23 July 2010

Lord of the Flies: How Adults Create Bullying

All over America kids will read William Golding's Lord of the Fliesin school during the coming year. And in most of those "English" classes the interpretations sold by the teachers will blame the "nature of boys" for what happens in the story.

Let's look at what the Bellmore-Merrick School District (on New York's Long Island) has to say: (district picked randomly from Google search)
Ralph vs. Jack
Ralph represents order and composure in society. Eventually Jack grew tired of Ralph being in charge. He let the barbarism inside of him transform him into a savage-like creature and he went on a rampage, destroying the makeshift civilization the boys worked so hard to create.

Boys vs. Nature
The boys went hunting many times to try to keep themselves alive. At first, Ralph was afraid to kill the sow. Towards the end, Jack's warrior identity brutally murdered the sow and hung his [sic] head on a stick.

Boys vs. Piggy
Piggy represents the weak who are often victimized. The boys tortured him because he was fat and needed such thick glasses. His torture can also be considered a lack of understanding, because the boys had likely never met anyone with problems like his. This can be seen in the boys lack of understanding of asthma, or "ass-mar".

Jack vs. Society
The barbaric quality that arises in Jack throughout the book is really a rebellion against society. He grew tired of taking orders from Ralph and participating in the democratic system that they had. This sense of anarchy must have existed inside of him before the encounter on the island began, but his experiences served to bring it out of him.

The Need for Civilization and Order
Laws and rules are definitely necessary to keep the darker side of human nature in line. When all elements of civilization disappear on the island, the boys revert to a more primitive part of their nature, and they turn into savages and anarchy replaces democracy. Society holds everyone together, and with out civilization and rules, the boy's ideals, values, and basic ideas of what is right and wrong are forgotten, and the evils of human nature emerge. Bellmore-Merrick School District
When Lord of the Flies is taught this way, it encourages the adults in school to continue to behave as they do, and blames children, and their inherently evil nature, for all that is wrong in society. This, of course, is the tack taken by administrators such as Anthony Orsini who claims to run the Lord of the Flies Middle School in Ridgewood, NJ. And it lies at the heart of how bullying is usually combatted in our schools.

But what if we asked different questions about this book?
Who organized the choir? Who suggested to the choir that they were superior to other students? Are there any groups in our school organized like the choir? Who organizes those groups?
How did the boys learn that Piggy was fat? That fat is bad? How did the boys learn that spectacles or the inability to run fast are signs of weakness?
Where did the boys learn how to humiliate other boys? Is this innate? 

Who taught the boys about the idea of uniforms, and the value of looking the same?
Are the boys "turning into savages" or are they recreating the hierarchy of the British Public School? (and, of course, here you will have to explain what a British Public School is...)
Public School products Cameron and Clegg are
leading the effort to move education funds from needy
students to wealthy students
and profit-based school operators.
In other words, what if these children were viewed as products of their society? What if what is being revealed is not the "nature of children," but the most trained behaviours. What if Ralph can be seen, as the story begins, as "natural childhood" - trusting, cooperative, believing in fairness, and what emerges later on is the British aristocracy - brutal, bullying, uniform in appearance, colonialist, and lacking empathy or even pity?

What might that suggest about school-based anti-bullying efforts?

I've blogged about this before. I've suggested that when we see bullying in schools we are usually seeing the results of adult labours. Adults create the hierarchies which create bullying. Adults decide which students will be deemed as superior, and which will be seen as inferior. From [American] football teams to cheerleaders to honour rolls and band camps, school and community adults divide children up and assign them a status position. Parents verbalize intolerance of differences - especially social class differences and body-type differences - and children learn these. Teachers humiliate students who are different: via homework, via calling on students, via grades, even via papers returned publicly ("please pass these back..."). Schools add to this through Special Education designations and methods of dealing with free and reduced lunches. Community members all across America tell football players and basketball players that they are more valuable than, say, soccer players or the drama club, or the kid interested in abstract art or maths. And, everyone else, from our news media to our political leaders, demonstrate daily that bullying is the way to behave.

And then, when children imitate those adults, and demonstrate that they've learned the important lessons, we blame the kids, or their phones, or Facebook.
"During the late nineteenth century the new imperialism had taken hold as European nations competed for new' lands, particularly in Africa. Indeed, there was very much a feeling of superiority amongst Europeans; the idea that the races of other nations were inferior to their own, and that they therefore had a right to claim these lands as their own and attempt to civilise' the people.

"This was very much the ethos of British public schools in which the notion of a muscular Christianity' was regarded as the ideal. Following Christian principles was regarded as important, as was a masculinity characterised by great physical strength. Thus sports, such as rugby, formed a great part of the curriculum and helped embody a sense of team spirit in the boys." Michelle Wilkinson
Golding, the non-public school attending son of a socialist headmaster, writing in the aftermath of the World War that had seen educated Europe descend into a nightmare, probably made his characters "public school" students for a specific reason. He was all too aware of how "the best brought up" children of his continent had just behaved.

So as you read Lord of the Flies with your students this coming year, ask them to ask different questions. And when you see bullies in your school, ask where they have learned that behaviour.

Children do learn, after all. And mostly, they learn by watching us.

- Ira Socol

Two Williams College profs tackled the same issue in today's New York Times.


Unknown said...

When I teach the subject, we deal with the following themes:

1. freedom and safety and the paradox of both

2. value systems clashing

3. World War I and the belief system that death and violence are necessary for life (this relates to the Rites of Spring concept)

4. Conflicting views of humanity (inherently good, evil, both)

5. governmental theory & totalitarianism

6. Social forces that create an "image culture" with respect to ideas about one's body

7. militarism in social institutions (including school) - we also read "Rites of Spring" and cover the notion of "muscular Christianity" and the mythology that boys must be ballers

8. bullying as a result of militarism / the notion of victims becoming victimizers

We cover the themes as we go and it's part of our humanities unit on the Great War. It relates well to the war poetry of the era as well.

Unknown said...

Incidentally, every time I teach the book, students end up quoting Pink Floyd in their reflections on power, hierarchy, uniformity and why victims become victimizers.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Ira
I always enjoy reading your posts. They challenge me to think. The grade school my boys attend teaches this book in 8th grade. I'll be forwarding this post along.

Charlie Roy said...

@ Ira
I always enjoy reading your posts. They challenge me to think. The grade school my boys attend teaches this book in 8th grade. I'll be forwarding this post along.

Cheri said...

Great post! I'm sure that having children read this book was intended to make the kids think about human societies and ask themselves the hard questions about the validity of some of the social constructs that are so pervasive. It didn't really occur to me that teachers were teaching it in order to put their students in their place - that might be why I didn't understand some of the questions that were on my son's worksheets.

Logic Prevailes said...

After two years of excessive bullying of our son at the public school our son was moved to a Charter School that specializes in children with ADHD, Aspburgers, and Learning Disabilities. At public school he stood out for his impulsivity, wandering and general high functioning both mentally and physically. Another student bullied him extensively for two years and we were grateful to have the problems end after the transfer. After a year at the new school the student that had bullied him the most also transfered to the new school. They were instantly best of friends, and have been so for the duration of their time at the new school.
I believe the difference in the two venues is that antisocial t there are like type children at the charter school and what might be perceived as behavior at one place is normal when the students are like type. Jack and Piggy are more similar to each other than they are to the others. One sheepishly continues to back away, but Jack foments his anger from being an outsider into the want for total control so that he can remake things in his image. The "normal" kids at schools dont seem to have the problems when all are the same, but those who are "different" do far better in an environment with like type children. I do use this as a rip to inclusive educations as I have lived through the system, and have helped to guide this new young mind through the beginning of his own journey.