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Institutionalization and Deschooling: The Death and the Resurrection of the Self

by Kah Ying Choo

The institutionalization syndrome that frequently occurs in individuals who have received long-term treatment or care in institutions such as psychiatric facilities encapsulates the following characteristics:

• Loss of independence and self-confidence,
• Erosion of desire and skills for social interaction,
• Excessive reliance on institutions and fear of authority (Lamb, 1976).

With their daily routines, organizational structures and practices that are imposed on patients, psychiatric facilities are notorious for cultivating patient dependency and hampering the development of independent functioning that will facilitate the patients’ reintegration into the community.  In such institutional settings, patients are required to conform to the instructions of doctors and staff members or deal with aversive consequences.  They thus learn to submit to authoritative figures such as doctors.  Furthermore, they are also expected to adapt to an externally imposed schedule of eating, socializing and other activities.  In addition, their individual perceptions and responses are disregarded and their interests neglected.  In this conformist environment, patients’ efforts to express their individuality and display their skills are thus discouraged, or even suppressed (Lipsitt, 1961).
Because their activity is constantly regulated and restricted by staff members, patients do not have the freedom to exercise initiative and assert their individuality.  The constant suppression of their individuality and attempts to initiate activities typically results in frustration and depression.  Over a long period of time, these patients eventually lose their sense of identity and initiative in order to cope with living in such a rigid and controlled environment.  Furthermore, since the institutional settings satisfy all the basic needs of the patients and extinguish their unique needs, these patients eventually become disconnected from the outside world.  They also abandon their beliefs that they can satisfy their basic needs on their own.  Although psychiatric facilities are supposed to “help” improve the lives of their patients, they are ultimately guilty of sabotaging their patients’ recovery (Boettcher & Schie, 1975; Denner, 1974; Wright & Kogut, 1972).

Deschooling
The adverse impact of institutions on patients living in psychiatric facilities can be analogized to the experiences of children who have been subjected to the pressures of traditional schooling.  As with patients in psychiatric hospital, children in traditional schools are required to conform to the rigid routines of school schedules and their learning limited to the standardized curriculum.  Their teachers and principals restrict their ability to move and exercise their curiosity by expecting them to sit at their desks quietly and forbidding socialization among peers during class time.  Struggling to adapt to an environment that rewards them for their compliance and punishes them for their expression of individuality, these children eventually become excessively dependent on schools to direct their learning.  The suppression of their individuality and interests eventually extinguishes these children’s passion for learning and life (“What is Deschooling”; Meyer, 2000).

Therefore, when children are removed from traditional schools to embark on the journey of homeschooling, they need to undergo the process of “deschooling.”  Deschooling can be considered a detoxication period that enables these children to unlearn the negative concepts of learning associated with traditional schooling such as “grades, semesters, school-days, education, scores, tests, introductions, reviews and performance” (Dodd, qtd. in Bell, 1998, p. 1).  By eliminating these ideas from their mindset, these children can regain their intuitive love of learning and discover their sense of self.  Thus, deschooling is a healing process that is critical to the future of the children as they recover from their wounded psyches and prepare to create their unique idea of learning (Bell, 1998).

Depending on the individuals and their experiences in schools, the deschooling period lasts an average of one year and upto two years (“Homeschooling gifted kids,” 2001).  Experienced homeschoolers suggest that the children need one month of deschooling for each year of schooling (Hayes, 1999). During this period, most parents offer their children complete freedom to transition from traditional schools to the home.  Although deschooling is a difficult period for parents who are concerned that their children are not engaged in learning, it is important that parents do not act like teachers in schools and attempt to imposing their learning objectives on their children. (“What is Deschooling,” p. 1; “Homeschooling Gifted Kids,” 2001).

Once the children are free from the pressures of time and the dictates of teachers or any individual, they will be able to rekindle their interest in learning.  When they are ready to begin learning, these children will take the initiative to pursue subjects of their interest without external prodding.  Although they will be frustrated initially by the fact that their parents do not provide them with answers and tell them what to do, these children will begin to learn and enjoy their independent ability to conduct their own research and apply their learning in an interesting fashion.  Instead of directing their children’s learning, parents play the role of facilitators and provide supportive guidance and assistance in order to ensure that their children have access to the necessary resources for their projects (“Zone FAQ: What is “deschooling,”” 2001).

However, the institutionalization effects of schools not only affect children, but also their parents.  Many parents who have been exposed to the oppressive experiences of traditional schools also need to undergo the process of deschooling.  The deschooling of parents is critical to the ultimate success of homeschooling.  Otherwise, parents are likely to replicate the components of traditional schooling such as worksheets and textbooks in their homes.  In order to realize the intrinsic objectives of homeschooling, parents thus have to address their traumatic experiences in a rigid and organized classroom and embrace innovative learning concepts that challenge those of traditional schools. For example, they need to promote their children’s freedom to learn in community settings and acknowledge the ambivalence of issues that do not offer simple solutions (Meyer, 2000; Hayes, 1999).

Although some may perceive the comparison of the impact of schools and the effects of psychiatric institutions as excessive, this juxtaposition captures the tragedy of children who are oppressed in classrooms, which is enacted day after day in our country.  The fact that children need to be detoxed from their experiences in school highlights the adverse impact of schools on their whole being.  Apart from their academic learning, these children need to rediscover their identity and regain their passion for life itself during the deschooling period. The journey towards successful homeschooling, beginning with the deschooling process, can be a frightening experience. However, this courageous decision will reap incredible rewards that are captured succinctly in this beautiful statement by a homeschooling parent:

When we started homeschooling, I felt as though I had tucked a child under each arm and jumped off a cliff. Imagine my surprise to discover we have wings (Maura Seger, qtd. in Hayes, 1999).



References
Bell, A. (1998). Natural Learning Page. Retrieved February 4, 2002, from http://home.rmci.net/abell/page11.htm
Boettcher, R. C., & Schie, R. V. (1975). Milieu therapy with chronic mental patients. Social Work, 20, 130-134.
Denner, B. (1974). Returning madness to an accepting community. Commit Merit. Health Journal, 10, 163-172.
Hayes, L. C. (1999). What is deschooling? Retrieved February 4, 2002, from National Home Education Network Website: http://www.nhen.org/nhen/pov/newhser/deschooling.html
Homeschooling gifted kids. (2001). Retrieved February 4, 2002 from http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Woods/6564/ghs/ghsdschl.htm
Lamb, H. R. (1976). Community survival for long-term patients. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Lipsitt, D. R. (1961). Institutional dependency: A rehabilitation problem. In M. Greenblatt, D. Levinson, & G. Klerman (Eds.), Mental patients in transition: Steps in hospital-community rehabilitation (pp. 34-45). Springfield: Charles C Thomas Publishers.
Meyer, J. B. (2000). Homeschooling anywhere. Retrieved February 4, 2002, from Denver Northwest Homeschool Community Website: http://home.att.net/~dnhc/deschool.htm
What is deschooling? (n.d.). Retrieved February 4, 2002, from http://www.tumon.com/porchswing/deschooling.htm
Wright, A. L., & Kogut, R. S. (1972). A resocialization program for the treatment of chronic hospitalized schizophrenic patients. Diseases of the Nervous System, 33, 614-616.
Zone FAQ: What is “deschooling”? (2001, May 28). Retrieved February 4, 2002, from http://www.homeschoolzone.com/faq/deschooling.htm