20 juillet 2016
Redefining the Value of School
Vintage Books, A Division of Random House, Inc., New York, 1996.
Education is not the same thing as schooling. In fact, not much of our education takes place in school.
Poverty teaches hopelessness. Politics teaches cynicism. Television teaches consumerism. But not always.
Schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.
Most of the questions about schooling are as if we are a nation of technicians, consumed by our expertise in how something should be done, afraid or incapable of thinking about why.
1. The Necessity of Gods
There are two problems to solve in order to conduct the schooling:
a) an engineering problem (the problem of the means – where and when things will be done; how learning is supposed to occur);
b) a metaphysical one (a reason to learn). Not a motivation, but a reason, somwhat abstract, not at all easy to describe. “For school to make sense, the young, their parents, and their teachers must have a god to serve, or, even better, several gods. If they have none, school is pointless.” (p. 5)
There is no surer way to bring an end to schooling than for it to have no end.
The author uses the word narrative as a synonym for god, with a small g.
We need a narrative that tells of origins and envisions a future, a story that construct ideals, prescribes rules of conduct, provides a source of authority, and gives a sense of continuity and purpose.
Our genious as humans lies in our capacity to make meaning through the creation of narratives that give point to our labour, exalt our history, elucidate the present, and give direction to our future.
We can call these narratives: myth, illusions, ideology.
“Without a narrative, life has no meaning. Without meaning, learning has no purpose. Without a purpose, schools are houses of detention, not attention.” (p. 6)
The most comprehensive narratives: the Old Testament, the New Testament, the Koran, the Bhagavad-Gita.
The new narratives: the inductive science (Descartes, Bacon, Galileo, Kepler, Newton).
Some say the science-god gives more control and more power than any other god before it. To the question: How did it all begin?, science answers: Probably by an accident. To the question: How will it all and?, science answers: Probably by an accident. And to many people, the accidental life is not worth living.
The science-god has spawned another: the great narrative of technology. This is a wondrous and energetic story, which, with greater clarity than its father, offers us a vision of paradise.
The first commandment of the god of technology is: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”. This means that those who follow its path must shape their needs and aspirations to the possibilities of technology.
The second commandment: “We are the Technological Species, and therein lies our genius.”
The third commandment: “Our destiny is to replace ourselves with machines, which means that technological ingenuity and human progress are one and the same.”
All gods are imperfect, even dangerous.
Without a god to serve, one may commit suicide. Some prefere drugs, including alcohol. Some choose violence or impenetrable egoism.
A culture without narrative is a barren culture, one that offers no vision of the past or future, no clear voice of authority, no organizing principles. In such a culture, what are schools for?
Once-powerful American narratives:
- the great story of democracy;
- the great melting pot of masses;
- hard work and a disciplined capacity to delay gratification are the surest path toward earning God’s favor.
What makes public schools is not so much that the schools have common goals but that the students have common gods.
The question is not: Does or doesn’t public schooling create a public? The question is: What kind of public does it create? The right answer has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, etc. The right answer depends on two things: the existence of shared narratives and the capacity of such narratives to provide un inspired reason for schooling.
Some Gods that fail
It has not a good centory for gods:
Charles Darwin revealed that we were not children of God, but of monkeys.
Karl Marx tore to shreds the god of Nationalism.
Sigmund Freud bid fair to become the world’s most ferocious god-buster, starting with the great god of Reason. He destroyed also the story of childhood innocence. He argued that our belief in deities was a childish and neurotic illusion.
Einstein led to the idea that we do not see things as they are but as we are.
The god of communism claimed to represent the story of history itself.
The great tale of Hitler was shorter than communism.
The fascism has not yet its final hour.
The America’s answer: “Believe in a market economy”, is not much of a story, not much of an answer.
The civic indifference of many American citizens is connected to the cynicism generated by the crude fabrications of recent American leaders.
The idea that America, through an enlightened foreign policy, may serve as a moral light unto nations was dimmed.
The idea of America as a moral metaphor is not dead, it’s a wounded god.
Skepticism, disillusionment, alienation - are words we use to describe a loss of meaning.
The philosophy of “deconstruction” is the metaphysics of meaningless.
There is a crisis in narrative, the decline of once-sturdy gods. The carnage is visible in the trivial uses to which sacred symbols are now put.
“There was a time when became famous for providing reasons for learning; now they become famous for inventing a method.” (p. 14)
The fundamental simplicity of teaching and learning when both teacher and student share a reason for the entreprise.
The problem of education is metaphysical, not technical. Educators have been entirely indifferent to the metaphysics of schooling.
The god of Economic Utility (an uninspiring set of assumptions that it is hardly noticed as a narrative at all). It is a passionless god, cold and severe. The covenant is: If you will pay attention in school, and score well on tests, and behave yourself, you will be rewarded with a well-paying job when you are done. Consequence: any school activity not designed to further this end is seen as an ornament, a waste of valuable time. According to this god, you are what you do for a living.
There is no evidence that the productivity of a nation’s economy is related to the quality of its schooling.
It is unnatural for children to regard themselves as economic units except under extreme circumstances, and probably not even then.
Many parents are apt to like the idea of school as a primary training ground for future employment, as do many corporative executives.
The god of Economic Utility is impotent to create satisfactory reasons for schooling.
The making of adaptable, curious, open, questioning people has nothing to do with vocational training and everything to do with humanistic and scientific studies.
The god of Economic Utility is coupled with the god of Consumership. Its basic moral axiom is expressed in the slogan: “Whoever dies with the most toys, wins.”
The god of Economic Utility postulates that you are what you do for a living. The god of Consumership that you are what you accumulate.
The young people are exposed to the powerful teachings of the advertising industry. The preeminent advertising industry is television. Between 3-18 years, the commercial television is the single most substantial source of values to which the young are exposed.
The god of Consumership is intimately connected with another great narrative, the god of Technology.
The television messages sent about consumership and technology come largely in the form of religious parables. The god of Consumership has a theology that cannot be taken lightly. Like religious parables, these commercials put forwarda concept of sin, intimations of the way to redemption, and a vision of Heaven. The root cause of evil is technological innocence, a failure to know the particulars of the beneficent accomplishements of industrial progress. The path of redemption requires that one believe the advice given in the commercial and to act upon it.
3. Some new gods that fail
Do you believe in God (with a capital G)? If someone you love were desperately ill and you had to choose between praying to God for his or her recovery or administering and antibiotic (as prescribed by a competent physician), which would you choose?
Nowhere, there is a lot of enthousiasm among the educators for the god of Technology. Some of them believe that the modern information technologies have rendered schools entirely irrelevant, since there is much more information available outside the classroom than inside.
The point of view in every statement about the future relation of learning to technology: The technology is here or will be; we must use it because it is there; we will become the kind of people the technology requires us to be; and, whether we like it or not, we will remake our institutions to accommodate the technology. All of this must happen because it is good for us, but in any case, we have no choice.
The computer and its associated technologies are awesome additions to a culture, and they are quite capable of altering the psychic, let alone the sleeping, habits of our young. Like many other technologies from the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking away.
Schools are not now, and have never been chiefly about getting information to children.
The computer does not solve any problem children have, but exacerbates one. Before the computer, the access to the information was already granted. The new problem is what to do with all the information available during the day, as well as during sleepless night.
What we need to know about cars – aswe need to know about computers, television, and other important technologies – is not how to use them but how they use us.
Alan Kay sad that any problems the schools cannot solve without computers, they cannot solve without them.
The most important things to learn in school: share everything, play fair, don’t hit people, put things back were you fund them, clean up your own mess, wash your hands before you eat. It takes many years of teaching these values in school before they are accepted and internalized. It won’t do for children to learn in isolation. This process is called making civilized people.
It is asserted that the god of Technology will egalize learning opportunities for the rich and the poor. Actually, the technological change always produces winners and losers, so the benefits of new technologies are not distributed equally among the population.
There is another god, the god of Tribalism or Separatism. The multiculturalism is a psychopatic version of cultural pluralism, it is a narrative that makes cultural diversity an exclusive preoccupation. The evil of this religion inheres in white people, especially those of European origin and learning. Goodness inheres in nonwhite. The more melanin, the more good; the less melanin, the more evil.
Narratives are not exactly histories at all, but a special genre of storytelling that uses history to give form to ideals.
This path of multiculturalism not only leads to the privatizing of schooling but to a privatizing of the mind, and it makes the creation of a public mind quite impossible. The theme of schooling would then be divisiveness, not sameness, and would inevitably engender hate.
Gods that may serve
The schools have not and have never been organized to create forceful, inspiring narratives. They collect them, amplify them, distribute them, ennoble them. They sometimes refute them, mock them, or neglect them.
At any given time in the symbolic universe of a community, there dwell multiple narratives – some shining at the forefront, vivid and unmistakable; some in the background, indistinct and half-forgotten; some sleeping, some recently awakened, and many in uneasy contradiction to others.
Our citizens believe in two contradictory reasons for schooling. One is that schools must teach the young to accept the world as it is, with all of their culture's rules, requirements, constraints, and even prejudices. The other is that the young should be taught to be critical thinkers, so that they become men and women of independent mind, distanced from the conventional wisdom of their own time and with strength and skill enough to change what is wrong.
The narratives that underlie our present conception of school do not serve us well and may lead to the end of public schooling - “end” meaning its conversion to privatized schooling or its subordination to individually controlled technologies.
God 1: Spaceship Earth. This idea has the power to bind people. It makes the idea of racism both irrelevant and ridiculous, and it makes clear the interdependence of human beings and their need for solidarity.
This form of global consciousness does not significantly conflict with any traditional religious belief.
God 2: The Fallen Angel. Science is more committed to the story of the fallen angel than any other system of belief. The major theme of the story is that human beings make mistakes. All the time. It’s in our nature. We are also capable of correcting our mistakes, provided we proceed without hubris, pride, or dogmatism. Therein lies the possibility of our redemption.
God 3: The American Experiment.
All children enter school as question marks and leave as periods.
The basic question of the American experiment is: Can a nation be formed, maintained, and preserved on the principle of continous argumentation?
God 4: The Law of Diversity. It is thought in America that the role of schooling is to create a common culture but that we cannot have one unless our citizens share a common core of knowledge.
One of the main purposes of public education is the idea that students must esteem something other than self.
The sameness is the enemy of vitality and creativity. From a practical point of view, we can see this in every field of human activity.
God 5: The Word Weavers / The World Makers. School is notorious for neglecting to mention, let alone study, some of the more important events in human history. We use language to create the world, because language is not only a vehicle of thought, it is also the driver. We go where it leads. Our world is a world of “not-words”. But, unlike all the other creatures on the planet, we have access to it only through the world of words. The world as we imagine is a product of how we describe it. When we form a sentence, we are creating a world. There is an inescapable moral dimension in how to use language. The profligate use of language is not merely a social offense but a threat to the ways in which we have constructed our notions of good and bad, permissible and impermissible.
Part I is the doctrine, Part II is the commentary.
Henry David Thoreau: “Students should not play life, or study it merely, while the community supports them at this expensive game, but earnestly live it from beginning to end. How could youths better learn to live than by at once trying the experiment of living?”
People in distress will sometimes prefer a problem that is familiar to a solution that is not.
A sense of responsibility for the planet is born from a sense of responsibility for one’s own neighborhood.
There is no question that listlessness, ennui, and even violence in school are related to the fact that students have no useful role to play in society.
As things stand now in many places, the energy of the young works in opposition to learning.
The study of archaeology – the crew members of the spaceship Earth need to have non-trivial knowledge of crew members of the past.
The Fallen Angel
There are three characters from literature who are known all over the world: Hamlet, Alice and Sherlock Holmes.
1. We could improve the quality of teaching overnight, as it were, if math teachers were assigned to teach art, art teachers science, science teachers English. Because most teachers, especially high school and college teacher, teach subjects they were good at in school. They found the subject both easy and pleasurable. As a result, they are not likely to understand how the subject appears to those who are not good at it, or don’t care about it.
2. We can improve the quality of teaching and learning by getting rid of all textbooks. Most textbooks are badly written and give the impression that the subject is boring. Most textbooks are impersonally written. Textbooks are concerned with presenting the facts of the case as if there can be no disputing them, as if they are fixed and immutable. Textbooks are enemies of education, instruments for promoting dogmatism and trivial learning.
3. The teacher will ask students to pay careful attention to his/her classes, to note the errors, the mistakes, the untrue statements and the outrageous opinions.
So, the ideas are:
1. To renew a teacher’s sense of the difference between teaching and learning.
2. To eliminate packaged truths from the classroom.
3. To focus student attention on error.
Unfortunately, the story of the school is: You come to school to learn important facts and enduring truths. Your teacher knows many of these, your textbooks still others. It is not your business to know where they came from or how. It would, in any case, be a waste of valuable time to burden you with the mistakes of those who thought they had discovered important facts and enduring truths. School is not a place for documenting error, but for revealing the true state of affairs.
Though we may learn by doing, we learn far more by failing – by trial and error, by making mistakes, correcting them, making more mistakes, correcting them, and so on.
We have to organize the school around this principle: that whatever ideas we have, we are in some sense wrong. Such a school would require a refocusing of the purpose of teaching.
The metaphor of the teacher now: teachers are apt to think of themselves as truth tellers who hope to extend the intelligence of students by revealing to them, or having them discover, incontrovertible truths and enduring ideas.
We need a different metaphor: teachers as errors detectors who hope to extend the intelligence of students by helping them reduce the mistakes in their knowledge and skills.
The study of error has rarely been pursued in a systematic way. The early dialogues of Plato are little else but meditations on error.
Everyone makes errors. The error is reducible. The error is mostly committed with the larynx, tongue, lips, and teeth (embodied in talk).
The ancient Greeks believed that the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric would provide an adequate defense against the seductions of eloquence. These arts of knowledge were assumed to be what may be called “meta-subjects”.
There is nothing that happens among humans that is not instigated, negotiated, clarified, or mystified by language, including our attempts to acquire knowledge.
All subjects are forms of discourse and therefore almost all education is a form of language education. Knowledge of a subject mostly means knowledge of the language of that subject.
All subjects should be taught from an historical perspective – there is no better way to demonstrate that knowledge is not a fixed thing but a continuous struggle to overcome prejudice, authoritarianism and even common sense.
At present, there is very little tolerance for error in the classroom. That is one of the reasons students cheat.
Because we are imperfect souls, our knowledge is imperfect. The history of learning is an adventure in overcoming our errors. There is no sin in being wrong. The sin is in our unwillingness to examine our own beliefs, and in believing that our authorities cannot be wrong.
We need a healthy and creative skepticism.
The American Experiment
Question: It is possible to have a coherent, stable culture that allows the greatest possible freedom of religious and political thought and expression?
Second question: It is possible to have a coherent, stable culture made up of people of different languages, religions, traditions and races?
Third question: It is possible to provide a free public education for all citizens?
Fourth question: It is possible to preserve the best of American traditions and social institutions while allowing uncontrolled technological development?
Some other questions: Do television and computer technology limit or expand opportunities for authentic and substantive freedom of expression? Do new media create a global village, or force people to revert to tribal identities? Do new media make schools obsolete, and create new conceptions of education?
The Law of Diversity
All America’s social problems end up in school. We practically ask teachers to be: priests, psychologists, therapists, political reformers, social workers, sex advisers, or parents.
To promote the understanding of diversity is the opposite of promoting ethnic pride.
There are four expressions of cultural diversity of particular importance, each one as a major subject capable of revealing how difference contributes to increased vitality and to a sense of unity:
a) language – English is the most multicultural language on Earth; if we want to make diversity a central narrative in the schooling of the young, it is necessary for our students to know at least one language other than English fluently;
b) religion – so much of our painting, music, architecture, literature and science are intertwined with religion, it is quite impossible for anyone to claim to be educated without religion; religion may be defined as our attempt to give a total, integrated response to questions about the meaning of existence; there are few better ways to inculcate a sense of tolerance and even affection for difference than to teach about the varieties of religious experience;
Because of the nature of the communications industry, our students have continuous access to the popular arts of their own time—its music, rhetoric, design, literature, architecture. As a consequence, their receptivity to popular forms is well developed and appropriate. But their capacity to respond with educated imaginations to traditional or classical forms of art is severely limited.
Our schools ought to serve as a “counterenvironment”.
The Word Weavers / The World Makers
Everything we know has its origin in questions. Questions, we might say, are the principal intellectual instruments available to human beings. This intellectual instrument is never examined in school.
A metaphor is not an ornament. It is an organ of perception.
Our language habits are at the core of how we imagine the world. And to the degree that we are unaware of how our ways of talking put such ideas in our heads, we are not in full control of our situation. It needs hardly to be said that one of the purposes of an education is to give us greater control of our situation.
We are “time-binders”, we have the ability to transport our experience through time. We can accumulate knowledge from the past and communicate what we know to the future.
Our principal means of accomplishing the binding of time is the symbol.
The naming of things is an abstraction of a very high order and of crucial importance.
The critical point about our mapping of the world through language is that the symbols we use are always at a considerable remove from the reality of the world itself. We must never take them completely for granted.
General semantics: the study of the relationship between the world of words and the the territory we call reality and how, through abstracting and symbolizing, we map the territory.
Of special importance are the ways in which the forms of questions have changed over time and how these forms vary from subject to subject. The idea is for students to learn that the terminology of a question determines the terminology of its answer; that a question cannot be answered unless there are procedures by which reliable answers can be obtained; and that the value of a question is determined not only by the specificity and richness of the answers it produces but also by the quantity and quality of the new questions it raises.
The students should be asked to say what is the basis of “correctness” or “falsehood” in a particular subject.
the rhetoric of knowledge
The knowledge is a form of literature.
Educators confuse the teaching of how to use technology with technology education. The subject is mainly about how television and movies cameras, Xerox machines, and computers reorder our psychic habits, our social relations, our political ideas, and our moral sensibilities. Technology education is a branch of humanities.
Ten principles to study technology education in school:
1) Every technological change is a Faustian bargain: for every advantage there is always a corresponding disadvantage.
2) The advantages and disadvantages of new technologies are never distributed evenly among the population. This means that every new technology benefits some and harms others.
3) Embedded in every technology there is a powerful idea, sometimes two or three powerful ideas. Like language itself, a technology predisposes us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments and to subordinate others. Every technology has a philosophy, which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards.
4) A new technology usually makes war against an old technology. It competes with it for time, attention, money, prestige, and a "worldview."
5) Technological change is not additive; it is ecological. A new technology does not merely add something; it changes everything.
6) Because of the symbolic forms in which information is encoded, different technologies have different intellectual and emotional biases.
7) Because of the accessibility and speed of their information, different technologies have different political biases.
8) Because of their physical form, different technologies have different sensory biases.
9) Because of the conditions in which we attend to them, different technologies have different social biases.
10) Because of their technical and economic structure, different technologies have different content biases.
The purpose of this book is to elaborate narratives that may give nontrivial purposes to schooling, that would contribute a spiritual and serious intellectual dimension to learning.
It seems that schools have outlived their usefulness.
The idea of a public school is irrelevant in the absence of the idea of a public.