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The March towards Miseducation

March 20, 2011

By far the most impressive thing about all of the recent talk ostensibly about how to improve education is how studiously it has avoided actually talking about education, let alone how to improve it. This is shown by the fact that what education is supposed to be is never confronted. Most discussion begins rather somewhere with the following: how to make schooling more regimented, how to remove or at least inhibit all positive purposes for being at school, how to demean and make more precarious teachers’ jobs, how to increase top-down managerial control, how to restrict people’s access to the public resources of schools and how to liquidate those resources and place them into the hands of private beneficiaries. In short, talking about the schools we have and how to manipulate these to become more of what they already are is not the same thing as talking about how to improve people’s educational possibilities.

While the state-allied education gurus, experts and policy-makers studiously avoid confronting what education is supposed to be, they do set some goals for themselves, though these are not related to education but to the above set of concerns. So, for instance, one of the most important barometers of “education” is standardized test scores. Why do these relate to education? How could we tell? We don’t even know what education is supposed to be. Thus the best we can say is that standardized testing is meant to evaluate how close all students are to some prescribed more or less educationally arbitrary standard. Standardized testing is only obviously meant to regiment the schooling process that students go through. Regimentation of this sort, that is, through testing and the ways in which this is used to rate students, condemn or advance students, and relinquish or restrain resources, is both meant to get all students to conform to a centralized mental standard, as well as to provide administrators with data on how well the student population is satisfying administrators’ wishes.

But even if the resources and force of will could be mustered to get students to perform well on, let us say, apparently well-meaning tests relating to certain mental disciplines, such as in math and reading, there is no reason to suppose that this would be a good thing for those students’ educational developments. What does becoming good at some prescribed math skills have to do with education?

Let me quote John Dewey here.

Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future. The most important attitude that can be formed is that of desire to go on learning in the future (Experience & Eductation, p. 48).

What is more,

We often see persons who have had little schooling and in whose case the absence of set schooling proves to be a positive asset. They have at least retained their native common sense and power of judgment, and its exercise in the actual conditions of living has given them the precious gift of ability to learn from the experiences they have. What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information about geography and history, to win ability to read and write, if in the process the individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur (Ibid., pp 48-9).

So it is not obvious that any of the most prominently proposed schooling reforms have anything to do with education. I think it is hard, if not impossible, to get to education through any of the measures that are being pursued. This is because what they take us towards is again and again quite the opposite of education. Regimentation and manipulation by authorities leads most directly not to education but to being used in ways which those authorities see fit for you. Thus if the prevailing interests of this country need more assembly line engineers, then schools must produce more of those. If they need more accountants, schools must foster the skills and mindsets for those. If they need more menial laborers, then schools must make it impossible for a certain number of people to see or to have any other possibilities in life. In general, as well, an uncriticalness of the totality of our grand system, a reverence of masters, and a resignation to a life of but subsistence and servitude must be securely erected via the power of schooling.

We seem to have a basic sense of what education is supposed to be. It is meant to change what is in a person’s mind. But for whom and by whom? These are, I have little doubt, also essential to what education is supposed to be. Would we even naively proclaim that education is meant to involve the changing of some student’s mind in accordance with the outlines of some bureaucrat and so that that student can most readily be fit into the current economic landscape. Oh what a noble view of education! And why is it we are meant to be disappointed with what we get out of schools?

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I would briefly offer here that education means not the dutiful absorption of facts and rudimentary mental skills but, as Dewey, one of the founders of the Progressive School Movement, made clear, the possibility for growth, that is, more particularly, the opening up of what experiences one has now and can have in the future. We often think of education as something that’s done to young human beings. While this is somewhat arbitrary when one properly conceives of education as experiential growth, it does suggest an aspect of education which is thought to imply authoritarianism. It is thought that since younger humans lack the experience of older humans, older humans must impose limits and constraints on them. However, if such is truly for the well-being of the younger humans, this should be a matter of servicing the particular and special needs of those younger humans, and not of dictating to them that this or that is right. People’s needs change at various stages in their lives. Babies need certain outside help that teenagers do not and geriatrics, too, often need special external support. Attending to these groups’ needs as needs means setting up things for them, and that clearly does not entail imposing anything on them against their wishes. Further, the impression, whether right or wrong, that something is being imposed will most likely result in that person rejecting it, that is, unless the human will has been sufficiently broken, which often seems to be a design of many of our social institutions, especially here schools.

It is thus that I note two recent and prominent pieces of “education” reform propaganda. The first is the much acclaimed Waiting for Superman. One part of this makes the very curious juxtaposition between levels of confidence amongst current American youth and their performance on standardized tests. On the one hand, they claim that confidence is skyrocketing (a highly dubious claim) while performance on standardized tests in math, science, etc. is floundering. What is the point at all of this juxtaposition? Is their high confidence a cause of their poor performance? Does their performance on standardized tests invalidate their confidence? Thus should we tell them this so as to try to lower their confidence? Or should we rather focus on bringing up their test scores? Thus wouldn’t it have been enough to focus on test performance? So why bring in the matter of their high confidence (I should mention the confidence they talk about doesn’t even seem to have to do with American youth’s confidence about how well they do on standardized tests)? What is the relevance? The way this is all set up, suggesting that parenting and educating cultures in our country have coddled children, made them feel too special (however, look at China where there is a prevalent culture of placing only-children on pagodas), could be seen as an attack on the caricature of Progressive schooling which Dewey went to pains to refute in his writings on education (cf. Experience & Education, Chs. 1 & 2). In fact, it is something of a present theme in mainstream calls for school reform that all of the improvements in the methods of schooling, such as arose from the Progressive and other alternative school movements, which sought more directly to put schooling in the service of the experiential needs of the students, must finally be scrapped.

The second is from a recent 60 Minutes segment on another attempt in school reform. The novelty of this school is that, despite the usual lionized accoutrements of school reform, which usually include such things as making students wear color-coded uniforms to identify which parts of the school-block (much like a prison-block) they are assigned to, increasing the amount of school time, pushing hard on improving standardized test performance, enacting greater managerial dictatorialism (as with the lionized Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools), and the mass firing of teachers and requiring of the remaining teachers to take on even greater burdens, as well as providing substantial school supplies out of their own pockets lest there would be not nearly adequate enough supplies, this school has decided that a simple way of off-setting all of these counter-educational measures might be to give a select few teachers higher salaries. But that aside, what struck me about this school was the familiar fetishization of mechanically regimenting students’ experiences. So for instance, one teacher stresses the importance of getting all students everyday to perform the same educationally meaningless series of actions in unison. At the start of every class every student has to clap in unison, say the same words and vows in unison, then stomp in unison, then raise her or his writing hand in unison, and then, on command, start writing in unison. I can only say that if I had been a student in such a classroom I probably would have protested it with all my marrow and that would have been the summum bonum of my educational experience.

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