With my usual apologies to those of you who read my blog for writing tips, the following is another political rant, this time about education.
The following was posted on Facebook by my friend, mentor and educator, Holly Eubanks:
On Preaching to the Converted
My great friend of many years Harry White Dewulf commented that my latest John Taylor Gatto quote was "preaching to the converted." He is absolutely right, because Harry is one of the converted. But what terrifies me is that a whole big bunch of America--and the world--(including many teachers) have no REAL inkling about what they have been systematically duped into doing to the minds of children, pre-adolescents, adolescents, and young adults. And by the time "professors" are working with the college-aged, the latter are already indoctrinated...then, it is just channeling the mind's skillsets into whatever niche it most suitably fits.
Over a decade ago, Harry and a few others of us wrote regularly on a Yahoo!Group. We had a number of lively and interesting conversations on that board about memes and memeplexes.
Back in those days, I was harboring quiet doubts about what we were doing in contemporary education, largely because of something I had read years before--John Gatto's acceptance speech for his Teacher of the Year Award. At the time (around 1990), I recall being very upset, indignant, and defensive about this paragraph:
"I've noticed a fascinating phenomenon in my twenty-five years of teaching - that schools and schooling are increasingly irrelevant to the great enterprises of the planet. No one believes anymore that scientists are trained in science classes or politicians in civics classes or poets in English classes. The truth is that schools don't really teach anything except how to obey orders. This is a great mystery to me because thousands of humane, caring people work in schools as teachers and aides and administrators but the abstract logic of the institution overwhelms their individual contributions. Although teachers do care and do work very hard, the institution is psychopathic - it has no conscience. It rings a bell and the young man in the middle of writing a poem must close his notebook and move to different cell where he must memorize that man and monkeys derive from a common ancestor."
OBEY ORDERS??? John Gatto had the gall to allege that all we do is teach children how to obey orders??? His message seemed to me to be an indictment against all good teachers--myself included.
It has taken years for the layers of the educational onion to be peeled away, for understanding to set in..in parallel fashion, it has mirrored the uncovering and discovering and horror of understanding that our world governments are nothing but illusion and deception. What we have is government by Corporation, with tentacles that invade every aspect of our mental functioning. And part of that invasion has been into how we have come to educate children--and to what purpose.
Once on our Yahoo!Group we decided to create a favorite movies list, and one of the members--a brilliant contributor affectionately known as "Mr. Toad"--listed "Matrix" as one of his. That movie strikes me as the perfect metaphor for how insidious all of this is--and how imperative it is to fight.
Education today is one of those memeplexes we used to discuss. It is embedded in our culture and way of thinking and passes along from one generation to the next. And it's deadly. So Harry, or anyone else who might happen to wade through all this rambling, is it possible to strike any balance between what we need to learn to be human and what we need to learn to survive in today's economic structure? More and more, I am tending to believe that we need to have a return to a "classical" education, with no standardized tests, and dare I say it? perhaps no tests at all...
I'm going to try to take this point by point, but before I do I'm going to add a qualifier; one that I think essential to understanding my point of view and especially what action I believe should be taken. That qualifier is this: those in power broadly fall into two broad categories: the insufficiently competent (that I call incompetent for short) and the sociopathic. The democratic systems that we have evolved favor the promotion of competent people above their optimal level of competence, and favor the rise of sociopaths to positions of wealth and power. I do not believe that these two types of people are capable of large scale coordinated conspiracy. They tend to serve their own ends, which in the case of the incompetent is lining their pockets and securing their position on the gravy train, and in the case of the sociopathic, it is the endless acquisition of more wealth and power. These people see the value of grouping together, but they help one another only insofar as it helps them in the short term. As such, the image of the Matrix is a little too strong. However, it is true that the control mechanisms favored by the two types of people to whom we habitually give power take the form of a few simple ideas that can be spread throughout the systems of society insidiously, painlessly and simply.
Obedience to the clock, the whistle, the school bell, the voice of authority; all of these have clearly visible practical benefits in terms of planning, organization and safety that dovetail very nicely with testing, sorting, ranking, quality assurance, performance monitoring, each of which also has its own clearly visible practical benefits. When you have 1000 children in your care, all of whose parents expect you to provide them with the best possible, most equal possible, education, it is surely a source of great reassurance that you can test and monitor progress and attainment, and that you can stop and start teaching at fixed times, to ensure that each subject gets the maximum possible attention.
The system meets the requirements of the system very effectively.
Indeed, it makes the whole organization of the school day so much easier if the children will stop their games and line up before the school door when the first bell rings, and lay down their pens (close their laptops) and clear their desks when the final bell rings. Children will naturally and quickly learn these group behaviors from other children with only a minimum of guidance from adults, which makes it all the easier.
Makes you wonder why so many of them seem to fight the system, doesn't it?
Makes you wonder why teachers are so preoccupied with dealing with disruption, disobedience, lack of motivation, laziness, given that the system takes such good advantage of children's desire both to learn and to fit-in.
Respect for the clock, the alarm, the teacher's voice, prepares them so well for the world outside, too. A world that is ordered around being on time, being in the right place, looking presentable, having the necessary skills and knowledge, and of course, the necessary respect for a car with a number and a siren, and a man in a uniform with a gun and a taser.
Hard to imagine a reason why so many people find the rhythm of the clock so hard to follow. Hard to imagine why so much of the working day is wasted*.
The simple idea or group of ideas (what Holly refers to as a memplex**) is this: plan, do, test, adjust (PDTA). It is a sort of application of a sort of scientific sort of method. The scientific method, in the same degree of r. ad. abs. is: observe, hypothesize, test, repeat-adjusting-the-hypothesis-and-hence-test-as-needed, until either the hypothesis stands satisfactorily or it can no longer be adjusted to fit observations, in which case, rip it up and try again. I might point out before continuing that the latter (scientific method) has never been applied to institutional education.
I feel a history lesson coming on. You might be able to skip this bit:
The memeplex represented by PDTA is derived from a series of historical events that occurred in parallel at more or less the same time on both sides of the Atlantic, and have everything to do with the fact that munitions are supplied to governments by private companies***. Arms companies supplied warring states with huge quantities of identical products. Bullets, f'rinstance. Governments decided a minimum number of defective products that was acceptable in each batch, in order for the supplier to be paid. If I sell you 100k bullets and 192 or less of them misfire then you pay me. I won't annoy you with spurious stat math, but if you fire a certain number and none misfires, then you have tested and accepted. This became known as the acceptable quality level (AQL). AQL is useful and valuable in manufacturing, especially for manufacturers of identical components - screws, rivets, valves, filters, engine blocks. AQL gradually spread through all areas of manufacturing until it started to creep into offices, under the guise of Quality Assurance.
Make no mistake, in manufacturing, AQL is of great value. It ensures that things that should be reliably identical are indeed identical.
QA is used to ensure that all business processes have the same level of quality. Let's imagine a financial transaction, like processing a check (cheque)****. A bank might decide that in order to minimize losses, all checks must be processed in exactly the same way, on the same schedule. Sounds pretty sensible so far. The bank might then decide that the system is good enough if one check in 10k goes missing - they have to compensate the customer, but it should be okay. Unless the amount on the check was for a really large sum. So the bank decides on a slightly more rigorous process for higher value checks.
Financial transactions differ from manufactured components in that they are not identical. They are treated differently because of their arbitrary differences – one teller might be careful not to lose checks over $1000, while another might be careless with anything under $15.
The school system he have inherited has evolved during the same period as AQL and QA, and has been subject to the same assumptions based on the (miss-)association of two ideas: equality and indenticality.
Most people find equality a difficult concept to grasp, once it is applied to people. This is because most people can readily see how unequal we are. I'm not talking about unjust inequality. My neighbor and I both have drywall (plasterboard) to do in our houses. He is really good at plastering the joints. I'm terrible at it. So it takes me much longer and ends up costing me more. This is an inequality. It isn't unjust. It's a difference between us. My neighbor and I are not identical. But we are equal. We are equal since we share a world-view where we help each other, and others, in accordance with our ability to help, and our availability, not because of what we can get in return.
Equality is both an idea, and an ideal. It does not mean that everyone has the same thing, or even that everyone should have the same thing. It takes account of difference, and assumes that the contribution made by each person is as much as that person can contribute. Equality is about being aware of difference.
AQL works because all products are identical. QA works (when it works) because every run of a given process is simple enough to be nearly identical.
Planning and control (what I called PDTA above) assumes that every person should have exactly the same opportunity to succeed in life*****. Hence the same level of education in exactly the same subjects; the same education for everyone. Hence assumes that since every child is equal every child is identical. (That sentence should have had an ergo in it; something like omnes pueres sunt equus ergo omnes pueres parilis sunt.) Every child being identical of course suits the education system extremely well as it stands. Indeed, it is so much a requirement, that conformity to the norm is praised and nonconformity sanctioned, even in the youngest children.
It should be obvious to anyone wading through this rant that I don't think that all children are identical. I would even go as far as to say that a strong society is one that encourages difference. That much maligned (and largely redundant) species, the middle manager, knows very well that en effective team is one where each member brings a different set of skills, viewpoints and knowledge to the team, and that a well balanced team is one where the differences complement (complete) eachother. A team where everyone is the same generally gets nothing accomplished. I couldn't comment on whether this is true in all sports, but I know that in soccer (association football) the skills of a striker are very different from those of a defender. I believe that the differences between any two people are considerably greater than the differences between a striker and a defender.
Furthermore, I think that the more problems our civilization faces, the more it will need people who are different. People who do not conform, who have a viewpoint that is outside what the majority assumes, people whose skills are a little random, a little arbitrary. These are the people who find solutions; these are the people who have, historically, transformed society and assured the development and continuance of our civilization. The ancient Greeks had a word for such people: HERO.
The only way that we can have a system of mass education that will prepare a new generation for the challenges it will face is by identifying the differences between children and developing those differences. A system of mass education that nurtures difference, that appreciates how broad and how nuanced differences between people can be is a system that is truly equal. And it is true that just as testing is a waste of time and resources in a system whose prime assumption (that all children are identical) is false, so it is a nonsense to carry out testing in a system that seeks to encourage difference.
Nonconformity has myriad advantages for human society. But it is a threat to the incompetent sociopaths that we have placed in positions of wealth and power. They depend on conformity to remain invisible.
Difference leads to change, constant change. Teaching enforced conformity encourages people to fear change, and it is the fear of change that enchains and entraps. Change for its own sake (at least as far as concerns the institutions and instruments of the state) is both good and necessary. It exposes flaws and prevents exploitation from becoming entrenched.
Am I advocating revolution? As usual, yes, I suppose I am.
I believe that there is no limit to the number of different ways to get educated. I believe that in the ideal city, there should be a couple of dozen or so different types of education available. I believe that the form, and the control of education should be in the hands of parents and other educators, not in the hands of the state. I believe that the simplest reform that could be made in education is to sever state control of curricula, because this would de-politicize education which would remove the main reason behind testing. I believe that education should be allowed to evolve, and that such institutions that arise should be able to adapt to the children they educate and to the resources and opportunities in the community around them; I believe that parents and children should be able to find the education that suits them.
Ultimately, equality in education is giving every child the opportunity to fulfill his potential. Trying to teach the same curriculum to every child does no such thing. Trying to force every child to conform to the same timetable does no such thing. Requiring performance monitoring and testing does no such thing.
The world is changing faster than ever before. Those societies that manage to nurture and encourage difference will be the ones that fare best. Those that remain anchored to a cosy, safe traditional, institutionalized education system will fail, and be left behind, as, in my opinion, is happening. Thank goodness there are a few noisy minorities like the Occupy Movement different enough to insist on making themselves heard. They are the ones who will find a new way, the misfits, outsiders, the rebels, the heroes.
* A survey conducted in 2008 concluded that of 2500 office workers, 65% wasted an hour or more a day, with 22% wasting two or more hours. Initially I was amazed that it was so little, even if you assume that most respondents "rounded it down a little". Then again, I have entire days that are wasted, and other days where I work non-stop for 14 hours. But wait—that's rather the point.
** I know that the estimable Richard Dawkins coined 'meme'. I rather suspect that 'memeplex' was coined by Daniel Dennett.
*** sounds like a massive digression, doesn't it?
**** these will be history too soon, I hear.
***** whatever the blazes that means