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Occupy Your Brain

On Power, Knowledge, and the Re-Occupation of Common Sense

photo by Carol Black

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One of the most profound changes that occurs when modern schooling is introduced into traditional societies around the world is a radical shift in the locus of power and control over learning from children, families, and communities to ever more centralized systems of authority.  While all cultures are different, in many non-modernized societies children enjoy wide latitude to learn by free play, interaction with other children of multiple ages, immersion in nature, and direct participation in adult work and activities.  They may have meaningful responsibilities in the economic life of the family and may be expected to treat elders with respect, but there is often little direct adult control over their individual moment-to-moment movements and choices, and they learn by experience, experimentation, trial and error, by independent observation of nature and human behavior, and through voluntary community sharing of information, story, song, and ritual.  Local elders and community traditions are autonomous and respected as sources of wisdom and practical knowledge, and children are integrated into local livelihoods, knowledge systems, and ethical and spiritual awareness through elegant indigenous pedagogies that have been honed over generations to minimize conflict while effectively transmitting what each child needs to know to be a successfully functioning member of the community.

Once learning is institutionalized under a central authority, both freedom for the individual and respect for the local are radically curtailed.  The child in a classroom generally finds herself in a situation where she may not move, speak, laugh, sing, eat, drink, read, think her own thoughts, or even  use the toilet without explicit permission from an authority figure.  Family and community are sidelined, their knowledge now seen as inferior to the school curriculum.  The teacher has control over the child,  the school district has control over the teacher, the state has control over the district, and increasingly, systems of national standards and funding create national control over states.  In what should be considered a chilling development, there are murmurings of the idea of creating global standards for education – in other words, the creation of a single centralized authority dictating what every child on the planet must learn.

The problem with this scenario should be obvious:  who gets to decide what the world’s children will learn?  Who decides how and when and where they will learn it?  Who controls what’s on the test, or when it will be given, or how its results will be used?  And just as important, who decides what children will not learn?  The hierarchies of educational authority are theoretically justified by the superior “expertise” of those at the top of the institutional pyramid, which qualifies them to dictate these things to the rest of us.  But who gets to choose the experts?  And crucially, who profits from it?


American teacher in the Philippines, c. 1901

In “developed” societies, we are so accustomed to centralized control over learning that it has become functionally invisible to us, and most people accept it as natural, inevitable, and consistent with the principles of freedom and democracy.   We assume that this central authority, because it is associated with something that seems like an unequivocal good – “education” – must itself be fundamentally good, a sort of benevolent dictatorship of the intellect.  We allow remote “experts” to dictate what we must learn, when we must learn it, and how we must learn it.  We grant them the right to test us, to measure the contents of our brains and the value of our skills, and then to brand us in childhood with a set of numeric rankings that have enormous power over our future opportunities to participate in the economic and political life of our society.  We endorse strict legal codes which render this process compulsory, and in a truly Orwellian twist, many of us now view it as a fundamental human right to be legally compelled to learn what a higher authority tells us to learn.

And yet the idea of centrally-controlled education is as problematic as the idea of centrally-controlled media – and for exactly the same reasons.   The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was designed to protect all forms of communication, information-sharing, knowledge, opinion and belief – what the Supreme Court has termed “the sphere of intellect and spirit” – from government control.  Nothing could be more fundamental to the sphere of intellect and spirit than the education of our children, and yet freedom of education was not included in the First Amendment along with freedom of speech, press, and religion, because at the time of the American Revolution the idea of centralized state-controlled schooling was not yet clearly on the horizon.  But by the mid-19th century, with Indians still to conquer and waves of immigrants to assimilate, the temptation to find a way to manage the minds of an increasingly diverse and independent-minded population became too great to resist, and the idea of the Common School was born.  We would keep our freedom of speech and press, but first we would all be well-schooled by those in power.  A deeply democratic idea — the free and equal education of every child — was wedded to a deeply anti-democratic idea — that this education would be controlled from the top down by state-appointed educrats.

The crucial confusion here is between the idea of publicly supported education and the idea of centrally controlled state-administered education.  To really get your hands around this distinction simply replace the word “school” with the word “radio” in the following sentences and see what you get:

I am in favor of publicly supported radio.

I am in favor of centrally-controlled state-administered radio.

Not the same thing, are they?

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Three Cups of Fiction

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On Greg Mortenson, and how our collective fantasy about saving the world with schools goes from romance to comedy to tragedy.

The recent revelation that Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is based on fictionalized accounts of his experiences in Pakistan and Afghanistan, that his charity’s funds were misspent and its books were cooked, and that there was little or no followup or support for many of his schools once they were built – if they were built at all – has drawn a lot of media attention.  But the larger fiction which goes unquestioned is Mortenson’s romanticized portrayal of education as a panacea for all the world’s ills, a silver bullet that in one clean shot can end poverty, terrorism, and the oppression of girls and women around the world.

photo by Jim Hurst

Don’t get me wrong – I would never deny that there are individuals who benefit when money is spent on education, and I would never want to come between those individuals and that money.  If a girl from rural Pakistan wants to go to school and has a knack for academics, she deserves support and I hope she gets it.  But the idea that building schools and getting every kid on the planet inside them is a solution to the problem of global poverty, for example, is a real whopper.

Why?  Well, for starters  –  and everybody knows this –  a huge percentage of the children in those schools will fail.

Greg Mortenson, like everybody else, loves to tell the touching story of the girl from the village who studies hard, passes her school exams, and goes on to become the proverbial doctor-who-will-come-back-to-the-village-and-reduce-infant-mortality.   He raises a lot of money with that story, and a lot of donors go to sleep at night feeling better about the world because they are helping it to happen.  But what Greg doesn’t tell us, and what the donors don’t want to think about, is what happens to all the other children.   The dirty underside of our system is that schools as we know them today are structurally designed to fail a reliable percentage of kids.  Interestingly, they reliably fail a much higher percentage of kids in in low-income areas than they do in affluent areas, and this is true from Detroit to Gilgit-Baltistan.  When we put children from traditional rural areas into school, what we’re doing is transitioning them from a non-cash agricultural economy where nobody gets rich but nobody starves into a hierarchical system of success and failure in which some lives may get “better,” but others will get much, much worse.  Guess which club has more members?  Welcome, boys and girls, to the global economy.

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The Future of Big-Box Schooling

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“I think the way western education has grown over the last few centuries, especially with the rise of industrialization, was basically not to create human beings fully equipped to deal with life and all its problems, independent citizens able to exercise their decisions and live their responsibilities in community, but elements to feed into an industrial production system.”

– Vandana Shiva, “Schooling the World”

“Our schools are, in a sense, factories, in which the raw materials – children – are to be shaped and fashioned into products… The specifications for manufacturing come from the demands of 20th century civilization, and it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

– Ellwood P. Cubberly, Dean, Stanford University School of Education, 1898

For those who haven’t yet seen it, this animation of  a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson makes a good complement to the film Schooling the World.  Robinson is approaching the question of education from a different angle, and with a different set of assumptions about globalization and culture, but the ideas here can begin to illuminate some of the questions and possibilities raised by the film.

The structure of schools as we know them today developed during the rise of the industrial period, and as the quote above from Ellwood P. Cubberly indicates, the resemblances between big-box schools and factories are quite intentional.  People in the 19th and early 20th centuries did not have our sense of political correctness, and they built into the public school system their very conscious intention of  testing, labeling and sorting the population into a modern class system – with a small intellectual elite, a somewhat larger managerial class, and a large laboring class, whose main “education” would be in obedience, punctuality, willingness to respond when a bell rings, and conditioning to the dutiful performance of repetitive and uninspiring tasks.  As John D. Rockefeller’s General Education Board articulated in 1906, “In our dreams, people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.”

The SAT was developed by a man who ardently believed in eugenics, and the pseudo-scientific quality of these tests functioned from the outset to lend an aura of legitimacy to the privilege of the economic elites  – in other words, they created a vehicle for redefining aristocracy as meritocracy.   With a small percentage of exceptions, upper-class children were reliably found to have more academic “aptitude” than lower-class children – a situation which continues today – and the entire testing /grading / sorting function of schools was overtly intended by many to identify superior genetic stock and foster interbreeding among them, while discouraging reproduction among the mentally inferior. Poverty was seen as inevitable, and grading and intelligence testing as a valid mechanism for determining which of our children would be abandoned to it.

While of course we no longer think this way, and teachers working in contemporary schools no longer hold these goals for the children in their charge, the structural features of the system which are designed to perform these functions remain intact, and continue to do considerable harm to children.

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Thanksgiving

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A thought on Thanksgiving:

What would North America be like today if Europeans had tried to learn from Native Americans rather than to conquer and then “teach?”

If the fantasy story taught to American children on Thanksgiving – of the friendly exchange of help and ideas between Native American and European people – had really happened?

If Europeans had come here as what they really were – immigrants – prepared to learn the languages and customs of the local people, to live peacefully among them, and to exchange information, knowledge, and ideas as equals?

What would our forests and rivers and great plains be like today? What would our arts and sciences and music and  literature be like?

What would education be like if that exchange had taken place? If Native American wisdom about children and learning – about the ways of teaching through storytelling rather than direct instruction, through example and experience rather than lecture and text, through immersion in community and nature rather than segregation in a school building, and through personal challenge and transformation rather than confinement and obedience – existed today side by side with European-style schools and universities as options among the commonly accepted ways for young people to learn and grow to adulthood?


Learning from Indigenous Knowledge Systems

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Because of our unconscious assumption of superiority to less technologically advanced societies, it never occurs to most people working in education that traditional cultures embody a wealth of practical information about children and learning.   School as we know it is such a historically young institution – less than a century old – and modern educators are continually baffled by the fact that students don’t learn the things they are intended to learn, programs don’t work the way they are intended to work, new initiatives don’t have the impact they are meant to have.

Indigenous societies base their modes of learning and teaching on thousands of years of experience, observation, trial-and-error, and collective wisdom. The relationships between children and adults often appear effortless, with little or no obvious teaching going on. And yet children reach adulthood with an encyclopedic knowledge of their local ecosystems, spiritual traditions, and sustainable ways of living.

As Padma Sarangapani remarks in her paper, “Indigenising Curriculum: Questions Posed by Baiga Vidya:”

Baiga villages can be regarded as epistemic communities (Holzner, 1968) engaged with the application and the transmission of medicinal knowledge. There is a distribution of this knowledge among various members of the community. In Baghmara village, for instance, virtually all the adults have a fairly extensive knowledge of the trees and plants in the forest, and varying degrees of knowledge about the medicinal properties of various plants. Children, both boys and girls, from the age of about five or six years can identify several of the more common medicinal plants around the village. On a few occasions they mentioned what it was used to treat; typically stomach ailments. By the age of about eight or nine years, the scope of the child’s environment and knowledge both widen quite dramatically. On some of our visits together to the forest, they named over 60 plants with medicinal properties, and many more that bore fruits that could be eaten or were useful. They stopped their list out of consideration for me because I could no longer keep track. The Baigas themselves appear to take their knowledge of the plant life of the forests for granted, although they do recognise that there are a few men in every village whose knowledge is far more extensive and specialised.

As we search for better ways to educate our own children, we should bear in mind that indigenous societies may have practical wisdom that can be of very real use to people in the modernized world.  This is not to say that we should try to transplant another culture’s learning system roots and all into our own lives – as the Dalai Lama says, you don’t need to give up your own culture and dress like a Tibetan in order to benefit from the insights of Buddhism.    But what we can do is take the observations and successes of another society and begin a dialogue within our own, thinking about what elements may be used, adapted, or recombined in organic and creative ways to generate possible solutions to current problems.  The following description of the Baiga mode of learning shows remarkable resemblances to practices currently being used with great success within alternative learning communities in the modern world:

Many of the features of ‘learning vidya’ are anticipated in childhood socialisation.  Perhaps the most important feature is the learner’s autonomy and initiative-taking. This aspect of initiative-taking by the learner is a common feature throughout childhood where the child is almost never coerced into doing anything, but is given ample opportunity to take initiative and participate in ongoing activity. Equally important is the fact that the pace of learning is set by the learner, depending on his own judgement regarding his readiness. In most situations, children could opt out of an ongoing activity at any point when they wished, without fear of any stigma or teasing. The same level of proficiency or interest was not expected of everyone. It was also acceptable that different people would learn to different degrees, and accordingly practice differently. Most learning took place in the course of, or alongside, productive work. Thus the boundaries between work and play, leisure and labour are quite fluid. In the learning environments, whether in the family or among the peer group, there were niches for several levels of proficiency and learning by participating and direct engagement with the task.

If we can let go of thinking that there is one right way to educate children, and fully perceive the value of diversity both of cultural modes of learning and of individual talents, temperaments, and learning styles, it opens up a universe of possibilities for solving the seemingly intractable problems that face our children in the 21st century.

 

Thanks to Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Education and Development for the link to the article by Padma Sarangapani.


Welcome

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“School forcibly snatches away children from a world full of God’s own handiwork …

It is a mere method of discipline which refuses to take into account the individual…

a manufactory for grinding out uniform results. I was not a creation of the schoolmaster:

the Government Board of Education was not consulted when I took birth in the world.”

– Rabindranath Tagore, 1927 Nobel Prize Winner for Poetry


Welcome to the STW blog page.  Check in with us here for updates about screenings, random thoughts about education and culture, links to interesting ideas and people, and whatever else life brings.   Post a comment, share your thoughts, ask a question, suggest a resource.    The purpose of the film is to begin a conversation; please join in.


If you wanted to change a culture in a single generation, how would you do it? You would change the way it educates its children.