Monday, June 20, 2011

Smells Like School Spirit

What the bourgeoisie has installed as its number-one, i.e. as its dominant ideological State apparatus, is the educational apparatus, which has in fact replaced in its functions the previously dominant ideological State apparatus, the Church. Louis Althusser

The other day, my daughter, E, woke up in a foul mood. She muttered something about it being the worst day of her life, then sullenly took her place at the breakfast table. She said she didn't want to go to school, but when my husband and I asked why, she was reluctant to to tell us. Finally, after some cajoling, she told us the reason: it was pajama day at school. E said the kids had been told to wear their pajamas to show school spirit. "How does wearing pajamas at school show school spirit?" she asked. "And why do we have to show it, anyway?"

Good questions.

The official character education program at my daughters' school, Future Aces, is fairly innocuous. According to the program's website, the "Aces" part of the name is an acronym for:

A Attitude, Ability, Action, Achieve
Co-operation, Courage, Confidence
Empathy, Example, Education
At our school, these character traits or behavioral goals are inculcated by means of monthly assemblies in which students perform sketches or sing songs about the attribute of the month. As character education programs go, it is relatively harmless (especially compared to programs such as PBIS, which Chris Liebig has blogged about over at A Blog About School), but it also seems to have little effect on the kids, who can regularly be seen yawning and squirming during the assemblies.

There is, however, a parallel, less innocuous character education program in effect at my daughters' school, one that is part of what has been called the "hidden curriculum." It involves regular exhortations to school spirit in the form of specially designated "spirit days," house colour days (in this, our semi-private school has taken a page from private schools) and, yes, pajama days.

The dictionary lists as one of the many possible meanings of the word "spirit," "enthusiastic loyalty (school spirit)." Most people would argue that enthusiastic loyalty to one's school, like loyalty to one's favourite sports team, is not in itself a bad thing. And the truth is, there are aspects of my daughters' school about which one could imagine both kids and parents being enthusiastic. (Its wonderful music program is one of them.) But the enthusiasm being encouraged by spirit days is not a considered enthusiasm; it is not a reasoned response to anything tangible. In fact, what is being exhorted (coerced, some might say) through spirit days is the kind of blind, general enthusiasm that precludes thought, or at least renders it superfluous: my school right or wrong. As such, spirit days are inimical to the school's stated goal of fostering independent, critical thinking. A more cynical person might even argue that spirit days constitute the principal means by which schools carry out their ideological function: in Althusserian terms, such events "interpellate" or "hail" children who, by responding appropriately—i.e, with appropriate unthinking enthusiasm—aid in their own construction as subjects (in this case, as proper, conformist school-children).

Yes, I know, it's only spirit day or pajama day or colour day. It is quite possible—probable, even— that I am investing these events with too much meaning. But if they have no meaning, serve no deeper purpose, why do schools persist in proclaiming such days on a regular basis?

Perhaps it's time for progressive educators and parents to think about alternatives to spirit days or, rather, to ask themselves what an alternative, more meaningful spirit day might look like. I don't have any definitive answers, but I can conceive of assemblies in which children would be encouraged to articulate reasons for their "enthusiasm" for their school, as well as reasons why they might not be enthusiastic. Too often teachers and parents solicit only the pre-conceived, positive responses they want from children, rather than being sincerely interested in hearing their views. An alternative "school spirit" would not be so far away in meaning or import from the kind of "spirit" that all schools claim to be interested in nourishing: the spirit of free and open inquiry.


  1. Great post. The "school spirit" you're describing is just the junior version of the kind of "patriotism" that equates "supporting our troops" with supporting whatever stupid wars they've been ordered into. It really is school at its most mindless.

  2. Hey, NorthTOmom -- David Brooks stole your title and used it for a particularly dumb op-ed!

  3. The nerve of him! And yes, it is pretty dumb.

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