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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Education and Eden: A Principal Reflects on the Mourning of Innocence and the Ambivalence of Awareness in School Life

This plenary presentation explores the emotional life of the school as that social institution which the vast majority of parents, policy makers and citizens depend on most to support the family's efforts to raise children. Committed to social progress and human development, the school is expected to represent the best of democratic values - justice, freedom and equality - and the healthy intellectual, emotional, social, moral and physical growth and development of young people. Held as an ideal, safe haven, freed from what John Dewey, the American philosopher of education, once called the 'perverse' and 'impure' qualities of modern society, the school stands as the object of many powerful and diverse wishes directed toward it by each of its varied constituencies. Whether publicly funded or financed through private tuition, the school is expected both to protect children from harm and to educate them for and about life. In its efforts to meet these expectations, the school confronts the challenge of managing the tensions of many conflicts and contradictions inherent in the process of schooling including, among others: providing safe and mature adult supervision and an open inclusive sense of community; mastering content and promoting responsibility and independent thinking; fostering excellence and enhancing self-esteem; inspiring hope and providing a clear set of realistic boundaries; cultivating creativity and critical thinking while developing moral character and empathic citizenship; respecting and questioning authority; valuing the individual and the community; inviting partnership with parents and students, yet maintaining control by school officials; supporting the parenting skills of students parents; offering parents a potentially reparative experience by ensuring vital opportunities for the next generation to achieve a level of social and economic success greater than their parents; being a force for progressive social change and being a standard for tradition and the reproduction of the long-standing social norms, values and structures of power and wealth. But no school can be all things to all people all the time. Inevitably, a shadow of disillusionment is cast between the ideal and the real, where the fantasy of complete fulfillment falls into the realm of disenchantment and the on-going reparative efforts to facilitate the growth and development of young people through the educational structures of curriculum, school culture, and school-based mentorship and friendship relations. This emotional context, called the school romance, provides a paradigm for exploring a dominant tension in school life between two fundamental values that are both complementary and contradictory: to guide childrens experience safely through the disillusioning terrain of the loss of innocence and, at the same time, to educate students by increasing their awareness of the world and of themselves in accord with their own developmental capacities to integrate and understand. Teachers and administrators face the daily challenge of upholding both values through a reflective practice that allows them to anticipate and facilitate both the expression and containment of emotions related to the mourning of innocence lost and acknowledging the ambivalence of awareness that can exist in the life of a school.