ReThink Interview: Cevin Soling, Director of the War On Kids

The War On Kids, a documentary by Cevin (pronounced "Kevin") Soling, goes inside the American public school system to reveal some unsettling truths -- that our public schools have become prisons, where kids are medicated against their will, treated like prisoners under strict Zero Tolerance policies, and have most of their civil rights summarily stripped away. While conditions for kids have been worsening over the decades, the film argues that the root of these problems isn't school shootings or budget cuts, but the institution of school itself, which is inherently authoritarian, oppressive, and fails on most levels to fulfill its number one goal: to educate. The tagline of the War On Kids (which was named Best Educational Documentary by the New York International Film & Video Festival) is "School is the Enemy." Kind of says it all.

See my ReThink Review of the War On Kids and my discussion about the film on the Young Turks with host Cenk Uygur here.

Soling was kind enough to answer some questions via email about some of the issues raised in the film and why our school system needs to be radically reinvented.

Cevin Soling, director of the War On Kids, on the Colbert Report

What motivated you to make the War On Kids?

I made the War on Kids to draw attention to a major civil rights issue that is rarely discussed in large part because youth are disenfranchised. The fact that conditions in schools are deteriorating dramatically with the advent of Zero Tolerance certainly prompted the need for some kind of backlash. Security has become the priority at many schools and the prevailing philosophy in America is that basic civil rights are somehow at odds with receiving an education. Another widespread fallacy is the presumption that criticizing schools is the same as criticizing learning. That misleading notion has thwarted reasonable attempts to address the most basic issues.

Public schools are authoritarian institutions. Being told that America is a democracy while in school is a sick joke. Students in many schools are routinely subjected to some conditions which I believe would be deemed a violation of the Third Geneva Convention if prisoners of war were treated in the same manner. This may seem like hyperbole, but read the document. As a society, adults have become accustomed to subjecting kids to atrocious conditions that they themselves would never endure. Most take for granted that it is acceptable to do so.

Ever since I was in public school I altruistically wanted to take some kind of action to save others from the same fate. I was told at that time by parents and friends that I would lose interest in the cause once I attained the "privileged status" of no longer being in school, but that has not been the case. It is possible I was fueled by that kind of dismissive attitude.

What were some of the most surprising things you learned in making this movie?

I had no idea about the nature of the prescription drugs that are fed to kids. There is a prevailing resentment for the cigarette companies that knew their product was dangerous, but did not disclose that information back in the 1950s. I think what the pharmaceutical companies are doing today is much more insidious. I could go on about this, but the experts in my film do a fine job.

You have discussed how the US school system is based on a Prussian model that was more designed to foster obedience than to educate. What do you think are the best (and most realistic) ways to change our school system away from this?

When slavery was abolished there was no system in place to effectively deal with former slaves. In fact, American society today still hasn't resolved the social consequences; however, no rational person would argue that abolition was wrong. Bold, dramatic steps are required that will force society to confront educating children in a way that integrates them into society rather than sending them off to a prison-like environment. The ultimate goal would be not just to educate, but to simultaneously foster communities where people support and care about one another. This concept seems idealistically absurd because schools have successfully undermined those communal bonds by taking children away and indoctrinating them with lessons that their cultures are not important.

What can kids do to improve the state of their schools and education?

If you asked, "What could slaves do to improve the state of their captivity?" you'd see the absurdity of such a question. What do you say? Demand better food? Ask to be whipped less often and maybe not have your families broken up? None of those demands would be met and they would not resolve the real problem. The complaints are different for kids and the magnitude is certainly not as great, but the analogy applies. Certainly kids could ask not to be given homework which has been shown to be detrimental to education and they could ask for better food and not to be treated like criminals by having their lockers searched and under video surveillance at all times.

The problem is that students have no experiences by which to compare their existence, so it is especially hard for them to understand the nature of their internment. In addition, the methods of punishment against rebellious students are profoundly brutal. Even the most passive form of resistance can result in getting arrested or drugged. There is a "disorder" called ODD -- oppositional defiance disorder -- for children who resist following orders. It is awfully reminiscent of Soviet psychological reprogramming for people who didn't embrace the Communist Party. If you don't love communism or, in this case, obey the capricious orders of adults, there is something psychologically wrong with you. Kids are essentially powerless in spite of what the media depicts. The situation is compounded when the only dialogue about schools involves how to improve them rather than considering ending the institution.

The inability to protest the nature of one's confinement should drive home the point that schools are fascist at their core. If that statement reads as if it is extreme, it is because American society does not believe kids should have rights, so many feel there is nothing wrong with deprivation. Schools have the power to suppress any action or statement that they, in their sole authority, deem to be disruptive. It is now common for that power to extend beyond the schoolyard and beyond school hours and parents in many cases demand that.

How do you think kids should talk to their parents about what's going on in their schools?

Kids need to make parents understand that school is not a rite of passage. Just because they endured and survived school does not mean it was beneficial. It is not uncommon for adults to exhibit anxiety when they step foot in a school building. That is not a healthy response and is clearly a sign of post-traumatic stress. School and education are not synonymous. There is no reason why instruction must take place in an environment where students have no civil rights. These are very hard lessons for people to learn.

Have you seen a strong movement for parents to overturn Zero Tolerance policies, or is the power of parental fear too strong?

There are a number of groups with internet presence that try to have some impact. From what I have seen, there has been no influence on a broad scale. Every issue is addressed solely on a case-by-case basis. When an absurd suspension or expulsion gets a lot of attention in the media, there is pressure on the school to apply reason, but those instances are rare and even then they don't always cave. The mantra in America is still "get tough" on youth. Fear that if you don't suspend kids for drawing pictures of guns, you will inadvertently be responsible for the next school massacre still prevails. The only hope for change would be if Zero Tolerance policies could be applied to teachers and administrators. Reform generally comes when extensive abuse of bad policy reaches people in power. McCarthy wasn't stopped until he accused the army of harboring communists. The Salem witch trials didn't end until the governor's wife was implicated. I would argue that if people are serious about ending Zero Tolerance, they should demand more of it such that it applies to everyone working at schools and even parents. I am certain this would work, but it would be an ugly process.

If you were a principal, how would you handle a kid who brought a loaded gun to school?

The short answer is that I would not be a principal. I would not want to participate in a system that I believe is inherently detrimental to kids. Obviously, the presence of a loaded gun would require immediate police intervention. There is a deeper issue that is being ignored in scenario like these and that is that psychosis is a natural response to an extremely oppressive environment. We need to address the root cause of issues like violence in school rather than develop oppressive policies that react to the symptoms the institution creates.

In the War On Kids, it seems like you went out of your way to not talk that much about the effects of budget cuts to schools. Why did you decide to do that?

Lack of resources usually makes a bad thing worse. However, since school funds are often devoted to security measures, more affluent schools sometimes create worse environments for kids. I actively avoided going to schools in impoverished districts because their issues are apparent and well documented and I did not want to confuse the subject matter. I wanted to show what terrible places all schools are without people thinking, "that dilapidated place shown is nothing like the school in my neighborhood." Many people in education, teachers especially, who have watched the film still have that same defensive response because their schools haven't brought in SWAT teams, but they just don't get it. The problem with school is its design -- they are authoritarian constructs where students have no voice and are forced to seek approval from their oppressors at all times due to the commodity system of grades which impact their future. Combine this with the fact that students are not allowed to pursue their interests and are made to be utterly and totally dependent on higher authorities for what they can do, how they feel, and what they can think and you get a sense that money has no impact on the fundamental nature of schooling. Money might improve the environment, but it can also provide the resources for greater oppressive control.

Is there anything you've found out about schools since the completion of the film you'd like people to know?

Initially the movie was intended to be an indictment of the Baby Boomer generation. The same group that had fought for civil rights in the 1960s is now chiefly responsible for widespread deprivation of rights for youth. Because I was mostly interviewing academics, they were very careful not to ascribe blame on a nebulous entity. Writer Michael Males did step up, but it does not really impact individuals when you inform them of the cultural devastation their generation is responsible for.

I thought I was going to find people who were responsible for the state of the system. Instead, I found that by and large (and of course there are exceptions), teachers, administrators, and parents are well-intentioned. They want to do what is best and generally try hard and do care. The problem is that few comprehend the way the institution cannot allow their efforts to succeed, although, I think more people appreciate this than I realized.

I read that the War On Kids is one of a two-part series. What can we expect in the second film?

Part two documents the way American society regards children through the implementation of curfews, corporal punishment, the anti-Rave act, reform schools, exclusion from public spaces, and scapegoating by the media. As disturbing as the War on Kids may be, part two will be much worse. By and large, people who work in school mean well or like to project the appearance as such. Outside of school, the levels of intolerance are profound, but go unnoticed.

What was school like for you?

I went to one of the best public schools in the country, had many friends, and did quite well and yet I intensely disliked the institution. To anyone who tries to retain a sense of dignity, being a student is a demeaning experience. I can only imagine how it must be for those in worse situations. What I find most distressing, though, are people who actually like school in its totality. Few things are more tragic than the crushing of the human spirit. It's like in 1984 when Winston Smith comes to love Big Brother. I guess you can view that as a happy ending if you are very cynical or very brainwashed.

What were the teachers like who actually inspired you?

The institution creates a wedge that makes it impossible to have normal healthy relationship with teachers. I always felt an "us vs. them" mentality even with the teachers I did like because they grade you. That inherent power structure soured any potential rapport for me. Not everyone feels that way, so I am only speaking for myself. I just think in order to have a meaningful relationship it should be based on a kind of equality even if there is a disparity of knowledge. If you unwittingly cross a line with a teacher who is supposedly a mentor or friend, it goes down on your permanent record. How can you be inspired by someone who does not abrogate that kind of unwarranted power?

If medications were as pervasive now as they were when you were a kid, do you think you would have been medicated?

It's really scary to think about. I wasn't a disciplinary problem, so probably not. I almost certainly would have been suspended or expelled under zero tolerance for my artwork and stories, though.

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