From Schreber and Alice Miller, via Michael Haneke, to our perception of kids (in public schools) today
by Aurore B. Reales
When you teach German, like I do, you are faced time and again with the “Nazi-card” that people are pulling on you, as I would call it. So, again, this time coming from a schoolbook I am using in class, the subject of the holocaust springs up again. I can’t just peacefully teach linguistics and poetry, etc. Sooner or later I’ll have to deal with one of the most, if not THE most monstrous genocide and cruelty in the history of mankind. Only Hannah Arendt’s words are of solace: “Humanity cannot handle this, it should never have happened.”
Yet my poor sensitive soul has to be confronted with it, when I’d rather dwell on peaceful grammar or contemporary themes. So, fine then, I thought, if we are gonna do it, we’ll do it and get to the bottom of it.
I started with showing the film The White Ribbon by Michael Haneke who is a master of the tension that creeps up between the lines and under the rugs until it’s under your skin. He portrays life in a village in 1913 somewhere in Germany or Austria. The children are brought up under vile conditions.
It made me think about Alice Miller who portrayed Hitler’s childhood and showed the origins of violence that lay in oppressive education. In her book For Your Own Good, that Haneke must have used for his film, she quotes a text on child rearing, and the use of a white ribbon that was attached to children’s hair to symbolize purity and truth, and to remind them of what they have to live up to, with the inherent understanding that they were just not good enough. In oppressive, controlling, humiliating ways children were taught to believe adults and to obey, to deny their spontaneity, their playfulness and their instincts.
Alice Miller writes: “It is also a part of ‘poisonous pedagogy’ to impart to the child from the beginning false information and beliefs that have been passed on from generation to generation and dutifully accepted by the young even though they are not only unproven but are demonstrably false. Examples of such beliefs are:
A feeling of duty produces love.
Hatred can be done away with by forbidding it.
Parents deserve respect simply because they are parents.
Children are undeserving of respect simply because they are children.
Obedience makes a child strong.
A high degree of self-esteem is harmful.
A low degree of self-esteem makes a person altruistic.
Tenderness (doting) is harmful.
Responding to a child's needs is wrong.
Severity and coldness are a good preparation for life.
A pretense of gratitude is better than honest ingratitude.
The way you behave is more important than the way you really are.
Neither parents nor God would survive being offended.
The body is something dirty and disgusting.
Strong feelings are harmful.
Parents are creatures free of drives and guilt.
Parents are always right.”
In the late 19th Century Moritz Schreber, a physician, wrote a bestseller undermining these ideas with a lot of practical tips: Der Hausfreund als Erzieher und Fuhrer zu Familiengluck und Menschenverdelung, "The Friend of the Family as an Educator and Leader to Family Happiness and Human Refinement."
The illustration here are some of the orthopedic instruments he designed and used, that were supposed to help children grow properly following the motto of “a sound mind in a sound body.”
What can I say? My own father had devices on his legs at night in order for his legs to grow properly:
Unfortunately it didn’t make his soul grow properly.
Still today, public schools (like the one my child goes to) paint pictures of children, who express their spontaneity and joyful playfulness or are just are being kids, as not being obedient enough, not sitting still enough. Today’s parents bussing their kids from music lessons to sports lessons and bragging about their offsprings’ near-prodigy qualities, remind me of this strife for perfection and the denial of the true self and the hostility towards life that Miller speaks about. We let our kids be part of family decisions today while at the same time there is an oppressive trend. In German (which is a great language with many nuances) we have an expression that I love: tendenziös “tendencious.” It means there is a tendency towards fascism. I really love this expression.
So, as I am dealing with people’s projections on me and who want to point out “my” history, I say: “bring it on” – I know my history. I know it very well. But beware, for I’ll be holding up a mirror and point out what is happening now.
And a lot of what I see now is very “tendencious.”