Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tyranny of science fairs, contests, and forms

When filling out entry forms for things like science fairs or art contests, I balk at the blanks for 'grade', 'teacher' and 'school'.

Most homeschoolers I know use those designations without a second thought, and I know that is the most convenient way to avoid hassles as you go through society. 

But it bugs me on a deep level, and much as I try to just grin and bear it, I resent that I MUST call my daughter a "-grader" as if separating children into presumed school grades is a universal requirement for human life, and that they are ALL in a grade, whether we use the schools from which the assigned grade levels spring, or not.

The subtle power of language must not be understated. Language that deliberately dis-empowers and dehumanizes the patient, has long been used to establish and maintain very deeply unequal power relationships between persons with a degree and medical license, and persons seeking diagnosis, treatment, or health advice from them. The client seeking the advice of a professional, can, with the proper routine procedures, requirements, and language, be rendered into a supplicant. Schools and other institutions also use language that reflects and maintains a power inequality that displays the users, residents, or clients, as dependent on, and subject to, the authority of the institution.

This is why, even though I recognize that it is simply less personal hassle to go by the name 'homeschooler' and call my daughter a grade-level to comply with everyone else's expectations, it feels on some level, like conceding. Like we are ratifying, by signing below, their right to put her in a grade classification and call her an altered version of school-pupil. And by extension, their right to define kids who are school-free, as kids who are actually schooled, only in a different physical location, but still at the pleasure and mercy of the State. Which is literally true, in many states, Texas being one notable (and enviable!) exception.

But can she participate in anything with forms to fill out, if we don't? She'd rather be called a "-grader" than never get to compete in anything. So I sign on the dotted line, feeling as if I am signing away self-determinism for a contest. And then I feel ridiculous for phrasing it to myself that way. It's only a label. 

But labels hold such power, and agreement to use them is such a tacit admission of the label-issuer's power over us; the power to set terms for our participation in society.

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