Saturday, December 10, 2011

On Education

Over at Golem’s blog, under his latest post, I made a couple of comments referencing David Graeber’s perception that we are culturally suffering from a failure of nerve, a failure of imagination. This is the reason our outlook appears bleak. Not because it is bleak, but because we can’t see a way out. Writing for the Guardian about the Occupy movement in September this year, Graeber said:
But the ultimate failure here is of imagination. What we are witnessing can also be seen as a demand to finally have a conversation we were all supposed to have back in 2008. There was a moment, after the near-collapse of the world's financial architecture, when anything seemed possible. [ ... ] Even the Economist was running headlines like “Capitalism: Was it a Good Idea?” [ ... ] Then, in one of the most colossal failures of nerve in history, we all collectively clapped our hands over our ears and tried to put things back as close as possible to the way they’d been before.

Why did this happen? Obviously there are far more reasons than a mere blog post can address, but one of them is surely rooted in the education system. We are not put through that system to become critical thinkers, to question, to carry on learning. We are compulsorily put through that system to have our independence of spirit broken, to be made compliant, obedient, susceptible to advertising, propaganda, to fail to care enough about the indignity of factory-line work and consumerism. Consequently, faced with the challenge of creating a new model, we balked. We don’t have it in us. Not after our ‘education’ knocked it out of us, that is.

Now, those are aggressive and sweeping words, but I suggest they hold generally (there are always exceptions). Before I go on, I’d like to point out I do not believe in ‘control’ by supremely gifted puppet masters of some lumpen mass. I do not believe in Us and Them projections. As far as I’m concerned, it’s “We, the 100%,” at least, as a mode of perception more constructive long term than “We, the 99%,” as important as that perception is right now. Our predicament, our reality, is far subtler than Us and Them. Nevertheless, it does serve to look at broad brushstrokes sometimes, especially by way of guidance and as a process for encouraging critical thought.

John Taylor Gatto wrote a paper back in 2003 called, “How public education cripples our kids, and why.” He has written books too, which I strongly recommend. Gatto thoroughly researched the origins of public education, in particular the sort of thinking behind its design and purpose. He singles out Alexander Inglis and his 1918 book, “Principles of Secondary Education”. For Inglis, public education was to be “a fifth column into the burgeoning democratic movement that threatened to give the peasants and the proletarians a voice at the bargaining table.” Gatto then describes the six core functions of public education as understood by Inglis:
1) The adjustive or adaptive function. Schools are to establish fixed habits of reaction to authority. This, of course, precludes critical judgment completely. It also pretty much destroys the idea that useful or interesting material should be taught, because you can’t test for reflexive obedience until you know whether you can make kids learn, and do, foolish and boring things.
2) The integrating function. This might well be called “the conformity function,” because its intention is to make children as alike as possible. People who conform are predictable, and this is of great use to those who wish to harness and manipulate a large labor force.
3) The diagnostic and directive function. School is meant to determine each student’s proper social role. This is done by logging evidence mathematically and anecdotally on cumulative records. As in “your permanent record.” Yes, you do have one.
4) The differentiating function. Once their social role has been “diagnosed,” children are to be sorted by role and trained only so far as their destination in the social machine merits - and not one step further. So much for making kids their personal best.
5) The selective function. This refers not to human choice at all but to Darwin’s theory of natural selection as applied to what he called “the favored races.” In short, the idea is to help things along by consciously attempting to improve the breeding stock. Schools are meant to tag the unfit - with poor grades, remedial placement, and other punishments - clearly enough that their peers will accept them as inferior and effectively bar them from the reproductive sweepstakes. That’s what all those little humiliations from first grade onward were intended to do: wash the dirt down the drain.
6) The propaedeutic function. The societal system implied by these rules will require an elite group of caretakers. To that end, a small fraction of the kids will quietly be taught how to manage this continuing project, how to watch over and control a population deliberately dumbed down and declawed in order that government might proceed unchallenged and corporations might never want for obedient labor.

And it makes sense to the mindset of that era. Sir Ken Robinson campaigns vigourously for a revolution in the education system, as his talk to the RSA a short while ago attests. In the talk I link to, he says:
It [the education system] was conceived in the intellectual culture of the enlightenment, and in the economic circumstances of the industrial revolution. [ ... ] I believe we have a system of education which is modeled on the interests of industrialism, and in the image of it. [ ... ] We still educate children by batches, we put them through the system by age group. Why is there this assumption that the most important thing kids have in common is how old they are?

Gatto would answer that it serves the interests of industry. Lewis Mumford would point out that the ‘owners’ of the machinery hold the machinery in higher regard than the people it is supposed to serve. Chaplin’s “Modern Times” is replete with imagery conceived and composed in angry reaction to this basic truth.

Buckminster Fuller’s account of a childhood experience demonstrates clearly that mode of thinking (scarcity- and fear-based, mixed with what I think of as paternalistic and patrician pragmatism):
Just before I went to Harvard University in 1913 [ ... ] an “uncle” gave me some counsel. He was a very rich “uncle.”[ ... ] “Young man, I think I must tell you some things that won’t make you very happy. [ ... ] Those few of us who are rich and who really have the figures know that it is worse than one chance in one hundred that you can survive your allotted days in any comfort. It is not you or the other fellow; it is you or one hundred others. [ ... If] you have a family of five and wish to prosper—you’re going to have to do it at the expense of five hundred others. So do it as neatly and cleanly and politely as you know how and as your conscience will allow.”
“Utopia or Oblivion”, pp161-2

If you have the responsibility of keeping things going, if you know for certain there’s not enough to go around, of course you need to control the beast that is The Proletariat. The alternative is anarchy and revolution, a bloody waste of time since the outcome can only ever be the rebuilding of the same system with a different ‘elite’ at the helm.

I see no evil here, only people working with what they have. And that’s what we all do. Only, for various reasons I won’t go into here—apart from to again mention that nothing lasts forever, not even paradigms—we are confronted with the challenge of changing course. Our dying (or dead) paradigm is causing terrible damage to the environments which sustain us, social and ecological, and we need new tools and technologies (I use those words in the broadest possible sense) that were not taught us in a school system designed not only to perpetuate the status quo, but also to prevent critical thinking, as well as retard emotional and political maturity.

At the moment I’m studying to become a teacher (oh, the irony). The coursework has brought me again to my John Holt books. In “Instead of Education”, Holt has this to say:
You cannot have human liberty, and the sense of all persons’ uniqueness, dignity, and worth on which it must rest, if you give to some people the right to tell other people what they must learn or know, or the right to say officially and “objectively” that some people are more able and worthy than others. Let any who want to make such judgments make them privately and in the understanding that such judgments can only be personal and subjective. But do not give them any permanent or official position, or the liberty and dignity of your citizens will soon be gone.

For these reasons and others I often shout that we must self-educate, and support each other in our efforts. This is not an easy undertaking, and of course people will, and must be free to wander different paths. While we are engaged in this stage of our journeys and encouraging others to leave the existing paradigm and join us in creating the new, we must bear in mind that we are like a walking wounded, that self-education is also self-healing; that it must be, in some way, about community, and that we need each other too.

Meanwhile, we need not beat ourselves up about not having a ready plan to kick into gear, that our nerve failed, that our beaten down imaginations are having a hard time seeing light at the end of the tunnel. Nor need we despair (though that is part of growing out of the safety of the devil you know), for we can create, we can think critically, we are intelligent, we can find friends and like minds; wisdom is something we can all develop.

Indeed, there is wisdom everywhere we look. We just need to acquire the imagination to see it.


Debra said...

Some associations...
This morning I took my shower, and washed my hair. We are collecting our shower water to flush the toilet with, and one of the major inconveniences of this is that if there is HAIR in the water, it ends up clogging the toilet evacuation AND THAT IS A BIG DRAG...
So this morning, I grabbed my natural bristle scrubbing brush with a long handle, and pushed it around in the bath water, and it grabbed LOTS OF HAIR that I could not have got otherwise.
And afterwards, I felt very proud and self congratulatory about being able to use my intelligence in this practical problem. The natural bristle brush catches hair. Good job.. I shall continue.
That is a minute, banal and VERY PRIVATE example of how we can be using our intelligence to solve practical problems in a create way IN ORDER TO FEEL INDIVIDUALLY POWERFUL and dissipate... the unpowerful feeling that inevitably accompanies being part of "the masses"...
I run and get my copy of Ivan Illich's "Conviviality", which is a book you would find very interesting, Toby...
Approximate English translation from a book that has been translated into French :
"It is rightly considered that Jan Amos Comenius, a seventeenth century Moravian bishop, pansophist, and teacher, as he called himself, was one of the founders of the modern educational system (school). He was one of the first to propose seven or twelve different degrees of obligatory instruction. In his Magna Didactica, he describes school as an INSTRUMENT to TEACH EVERYTHING TO EVERYBODY (my emphasis...) (omnes, omnia, omnino), and he develops the project of an assembly line of education which diminishes the cost and increases the value of education, in order to permit each and every one to attain the plenitude of humanity."
Continued below...

Debra said...

"Comenius was not only one of the first to theorize mass production, he was also an alchimist who adapted the technical vocabulary of the transmutation of elements to the art of raising children.... the (inevitable, me) failure of alchemy culminated in the failure of industry.
The industrial mode of production was fully rationalized for the first time during the making of a new mode of service (i.e. goods and services) : education.... Education became the quest (like in the Holy Grail, me) of an alchemic process from which would emerge a new type of man, required for the environment fashioned by scientific magic."
The industrialization of scarcity.

That's Ivan Illich for you, Toby. A very encyclopedic thinker.

Debra said...

Oops, encyclopedic AS IN DIDEROT (who I have not yet read, and may never, who knows ?.
Over at Volatility, I have made myself VERY UNPOPULAR by hammering away at that voluntary servitude problem which most utopists addicted to SOCIAL definitions of freedom tend to neglect.
Paternalism "works" because deep down, all human beings have a need to be dependant.
If you attempt to create a society that banishes dependance, well.. IT WILL FAIL.
Dixit me...(and hundreds of others)

Toby said...

Cool stuff, Debbie. Holt and Gatto reference Illich often. I will definitely look into him. Thanks for the quotes. Very interesting.

Foppe said...

This is also the question that Graeber offers a few thoughts on in Revolutions in Reverse, though he doesn't say much about education there. (For a nice book on that, see Paul Goodman's Compulsory Mis-education and the Community of Scholars, btw.)
Anyway, I tried to write a little bit about Revolutions in a blog post of my own, but I'm not really satisfied with the post yet, as it strikes me as rather too dry and pompous/redundant. Still, feel free to have a look through it if you want a quick introduction to some of the things he discusses in the book.

Foppe said...

(With the first 'this', I mean 'failures of the imagination', obviously. Anyway, Goodman's book is really nice too.)

Toby said...

Thanks, Foppe. My reading list overfloweth!

Malagodi said...

Paul Averich's "The Modern School Movement."

worth every penny.

Toby said...

Thanks Stephen. My reading list overflowether!

Fungus FitzJuggler III said...

The Prussians invented the modern school factory to supply good soldiers and workers.

Modern teachers tell parents not to teach children to read before schooling starts!?

We need home schooling and the internet is making that possible.

Childcare will soon be unaffordable and jobs will be fewer .... making home care feasible.

A bonus: armies detest home schooled recruits and usually reject them!

Toby said...

Hi Fungus FJ III,

honoured to have the company of the third of that noble line here at econosophy!

Yes, home schooling is very important. Sadly, here in Germany, if you don't begin as home schooling parents right from the start, you are not allowed to change track later on. Absurd but true. And, as you can probably guess, my wife and I missed that boat. Nevertheless, we 'home school' with all sorts of radical ideas. My teenage daughter is a thorn in her ethics teacher's eye!

Rupert Russell said...

Go Nai Nai.

Farm Gal said...

There are many young people (my teenage son included) who see our public education system for what it truly is. Maybe you have seen the video of this Valedictorian speech:
So encouraging!

Regarding self-education, has anyone here explored ?

Toby said...

That is a great speech, Farm Gal. It brought a couple of tears to my eyes. And that's what's so stupid about this situation, this crippling predicament. The potential humanity has is infinite, and we all (the vast majority of us anyway) want to contribute meaningfully to our communities, be useful. Indeed, it is because we are undervalued by this system that we become lazy and despondent. That cynical apathy many point to as somehow proof human nature isn't up to the task is actually evidence par excellence that we desperately want to be involved! The nihilistic reaction to this mad system is the proof we want a more beautiful world. That girl giving that speech is one sign among thousands that we are waking up. Good stuff.

Thanks, Farm Gal, for the links. The Khan Academy looks wonderful too.

Toby said...

I ought to explain that Rupert is my brother and is referring to his niece. That's her nickname.

Debra said...

You know, Toby, I feel that we must be very very careful with that word "useful".
In French last night, I was looking at the etymology of tool, which in French is "outil", giving "outillage".
That etymology links together "outil", "utilitaire", "utile", which gives "tool", and "useful". A tool is a MEANS towards an end.
That is why... I DO NOT WANT TO BE USEFUL at this time. My feet are firmly planted in the ground, like a stubborn mule's. i do not want to be "a means towards an end".
This weekend, I read through the fourth volume of a 1970's series called "The Death Doctors" (in French). The first "noble intention" of the Nazi regime was to gas the "USELESS mouths" , the mentally ill, deficient, and NON PRODUCTIVE.
As long as we are professing the "useful" creed, well, those REPEAT PERFORMANCES will never really be far away. I am already VERY UNCOMFORTABLE hearing some of the rumblings I am hearing these days...

Toby said...

I don't think it's the word, but the polarity we have in mind when we use it, or rather, the having of such a polarity—along the lines you suggest—in the first place.

And I'm afraid you are useful, because you comment here (and elsewhere) with a view to keeping things grounded. I see that as useful. And I also note that there is no waste in nature. Everything is useful. It's all just a matter of perspective. Even stick-in-the-mud stubbornness has its uses.

Another thing might be to suggest an alternative expression. Any ideas?

Debra said...

Hi Toby,
I am not going to comment over at Golem, which I took a quick peek at.
The place is too big.
But I must say.... I really do believe in austerity at this time. I am practicing it. I think that if we were really intelligent, we would all be practicing it...
It really doesn't bother me that public services will become private. "We" have decided that socialism is not viable, and I definitely agree with that one. For many complex reasons that I have developed over time on this blog, too, and that seem consistent to me. Socialism as in the institutional, impersonal "solutions" to our individual AND collective "problems".
At this time, I do not think that "we" can afford anything that will stimulate any kind of economic growth.
LEARNING HOW TO FEEL RICH WITH LESS is perhaps our greatest challenge. Learning how to not point fingers, scream bloody murder at the idea that somebody else HAS MORE than we do are other challenges.
Think about it... most of the people who are screaming the loudest are ones who currently know little or no hardship. It is.. FEAR that makes them scream more than anything else.
I like challenges. They are stimulating.
I DON'T LIKE WHINING. I did it for a long time, but it's over now...

Toby said...


Indeed, and less is more. What is this 'less,' anyway? Less cars per person? Would that be a problem? Less DVD players, or iPads, etc?

That said I believe in abundance and open access to all for what is both necessary and makes life fun. However, organising that system into life will take generations. Meanwhile, the idea of it is worth discussing and disseminating. Which I try to do, and others work harder at that than me. But abundance and open access brings up the weird public/private split.

I don't think privatised police or armies are a good idea. Nor privatised government. Right now we are not culturally ready for a new system, which blurs public/private or manifests these concepts at a different level. For me the idea of private property as a source of income is already damaging. I would find it far nobler if people were 'rewarded' for their work, not for constantly rewarded for prior 'rewards' for their prior work, or rewarded because of their inheritance. No usury, no rents (rents on the commons to the commons would be good though)! So the entire private/public debate needs a thorough airing. On the other hand I imagine non-compulsory education (which we might call 'private' until another phrase emerges) would be much better than forced state education. But right now the private schools simply have higher paid and better able teachers (perhaps), they are as compulsory, as rigid, as tied to a state curriculum, etc. There's a lot of work to be done here. A LOT!

Health and hospitals? Well, I'd prefer a system which focuses on prevention, on keeping people healthy, to minimize the need for hospitals in the first place. But that would impact GDP 'negatively,' hence is not really a goer in this system. All this austerity versus growht and consumption talk is a damaging red herring until we have a far richer and wiser sense of what wealth and health are, and whence they come. GDP, money, price, these things don't measure societal wealth and health at all. We use them and thereby distort our understanding of where we are at and what the problems are.

As for austerity, I believe in it at my personal level, but not in this climate at the broader level of cutting services. Not until there are better ways of protecting the weak and restoring dignity to those lost and forgotten by the economic juggernaut. I do not believe at all that banks and the IMF and politicians have any right calling for austerity and 'saving.' That makes me very angry. It was financial profligacy, exceptionalism and elitism which got us into this mess. For these institutions to call for austerity while enjoying huge leaps in their own monetary wealth is plain wrong. However, for the rest of us not to work at a viable alternative is wrong too. But both 'sides' of this divide are creatures of habit (we all are), which makes things complex and morally messy. But morality is messy anyway, so that's nothing new.

I give in to whining when I feel my efforts at disseminating ideas towards the new are just pissing in the wind. The sense of pointlessness gets to me and I yield to my baser emotions. I'm not proud of it, but at the same time I'm not all that ashamed of it either. Less whining would be a good thing though. I agree. On that issue less would most definitely be more.

Debra said...

Probably the banks are not the greatest "culprits" in this whole affair, if the system is as organic as I think it is, and as YOU argue here from time to time.
Austerity means less consumption, less production.
It means moving beyond the Enlightenment paradigm.
It is already happening right under our eyes, moreover.
Defining "private" exclusively in relation to PAID FOR BY INDIVIDUALS is once again, idolatry of filthy lucre...

Toby said...

The problem is organic, but growth is a cancer generated systemically by the usury money system. The banks are not arguing for austerity so as to change the money system, they are saying we have to pay our debts (to them) so that we can grow again after a short, painful period of austerity. They don't want change, they want to do anything and everything to save this system, and right now austerity is part of that plan. They were not anti-growth, if you recall, and they want growth back, badly, since that is what backs this system.

Debra said...

The banks can't save the system, Toby.
It has already failed.
We are watching it unravel, but the banks can't save the system. No one can save the system at this time.
That is why it is better to not concentrate on what has been (the system), and rather on the present, how we can best live our daily lives in a meaningful manner.
The system that has failed is NOT ONLY the banking system, and the capitalist dream, Toby. This is what too many people do not understand yet. It is the Enlightenment paradigm which is unraveling under our eyes : an exclusive faith in the capacity of "rational" thought to lead us into the promised land, an unbelievable belief in man's power to TOTALLY CONTROL, predict, and transform his "natural" environment, to fit HIS specifications.
In the end... Midas DIED from not being able to eat and drink because everything he touched turned into gold.
That is the endgame of idolatry of filthy lucre under ANY FORM, gold or credit, or whatever.
"We", in this civilization, forgot this...
As is mentioned so often in the Old Testament. A regular paradigm. Hubris. Business as usual, hubris.
Whether we WANT TO DO IT OR NOT, the slate will be wiped clean. It would (have been.. ?) better if we had managed to WILLINGLY wipe the slate clean (forgiveness), because there is great RELATIVE freedom in our capacity to ACCEPT contingence, but, the slate will be wiped clean anyway.
The unfortunate continuation of the Greek and Christian/Jewish obsession about FREEDOM has taken us to a very uncomfortable place right now.
Freedom will never be synonymous with the abolition of any and all limits...

Toby said...

Well said, Debbie. I agree with every word. And boy, isn't Midas the best poster boy of our times!