Posts Tagged ‘Development’

Reading through the second book of Ally Carter’s excellent Gallagher Girls series, Cross My Heart and Hope to Spy, on the bus home yesterday afternoon, I was suddenly struck by how the representation of schools in YA writing is, in many ways, reflective of the wider problems of modern education. Now, when it comes to the subject of education generally and high school in particular, I am not what you would call an objective commentator: I have passionate opinions, and I like to share them. I mention this by way of establishing from the outset that my perception of modern education and its problems are not necessarily universal. (I like to think it should be, but that’s another story.)

The point being, high school is problematic, and regardless of differing opinions on why that is or how it might be fixed, the simple assertion that  problems do exist is not a controversial statement. And so, while reading a book about a spy academy for teenage girls, it occurred to me to wonder why some types of school are held up as interesting, awesome and excellent in YA novels, while others either blend into the background or, at worst, are depicted as hateful, prisonesque institutions. At first glance, this is something of a ridiculous question: YA is about teenagers, teenagers go to school – is it any wonder, therefore, that depictions of education in YA should vary, too? Well, no: but probing a little deeper, it’s possible to discern an interesting pattern about the types of school on offer.

To start with, let’s consider the cool schools. These are places where the actual content of various classes is depicted as positive and interesting, not only to the characters, but to the readership – and more, where the skills they teach are of demonstrable use to the protagonists. These are the schools that cause real-world teenagers to read about them and think, man, I wish I went there, and what should be instantly significant about this is not that such schools exist, even hypothetically, but that their status as such is contingent on the combination of three factors in varying ratios: glamour, agency and relevance. Dealing with the foremost of these, it’s undeniable that cool schools train their students to be, well, cool. Carter’s Gallagher Academy is a school for spies; J. K. Rowling’s Hogwarts trains witches and wizards; and, though they don’t attend schools in the modern sense, Tamora Pierce’s heroines nonetheless learn to be knights and police officers in institutional settings.

Undeniably, then, glamour is a factor: to borrow Monty Python’s favourite example, who wants to read a book about a school for chartered accountancy? But even so, there’s something significant in the narrative success of schools whose aim is to churn out graduates with qualifications for a particular career: the idea of educational relevance. Beyond the novelty of reading about single-focus schools, all these stories show students being trained for an identifiable purpose, taking on difficult assignments not just through their own adventuring (though this also happens), but because the structure of the institution demands that they do so. Regular homework, genuine danger, obedience to teachers and repetitious training are never omitted or skimmed for the sake of making school look like a cakewalk: instead, they are emphasised, because in a setting where teenage protagonists are allowed to have personal ambitions – and more, where these can be actively pursued through school – then all those educational necessities which in the real world are seen as tedious, pointless and intrusive suddenly become interesting, worthwhile and relevant. Put bluntly, it’s one thing to sit resentfully through hours of geography class without the slightest idea of when it might ever be useful, and quite another to read about a scenario where, in order to prepare for their future career as a globe-trotting spy, a teenage protagonist sits down to memorise all the world’s countries and capital cities. Sure, actually doing the memory work would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps even dull, but the end reward – being a spy – would more than compensate for it.

And then there’s the question of agency: the fact that teenage attendees of cool schools are not only expected to know what they want from life, but are frequently allowed leeway in their efforts at pursuing it. By and large, cool school teachers don’t care about standardised testing: they care about the material, about preparing you for the real world; they stand up for their students, support independence, encourage critical inquiry and – most importantly – treat teenagers as though they’re intelligent enough to have real opinions. As a result, the students of cool schools get to have genuine adventures without being constantly told that doing so is impossible, illegal or irresponsible. Which isn’t to say that their actions never have consequences, or that no one ever gets punished for breaking the rules, or even that adults never call them idiots. What it does mean, however, is that there’s a general acknowledgement that the most important, powerful and significant moments of one’s secondary education do not necessarily take place in class or as a result of school-sanctioned activities, and that a certain amount of disobedience is to be, if not actively encouraged, then certainly expected as part and parcel of growing into an independent adult. Thus, while Professor McGonagall has no compunction about taking house points or assigning detention (for instance), we never see any evidence that particular crimes at Hogwarts have lasting consequences beyond the (drastic, rarely issued) threat of expulsion. At cool schools, there is no such thing as a permanent record, and if you can’t see the link between the freedom to make mistakes without endangering your whole future and an assertion of teenage agency, then I’d be so bold as to suggest that you’ve forgotten what high school is like.

So, to recap: cool schools have glamour. They make the students work hard, but towards well-defined goals that are actually relevant, both to the real world and to their personal ambitions. They are understanding of error: punishments are personal and immediate, rather than long-term and general. They have good teachers and interesting subjects, with an emphasis on curiosity and independent research. Students at cool schools have agency, and are treated like adults-in-training rather than merely teenagers. This, to my way of thinking, distinguishes cool schools in YA fiction from most actual schools, but you’re allowed to disagree. (Note: real world schools can still have awesome teachers. If I’m asserting any dissonance in that regard, it’s that awesome teachers in cool schools never have to answer to an underfunded, over-nannied bureaucracy and are actually well-paid for their services. Which, you know. Matters.) Hopefully, though, you’ll agree that the characteristics listed above, with the exception of glamour, are all good things.

It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that writers – that is to say, intelligent, creative people working in a profession that cares absolutely nothing for their school marks or qualifications  – have a tendency to question the current educational system. Without wanting to assume my own experiences to be even vaguely universal, I can’t have been the only teenager who knew that they wanted to write stories for a living (or play sport, or be a musician or an artist or a dancer), and who therefore dedicated thousands of hours throughout high school to personal projects utterly unconnected with anything on the curriculum. Quite arguably, the fantasy of cool schools is as much for the authors as it is the readers: what would our teenage years have been like if, instead of being forced to learn things we’ve never found a use for and have subsequently forgotten, we went to schools specifically structured around our interests? What if our passions hadn’t had to compete with our coursework – if every school was like the one in Fame, only geared to our personal interests? What if we’d been taken seriously as teenagers?

It’s a rosy-lensed hypothetical, to be sure. Back here in reality, even radical educational reform would never allow for the kind of schools we all secretly yearned to attend. But even so, our desires come through in our writing: testing the waters, trying to see what school could be like if people like us were in charge. Both Liar and How to Ditch Your Fairy by Justine Larbalestier play with the idea of different secondary systems: in Liar, the protagonist attends a class called Dangerous Words, where censorship and media dishonesty are discussed, while in Fairy, subject-centric schools are run on lines designed to foster traits valued in their particular professions, so that the rules of a sports high emphasise teamwork, discipline, obedience, punctuality and coordination over everything else. It goes without saying that YA novels feature a certain amount of escapism, but while the base assumption about teenagers is that they all want to escape from school all the time, the idea that they might be taking refuge in stories about better schools is not nearly so normative.

And when, in such novels, the teenage protagonists do rebel against school, it’s usually for very good reasons: either the school itself is terrible, or it has become terrorised. In Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, for instance, Marcus sets himself up in opposition to authority because his rights are being violated: government politics are interfering with freedom of speech, his best teacher is being muzzled, and the principal has started using particular students as informants. In Libba Bray’s trilogy about Victorian schoolgirls, Gemma Doyle and her friends use magic, courage and cleverness to make lives for themselves beyond what society expects of them as women, escaping the confines of a college that, for all its sorority, only wants to turn them into wives. To quote the final book, The Sweet Far Thing:

“They’ve planned our entire lives, from what we shall wear to whom we shall marry and where we shall live. It’s one lump of sugar in your tea whether you like it or not and you’d best smile even if you’re dying deep inside. We’re like pretty horses, and just as on horses, they mean to put blinders on us so we can’t look left or right but only straight ahead where they would lead.” 

Which brings us, finally, to the traits of mediocre schools in fiction: how are they characterised? Usually, it’s enough that the characters have more important things in their lives than what goes on at school: that they’re learning elsewhere, and – more particularly – that such external subjects are of greater interest and relevance than the content of their classes. The characters in Kiki Strike: Inside the Shadow City by Kirsten Miller, for instance, are both exceptional individuals and largely self-taught: Betty is a master of disguise, Luz is an inventor, DeeDee a chemist, Oona a hacker, and Ananka an observant intellectual. While it would be foolish to ignore the glamour factor of these interests, what’s important is that the girls are independent, resourceful and clever, pursuing their passions in their own time precisely because a traditional school environment would only limit them.

As I’ve previously had cause to mention, science tells us that the human brain continues to develop throughout our teenage years and doesn’t actually settle until sometime in our twenties. The upshot of this information – or at least, one of the social upshots – is that many adults consider their suspicions about teenage childishness to be correct. This is why schools and universities are compared to daycare centers: because students cannot be trusted to act like adults, must be coddled and protected and talked down to, protected from agency and relevancy and all the danger that comes from actually acting like an independent person held to be responsible for your own actions. Never mind that the same research about brain development talks about the power of teenagers to sculpt their own identities by exercising their intellect – by thinking, by acting, by engaging with the world – and the far from radical notion that a good way to encourage this behaviour might be to, you know, treat teenagers like adults. Oh, no: their brains are not ready! No one should do anything that matters until they’re twenty-five!

But how can the brain develop if the person attached to it is only ever treated like a child?

And this is why, to come to the long-awaited point, the depiction of schools in YA is so reflective of the current problems with Western education: both narratively and in terms of the real world, writers and readers understand the disconnect between what school is meant to achieve, and how it actually works. Passionate students must follow their interests outside the classroom. Adventurous, inquisitive, questioning students are disproportionately punished in the long term for misdemeanours that are, at base, attempts at critical thinking and independence – skills that schools are theoretically supposed to foster, but which in practice they actively suppress . Average students drift through classes without a sense of either purpose or agency, unable to find meaning in lessons that most of us forget by the time we’re twenty, and which have no bearing on anything they might care about otherwise or be interested in doing.

And so they turn to fiction: stories where the schools are genuinely good; or where, outside of school, there’s a means of learning relevant, interesting things with friends; or where, if the school is terrible, there’s a way of fighting back. Over and over, we tell ourselves stories of how things could and should be different, to the point where novels – and through them, authors – are in a sense picking up the shortfall left by school itself: suggesting interests, provoking passions, encouraging dreams and critical thinking and courage and independence, proving that there are at least some adults who understand that the way things are is not necessarily the way they ought to be.

So governments: if you’re out there, and you want to really improve your education systems? You could do a lot worse than asking some YA authors (and – gasp! – teenagers) what they think. Because in the end, we never resented  school for being school. Instead, we resented it for all the things it should have been, and could have been – but wasn’t.

Imagine this image: a human brain in a vat. The brain has been removed from a real, live person and painstakingly wired into a machine which keeps it alive, utterly duplicating the necessary processes of organic flesh. Sight, sound and smell are simulated by clever contraptions, emotional surges provoke the correct chemical and hormonal reactions. To all intents and purposes, the being – the brain – is real, their sense of self intact: they are simply no longer housed in a body.

Which begs the question: do they still have a gender?

It’s an interesting problem. Socially, gender is assumed through assessment of a person’s physical body, their voice, mannerisms, clothes and so on: but strip away all these things – remove even their possibility – and what is left? Is the brain (we’ll call it Sam, a neatly androgynous handle) gendered depending on the sex of its original body? Is it possible for a ‘female’ brain to wind up ensconced in male flesh, or vice versa? If one accepts that homosexuality is more often an innate predeliction than a conscious choice (certainly, I believe, it can be both or either), what role does the physical wiring of our brain play? Is it the only factor? Does nurture always prevail over nature in matters of sexuality, or vice versa? Is it a mixture? If so, does the ratio vary from person to person? Why? And so on.

Let’s lay some cards on the table. When it comes to sexual orientation, my two rules of thumb are: 

(a) mutual, intelligent consent; and

(b) the prevention of harm to others.

In a nutshell: all parties have to agree to what’s happening, and no bystanders can be hurt or unwillingly drawn in. While this doesn’t rule out BDSM (provided, of course, it keeps within the bounds of said rules), it definitively excludes rape and paedophilia, which, really, is common sense. Anything relating to homosexuality and transexuality, however, is fair game.

A few more points, in no particular order:

1. Life is often unfair.

2. Life is often weird.

3. Insofar as evidence is concerned, human beings are still shaky on the definitive origins of personhood (souls v. genes, or possibly a blend of both), but most people will agree that brains and gender play a more important role in this than, say, knees and elbows.

4. Original notions of gender roles developed in the context of reproduction and childrearing, but provided both these things still occur in sufficient numbers to ensure the survival of the species, there is little harm in broadening or questioning their parameters.

5. People have, or should have, a basic right to assert their identity. Reasonably, there must be some limits of credulity – there was only ever one Napoleon,  mankind are distinct from dolphins – but within the recognised sphere of human gender and sexual orientation, it seems counter-intuitive that appearance should dictate black and white rules for what is, quite evidently, an internal and subtle determination.

Witness, then, the idea of transgender couples, in which one partner may undergo a sex change without ending the relationship. Witness, then, the case of Aurora Lipscomb, born Zachary, who identified as a girl from the age of two and was removed from her parents when they refused to forcibly contradict her. These are just two examples that buck the trend of traditional gender ideas, and rather than making us squirm, they should make us think. When and why did certain socio-cultural ideas of gender develop, and how do they change? Consider, for instance, the well-documented and widespread instances of winkte, berdache and two-spirit people in Native American culture, compared to the deep-seated fear of these concepts in western traditions. Look at the long-standing tradition of male homosexuality in Japan, particularly among samurais, and the role of Sappho in ancient Greek lesbianism. Think of hermaphrodites.

Point being, there’s a wealth of diverse and fascinating history surrounding the ideas of gender, sexuality and male/female roles, to the extent that many legal restrictions now placed on non-heterosexual couples and individuals are faintly ridiculous. Throw in the question of child-rearing, and there’s a tendency to reach for the nearest pitchfork. Personally, I find debating my views in this matter difficult, if only because debate is meaningless without a modicum of mutually accepted middleground, and where my opponents object to homosexuality and transsexuality as an opening gambit, it’s well-nigh impossible to discuss the matter of non-heteros breeding, adopting and/or applying for surrogacy without both sides resorting to instant moral veto of the contrary position.

Still, it’s always worth trying, and the whole issue fascinates me. Socially, I marvel at where the next hundred years could take us, and cringe at how far we might also fall. But in the interim, I return to the question of brains in vats, and how, within the parameters of such a hypothetical, gender is determined. Is it innate, biological, genetic, spiritual, chosen consciously, chosen unconsciously, socially conditioned, random, nurtured, culturally selected; or can the glorious gamut of human existence countenance the possibility that these options simultaneouly coexist as true, contributing on an individual basis, in individual ratios? Or is that too confronting a thought?

I’ve been pretty quiet on the blog front lately, mostly because being fired tends to necessitate a different, more productive use of one’s spare time, despite the fact that said time has, for the same reason, undergone a net increase. Apart from the obvious job-hunting chores, I’ve also been doing uni work and editing my novel. The latter activity has been particularly enjoyable. If my writing life were an RPG, I’d have recently levelled up, because my ability to self-correct has suddenly leapt forwards. In the past, frantic editing surges have usually resulted in scrapping the lot and starting again, but while I’m definitely rewriting en masse, it’s with an eye to building up instead of tearing down. Chapters I’ve been content with for months are being systematically fleshed out, tightened up and otherwise made over. The question isn’t why I’ve left it so long: it’s why I can suddenly see the flaws.

And flaws there are, ultimately as the result of sloppy writing. It’s a sobering realisation that despite my dedication towards becoming a published author, I’ve still, on some subconscious level, retained the belief that I can do less than my best, and have this be enough. Throughout school, I always coasted and cut corners for a number of reasons – disinterest in the subject, a preference to spend my time on other projects – and while these were usually, if not saintly, then at least defensible reasons, I ultimately did so, or was able to do so, because I was bright enough. Laziness didn’t punish me. Although I cared about being perceived as smart, I wasn’t fiercely competitive: a dip in marks didn’t matter, so long as they were still good marks. Which, looking back, was both a healthy mental attitude on one level, and an active choice not to be challeneged on another. Quite often, my parents would look at my results, sigh affectionately, and say, “Imagine what you could do if you’d put in some effort!” But only now do I understand what they meant.

Since starting the second novel, I’ve improved. Writing characters I’ve already introduced is different to starting anew: there’s an implied confidence to it, with room for more flourishes, in-jokes, insight and general development. It means that when I look back at the story so far, my standards have lifted. But, still, I’d been letting things lie. I’d read the first book so many times that I only saw the cadence of what I’d written, and not the substance. This time around, however, the veil has lifted. It was holding together, yes, but it wasn’t as good as it could be. 

And so I’m fixing it, hammer and nail. After completing the first three chapters, I even submitted yesterday to a local publisher, which gave me a tingly, back-on-the-horse kind of feeling. I still need a job, but in the mean time, I’m getting things done.

Who says getting fired can’t be a good thing?

Visiting friends and meeting their four-month-old son yesterday, I realised that my knowledge of very small children is comparable to my interest in world history: I’ve read a lot about individual periods and ideas, but without the context of an overall timeline. I’ve picked up snippets of data, like the fact that babies can’t initially focus their eyes on distant objects and that learning to smile is part of recognising faces, but I don’t know when these things occur. I have no personal point of reference: I’m an only child, and owing to various circumstances, I’ve never been around the little kids of family or friends, either. This has never seemed like a particularly remarkable thing, but the practical upshot is that while I’m perfectly comfortable talking to someone else’s pet, I have no idea how to interact with their offspring – even when both animal and child are in the same room.

Part of me wants to make this society’s fault (or at least, shift some of the angst in that direction): more than ever, we segregate our lives according to age, creating whole environments – kindegardens, schools, universities, workplaces, retirement homes – geared to keeping young and old apart. Even with siblings, most people are hard-pressed to have contact with people in a wide range of age brackets on anything near a weekly basis, let alone daily, and the norm is now for families to have fewer children. These aren’t bad things, but they do impact on cross-generational interaction. At the same time, there’s a huge amount of cultural anxiety on the best way to raise children, with the result that terms like helicopter parent are entering the common parlance. On top of all the usual reasons given for this mode of uncertainty, many parents are new not just to the world of child-rearing, but to children in any sense. This can’t help but lead to confusion.

Ironically, however, reactions like mine – and, presumably, those of others – are as much the cause of these problems as anything else. In this era, the conventional way to learn is through reading, but nerd through I am, I’m also a big believer in the idea that there are still some things which can only be learned the hard way. Overthinking what we haven’t experienced is only asking for trouble. When we realise how little we know, it startles us: we research, but don’t ask those who are older and more experienced. Possibly, this is another consequence of age-segregation in society – we discount the advice of people who’ve already been there, done that because they are old, and therefore unqualified to comment on current methods. Or so it often seems.

Long story short: in the Information Age, it’s confronting to realise that there are still things you can’t just google. And the sooner we get our heads around that, the happier we’ll all be – myself included.