COVID has accelerated the transformation of our education system into a mini-totalitarian state.
The American educational system has been infected by the tyranny of mediocrity for decades. The emphasis on strange and unattainable forms of equality, self-esteem (as opposed to balanced emotional health), and ideology have nullified the possibility of good education. Of course, this is not true of all schools. But generally speaking, schooling in America is an exercise in destructive ideology rather than learning.
In the last 20 months, our COVID-19 response has morphed very quickly into an authoritarian ideology that is trying to spread its infectious tentacles ever deeper into students’ lives. As bad as we knew things had gotten before COVID, few imagined that we would be talking about “parents’ rights” in America. But the strange use of critical race theory as a pedagogical cudgel, the relentless enforcement of mask mandates for children, and the push to vaccinate kids against COVID-19 have led us into that position.
This is a serious fight, and there are no just comparisons to other totalitarian systems that can describe our current situation. Having grown up in socialist Yugoslavia, I can say with firm belief and knowledge that what is going on right now is far worse. My elementary and middle school education was rigid, but the joy of childhood was not negated or villainized. We would simply not have taken such an effort seriously. Although there was plenty of propaganda, we were never forced to alter or police the private sphere of our own thoughts.
Today’s level of dehumanization has reached another level entirely. Some parents don’t seem to mind. “Oh, the kids complain about the masks every day. I just don’t think it’s a big deal,” one woman said to me with a smile that implied both anxiety and carelessness. It was clear that she felt guilt, yet her alleged freedom during the day was far more important than taking care of her children. “Children are used to it now, and they don’t mind,” say others. I’m sure that is true, because children will internalize anything—even abuse. Unable to comprehend the reality that surrounds them, they cannot fully understand the nature and effects of abuse until much later in their lives.
Even in images of totalitarian regimes, the human face always emerges from the darkness of the ideological and oppressive system. We see the human dignity of the victims, as well as the shame, evil, and corruption of the oppressors. Now, masks provide totalizing anonymity. The oppressor hides behind his tyrannical acts, and the victim remains faceless. If we allow this to continue, our children will become voiceless as well.
Children’s emotional and psychological health has been ignored since the beginning of the COVID phenomenon. Development, especially for small children, depends on the ability to see other people’s faces and learn to read them for hostility or kindness, to participate in human relationality. Masks are one of the tools used to turn children into faceless numbers, mere anonymous parts in the great stream of the masses.
Fear is the Mind-Killer
Critical race theory as pedagogy, forced mask wearing, and vaccines are expressions of a regime that is attempting to do one thing: eradicate singularity and freedom of the individual. What we are witnessing is a metaphysical takeover of students’ minds and souls, and now even their bodies. An educational system, whose original purpose is to educate children in the realm of knowledge, is adopting a wholly different purpose and mission.
Part of this mission is to place burdens on children. Take, for example, environmentalism. This has become a complete ideology dependent on raw fear. The purpose is to tell children that the planet will cease to exist and that they ultimately have no right to live because they are in the way of our planet’s survival. Instead of actually teaching children to be proper stewards of our natural world, the ideologues are schooling them in fear.
Fear is the primary mover behind the COVID ideology as well, and behind the strangeness of critical race theory: each is a way of shaming children for simply existing in a normal, human way so that they feel deserving of punishment and fearful of what form it may take next. When fear takes root, so does compliance. When anxiety about the future, and the denial that children deserve any kind of future at all, becomes the drive behind life, then any shred of free thought and creativity will die along with it.
The psychologist D.W. Winnicott explored the question of creativity in his 1971 work Playing and Reality. What does it mean to be a creative person when we are trying to relate to an external world and the imposing environment? More importantly, what does it mean to be a creative child in the midst of dehumanization of the child’s mind? Creativity “makes the individual feel that life is worth living,” writes Winnicott:
Contrasted with this is a relationship to external reality which is one of compliance, the world and its details being recognized but only as something to be fitted in with or demanding adaptation. Compliance carries with it a sense of futility for the individual and is associated with the idea that nothing matters and that life is not worth living. In a tantalizing way many individuals have experienced just enough of creative living to recognize that for most of their time they are living uncreatively, as if caught up in the creativity of someone else, or of a machine.
Winnicott’s description of how creativity is destroyed is also a definition of educational totalitarianism. It’s not only that we are witnessing a constant stream of propaganda in schools. It’s that the entire project is presented as a singular truth. To make matters even worse, this singular truth is supposed to override any say that parents have in their children’s lives.
“Teacher knows best” appears to be the ideologues’ motto, which is just as bad as any tyrannical parent. Not only is the machine of this educational system stealing and re-creating the very consciousness of children, it is putting up a brick barrier between the child and parent. The barrier is weak because it is mainly made of mediocre appearances. Nevertheless, it is visible and its consequences are real.
At this point in time, my concern is not about the parents that are already aware of this incredibly important issue, but about those who are either unaware of or willingly oblivious to the gravity of the situation. With parents’ rights come parents’ responsibilities. We have a responsibility to teach our children right from wrong, to protect them, and to nurture their creativity and inherent freedom. No matter what it may think, the tyrannical state does not own the children. Children, like all people, cannot be owned. They are possessors of their own thoughts and emotions, and their inherent creative self that rests in the space of unbreakable human dignity.