Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

Oppressive environment
leads to bullying

Guest Opinion

Cevin Soling. Photo: Courtesy Cevin Soling
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The most significant catalyst that gives rise to bullying in compulsory schools is the oppressive environment. People have a need for fundamental self-determination, and deprived of it, they will bully others to attain some feeling of control over their lives. This basic understanding is scandalously absent not just from the books and research on bullying, but from intervention programs, media coverage, and discussions in the classrooms.

The transformation of the definition of "bullying" over the past 20 years strongly suggests that the inability to discuss the subject in a meaningful way is by design. One of the prominent early researchers, Dan Olweus, provided the following definition in 1993: "A person is bullied when he or she is exposed, repeatedly and over time, to negative actions on the part of one or more other persons, and he or she has difficulty defending himself or herself." However, the federal government currently asserts that: "Bullying is unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance."

The most significant development in the evolution of the term is that bullying is now exclusively limited to actions perpetrated by children. The abuses of power by teachers and administrators are no longer considered bullying despite widespread prevalence. In one study, 86 percent of the student respondents reported having experienced at least one incident of physical maltreatment by a faculty member and a slightly higher percentage reported enduring psychological cruelty. Because this behavior falls outside of the current definition of bullying, abuse on the part of faculty is not an aberration that needs to be addressed; rather it is systemic and can be regarded as an unpleasantry no different from testing or homework.

Every student in compulsory schools is bullied by their teachers and administrators. Students are held in captivity where their thoughts and actions are controlled. They must take orders in a docile manner even when those demands violate their best instincts, better judgments, and basic desires. Like any bully, threats from faculty are commonly acted upon. If a child does not behave precisely in the arbitrary ways a faculty member wants – and these demands vary dramatically among teachers, administrators, and schools – there are consequences. Most of the rules that govern the lives of students are unwritten and teachers and administrators capriciously decide when those rules have been broken and what the punishment should be. The environment students are forced to endure is quite literally tyrannical, yet this is routinely overlooked because there is a higher purpose. For this reason the nature of the environment and its impact on students' psyche is dismissed. Few appreciate that the attainment of this higher purpose is thoroughly undermined by this approach to education. In addition, this kind of environment is a breeding ground for peer bullying.

Efforts to address bullying that do not recognize the role of the environment are offensively ignorant or outright duplicitous. The reason for misdirection is obvious. Bullying can only be mitigated if the autocratic structure of schooling is leveled and there is no political will to even engage in that discussion let alone acknowledge this as a legitimate proposition. By willfully avoiding the complicity of compulsory schools, society does not have to address the difficult task of finding a more effective and less destructive means of educating children.

The LGBT community has its own distinct challenge. When it takes on bullying as an issue to raise awareness of the suffering of LGBT children, community members should do so with the appreciation that success will have no impact whatsoever on the phenomena of bullying. If the current campaign achieved its goals overnight, mainstream acceptance would only succeed in changing the targeted attributes. Those very same LGBT children they seek to protect would still be bullied, just for different reasons. Instead, just like everyone else, they will be bullied because they are too fat, too short, too skinny, too tall, wear the wrong things, like the wrong music, etc. Exploiting bullying in this manner certainly advances a worthy cause that should be supported by all people of conscience, but it does nothing constructive for current and future victims of bullying. That kind of change can only happen when children are given meaningful agency over their own lives.


Cevin Soling produced and directed the first theatrically released documentary on education, The War on Kids. He is a graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

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