Within the last ten years, American news has been dominated by school shootings, stabbings, and teen suicides. While many blame poor parenting and bullying, documentary filmmaker Cevin Soling blames the education system. Soling’s documentary The War on Kids (2009), explores the authoritarian nature of American public schools, illustrating how children are more often condemned than they are taught. The 95 minute film also depicts how children are expected to be conformists; any deviation may result in scrutiny or even unnecessary medication. Today children continue to be oppressed on multiple fronts-in and out of school. The War on Kids 2, now in production, will explore the various ways American society as a whole, demeans children.
Soling answers my questions regarding The War on Kids 2, the education system,and recent school tragedies.
You’re a musician, documentary filmmaker, activist, and now Harvard alum, just to name a few of your accomplishments. How have these diverse experiences helped shape your current viewpoints?
All of these identities serve as outlets for different forms of creative expression. Invariably, the output from each activity reaches a different audience. The rigors of honest research which looks unflinchingly at best available evidence is ultimately what continues to shape my views – or so I hope. I spent two years developing a coherent explanation for the state of affairs in American culture before composing the lyrics to The Love Kills Theory’s “Happy Suicide, Jim!” The process of making The War on Kids definitely radicalized me as I learned more about what is taking place in society and in schools.
You generated a major impact with The War on Kids in 2009. What do you hope to accomplish with The War on Kids 2?
The War on Kids was conceived as a statement about the marginalization of youth in America. It only became about education when I had to figure out how to break down all of the footage into 100 minute chunks. The War on Kids sequel deals with the violence and contempt for youth that is intrinsic to all American institutions, not just schools.
This manifests itself in a number of ways. First, the legal system is loath to concede any rights to children and increasingly they are considered property under the law. Mass media commonly considers youth to be the source of society’s ills. This scapegoating ultimately affects public policy where we no longer have the language to discuss issues honestly. Drug abuse and drunk driving, for example, are considered youth concerns when in fact they are the segment of the population that is least responsible for this behavior. When children are sentenced as adults, on average, they are given longer prison terms than adults for the very same crimes.
Children are routinely banished from communal spaces. More and more hotels, restaurants, and housing communities do not allow children and just about every city has a curfew law on the books. Laws such as the RAVE Act are used to prevent children from congregating peaceably, sometimes with the unnecessary assistance of SWAT teams who physically brutalize children with impunity.
Much worse is the pathologizing and criminalizing of adolescence which is taking place in record numbers where kids are drugged and/or imprisoned without just cause. Poverty among children has been dramatically escalating and reform schools that are as bad as the worst Soviet gulags are rising in number. The stores of abuses that continue to take place in these places are sickening and the people who currently run some of these places are monsters beyond anyone’s worst nightmare. Remarkably, laws have been constructed that prevent these places from even being investigated.
Many parents have very poor parenting skills and society is not structured to deal with that in a way that does not involve government intervention. When government does intervene, though, things are typically still deplorable. The safety net for children who are abused or neglected is grossly underfunded and has limited oversight which allows for sadistic or apathetic people to sometimes enter the system.
What I hope to accomplish is for people to appreciate just how despicably poorly all children are treated in America and to recognize that those who insist otherwise employ precisely the same psychological processes of denial that was used to defend slavery.
Since The War on Kids, there have been numerous shootings and stabbings, from Sandy Hook to the recent stabbings at a Murrysville, PA high school. How do you believe these recent events correlate to a larger problem in our education system?
The problem isn’t “in” our education system – the problem is our education system. When you have a structure where children are deprived of virtually all rights and have no voice and are forced to be there, you have a toxic environment. Further, there is absolutely no possibility for reform because the two components that must be reformed – the compulsory nature of schooling and the autocratic structure – are precisely what define schools. Those two elements poison everything and while children learn how to adapt to life in a despotic environment, they do not learn much else. Because the worst oppressors – the teachers who act as judge, jury, and executioner as far as students are concerned – try to impart information, that information is tainted. Students take pride in forgetting everything after a test because it is one of the few acts of resistance that is available to them. Schools are catalysts for violence and breed anti-intellectualism. When people try to figure out who to blame for the failing schools, they never look at the structure of the schools themselves. Charter schools pretend to be different, but they all have precisely these same features, which is why they are equally bad.
In light of these recent tragedies, do you still contend schools would be better off without security guards and cameras? Why?
First, there is absolutely no evidence from any reputable study that shows that cameras and security guards make a school safer. In fact, the opposite may very well be the case. Columbine High School had both a resource officer as well as cameras all over the school. This fact should certainly warrant studies as to whether a) this kind of environment fuels neurosis or psychopathy and b) whether placing children in a prison-like environment induces criminal behavior. These are certainly not unreasonable hypotheses, but the knee-jerk reaction is always more oppression because there is no meaningful resistance to depriving children of many basic human rights. In 19 states it is even legal to beat children in school to point where they need hospitalization for non-offenses such as not moving as quickly as a teacher would have liked you to move. Due process is not even required according to the Supreme Court. You could not legally do that to a prisoner or even a dog!
My point was not simply that cameras and security guards in schools are intrinsically bad, but rather was making an indictment of compulsory education. I contend that society would be better off without compulsory schooling. Preferably the resources spent on schools should be redirected towards improving educational resources within communities. Teachers should assume new roles as mentors. Given that many teachers enter the profession for noble reasons and come to resent the existing system, I suspect this would be an easy transition for those who do not revel in their power. Sadly, many cannot separate teaching from enjoying having power over children. Mentors do not have to rely on threats of poor grades or any other sanction or punishment to have engaged students.
Today’s children are even more entrenched in social media than they were in 2009. Do you think social media may also play a part in the “group thinking” that The War on Kids often addresses as being problematic?
Social media and group-think are not problems, per se. The War on Kids addresses cliques, but the point was that this is a symptom. Kids need to form these groups to survive in this oppressive environment. They also need groups to hate and other kids to bully because they are otherwise powerless and this is the only way they can feel some sense of control. Bullying is a symptom of the autocratic environment and anyone who claims to have a program that will put an end to bullying also has a bridge to sell you. Without addressing the environment, you are not dealing with the source of the problems. Social media is a tool that has the potential to amplify the deleterious symptoms that emerge. That is a danger of social media, but not a fault. If you throw children into a furnace, it probably isn’t good if they are carrying containers of gasoline. Getting upset about social media is like focusing on the gasoline as opposed to the fact that we are throwing kids into furnaces in the first place.
Soling is currently raising funds for the production of The War on Kids 2 on www.thewaronkids.com.