“ADHD” – an invented illness

Manfred Schulze

When a dysfunction of the brain could not be found either, doctors and educators diverted to the psychological field and referred to POS. “Psycho-organic syndrome” was the third unsuccessful attempt to turn an easily describable social phenomenon – the special demands placed on adults through children with “learning and behavioural difficulties” – into an exclusive children’s disease.

Sociological and historical observation would have revealed early on that the system of education and schooling today is maintained with more subtle forms of structural or psychological violence instead of corporal punishment. School is the most powerful communicator of social expectations in a performance society. It is not a protected space free of a utilitarian purpose but a hard reflection of a society built on success and competition. To this end globally formulated guidelines of economic and market ideology, such as from the OECD, are implemented by a compliant bureaucracy. From the language learning test in kindergarten to the centralised school leaving exams, the efficiency model of economic thinking is in turn meshed with teaching ever more tightly. Using the educationally useless means of timetables, homework, marks and constant performance testing, permanent stress is exerted on teachers, childcare workers, parents and children. Latent emotional distress has become the psychological norm.

Children who elude this pressure, whose attention cannot be won by conventional means and whose need for movement cannot be satisfied in school produce ever greater disruption of the predominantly seated instruction. All of this happens in contradiction of the clear medical findings regarding the indispensable dimension of physical movement. Since so far no organic, no functional and no psychological deficit could be clearly defined and diagnosed, the illness assigned to these troublemakers is now described as attention-deficit disorder (ADD) and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). With this definition of the problem we have thus arrived at the highest level at which human beings perform as persons: their wakeful guidance of their awareness and autonomous control of their actions.

The other perspective

It is a general criticism that advertising and marketing strategies aim to win our attention and attempt in that way to influence our purchasing decisions. Autonomous attention and autonomous control of the will is not planned for in the market mechanism. The market as a whole does not recognise consumers capable of taking their own decisions or indeed consumer protection. On the contrary, the international economic agreements in force are designed to lay down legal protection for the investments of companies because consumer protection laws could put turnover at risk.

This attitude has in the meantime become social reality. The total economisation of life has created new conditions for “keeping” human beings.

Instead of resisting such encroachment of the economy on the free education of the spirit, schools and education systems are opening themselves up to such influence to an ever greater degree. We are in the process of sacrificing the free spaces of a comprehensive quality of education which the learning subject is involved in determining in favour of the functional canon of competences pre-determined by economic needs. A true concept of education however is open – open with regard to the content and open in the chronological progression of our life. The educated person eludes such control because such persons have learnt to learn and thereby to train their mental faculties because they themselves determine what they learn, thus escaping tutelage. The self-initiated will to learn never stops. In contrast, the competences arising from the economic concept of utilisation require the invention of a superior competence of “lifelong learning” because competences become obsolete in economic competition.

We are witnessing this structural change as it turns schools from places of learning into training camps for competences through outside determination by “coaches” of the “skills” deemed to lead to success. Any disruptive elements are thrown out of the team! Here it is consistent to localise the inattentive and restless children as disruptive elements in the system and to “deactivate” them by putting them in special schools or by administering medication.

Brain research or brain damage

This construct of an illness to stabilise the system for utilising human resources is now supported with ultimate logic by the discovery of the “learning brain”. There has hardly been any “discovery” which has become so popular and has been welcomed with such open arms by educators as the “invention” of the brain as a learning organ. Now we finally know how “it” functions. Brain researchers appear on the scene with an uninterrupted determinism to provide an image of the human being in which “the brain” is now taken to be the subject of all perception and action, in which the will is controlled by nerve functions and attention is an electrical current in the brain. The brain of the brain researchers has made itself independent of the human being.

A little study of history of science shows us that sentences in biology books which previously started with the subject “Nature” or “Evolution” or “The genes” now start with “The brain”. The brain “sees” and “does”, it “takes delight”, “learns” and “thinks”. There is no human emotion or cultural achievement for which some book of neurological research does not use the “the brain” as the new subject. That creates a strange automated phantom land in which the philosophical and grammatical ineptitude of brain researchers creates an image of the world in which “evolution” has created “the brain” and the brain subsequently the whole of human culture. And all of these things in this unbroken causal wonderland happen without the involvement of the knowledge, judgements and decisions of conscious human beings.

Why such a “brain mechanism” is welcomed by many educators as a model of the way that human beings function only remains a mystery if we fail see in it the loss of the concept of autonomous education and the autonomously learning subject. No brain researcher would know what the currents in the brain detected by such research would “mean” for the conscious human being if they had not previously learned the concepts at the semantic level as conscious human beings and created the connection with the processes observed in the brain as the mental activity of their thinking and classification of their research. The tragedy of this lack of thought in brain research is that it interprets such activity relating to meaning as being “part of” the brain – confuses, metaphorically speaking, the transistor functions of the radio with the meaning of the news.

Human being define themselves retroactively through the mechanisms they have created. Thus human beings did not create the car but they are mobile because of it. This mobility then “claims” (as the macabre expression has it!) victims of traffic accidents which doubtless have to be sacrificed to the god of mobility as if in some archaic belief system. And thus human beings become what they think they are. And then the electrical current in the brain equals attention and the messenger substance equals motivation, then the sedative is identical with psychological calm and Red Bull equal to alertness and strength. We end up being grateful to the medicine as if it were a “chemical being” because the child can finally learn quietly and, being adapted to the system, can perform well.

According to this kind of thinking it is necessary to reverse the disruption in school by chemical means. What was previously “minimal brain damage” is turned through its triple linguistic reinterpretation from an organic fault which could not be shown to exist into an attention deficit disorder and disorder of the will which still cannot be shown to exist but is accepted by society. Where there is research into ADHD, the latter also occurs more frequently.

Diseased system

Can it be that this social and school system is itself diseased? In order to stabilise the system, we allow ourselves special schools costing billions to separate out the children who cannot keep up so that they have a secure descent into the refuge of slow learning. We allow ourselves a system of shadow schools and extra tuition costing billions in which prosperous business enterprises promise to keep pupils from being moved down a class at prohibitive cost. Then there is the pharmacological relief program to avoid disruption by medicinally enabling the children to sit still and once again turn their attention to the subject matter prescribed by the curriculum. A fourth support and aid programme therefore becomes necessary. In order to avoid totally destroying the children shackled to competence learning in a fifty-hour week, with or without medication, relaxation programmes and wellness exercises are integrated – something which the extra tuition companies can additionally post to income. In order not to become famished in the dry and akinetic presentation of the subject material, afternoon leisure programmes are thought up in all-day schools or leisure time in the holidays in adventure centres.

Yet our children should not learn for a life after school but be allowed to live and breathe right now!

Time for an ecological education revolution

We need an ecological revolution in education which focuses on the physical and spiritual health of children and not their later salary. That requires many different living role models. If we create educational spaces in which the elements and realms of nature are cultivated and developed, in which the children can be reflective and active and can learn for themselves through activity, in which they can be with people doing meaningful work, in which a future cooperative lifestyle with animals, plants and the earth is promoted, then a lot of restlessness would escape from the souls of children because images of the future are created which are worthy of being lived. Then those things are “true”. Truth is not the most faithful depiction of something which has already been created but the ability to envisage the constructive or destructive consequences of my deeds and then to decide in favour of what is alive. Therein lies the unity of the way, the truth and the life. Because it is the youthful human forces which transform systems. But those who want the world to remain as it is or for it to be transformed into a great machine probably do not want it to remain alive. Such destruction of the forces of childhood is a technique of evil.

And here’s a thought: In a survey of a hundred Waldorf day carers only three Waldorf schools were named in which the nonsensical, wretched, time-consuming and relationship-destroying homework syndrome did not exist. This is where we might make a start in eliminating the control and processing system!

About the author: Dr. Manfred Schulze works as a childcare worker and farmer. As an education researcher and co-founder of the “Arbeitsgemeinschaft Handlungspädagogik” he works to bring together teachers and farmers for the reciprocal fertilisation of practical education and farming.