    Second, I keep coming back to Grumet’s base metaphor. Motherhood as symbiosis and interdependence. This doesn’t sit right with me. It seems to be more a reaction against perceived flaws in patriarchy than a natural lesson of motherhood. The time in which mother and child are interdependent is very short. Weaning is as essentially a maternal activity as breastfeeding; delivery as much as gestation. Why does Grumet privilege the having and keeping parts of motherhood over the separating? One of the reasons I chose public school for my kids (at least for the short term – we may homeschool later) was that I felt I needed assistance in the weaning parts of motherhood. My decision was as essentially womanly, feminist and maternal as anyone else’s education choices.


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