Why the system loves conformity

In order to do this hairstyle:

…I had to buy yarn, which—when it looked as though I might run out—meant an emergency trip to Michael’s. I had done the first half of Ruby’s head on Saturday and planned to do the rest on Sunday, starting as early as possible so the child would have some bit of playtime to her weekend. If I couldn’t do her hair on Sunday, it would be another week before I could finish it. So I drove down Michael’s that Sunday morning and got there just as the doors were opening at 9:00. At least, that’s when the doors were supposed to be opening according to their website.

Instead, a young woman who was setting up the displays of impulse-buy hoo-ha just outside the front doors, informed me with zero amount of apology and quite a bit of slack-jawed apathy, that the store didn’t open until 10:00 a.m. Being desperately in need of the yarn, I offered the girl a mutually beneficial plan. “How about this?” I asked her. “You run inside and grab me one skein of 100% acrylic Red Heart yarn in black, and I’ll give you ten bucks. When the store opens, you can ring it up and keep the remaining money for yourself.” Please? Please? Oh, pretty please?

I was being nice but I was displeased with the situation. Much like Ruby was displeased with the self-portrait she made as part of her district-approved, two-hours-long, once-every-six-to-eight-weeks art class at school. Mind you, her self portrait was completed in three stages AFTER a 40-minute lecture during which the kids watched a volunteer parent draw shapes on the white board while explaining, thiiiiiis is a ciiiiiirrrrrccccle, thiiiiiis is a squaaaaaare, thiiiiiis is a triiiiiiangle. And thiiiiiis is meeeeee blowing my braaaaaaains out on behalf of the wiggly children suffering the long-winded example. Oh. Wait. Did I just say that?

The assignment was to use the shapes to make a self-portrait. If the kids deviated from the instructions (“No, honey. Heads are not round.”), they were corrected (“Heads are oval.”). They were not allowed to go ahead. They had to stick with the stages, which were…

Stage 1, the sketch:

Stage 2, the second sketch (Ruby got in trouble for adding color because it wasn’t time to add color):

And, Stage 3, the third sketch and NOW color!:

Is it me, or does her smile get progressively weaker?

“Look what they made me do to my body, Mom!” she said. “My body is NOT square. Look at my legs! Look at my fingers! They MADE me do that!”

And not only did they make my child do this, but they made her do it twice. Two weeks ago, while Ruby’s teacher went to a professional development meeting, the kids were sent into other classrooms. It just so happened that the class Ruby ended up in was having their art lesson that day. All said, she spent four hours on this square-body, oval-head, round-fingered, zero-creativity-or-inspiration project. That is the our district hard at work right there.

Of course, I used this as an opportunity to explain that some kids don’t have exposure to art like she does, and that this sort of guided project gives those children a chance to practice drawing. Not all kids are prolific in pumping out detailed outfits and lapdogs on a daily basis:

The legs do look fairly familiar, and I notice she could use some practice on the fingers.

Anyway, I also told her that in life, we often have to do things we don’t want to do, especially when teachers or bosses (or mommies, ahem) are in charge. And, too, I told her that I thought the art class was stupid. Yes, I did.

So far, I’ve been able to hold my tongue when it comes to telling her what I think about the Envision math curriculum.

I simply pick and choose which parts of these lessons she’ll be ignoring.

What I have decided about our public school curriculum, specifically here in California, is that it is designed to narrow the thinking down to the most tunnely of tunnel vision humanly possible. It has been designed to squash critical thinking and individuality and any sense of joy in learning. It has been designed to create a future society of drones who can fill in a bubble, recite an equation, and pass a test, but who will never be able to solve a problem that isn’t in the employee manual because they won’t know how.

I’m convinced the system wants these kinds of adult humans to be in the labor force so they will do what they are told and they won’t ever make waves and they won’t question authority and they certainly will not, will not, will not! bend the rules for the lady offering a 350% profit on one skein of Red Heart yarn, because such solution is not in the realm of possibilities they’ve been taught to fathom.

I mean, if we gave kids the rich and joyous education they deserved, who in the hell would be left to work at Michael’s?



19 Responses to Why the system loves conformity

  • Hi from Northern California! Google Ken Robinson and watch his numerous TED talks on how schools destroy creativity and what to do about it.

  • mrs. g.. says:

    “What an elitist thing to say! Did it ever occur to you that some people might like to work at Michael’s because they enjoy making things?”

    It never occurred to me as I have never once gotten decent customer service at any Michael’s. That entire store is like one big blue light special…don’t get me started on those cinnamon scented pine cones. Aaryn was joking. I’m serious.

  • Lori says:

    Possibly the person working Michael’s could have been fired by doing what you had asked….and in this economy…..quite honestly needs the job?

  • Violet says:

    It might be time to stop shopping at Michael’s.

  • L.Groves says:

    What an elitist thing to say! Did it ever occur to you that some people might like to work at Michael’s because they enjoy making things? Or selling things so that others can do the same? There are more reasons that go into someone working the register at a craft store than the lack of an enriching art experience in school. The world needs all kinds of people with all kinds of skills and if someone is showing up to do an honest day’s work, you shouldn’t belittle him or her. It’s the worst kind of reverse prejudice.

    • Aaryn says:

      Oh, I just love the humorless reader. No, it’s not an elitist thing to say. And no, it’s not reverse prejudice (maybe look up the definition).
      I don’t care whether someone works at Michael’s because they need a job or because they like to make things. Most of the employees there are rude, unhelpful and, time after time, unable to make a decision that isn’t already spelled out for them by upper management. Aside from one particular employee at one particular Michael’s, my experience has never failed to elicit my stated conclusion. Most of the employees I’ve encountered are incompetent assholes who would be fired from most other service industry jobs because they are rude or apathetic or both. They suck. Period. I also put in an honest day’s work, and I never treat anyone the way I see Michael’s employees treat their customers.

  • Violet says:

    Perhaps the point of the lesson was to teach the child how to follow instructions.

    • Aaryn says:

      She’s learning this by doing her many story problems and literacy exercises. If this was one art lesson in a frequent series, I could understand it. But as one of four my child will get all year long, in the sea of academic work, it is unacceptable.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I agree with everything you write. I also believe that a good part of the problems that we face in this country stem from poor education, particularly in the area of critical thinking, financial management and creativity. Obviously, we are not on the right path to fixing that situation.

    Our girls get their art lessons outside of the school day. They learn more and they get to express themselves more fully. It’s a shame that this isn’t included in the classroom.

    Our private school did institute art classes last year and the parents went ape-%^&. They said that the time was wasted when the kids could be in math and english. After a year, the program was cut at parent insistence. So sad.

  • Anna says:

    I agree 100% about the math curriculum. In CA they beat the creativity out of them!! It is very hard to make the children finish their weekly assignments and not die of boredom in the process.

    As for the art, there’s not a strict curriculum, so I think you are just not lucky with the teacher. You could complain about it and try to tip the scale in case the school is considering hiring someone else.

    By the way, that drawing with the dogs and the pink sweater is very good.

  • Aunt Snow says:

    when we chose kindergarten for my son, years ago, one of the schools that we toured and a very strong reputation for academic excellence. We happened to be touring during “art class”. It was near Christmas and the kids were making wreaths with red and green construction paper cut-outs. As we listened to the teacher admonish kids that the wreaths had to be green and the berries had to be red, we realized it was not the school for us.

    In 5th grade, my son’s teacher assigned them to decorate their paper-bag book covers with colored markers. My son was told to do his over because it “wasn’t creative enough.”

  • joe says:

    About the only thing I remember from first grade: We had to fill in boxes with the correct color, and I did it by drawing a quarter-inch along each side, alternating all the way into the center, which made (I thought) a cool pattern. It was subsequently explained to me that I had done it wrong because the boxes were not shaded in evenly–never mind that the colors were correct….

    Maybe it’s a good thing that Cabrillo Elementary is slated to be closed? (Just kidding).

  • kerryanne says:

    Fantastic post, Aaryn!!! In my stateside life I was an art teacher in a public school system. I systematically got laid off 4 times in a row due to lack of funding. I watched as burned out, uninspired & could-care-less faculty kept their jobs & did the kind of crap said art person above did in her ‘lesson’. It’s infuriating to say the least. If the sad state of affairs means that kids only get art every 6 weeks for two hours, then my god they should make those the best, most freeing, most creative 2 hours they can.

    All children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.
    Pablo Picasso

  • You have just articulated WHY I LEFT TEACHING. We don’t teach children to think, we teach them to take tests. I don’t know about you, but the only standardized test I take as an adult is every eight years when I have to renew my license in person, instead of by mail. Now you see why a teacher like Mrs. G chose to home school her kids.

  • MAYBELLINE says:

    YOU are absolutely correct.

  • Art in public schools pisses me off because clearly the Monets and Michaelangelos and Leonardos are revered and fawned over, while the Picassos get ignored.

    I have both a Leonardo and a Piccasso, and I’ve seen the differences in how they’re treated by art teachers. My Leonardo was offered a spot in an honors art program while my Picasso, who desperately wanted to join the same program, was repeatedly denied the opportunity to even apply, much less be considered by the all-mighty jury.


  • That’s very sad and Ruby is an amazing artist.

    Actually, I think more than anything the curriculum has been designed so an idiot can teach it. Just, you know, so they don’t have to pay for talented teachers.

  • Cathy Clasen says:

    Love it!!! Spot on! Thanks for sharing this!

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