One School's Remarkable No-Ritalin Approach to Helping Children Learn and Succeed
by Chris Mercogliano
Beacon Press, 256 pages, Hardcover
0-8070-3246-8 $25.00 U.S.
 I offer an introduction and chapter as it originally appeared, serialized in SKOLE, the Journal of Alternative Education, at that time tentatively entitled, Rid-a-Him). The published book (above) is undoubtedly better edited, but may lack a bit of the original fire and brimstone Chris poured into his original manuscript. Or so I tend to believe.
- a slogan from George Orwell's 1984


Somewhere on earth a government-backed drug experiment of massive proportions is underway. Millions of subjects are daily administered a powerful pharmacological cocktail which deadens their spirits, straitjackets their minds and alters the biochemistry of their bodies. The purpose: to render them more manageable under certain controlled conditions. In most cases, the experiment is not voluntary, and the greater population is largely unaware of its existence.

The short-term side-effects of the drugs are well-known because the experiment is now in its third decade. Headaches, loss of appetite, irritability, depression and sleeplessness are not uncommon. Long-term side effects are as yet unknown. Their determination awaits follow-up studies of the first generation of subjects as they continue through post-experiment life.

The behavior of the subjects is assessed by specially trained professional monitors who spend approximately thirty hours per week with them in specially designed isolation environments. Each subject's performance is entered into his permanent record which will determine future hiring potential. Non-compliance is punishable by law.

Subjects are led to believe that participation in the experiment is essential to their well-being. They are told that the drugs, even though they cause varying degrees of mental and physical discomfort, are good for them - that they cannot function normally without them. The drugs are issued by government-licensed private medical practitioners who claim that they are a triumph of modern medicine over ignorance because they will instantly improve cognitive functioning, enabling the subjects to perform the same repetitive tasks at the same rate as the non-medicated control group. The experiment has no projected date of termination.

* * * *

You might already be wondering where in the world this Orwellian-sounding human medical experiment is taking place. Perhaps in one of the rapidly-developing countries where democratic safeguards are not yet in place?

Guess again.

If you suspect that it's happening right here in the United States of America, the land of the free and home of the brave, then you are absolutely right.

But what is the setting? Is the experiment being conducted inside our burgeoning prison system, a search for a more cost-effective means of controlling an increasingly angry and fractious inmate population? Within training institutions for developmentally challenged adults, a new method for facilitating their mastery of real world tasks? Or in asylums for the criminally insane, as a way to suppress violent impulses?

The answer is: none of the above. This late-twentieth-century pharmaceutical attempt to manage behavior on a mass scale is occurring in our nation's schools - public and private, elementary and secondary.

And who are the subjects? Our children.

* * * *

The British writers George Orwell and Aldous Huxley were modern-day prophets of a sort. As with so many prophets, like Isaiah and Ezekiel and others of the Old Testament, they didn't write literally. Rather they employed allegory and metaphor to alert people to the shadowy ramifications of the social patterns of their day. In 1984, Orwell's dark tale about the basic ingredients of totalitarianism, he creates the post-apocalypse state, Oceania, where Big Brother and his thought police practice mind control over an entire population with frightening precision.

Meanwhile, in the Brave New World of Aldous Huxley, a contemporary of Orwell's, the citizens are directed to take a powerful mood en-hancing drug called Soma in order to insure that they will never be inclined to rebel against the crushing uniformity of their everyday existence. Soma makes the people "happy" and eliminates the need for thought police since here one no longer questions anything.

Orwell and Huxley were alarmed by the totalitarian turn they saw eastern Europe take before and after World War II. Their grim predictions became a weird sort of talisman for questioning members of my post-war baby-boom generation, and as the momentous calendar year 1984 came and went, we pondered to what extent our world resembled their negative utopian fantasies.

It will be my intention in this book to argue - with every ounce of Orwell and Huxley's passion - that by electing to rely on potent mood- and mind-altering chemicals to subdue and regulate its non-conforming children, our society has taken a giant step down the road toward their dire vision of modern humanity. Here we must not forget that our "scientific" system of education in this country is based directly on methodology developed in late-nineteenth century Prussia, itself a precursor to Nazi Germany.

* * * *

At last count, over two million American schoolchildren are being "medicated" with drugs such as the stimulant commonly known as Ritalin, and/or antidepressants bearing names like Prozac. Lately the anti-hypertensive, Clonidine, has been added to the mix "to produce round-the-clock effects." And the number of children is increasing every day. Most begin taking the drugs at the age of six or seven. Some are eventually able to wean themselves off of them, while others face a potentially life-long dependency.

The treatment process does not start with these children complaining to their parents or teachers that they feel unwell, as they so often do at the onset of common illnesses which are relieved by antibiotics or decongestants. No, this process, for which there is no historical precedent - hence my use of the term "experiment" - begins with the complaints of parents and teachers: The children, their own or their professional charges, are too noisy, too active, too pushy, too willful, too impulsive, too impatient, too emotional, or too aggressive. They won't listen, won't obey, won't sit still, won't pay attention, won't follow instructions, won't cooperate or won't share. Or they appear unable to learn certain cognitive skills at societally mandated age-levels. Or many or all of the above.

Parents carry the complaints to medical professionals who either accept the parents' description of the "symptoms" willy-nilly or order the children to undergo various types of tests that measure only a very narrow range of intelligence and ability. Though the scenario varies widely from child to child, in an overwhelming majority of cases the conclusion is the same: the child has a problem, a serious - albeit highly amorphous - "disorder" of some kind. The problem is then assigned a sober, medical-sounding name, with Attention Deficit Disorder, or ADD, currently being the most fashionable. If the child is a highly energetic type, then an "H" is added for "Hyperactivity."

It is not my intention here to point fingers at parents and teachers who have felt it necessary to resort to chemical means of behavioral management. All parents and almost all teachers whom I know only want what is best for their offspring or their students. Many are ambivalent towards the very idea of drugging them, but end up deciding there is no other way to get them to adhere to the routines and limits of home and classroom, turning to Ritalin, et al - for the answer represents an act of frustration or desperation akin to spanking and other forms of physical discipline.

Furthermore, many of the children who will be the focus of this discussion do have problems, sometimes emotional, sometimes behavioral, sometimes cognitive - which are sometimes quite serious. They are indeed crying out for help - for attention, as it were - in a multitude of ways.

My purpose in these pages will be to describe an approach to working with the kinds of kids who would otherwise be controlled by medication in conventional school environments that eliminates the need for any drugs whatsoever. It is not a new approach, but one which has been tested by time in the little school where I have taught for over twenty-five years known simply as the Free School.

It is not, however, a method, some prepackaged plan with a progression of delineated steps like the well-known Montessori method. I repeat, it is an approach, an overview, a way of understanding children where each child is recognized as a unique individual - one developmentally distinct from another - and not as a statistical entry in a school superintendent's quarterly evaluation. Such an approach rests upon a foundation of faith in every child's inborn desire to develop to their fullest. It is Rogerian; which is to say, it is inspired, in part, by Carl Rogers' Person-centered psychology - and by the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 70s, which held that it is the mark of a good society to enable all of its citizens to reach their highest human potential. It is anything but Calvinistic and does not see children as a pool of defective, lazy sinners from which only a select and predetermined few are chosen for advancement.

The unabashedly optimistic approach to guiding children's development which I am about to present equates the bell curve with a trick curve, one which should be removed from the classroom and put where it rightfully belongs - in a baseball booth on a carnival midway. And above all, it views it as the responsibility of all who are in positions of authority in settings where children grow and unfold, be they parents, teachers, school administrators, psychologists, coaches or camp counselors, to alter and adapt those settings to meet the children's needs and not the other way around.

* * * *

I harbor no agenda to blame anyone here. For to blame is to polarize, and to polarize is to cause others to become defensive and resistant to change. At the same time I am deeply disturbed - sometimes enraged - by the growing reliance on drugs to control children, and I intend my analysis of the issue to be a radical one. I say "radical" because it derives from the Latin radix, meaning root, and my goal is to attempt to dig all the way down to the roots of the matter at hand.

To the extent I am successful, I will demonstrate that the problem is no one person's, or institution's, fault. For I sincerely believe that if anyone is to blame, then we are all to blame; if anyone is a victim, then we are all victims. The current acceptability of Ritalin and all of its pharmacological cousins is the logical, horrifying end-result of an entire set of perspectives on education, child development and medical care that we have arrived at together as a people. To the extent that I fall short of my goal, I knowingly run the risk of offending some to whom I would hope to reach out with an alternative vision of teaching and rearing children. To you I offer my apologies now.

This book stands in protest not only against the wholesale drugging of children in order to obtain certain educational or behavioral results, but also against the assigning of pathological labels to those who don't fit in, don't measure up, or don't "go with the flow." In my mind, the drugs and the labels are but a symptom of a deeper disorder within a culture that is becoming increasingly schizophrenic, one that is more and more controlled and mechanistic on one hand, and more and more ungoverned and hyper-stimulated on the other. This book will suggest that America's labeled children are our canaries in the coal mine.

The danger of establishing a labeling nomenclature for children, as we have already so thoroughly done, is that it quickly becomes a convenient catch-all, a palatable, standardized explanation that results in all of the kids in this or that category getting the same standard "treatment." These children cease to be seen as individuals, each of them with their own quirks and idiosyncrasies, their own developmental trajectories - and whether it is intended or not, they inevitably become stigmatized in their own and society's eyes.

Much has been reported lately about the so-called "syndrome" Attention Deficit Disorder, and like Dr. Thomas Armstrong, who has written widely on the subject [See review of his book on the Reviews page], I, too, believe that ADD - along with all of its current partners and historical antecedents (Dyslexia, Hyperactivity, Minimal Brain Damage, Learning Disability) - is a myth. And it is built atop a pyramid of other modern-day myths: that learning is strictly a sedentary, mental activity occurring logically and in straight lines; that all children are supposed to become adept at various cognitive functions such as the "three 'R's" at the same rate and the same time; that schools are meant only to be places of instruction; that the role of teachers and parents is to control and manage children's inclinations; and bleeding over into the realm of medicine, that pills cure disease states.

But if certain children today are to be viewed as suffering from a "disease" called ADD - and without a doubt many of the children in question are suffering from varying degrees of dis-ease - then I will argue strenuously in the following pages that this disease is one which would be deemed "iatrogenic" in medical parlance. Iatrogenic means simply, "doctor-caused," and it denotes situations where a doctor's treatment strategy results in new and unintended symptoms. The causes of the "symptoms" of ADD - distractibility, excessive energy levels, oversensitivity, selfishness, impulsivity and aggressiveness, reluctance and in some cases inability to learn to read, write and figure at an early age - are much more likely to be found in the environment than in the children themselves. To see it otherwise is, quite frankly, to blame the victim. So our society is saying, "Oh, it doesn't matter what the causes of the problem are; let's just 'fix' it right here and now with these harmless little tablets." - the mantra of the multi-billion dollar "special education" industry. To avoid the prickly issue of causation, as so many today would have us do, is to take the easy way out and only serves to reinforce the status quo.

Actually, it is my belief that the aforementioned "symptoms" are a kind of instinctive survival response on the part of modern children to the conditions of their lives. Or put another way, it is how certain children's behavior is interpreted and responded to, either at school or at home, that brings on the "crisis" which is then believed to require biochemical intervention in the form of Ritalin and other drugs. Here, it seems to me, is where we have taken that wrong turn into Rod Serling's Twilight Zone. What if we stopped judging the youthful behavior which we suddenly find so pathological as a problem to be eliminated by any means available, but rather as a signal, a vital message from the next generation?

Perhaps the most anomalous statistical aspect of ADD is this: although official estimates of the boy/girl ratio of the young people who supposedly "have" it vary widely, there is general agreement that a large majority are boys. This fact ought to arouse the curiosity of even the most nearsighted observer. Why boys? Once again there is no historical precedent for such a gender-based incidence of a particular psy-cho-medical condition.

Perhaps there is a clue to be found in an article entitled "A Strange Malady Called Boyhood," (reprinted in the Winter, 1996 issue of SKOLE, pp. 51-56) in which New York Times writer Natalie Tangier points out how the Tom Sawyer/Huck Finn model of boyhood, where boys are brash, willful, naughty, rambunctious, aggressive, flighty and dirty, has fast become an anachronism in late-twentieth-century American society. Parents and teachers increasingly perceive boys exhibiting such behavior as bad or unmanageable.

The situation is particularly acute in the public school system where a great many teachers, who are under increasing pressure to produce positive educational results against increasing odds, would prefer not to have to deal with these throwbacks to nineteenth-century frontier culture. Yet they have no choice because the law says that all children under the age of sixteen must attend school somewhere, and for the majority in America the only affordable option is the public schools. These end-of-the-line teachers, themselves captives in their crowded classrooms, then cope with their fate by giving their problem boys one or more powerful, mood-altering substances that temporarily eliminate the unacceptable behaviors - a symbolic getting "rid-a-him," if you will. As for the girls who have been similarly labeled, it is my belief that if you look beneath all the psychological jargon, what they are primarily guilty of is appearing and acting too boyish. Or as we used to say in the vernacular, they are "tomboys."

Unfortunately, an increasing number of parents, particularly mothers who are left to do most of the actual parenting, are resorting to the same strategy at home to bring difficult offspring under some semblance of control. My focus here, however, will remain more on schools and schoolchildren since this is the area where I have acquired a measure of wisdom and perspective worth sharing. The father of two spirited and strong-willed (but hardly tomboyish) daughters of my own, I feel far less confident making pronouncements and giving advice in this domain.

Now for the most strident and provocative version of my thesis - if I'm going to lose you, this will probably be the place: Viewed from a certain angle, I believe there exists a virtual conspiracy - for the most part an unconscious one - between schools, parents and the medical profession to cut our "wild colts" from the herd. Here I am borrowing, with permission and support, from John Breeding's The Wildest Colts Make the Best Horses, a book which has nothing to do with our four-legged equine friends. Breeding is a therapist in Austin, Texas, who daily rescues children and families from the clutches of what he calls "biopsychiatry." And while I rarely go in for conspiracy theories, I can't help but hear echoes of Huxley's and Orwell's warnings virtually everywhere I turn these days.

* * * *

Orwell and Huxley conjured up chilling worst-case scenarios to try to shock their readers to attention. And they weren't only writing about Stalinist Russia and the emerging Eastern Bloc of puppet nations, which thankfully today are in a state of hopeful transformation; they were also shining a spotlight on the seeds of totalitarianism they detected within their own society. Likewise it is my wish that my strong words will in some small way contribute to the growing literature aimed at halting the evolution of a brave new world where children are programmed to become mindless cogs in a global economic machine, and where the ones deemed useless are neutralized by "treatment strategies" and then carelessly tossed onto some societal trash heap.

Yes, this book will at times be extreme and angry, but never without hope, because my own experience as a teacher has shown me another way. Among the hundreds of children who have passed through the Free School's doors over the past thirty years, kids of every size, shape, color and class, a fair number either were or would have been considered ADD-types. We have never permitted a single one of them to take Ritalin or any other such biopsychiatric drugs (we even frown on the use of asthma medications except in the most severe cases), and yet, in all but a few instances where the families were extremely dysfunctional and appeared to lack the will or the wherewithal to change, we have been able to help those kids settle down and blossom into their full selves.

One by one I have watched these children learn a great many things without chemical crutches: how to relax, to focus, to modulate their emotional expression, to wait their turn, to make responsible choices, to appreciate themselves and others, to make friends - and perhaps above all, how to learn. It is this fundamental skill that carries them on to future success in the conventional schools, and then life situations, in which most of them find themselves after they leave our unusual learning laboratory in inner-city Albany, New York.

Thus, it is the kids, whose stories I will tell in the following pages, who have taught me with a conviction I will hardly keep under wraps, that it is neither necessary to classify children nor to drug them in order to help them grow into authentic, competent, well-adjusted adults eager to make the most of their lives and also to make a positive contribution to the world around them. In so doing, hopefully I will convince some of you, too.
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