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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Why School Systems Resist Reform: A Psychoanalytic Perspective

American urban school systems are dramatically failing to educate students. Reformers have proposed various innovations to improve education, but school systems have adopted few proposals. To the contrary, school systems seem to resist listening to outsiders and considering new ideas or actions. Three perspectives, examined by the paper in turn, offer different interpretations of this resistance. The rational perspective views educators as rejecting proposals because they are not based in solid knowledge. The social-political perspective holds that conflicting interests prevent consensus about directions for change and concerted action. The psychoanalytic perspective calls attention to the ways inadequacy of knowledge and conflicts of interest arouse anxiety for school system members and lead them to defend themselves by resisting outsiders, new ideas, and innovative practices. Simply put, they prefer failing, destructive practices to change.The school system confronts members of society and social institutions that place numerous, ambiguous, changing, conflicting, and sometimes unrealistic demands on schools. They expect schools alone to carry the burden of educating all young persons, even though there is no consensus about the purposes or methods of education and even though students bring widely ranging abilities and limitations to school.In examining the response of school systems to these expectations, the paper draws on Elliott Jaques' concept of requisite organizations: members of organizations can get work done when structures realistically fit tasks and connect workers trustingly to one another and to the larger society. In other words, organizations are socio-technical systems. When organizations fail to meet these conditions, work is problematic.Three conditions challenge the requisite institutional character of school systems. The first, highlighted by the rational perspective, concerns the inadequacy of available knowledge for tasks publicly assigned to the schools. Educators lack the technical knowledge to teach the children they encounter. The second is a peculiar structure of many school systems, illuminated by the social-political perspective. School systems create highly bureaucratized central administrations in efforts to respond to the many public demands, while buffering classroom teachers from these pressures and giving them considerable autonomy, in the hope they will be able to do what is necessary to teach students. The typical results, however, are for administrative activities to become rigidified and for classroom activities, only loosely coupled to administration, to become isolated and anarchic. In the end, teachers cannot find and use knowledge that would enable them to teach more effectively.Both these conditions are potentially remediable, if educators gained knowledge about teaching and sophistication about organizational design. In contrast, a third condition challenging the requisite institutional character of school systems is intrinsic to the core activities of schools, which require adults and children to spend a great amount of time together in classrooms. The structure of classroom teaching unconsciously resembles, recalls, and encourages enactment of Oedipal fantasies. Teachers become vigilantly anxious about children's aggressive and libidinal impulses toward them and about their own aggressive and libidinal responses. Consciously, teachers worry continually about students getting out of control.The scarcity of technical knowledge, alternating risks of rigidity and anarchy, and ever-present temptations to act on aggressive or sexual impulses make it hard to organize school systems to accomplish the work of education. These systems respond in two ways that hinder the work of education and prevent learning that could improve it. In general, the inability to satisfy work demands leads members of school systems to regress; the organizations become what Jaques and Kernberg describe as paranoiagenic. Staff have difficulty maintaining a depressive position, through which they could recognize and appreciate the intellectual, social, psychological, and moral complexity of schools, staff, students, and society. They regress to a paranoid-schizoid position, in which they experience outside members of society, other staff, and students as critics and enemies. Staff fragment their world into factions, they warily collect a great deal of information before acting, and, when they do act, they move in disjointed incremental steps. At the same time, several conditions combine unconsciously to stimulate a second pathological response. When staff members experience organizational paranoia, they create many new units and activities, which call for coordination. Anxiety about controlling these entities compounds paranoid anxiety and anxiety about failing to satisfy work demands. Regressing in response, educators are especially likely to experience relations with students in Oedipal terms and to feel even more anxious about keeping associated impulses under control. All these anxieties reinforce one another in building a strong interest in keeping everything under control. Adults who are anxious about Oedipal relationships typically defend themselves by regressing to obsessive-compulsiveness. They turn to isolation as a way of thinking. 'Rational' thinking becomes a way of avoiding impulses to act in dangerous ways. Analysis becomes a way to avoid seeing whole pictures that are frightening. Intricately detailed 'planning' becomes a way of isolating thinking from the dangers of action. Numberless regulations specify precisely what everyone may and may not do. Paranoid and obsessive-compulsive practices become second nature as school system social defenses against these anxieties. In both paranoia and obsessive-compulsiveness, staff pay far more attention to structures - in paranoia, those governing external relations; in obsessive-compulsiveness, those governing internal relations - than to educational substance. Both tendencies contribute to building up the central bureaucracy--to protect the system and staff from external threats and to regulate relations among staff and students. These defensive structures are set to do battle against new people, ideas, or practices. Building and maintaining these structures leaves little energy for increasing substantive educational knowledge or developing structures that could enable teachers to act on that knowledge. School systems end up de-authorized and de-authorizing institutions. Few members feel authorized to take any initiative. And, as often as not, when members make decisions, they do so to prevent action, rather than to facilitate it. For a full version of this paper, contact the author.