School-related stress in the postmodernist mirror.
Individual, culture, school
Thus, the individual permanently experiences a schizophrenic pattern of existence, when the reality surrounding him unravels itself aggressively, destroying intimacy and turning introvertion into impossibility. The inherent state of confusion that follows becomes a regular expression of the way in which the individual seeks to adapt to the social/ cultural environment--with too much information and too little distance from everything around him, the individual is sentenced to a psychologically crippling openness to reality. In this scenario, staged by postmodernity, with proximity being an invasive influence on the subject, existence is simultaneously transparent and coded (through media, culture and the overflow of images, exceeding one's capacity to properly interiorize their meaning) (Baudrillard 1983). Amidst an environment shaped by simulation and a seemingly meaningless play of images, external reality has become a forgotten myth, since any appropriation of the real is either mediated, biased or excessively subjective.
Jameson, unlike Baudrillard, Foucault or Lyotard, is not a passive observer of these socio-cultural phenomena; he also takes a rather proactive stance, theorizing the political mission of the critic who should actually challenge the commodification mechanisms and denounce the dematerialization of a meaningful social and individual existence. Even though from an implicitly postmodern standpoint, a conceptual critique should be launched against the disarticulated patterns of contemporary evolution.
Sliding toward postmodernity means, in Lyotard's view, drifting away from the clear-cut distinctions of the modern and the systematic belief in the functionality of narratives, thus deleting the well-structured aims of the grand-narrative (Lyotard 1984: 18). Instead of being an instrument for enhancing progress, knowledge itself goes through a complex process of commodification; consequently, the sense of stability and legitimacy provided by metanarratives begin to fade. With the emancipatory ideals of modernism replaced by pragmatics, societal development starts to rely on capitalist criteria of designing value.
The ideals of enlightenment, even though barely recognizable amidst contemporary culture, have not been completely erased from humanity's agenda, but transformed. The grand narrative of progress still exists, but now this particular utopia has to compete against the pragmatic rules of a society whose perspective is biased by commodification and mass production.
Since the commodification status of knowledge implies control and power, it inevitably leads to politicization as well--the political side of its possible manipulation is also connected, in Lyotard's view, with the ways of disseminating knowledge to the general public.
The science behind assumptions
Given the amount of factors that shape one's trajectory through school and the rigour of school performance, it is no surprise that the concept of stress is central to any debate on individual versus education system. There is a fine line between what society demands from students, what students themselves desire and what is expected from them on the school ground; accordingly, we have, on the one hand, the complexity of the social, cultural and economic environment to which the student needs to adapt. On the other hand, we have an entire theoretical apparatus focused on stress and the best ways to manage it. To understand the complex interconnectedness between stress and school performance, we need to define the terms first, as they are both complex and contextual. From a scientific perspectivve, in the school environment, stress cannot be defined as simply a fight-or-flight response to a threat in the environment, meant to prepare the individual to take immediate action. Normally, the stressor is associated with a series of subtle physiological changes, including the release of adrenaline, norepinephrine and cortisol, and an increase in the blood flow to the heart and muscles. Also, the level of glucose in the blood suddenly increases. Basically, everything that is crucial for actual survival is given priority, while all the other bodily functions, from digestive processes to reasoning ability and even the immune system, are - at least momentarily--neglected.
School-related stress is much more difficult to categorize, since it does not necessarily exhibit the same traits and it sometimes evades strict definitions. As an umbrella term, school-related stress can be described as a pattern of mental and bodily reactions which ultimately become an obstacle in the adequate way of coping with school tasks and/ or health. The nuances of the very term "stress" turn it into a shifting concept, as it can have the most diverse causes--from being too late to attend a class to an impossibility to cope with the school curriculum or the tasks given by teachers, leading to poor academic achievements or even complete failure and drop-out. Moreover, individual traits come into play, as the same type of stress - having the same causes, in the same context--affects two different pupils in different ways (Hellhammer 2008). Learning is generally defined as a process of gaining knowledge and skills through a variety of instructional methods, and also as a process of constructing understanding bases on an ever-increasing level of cognitive experience (Pritchard 2014). The equation of learning and stress is even more difficult to solve, if we also include artistic ability as the ultimate interest of the pupil, since research has yet to acknowledge the extent to which the common school curriculum benefits future poets, for example (Cosman et alii 2018: 291).
The educational process is extremely stressful for the organism of the student, irrespective of the type of activity, even though the intellectual component seems to surpass the purely physical one. The central nervous system is permanently under pressure, and the functional balance between its basic elements ensure the capacity of nerve cells to adequately metabolize the sum of information it receives and to design the proper responses. As the capacity of the nervous system to properly react to stimuli is limited to 15 signals per second, anything that exceeds this limit is consequently followed by a disruption in the functioning balance. During an intellectual activity, the psychological processes involved (attention, analysis, synthesis, reasoning, memory) exhibit particular changes. At first there is an adaptive phase (30 to 60 minutes), when the functions of the cortex are activated to reach the optimal level. Then the individual experiences a timeframe of maximum intellectual efficiency (2 to 3 hours), followed by a reduction in this efficiency, as a follow-up of fatigue. Initially, qualitative efficiency drops, then (after 1 or 2 hours) the quantitative component also drops. The physical component is also present during an intellectual activity, but it takes a minimal toll on the organism, being restricted to writing (the muscles of the forearms), reading (the external muscles of the eye and/ or the movements of the vocal cords and maintaining the proper posture of the body for prolongued periods of time (the back and neck muscles) (Antal 1973).
Culture vs nature dichotomy in the schoolyard
One important factor which is often overlooked when it comes to assessing stress levels in pupils is language proficiency, especially in two cases: pupils studying abroad, who have not yet managed to acquire the adequate level of communication skills in the language of the courses they have to attend, and the situations in which pupils cannot yet understand specialized vocabulary in various fields of study. Since communication is of paramount importance in the educational process, lacking skills in understanding and using language may turn into a significant source of stress (Binder et al 2013). Any kind of activity, be it intellectual or physical, influences the body, especially in the case of children, since they are in the process of growing up, a process which can be helped or hindered, according to how strenuous each activity is. Physical exercises, properly conducted and executed, lead to a better development of coordination, muscle mass and strength, also positively influencing the development of the rib cage. In pupils, work capacity defines the limits between which the body is capable of doing a certain activity without a negative interaction with physical development or health. In this respect, the workload is influenced by various factors and is characterized by typical oscillations, against the background of complex metabolic processes, from energy production to its consumption and consequent recovery (Lascus 1994).
Recent research has shown that during the week the work capacity in pupils and students varies, being reduced on the first day and on the last day, being at its best on Wednesday, then starting to decrease from Thursday till Sunday. A reduced workload is reccommended during the days known to be not as intellectually productive as others. Also, the end of the semester, the end of the school year and the periods of time following tests and exams are moments when the workload should be reduced, as a preemptive measure against the natural changes in the pupils' activity (Nicola 1996).
There should be a well established correlation between the school activities and the personal life of the pupils, as the two facets can influence each other significantly, to such an extent that they both need strict principles, on the one hand, and a certain degree of elasticity in applying them, in order to match the whole array of individual differences and particularities (Manescu 1986).
In order to achieve maximum efficiency in the learning process and to avoid posing any threats to the pupils' health, their schedule should evolve in parallel with the stage of physical and psychological development. The body needs proper time to recover from completing tasks, so neglecting this aspect might lead to early burnout and a whole range of problems. When selecting the hours which are best for studying, one should take into account the fact that, for most pupils, the best hours for cognitive effort and concentration are between 8 a.m. and 12 a.m, with another interval in the afternoon, between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. However, this can vary due to individual differences (Baban 2001).
School-related fatigue is much more difficult to treat, compared to the common type of fatigue, as the former cannot be simply treated through rest - it is manifested on two different levels, one is immediate --a noticeable decrease in the efficiency of the learning process and the other has delayed negative consequences on the overall health, making the body more susceptible to diseases like tuberculosis, hepatitis, ulcer, high blood pressure or liver damage, lso decreasing the body's resistance to microbes and bacteria (Bucur et alii 1999).
If we analyse the needs of the brain in the equation of the school-related stress, we notice several aspects. For starters, in order to function properly, the brain needs two elements: oxygen and glucose, hence the need to permanently refresh the air in the room designated for study (Ozunu 1996). The efficiency of the learning process can be represented through a curve rather than in a linear manner, as it does not simply match the length of the school hours, but varies throughout the day, with medium values at 8 a.m. and a maximum value between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m. Then it starts to decrease, reaching the lowest point between 1 p.m. and 2 p.m., only to increase again towards the interval between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. - however, without reaching a maximum. After 6 p.m. it generally exhibits a significant drop, and afterwards it depends on too many individual factors to allow a generalized assessment (Armstrong et alii 2005: 457).
The evolution of the efficiency curve can be explained through the following stages. At first, when classes begin, the pupil needs an adaptation period, which takes quite an effort and only leads to modest results. Then, once the inital inertia has been overcome, the pupil's ability to focus increases and the efficiency of the learning process is high for about two hours, followed by an increasingly prominent accumulation of fatigue, leading to a consequent decrease in focus. What happens during the second part of the day is largely influenced by the type of activity in which the pupil is involved, the degree of motivation and a wide variety of individual factors.
While analyzing stress and efficiency in the context of the learning process, we must also consider aspects such as the order of classes, programming them so as not to become a stressor for the pupil. For example, doubling the classes - two consecutive classes for the same speciality can become a source of intellectual stress and fatigue, therefore such a distribution of the daily schedule should be avoided. Also, if two consecutive classes require a high level of attention and concentration, pupils usually fail to maintain the same level of efficiency in the acquisition process during the second class, becoming more easily distracted and more prone to missing the essential parts of the lecture (Andronic 1987).
Intellectual activities represent a potent tool for promoting mental health; but, not coordinated adequately, they can lead to burnout and stress. Learning is the basic process of all school-related activities, at the institutional level as well as the family level. Learning capacity depends on a series of psychological functions (memory, attention, reasoning) and varies according to certain daily, weekly and annual cycles (Bitner 2002: 95). School-related fatigue can be described as a series of reversible neuronal, psychological, motor and sensory manifestations ; it appears as a consequence of breaking the balance between the intensity of the effort and the pupil's capacity to adapt to it and recover. Overstressing the body, intellectually and/ or physically, can lead to worse symptoms (Comens 1974).
If the body is not allowed to recover properly, and the energy level is not adequately restored, the pupil can experience the so-called "compensation phenomena", which can vary from an abnormal functioning of internal organs to anorexia and high blood pressure (Manescu et al 1986). In this case, studies show that all scholl-related activities must be suspended for a longer period of time, and the pupil must be allowed to sleep more than usual for proper recovery (Ciobanu 1997).
Burnout is a form of severe fatigue and is more dangerous than chronic fatigue, being the consequence of prolongued overload. It is usually regarded as a social conflict (suteu 1996). Fatigue and burnout are associated with a decrease in focus, the attention span, the inhibition of psychological functions and a lower efficiency of sensory perception. The senses are negatively affected, which leads to slowed down reactions to stimuli and a need for more time for the same task. When fatigue worsens, the pupil may exhibit a decrease in appetite, headaches, abdominal and muscular pain, sudden variations in blood pressure and paleness (Coroi 1982).
In a school-related context, stress is not, however, a negative facet of pupils' lives and of the learning process as a whole. There are different levels of stress, among which we also have an optimal one, which actually promotes effective learning and enhances the pupil's ability to study (Kaplan et alii 2000: 148). The real problems arises only after the pupil/ student reaches a certain level of stress - beyond that point, pupils can encounter a whole range of obstacles, from physical to mental (Niemi et alii 1999: 125).
Television as educator versus school as educator
When transferred to the theatre stage, all these issues gain a new level of complexity, according to the interplay between objective reality, school-reality and the cultural representation of both, with the lessons learned in school impregnated in all social behaviours and attitudes towards life. "Dreaming Romania" is a complex interplay between utopia, dystopia and simulated reality--along a line of criticism addressed to a wide array of social and political issues. It also functions as an inquiry into the problems faced by the individual. Basically, it is a partly parodic, partly ironic approach to the intricate ways in which the individual can relate to a shifting social environment, while being subjected to fragmented information, manipulation and mass-media brainwashing. Acting like an artistic interface between a fictional script and the objective reality of present-day Romania, the play actually becomes a complex entanglement of subjective realities, from the views expressed by the characters themselves to media fabrications.
On display there are five environments whose (dys)functionality is symptomatic for the Romanian reality: a town square full of people who simultaneously act like a much-needed revolution and the robotic voices of a manipulated collective consciousness; a classroom exhibiting the major faults of an entire educational system; the waiting room of a hospital, presenting the unnecessary clash between doctors and patients; the studio of a television show that dwells on the suffering of a family; and a party where teenagers seem to pose a threat to morals and oppose authority, the latter being represented by two police officers.
One striking feature of the theatrical event is the inclusion of the audience--spectators are not only included in the play, but they also interact with the actors in a contextually adequate manner, not staged, but contributing to the significance of the events on stage. The entire play can be defined as an essentially postmodern representation of an essentially postmodern society, exhibiting an entire array of traits theorized as being fundamental for the postmodern(ist) world-view. A primary feature of the play is the extensive use of parody--but, first and foremost, in a characteristically postmodern fashion, parody is a carrier of social and political criticism (Hutcheon 1989: 24), aimed at the public consciousness as well as the individual lost within the complexity of an economic and societal dynamics he cannot fully grasp. Consequently, "Dreaming Romania" moves away, conceptually, from Jameson's theory of parody being replaced by pastiche in postmodernity, and having lost its ulterior motives, focusing solely on mimicry which is devoid of substance. Here, we have a clearly stated ulterior motive - social critique--and, even though all scenes are overshadowed by persistent ambivalence, the overall vision of the play is coherent and purposeful.
Throughout the whole play, the spectator is included in the action just to be offered a wider view on each situation, becoming aware of the shifting patterns of perception used by each individual to paint a seemingly objective, but deceptively subjective image of every-day reality. A television channel is the voice-over of the entire theatrical narrative, simultaneously criticizing other channels for the disinformation they spread, praising its own objectivity and overtly displaying its own inadequacy. While allegedly mirroring a collective consciousness, it acts as a subtextual deconstruction of the mannerisms characterizing the social dynamics of the play.
The beginning of the play is painted in dystopian colours, augmenting the negative traits of life in Romania and its reflection in the minds of the citizens; the ending is, apparently, radically utopian, presenting an overly enthusiastic crowd, happy thanks to the ascension of a political party that would allegedly transform Romania into an earthly paradise. Paradoxically, if we apply Baudrillard's theory of simulation to the ending of the play, the entire play seems void of coherent or real changes, since the obvious level of artificiality sets the surreal utopia against a dystopian background (Baudrillard 1994).
Consequently, if we compare the two dystopias presented (the reality-infused dystopia at the beginning and the artificiality-fuelled, media-induced dystopia at the end), the former looks tangible, accessible, relatable - since it resembles objective reality with such fidelity, it acts as the mirror-image of a reality that can be grasped. There is a certain sense of immediacy about the first hypostasis of dystopia in "Dreaming Romania", whereas the second version, at the end of the play, is so blatantly flawed by simulation and artificiality that its representation ends up beyond any extent of the suspension of disbelief deemed by Coleridge as essential in enjoying any artistic endeavour.
The ending of the play can be decoded in ambivalent terms. On the one hand, there is a fabrication of utopia, against a background of social turmoil and the ascension of a make-believe political party. On the other hand, there is the dystopia of subtextually-induced disbelief and media simulation. Subsequently, there are two possible readings of the play: a societal transformation from dystopia to utopia, anchored in people's actions and a pervasive need for change, and a cyclical and cynical - repetition of history, heading towards non-existent actual transformation and an obtuse passage from dystopia to dystopia. However different in appearance, both readings relay a state of hopelessness and a sense of futility, as if no matter how great the social and individual struggle, change is banned by the very nature of society and its individuals altogether, cancelled by the carefully designed media mechanisms of manipulation, simulation and brainwashing.
The audience is simultaneously invited behind the scenes of these mechanisms and made part of them; the spectator grasps the true dimension of fabrication while questioning the superficiality that prevents actual opposition to it. There are three distinctive elements involved in an intricate interplay: the stage/ the actors, the audience and the voice-over provided by the fictional television channel. The audience finds itself mirrored by the actors, and the (staged) consciousness of the actors is mirrored by the news bulletins on TV. Both the play as a whole and the television channel act as perfect examples of Michel Foucault's conceptualization of heterotopias; they both act as virtual spaces opening up behind a real surface (in this case, the real is the objective view on the Romanian reality held by the audience), providing a chance for the viewers to find representations of themselves in a completely fictional environment and opposing real and unreal perceptions (Foucault 1997).
The play can also be regarded as an inquiry into the matters of authority and hierarchy; the dichotomy order-disorder is challenged from multiple angles throughout the entire display of social environments. Norms are broken and rebuilt according to biased criteria, and the very concept of authority is fragmented. It is unclear who holds the dominant position, since both teacher and students seem more inclined to antagonize than to collaborate. The teacher uses verbal aggression as a tool for convincing her students to act in a polite manner, but she fails in doing so - the students look unaffected by the repeated threats concerning their immediate future, namely the baccalaureate, being solely interested in various patterns of antisocial behaviour and the image they project upon their classmates.
The staged version of real-life Romania seems a mathematically constructed and fictionally designed demonstration of Debord's theory of the spectacle. Similar to Debord's perspective, which viewed detached images coming together to form a common stream, the separate scenes of the play paint a wholesome picture of the Romanian society; the pseudo-reality constructed by the media can only be perceived, but never truly grasped, since television feeds delusion and a false consciousness; just like Debord preached, the spectacle goes beyond the level where it is a mere collection of images - it becomes a social relation between people, mediated by images (Debord 1970: 35). In an environment whose societal mechanisms are biased by media-created simulacra, the individual is forced to abandon the search for a personal utopia, choosing, instead, to fabricate one; when representation is oscillating between parody and pastiche, the borderline between the real and the artificial become blurred, and individuality is diluted against a background of fragmented norms. Furthermore, students seem lost in the middle, with no clear perspective and no coherent mechanism of integrating what they learn in school into real life; their stress is not school-related anymore, it is life-induced. Normality becomes their Utopia.
A certain level of stress is unavoidable in the school environment, stemming from a variety of sources, from an inadequate curriculum to individual factors. As not all forms of stress pose a threat to pupils' health or cognitive development, certain levels of stress being actually productive in terms of learning and acquisition, teachers should focus on finding solutions for the situations in which the stress level is beginning to influence negatively the pupils and the education process as a whole. The methods and techniques to reduce stress vary according to the particularities of each context, taking into account all the elements of the pupil--school--home--learning equation. Transposed on the stage, and combined with the postmodern theatre techniques, stress is fragmentarily mirrored and transformed into a tool to transfer a certain state of mind to the audience; it seems that any scientific approach to managing stress is dissolved in the shifting reality of a present too complex for adequate comprehension.
All authors listed have made a substantial, direct and intellectual contribution to the work, and approved it for publication.
Conflict of Interest Statement
The authors declare that the research was conducted in the absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a potential conflict of interest.
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Ionut Horia T. Leoveanu, MD, PhD student; Iuliu Hafieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; email@example.com
Haralambie Athes, PhD; Assistant Professor, Faculty of Geography and Geology, Alexandru Ioan Cuza University; Iasi, Romania; firstname.lastname@example.org
Cristina Maria Borzan, MD, PhD; Professor of Public Health, Health and Management, Iuliu Ha^ieganu University of Medicine and Pharmacy; Cluj-Napoca, Romania; email@example.com
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|Author:||Leoveanu, Ionut Horia T.; Athes, Haralambie; Borzan, Cristina Maria|
|Publication:||Romanian Journal of Artistic Creativity|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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