Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from Smith Publicity via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.
The American film-maker, poet and musician Cevin Soling produced and directed a documentary film called The War on Kids (2009), in which he argues that the American school system is irredeemably flawed. Instead of attempts at reform he wants to see schools abolished. Now he expands on that idea in print form. The Student Resistance Handbook is not for those wanting to change schools to make them more pleasant or fair to students. It is a guide to trying to bring down schools from within.
I hate schools as much as the next girl, if the next girl also used to while away maths lessons daydreaming about her demountable classroom being swallowed by giant a sand worm, partially digested then belched out into the crater of an active volcano, but I still can't fully get behind the message of this book.
For starters, Soling advocates that not only teachers but anybody who works for the school system, even the cleaning staff, should be targeted and made to be as miserable as the students because they could always quit their jobs rather than work for such a corrupt, immoral institution. This smacks of privilege and a lack of understanding of the labour market. Not everybody can afford to just quit their job and expect to immediately find another, and deliberately making another human being miserable just for doing their thankless, crappy job is being a dick.
Secondly, I don't think that bringing down the institution of public schooling is an achievable, or even laudable goal unless you have something to replace it with for everybody. As a mother I have experienced the pressure that is put on parents, and mothers in particular, to oversee their children's education. I know first hand how difficult it is to balance that vitally important task with trying to make enough money to cover necessities, let alone hold onto a life of your own outside work and childrearing. While home education apparently works well for many families, the ability to do things that way is not a privilege everyone shares. Our society is not currently set up for everybody to home educate their kids. It would take some seriously radical social change to make it so, which I just don't see happening in my lifetime. Much as it pains me to say it, at the moment school is crooked but for most of us it's the only game in town.
But although this book probably won't go far towards helping the average angry teenager to smash the state, it might make them feel better about being stuck where they are until they're old enough to legally opt out. They might be reassured to know that it's not just them, and that when faced with a system where you are treated like an idiot, forced to be somewhere you don't want to be for hours every day and denied support that you need, feeling frustrated and angry is perfectly normal. To quote Eliot Perlman from his novel Three Dollars, "this is how healthy people feel in unhealthy times."
Some of the specific tactics mentioned in the book could be applied to other forms of activism, so it could be useful for young people to know about them, and even practice them in ways that don't hurt anyone. It's always good to be aware of your own legal rights, as Soling urges students to be, and to be aware of different forms of non violent protest. Some of the methods mentioned are specific to the USA, since that is where Soling is from, but much of it would also be applicable in Australia and elsewhere.
The Student Resistance Handbook may also serve as a wake up call to parents and teachers of just how damaging the current system of schooling can be (though this is ground which has been covered before by educators like John Holt and John Taylor Gatto). Who knows, this might even lead to some improvement in the conditions students face day to day. This is very far from Soling's stated goal, but it may be as good as it gets.