Whether it be in school or adulthood, bullying and suicide remain tragic facts of life. However, one aspect of the discussion around these issues is often glossed over; compulsory education can exacerbate suicide risk and make children more inclined to be both bullies and the victims of bullying. This increased risk of bullying can also amplify the likelihood of children committing suicide. Throughout history, education systems have sought to impose hierarchies, maintain power structures, enforce norms, and reinforce behavioural expectations. The contemporary education system is no different. Bullying and suicide risk in compulsory education can be examined in this context.
Compulsory Education, Bullying and Being Bullied
In 2010, Peter Gray wrote an article entitled “School Bullying: A Tragic Cost of Undemocratic Schools”. In the article, he makes the reader imagine what it is like to be a contemporary victim of bullying. As you are constantly victimized – both verbally and physically abused – your life made a living hell and amidst the perpetual misery, you find that your bullies are “the popular kids”: not only with other students but with adults, teachers and administrators. He states that, in this situation, “the law requires that you attend school, regardless of how you feel about it and how you are treated. You are not one of the privileged minority whose parents have the means to send them to a private alternative school or to convince the school board that they can educate them adequately at home. You have no choice [emphasis mine].”
Gray, a Research Professor at Boston College, explores the root cause of school bullying and suggests that “bullying occurs regularly when people have no political power and are ruled in a top-down fashion by others are required by law or economic necessity to remain in that setting. It occurs regularly, for example, in prisons.” Clearly, compulsory schooling and education make the effects of bullying far worse than they might otherwise be.
Of course, the biggest victim of bullying is the person who is being bullied: but one must also consider what drives a bully to act in this way. Like their victim, they are forced to be in such an environment. Remember that we do not know the bully’s background – they may come from an abusive home, a very pressured environment, or a similarly bad situation. The fact that they are forced to perform and/or are already facing mental anguish when the school environment is imposed upon them could exacerbate their lashing out against others in ways they may not otherwise have done. To draw an analogy, animal-abusers who conduct dog fighting would struggle to see blood drawn with friendly animals who have not been previously traumatized with constant fighting themselves. Those who organize dog fights know that when individuals have been repeatedly traumatised, brutalized and know how to fight better than they know how to love, they will enter conflict when thrown into the ring together.
Essentially, we are asking for trouble when we impose and enforce compulsory education. A time will come when educators, administrators, lawmakers, and society at large will realize that there is metaphorical (and literal) blood on their hands.
Compulsory Education and Suicide Risk
Björkenstam et al. (2010) investigated the link between school grades and suicide – they found that “the incidence rate ratio (IRR) for suicide for students with the lowest grades was 4.57 (95% CI 2.82 to 7.40) for men and 2.67 (1.42 to 5.01) for women compared to those with highest grades after adjustment for a number of sociodemographic and parental morbidity variables, such as year of graduation, parental education, lone parenthood, household receiving social welfare or disability pension, place of schooling, adoption, maternal age and parent’s mental illness.”
The authors suggested that “the strong association between low school grades and suicide in youth and young adulthood emphasizes the importance of both primary and secondary intervention in schools.” However, before the authors jump to the conclusion that the problem must be solved within schools, perhaps they should consider that the problem could be that children are in schools!
Causality is always hard to prove. But no matter how you interpret this “strong association”, school environments seem to be fertile environments for fostering extreme misery for many. The prevailing, dominant socioeconomic and political institutions are determined to institute ‘artificial selection’ (as opposed to the ‘natural selection’ that Charles Darwin theorized) – in many ways, therefore, compulsory education is a form of ‘eugenics’.
The focus on ‘grades’ (academic performance) and other forms of ‘achievement’ such as ‘sports’, ‘social popularity’, etc. may seem well-intentioned, but these metrics are essentially means of comparison and ways of propping up hierarchies, power structures, and expectations that persist long after the end of the compulsory schooling periods. This reinforcement serves to prop up the institutional, artificial system of selection that necessarily heightens suicide risk: especially amongst individuals who do not fit the expectations of the prevailing powers that be.
Compounded by the fact that compulsory schooling creates pressured environments that exacerbate bullying and misery, it is clear to see why suicide risk can be heightened if people’s’ self-worth and faith in humanity is drained so early in life.
How the Misery of Compulsory Schooling Affects Wider Society
The misery arising from the power structures, social dynamics, expectations, norms, behaviours etc. entrenched in compulsory schooling persists long after people supposedly leave the intellectual, physical and social shackles of schooling. We feel these power dynamics in the workplace, when waiting in line for various services, when dealing with others in the marketplace, and in many other such instances. Some bullies may reform but many persist in their behaviours because they feel that this is the way to “stay on top” throughout their lives. Some victims (and many of those who are scared of becoming victims) may adopt the mentality of “if you can’t beat them, join them” due to the barbaric form of artificial selection that society has imposed upon children. Finally, the suicide risk linked with relatively low “performance” continues after schooling as factors such as unemployment, low income, broken relationships and so on reduce individual wellbeing and increase suicide risk.
Anyone who is serious about tackling the impulse to coerce, intimidate, and bully – which prevails throughout society– must seriously examine the role that compulsory education plays in perpetuating it. Furthermore, anyone who is looking to lower suicide risk should place a renewed emphasis on tackling the coercive nature of education systems.