Marching for Education

By Katie Muller

To my mind, marching has two overlapping definitions and many conflicting associations. Both definitions are political, both referring to the occurrence of many bodies moving together. One is the militaristic kind, related to soldiering drills, brass bands, regimental uniforms and a strict 4/4 beat. The other is potentially anti-establishment, a form of protest predicated on the hope that many, many people occupying a public space and moving in the same direction towards an entrapped but righteous goal can attain that goal through the sheer power of their combined body mass and like-minded will.

To many people, both of these ways of moving are abstract, received via media rather than experience. Most people are not soldiers and let’s face it, despite a marginal increase in recent years most people are also not protesters. But both soldiers and protesters are real entities with real influence. Somehow, no matter who you are, you know about soldiers and you know how soldiers march. You probably learnt it before you had a choice in the matter. This is the insidious nature of Early Childhood Education, and the underlying target of this article. If you came across mass protesting at a similar age that you came across soldier marching, you are probably in a minority but also, historically-speaking, in good company.  If you think that teaching children soldier marching is an innocuous way to expose young minds to basic rhythm, counting and coordination skills, read on.

When I was 5 years old, I started going to ‘music appreciation’ class. The class consisted of a small group of pre-schoolers, squashed into a piano teaching room and armed weekly with shakers, tambourines, triangles and castanets. Our teacher would play music on a tape recorder or on the piano and we learnt to shake and tap out the beat. 1 – 2 – 3 – 4, 1 – 2 – 3 – 4. We were being exposed to the hallmarks of early music lessons; rhythm, time-keeping and following a given beat, along with the necessary counting and co-ordination skills demanded by these tasks.  My memories have faded but I recall the seemingly purposeless demand that we all shake our instruments and move out feet at the same time. It didn’t always work and it wasn’t always fun, but as a typical WASP child I internalised even then that the experience was almost certainly good for us.  

More than 20 years later, I ended up becoming a teacher in what is called the Foundation Phase in South Africa. This category refers to Grades R – 3, or the age group of 5 – 9 years. The term ‘Foundation Phase’ is indicative of what is expected of learning and teaching during this time of a child’s life. This period is foundational. It is the platform from which children build and leap towards increasingly advanced ideas, understandings and skills that are bound to meet them later in life. This platform is created predominantly in the brain, as certain neural networks are developed and others abandoned, a person becomes who they are and will be.

In South Africa’s curriculum a Foundation Phase teacher is responsible for teaching every aspect of the curriculum to their students. This encompasses mathematics, language skills, physical education, performing arts, visual arts, basic sciences and social skills. While a few primary schools across the country can afford to hire specialist teachers to teach the outlying subjects like P.E, Art, Music and Drama, the vast majority of teachers are expected to incorporate these learning areas into their everyday teaching practice. The hot word to toss about in order to justify how this unwieldy array of subjects can be taught by just one person is ‘integration’. This refers to the integration of subjects and manifests in a kind of multi-tasking where one skill is taught across different contexts and subjects, or where different approaches (linguistic, kinaesthetic, visual or aural) are used to teach singular concepts. In a proverbial sense, integrating subjects in the Foundation Phase is to try to kill as many bids as possible with one stone, always.

Enter solider marching. Hurrah! Here we have a fun, educational and holistic way to teach a multitude of vital skills to an otherwise undisciplined and rowdy hoard. What could be better? The list of benefits is expansive. You can teach beginning principals of repetition and pattern-making, vital to mathematics and later, algebra.  Children can learn coordination skills involving the use of voice, hands and legs working in rhythmic harmony (and not just within one body but across many). Teamwork! Discipline! Standardisation and sameness! If there are words to the marching song, you can teach those too. Language! If it’s part of a school play, you can make costumes. Adorable children wearing soldier costumes! It’s so simple and brilliant.

Now to make matters complicated, it’s not sarcasm you are starting to hear, its confliction. Yes, teaching principals of military marching to small children and pretending it is innocuous and innocent sounds problematic and it is. But, on the other, soldier marching can genuinely help teach all the skills mentioned above and most of the time you can expect that the anguished, bloodied cries from real battlefields echoing across the chasm of our dismal human history are conveniently pushed out of the teaching narrative so that the happily marching pre-schoolers have no idea that they are marching in the footsteps of cannon fodder. There is a pervasive notion that pretty much any content (no matter how violent its history and origins) can be made ‘child friendly’ with the right editing. I suppose the question I am approaching is, what is the payoff here? What is gained in terms of learning opportunity and what is compromised, as children unwittingly become complicit in the sanctioned, organised violence of war-mongering adults? It really comes down to the aims of your education system. Do the authorities want a society of would-be soldiers? Well, they might not say so in as many words, but there can be little doubt that soldier qualities such obedience, high discipline, resilience and even patriotism are typical of the socialising aims of education and subsequently in high demand. So, in a round-about way – Yes, they want soldiers. Soldiers are brave, they are strong, they fight. They are formidable. They move in formation, their ranks cannot be broken except by disaster, after which they are…dispensable, replaceable. Great! So let’s march!

But before this turns fully into a cynical anti-war diatribe (which it is, also) I want to get back to the children, in the classroom; to the determined teacher, who needs to fit a maths lesson, a movement lesson, a language lesson, a music lesson and a social cohesion lesson into one period (all glued together by a sticky distribution of discipline, don’t forget). What are their alternatives really? Perhaps I am being a gloomy naysayer. Perhaps I am spoiling all the fun and jumping to conclusions. Or perhaps there just are better ways to march. Better ways to teach all that rhythm, counting, time-keeping, coordinating and musicality.

Oh wait. There is. It’s called All Other Music Ever.  

The problem is that military marching is popular, celebrated even – and this is particularly true of the marching band. Historically a military’s marching bands had direct ties to the battlefield, but as the battlefield changed, the role of the marching band moved into the ceremonial and symbolic sphere. Modern day marching bands are steeped in militaristic connotations, but they don’t go to war. They make music. And marching bands in schools get kids to make music together, for others. Accounts on Google (I claim no personal experience) suggest that it is a geeky but nonetheless inspiring and ideal recreational activity for teenagers. So why not start your youngster early? So much is written on the benefit of music and movement in young children’s education, to improve their learn capacity and their futures.  It becomes difficult to argue that it is a bad idea altogether, and honestly, I don’t think I can soundly make that argument.

Perhaps the issue is in the editing; the way in which material deemed suitable for children is trimmed, styled and packaged.  When actions you enforce on children (for the well-meaning purpose of furthering their education, of course) are decontextualized and even rose-tinted, they risk being lost in translation. It does not mean that the action or movement or idea is inappropriate altogether, just that, perhaps, it could be transmitted to children in a way that gives them more credit for who they are and who they could become. Our children become complicit in whatever they learn, be it by role-playing, modelling, practicing or performing so the nuances of what they are exposed to – how the idea of a solider march, a brass band, a protest, a battle-cry is transmitted – is the real muscle of educational methodology. It’s what you include and what you leave out that really counts.

But even this conclusion makes it sound like adult’s decisions about educating children are the crux of the matter, and this should not be the case. Children are more knowing, more powerful than they are usually given credit for. Testament to this is the other kind of marching, the hopeful and desperate kind. The occasions in history where children have marched against unjust regimes are held up as signs of social evolution, signs that the society in question is shedding an old skin and claiming an alternative future. Unfortunately, this alternate future is harder to claim than it should be, and this is almost certainly, always, the fault of the adults in charge.  Fuck adults.

In Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, we have the shiny example of thousands of school children who walked out of their classes to join peaceful mass protests for black civil rights, changing Birmingham’s political future. Decades later parents and teachers involved in #BlackLivesMatter have to educate their children about the movements’ politics, building their awareness and fostering engagement in what is still a dangerously and depressingly anti-black nation. In South Africa the deadlier example is the Sowetan Children’s uprising of 1976, which triggered nationwide anti-apartheid protest and resulted in hundreds of deaths. The first day of protest – June 16th 1976 – is remembered officially by way of a public holiday, but the memory of this historic uprising is more pertinently encapsulated in the current anger and actions of black university students, as they rage about the futility of those historic deaths, in a country that still grossly undervalues black life. It is similarly encapsulated in numerous massive children’s marches that have taken place in recent years, to protest the dismal state of South Africa’s public schools.  One of the more peculiar arguments I have heard against #FeesMustFall is that the student protesters should be grateful to have made it to university in the first place and that more attention should instead be paid to South Africa’s faulty Basic Education System. This is typical adulating, playing God over whose life is more important – this young child or this young adult? Fuck adults, they make so many terrible decisions. Of course, Basic Education is important, you nitwits, but withholding further education from young adults is simply furthering already atrocious neglect.

But see, when young people stand up together to use their bodies and voices against a blind and dangerous authority, it has some special effects on the grown-ups. Some of them (usually the ones who make the terrifying decisions) get a real scare and call security, interpreting the children’s actions as a threat to the status quo (which it is). But if they’re another kind of grown-up, they get a secret thrill. These are the ones who know that children actually are the best. They are brilliant bull-shit detectors, they can do pretty much anything that grown-ups can do and maybe one day they’ll soldier march us all into the sea and start this whole drill over. I think the secret thrill comes from knowing that as a child, you had all that power and potential too. The secret thrill is imagining that it may still be there, with a fighting chance to get out.  And so, these rare adults cheer the children on, fuelled by their secret thrill, wishing to take part. But they can’t, because years ago they too had a grown-up in charge of them, who turned on the proverbial tape recorder and told all the children to tap their instruments to the same beat, and move their legs at the same time.  The same the better. The samer the better, march to an unchanging world, they said, and the obedient adults did.