I have begun my research on the topic of school, a modern ritual. Starting with some insight into the work of contemporary philosopher Robert Pfaller (concerned with the delegation of obligation to objects as an aspect of modern rituals) and psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott (emphasizing the role and use of objects when coping with “otherness” whether this be another person or cultural norms) I now dive into the subject of rites of passage.
I first read an introduction to anthropology of Childhood. One called An Introduction to childhood: Anthropological Perspectives on Children’s Lives, written by Heather Montgomery (2009). It was fun reading about how different cultures perceive children but not very relevant with respect to my work on the role of school in transmitting cultural values or the role of children as small “transmitters”. In the book, it is described how schooling destroys local cultures (because it steals away time to learn to hunt, or perform the rituals of the culture). I want to explore how school contributes to the creation of western culture in Europe. The book also focuses more on how children are products of culture instead of on how culture is a product of the treatment that children are subjected to. As if culture is communicated only to the child. I believe that culture is self-referential. Culture is the transmission of messages about itself. It consists in a nice arrangement of objects, persons and myths. Children are both transmitting and receiving culture, but I want to direct attention on to their transmitting role.
Next step was to read a classic. I have made it half-ways through Jean S. La Fontaine’s book Initiation (1985). At first, I was a bit disappointed with the book. I found it difficult to see the relevance in the many descriptions of other cultures initiation rituals more or less following the scheme of Van Genneps tripartite structure, especially as emphasis was put on initiation into secret societies. Then, in the middle of the book, La Fontaine (to me) suddenly broadens the perspective on rites of passage. She creates a sub-category to transitional rituals that’s she names maturity rituals and these might not involve initiation into secrets. As a matter of fact they may not involve any kind of knowledge for the child, besides that of knowing that he or she now occupies a new position in the community. In contrast to initiation into secret societies, the defining feature is not oath-taking but the enduring of physical ordeals (that the child need not understand the meaning of). Let me sum up the other defining features. Maturity rituals are not voluntarily performed, but mandatory. Those not initiated are rubbish and despised. They involve suffering that can be physical and/or psychological (pain and sometimes mutilations are accompanied by teasing and terrorizing). The maturity ritual is a central institution, it is public significant more than personal, “the symbols employed in the rites refer to the central, most deeply held values of society concerned” (p. 103). Only people of authority conduct the initiation. For a period, children are contained outside normal life and the marginal period following the phase of separation, can be relatively long (as in Europe where the marginal state is ten or more years!) before changing into the phase of integration. The purpose of the Maturity rite is to change the whole person. The ritual establish boundaries between different categories of people. It display maturity as social status (not a biological one). The children are objects used in ritual to support the position of those in authority. “ritual is “for” those already initiated, as much as for the novices” (p.104).
I want to relate these eleven features to school. Starting from the beginning onwards.
Ordeals: School pretty much consists of ordeals we just call it assessment instead. La Fontaine stresses that ordeals studied in non-western cultures can be both physical and psychological of kind. She writes that physical ordeals can be everything from radical bodily mutilation to unpleasant positioning of the body. In school, children are not beaten (anymore). Children are seated for hours on chairs and expected to endure boredom. We want them to be silent, pay attention and do schoolwork.
Mandatory: School is obligatory. Education can no longer be provided by “outsiders” such as parents.
Uninitiated rubbish: Very few children escape school. Those that does are pitied for their lost chances of being included in society.
Public significance: It is uncontroversial to say that school is public significant, a social matter.
People of authority in charge: Children can only be educated by teachers with authorization. Curricula is designed by authorized researchers and approved by authorized officials.
Isolation from normal life: School is a world in its own. During education time (structured by a school schedule) children are isolated from life outside school.
Length of marginal period: Very long!
Transforming the whole person: The pedagogical idea is to transform the child into a citizen. She is to transgress herself in favor of an abstract notion of humanity.
Creating categories of people: School is known for its segregating function.
Displaying social status: After school you become a citizen.
Children as objects: In western culture children are employed to state a fact about the values and (democratic) state of the given culture. By letting children perform according to our ideals the ideals themselves are demonstrated. This is why it is important how children perform in school and also why their performance is constantly subjected to reform (it is almost per definition difficult to realize ideals. Ideals are better suited as regulatives). By means of PISA test and reports, Nations compare themselves with each other in order to see just how democratic they succeed in being. In this respect school is part of our culture’s self-referential message and the same can be said of children performing the school labor on behalf of the adult society.
At some point in the book (p. 102) I believe that La Fontaine commits a common crime of interpretation by taking for granted the educating (knowledge transmitting) function of western school. She says that maturity rituals in contrast with school (as well as with secret societies), does not transmit knowledge. Thus, maturity rituals are not “”schools” of initiation by analogy with western institutions”. I think La Fontaine makes a mistake when she thinks that school transmit knowledge and has an “educative function” (p. 102). She writes that the information received in ritual can be minimal and reduced to “”instruction” given in adult roles” (p. 103), “ barely more than symbolic of adult tasks” and pretty much just an “experience of the ritual”. I think same thing can be said of school. Many children complain that they cannot see the point with the tasks assigned to them, besides the obvious thing that the tasks is the ticket to a diploma and ensures entrance into society (get higher education and a job).