I took my boys to see Ice Age 4: Continental Drift today. My boys adore Scrat, the squirrel-like subplot character who consumes the whole series chasing after acorns. It’s fascinating really, to watch the predictable plot plodding along with most adults thinking that it’s the focus of the story, whilst a 4 and 6 year old recognize that Scrat is the only thing worth remembering and paying attention to. The good, old-fashioned slapstick of Scrat trumps the soft, sugary, politically/scientifically correct, Land Before Time-esque sentimentalism of Diego, Manny, and Sid. I consider this series a stroke of subplot genius in that respect and my children seem to agree, in their own absurd and childish way—which, of course, is the point.
This time around there was more than just Scrat to pay attention to. The feature film opens with a silent short, a reprise of The Simpsons franchise. I was never allowed to watch The Simpsons when I was young, but I have heard from credible sources that it is fantastic. I may now stop dismissing that view.
The Simpsons: The Longest Daycare was silent, but not subtle, in a good way. It presented an assault on contemporary schooling, the institutionalization of children, and the implicit ecological violence therein. Maggie Simpson attends the “Ayn Rand School for Tots”—there are several funny allusions to Rand, but the film is not using Rand philosophically, she is a trope, a stand-in for the individualist project that underwrites most schooling nowadays—after entering through airport-like security, Maggie is then attached to a motorcycle helmet-looking machine (that is literally labeled “very unreliable”)—I would like to imagine this machine as “social pseudoscience,” but you can think of it as you like—it reads her IQ and labels her as possessing “average intelligence.”
On her way to her assigned cell, she passes by the “gifted” cell, where a chamber orchestra of children plays music and a controlled, idyllic setting hums along. In her chamber, there is a boy drinking glue, looking mindless and dead, who reappears from time to time to grin, gulp more glue, or gives empty looks. More Randian paraphernalia is in this room too: some dolls of Ms. Rand smoking a long cigarette.
Then there is the antagonist: a cruel boy with a unibrow, hammer in hand, smashing butterflies into the wall as they fly by, then drawing a square “frame” around them. When Maggie sees a caterpillar, a cat-and-mouse routine develops and unfolds ending with suspense and some clever relief as the blue caterpillar-turned-butterfly escapes by doubling as Maggie’s hair bow.
The entire short reminded me of a day I will not soon forget: around six years ago, my wife and I went to look at a daycare we were considering for our not-yet-born son, Tomas. The place was pleasant and the people were very nice, but the scene of the “infant room,” uniformly lined with sterile cribs, was too much to bear. We both cried in the car afterwards and, since then, have been unable to send our children to daycare.
This may seem ironic, given the many sanctimonious assumptions about parents who want the best for their children, who decide to postpone careers and pinch pennies to do what they hope might be the best for those whom they love. It may seem like another dangerous Randian, individualistic fantasy.
But this is only true if we limit our imagination of school to sites of surveillance and external authority. It is also possible—not easy but possible—to imagine a school that is neither individualistic nor what we now take be “public.” It is well known, in many educational circles, that so-called “public” schools are not very public in their structure and curricula anyway. So what are the alternatives?
Formative justice, especially in the way Robbie McClintock formulates it in his book Enough, seems to point to this possibility for real, person-centered alternatives. A reform of schooling that is itself educational, without conflating schooling with education.
In my mind, regardless of what you think of Ice Age, you should see it just to watch The Longest Daycare and feel the weight of the critique it levies against schooling as we presently know it. Unlike the prison/cubicle modeled classroom, you can always walk out if you want to.