Lefty Parent

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Living & parenting without the rule book

The Education Industrial Complex

October 2nd, 2010 at 10:06

schoolfunding4Not sure who coined the phrase “Education Industrial Complex”, a play off the more famous “Military Industrial Complex” used by President Eisenhower in a 1961 speech. It appears to be
Anthony G. Picciano, who wrote an article in 1994 about the growing role of computer technology in schools…

Behind your perhaps unassuming neighborhood public schools is a true leviathan of money, power, politics and influence that supports (or feeds on, depending on your point of view) the maintenance of a national institution that manages the compulsory twelve years of schooling for some 50 million American kids. An institution that may employ as many as 25 million adults in the school system itself and the plethora of vendors that support it in various ways.

According to education blogger Dave Chandler from his piece “More of the Same: Obama and Schools”

Our ‘education’ establishment is very much about preserving a multi-hundred-billion-dollar spending machine. Corporations make tremendous profit from selling high tech hardware and software to virtually every school district in the nation. Textbook companies and testing companies and education consulting companies and pension investment advising companies and public relations firms and bond dealers… Then there are the politicians who get campaign contributions from the above mentioned special interests and the ‘educrat’ administrators who make hundred thousand dollar a year salaries.

Like any other area where so much money is involved, the effort tends to be torqued towards protecting (if not outright corrupted by) the vested interests that reap a financial reward from maintaining the status quo. In the case of the American public school system, that business as usual seems to have become a perpetual inside-the-box “reform” that involves the development, marketing and mass consumption of the latest textbooks and social-science-based learning programs and an entrenched bureaucratic hierarchy of educational staff above and beyond the actual teachers that interact with the actual students.

I found it thought provoking to read some of the text from Eisenhower’s 1961 speech from the Wikipedia article on the “Military Industrial Complex”…

This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — is felt in every city, every statehouse, every office of the federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we mus not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society. In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist. We must never let the weight of this combination endanger our liberties or democratic processes.

What Eisenhower called out as new in 1961 appears to be replicating in the business of education, for not unlike defense spending, it is difficult for any politician on either side of the political spectrum to oppose ever increasing funding.

I regularly scan the articles featured on-line in Education Week magazine, which I understand to be the most widely read education “industry” publication in the country. Its pieces focus on developing and implementing curricula, training and managing teachers and principals, standardized testing and how to finance it all. Given that all these things are intended to facilitate student success, there seems to be very little in its pages directly about those students.

All this focus on education as big business I think leads to the kind of thinking expressed by Ellwood P. Cubberley, Dean of Stanford’s School of Education and a textbook editor at Houghton Mifflin, in the 1922 edition of his book Public School Administration

“Our schools are … factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned …. And it is the business of the school to build its pupils according to the specifications laid down.”

What I find particularly disturbing as a parent (whose kids spent a number of years in public schools) is that with all this focus on education as a major “industry”, I fear that the development of individual young human beings gets lost in the shuffle of focus on making incremental improvements in standardized testing statistics of large populations of our youth. How does that translate into a unique young soul having an enriched environment to pursue their own development?

My fear is expressed by social critic H.L. Mencken’s words from The American Mercury in 1924…

The aim of public education is not to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence. … Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim … is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardized citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.

As a parent I don’t think we should have to surrender our kids to a huge impersonal system that is more about its financial bottom line, political posturing and testing statistics than providing an enriched environment for our youth to best pursue their own development.

For a continuation of this thread, see my follow-up piece, The Human Pursuit of Learning in the Education Industrial Complex.

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24 Responses to “The Education Industrial Complex”

  1. Luke Brown Says:

    Nice piece, Coop, especially the analogy to the military industrial complex. If one takes Eisenhower’s ’61 speech and replaces ‘military’ with education, there are some eerie parallels. Your inclusion of Cubberly’s quote, identifying children as a “raw product”, shows how little has changed in the past 88 years.

    The education analyst for CNN, Steve Perry, summed it up best a few weeks ago when he said that schools had become a convenience for the adults at the expense of educating children.

    It will take a generation to restore US schools to among or the world’s best – and only if we make it a priority. Finland, ranked #1 worldwide in test scores, took about that long. There has to be a balance between robotic testing and ensuring each student individual learning freedoms. The first step is to model what has proved successful in other countries. Modeling failure – essentially what we’re doing now – obviously doesn’t work.

    Finland had 3 teachers per classroom, a goal which could work in the US. Finland requires teachers to have a masters degree. And, I believe most important, two other criteria: ALL Finnish teachers graduated in the top 10% of their class (47% of US teachers graduated in the bottom 50% of their class) and teachers were paid exceptionally well.

    The US teachers would have to change, too. Removing low performing teachers needs to be far easier and quicker. Tenure would be granted after 5-10 years, not 2 years.

    Students should not be grouped into grades by age, but by ability. A wider variety of classes should be available, especially after 6th grade. Nor should school be mandatory. Those who choose to drop out, however, might have to contribute to society in other ways (volunteerism, military, financial).

    There are many other changes which could be made. More parental involvement would certainly be beneficial. The bottom line is that something so important to our future – our children’s education – needs to be updated and its 18th century roots obliterated. I wonder if our country has the courage, insight, and desire to do so.

  2. Cooper Zale Says:

    First of all Luke… thanks for giving me the inspiration to right this piece and the follow-up one. I second a lot of your thoughts, particularly one about not having school be mandatory, that by itself would be such a profound change, but is a very scary idea to most people, who think if kids aren’t coerced to learn, they won’t.

    The one thing I would add to your list is to allow for profoundly different types of schools, that would be options for kids and their families if the conventional instructional school was not right for them Have say charter schools wlth more holistic curricula and free schools that are completely learner-driven. No “flavor” of school is right for everyone… many paths for many souls.

    Thanks for your comment. I don’t get many on my blog. I get a lot more on the Daily KOS version at http://www.dailykos.com/story/2010/10/10/909312/-My-Schooling-Versus-My-Job-Skills-Provenance

  3. Lee Dittmann Says:

    I found your article, along with others, by googling “Education-Industrial Complex.” I’m disappointed–because I thought I had coined the term myself a few weeks ago in writing a scene for a novel, then find that others have beaten me to it!

    Anyway, I have mixed feelings about how the term is being employed. I read Peterson’s piece before yours, and when he complains about “throwing money at the problem” and talks about state standards subverting teachers responding to community standards, I detect code words favoring right-wing bias against paying teachers a decent wage (with the behavior of many students in some schools, you couldn’t possibly overpay teachers), and the attitude of some local rubes that students shouldn’t be taught no evolution nonsense, nor nothin’ else that contradicts their infallible scripture. These types want indoctrination, not true education: inculcating within students the joy of learning and ways of critical thinking.

    On the other hand, there do seem to be major structural problems with our educational system. But I’m not sure the problem is solved by “removing low performing teachers”–simply because by what standard do you measure such, without succumbing to the same kind of pressure that led to the No Child Left Behind “Teach to the Test” response? If the students don’t perform well, is that because the teacher is bad, or because s/he was stuck with the worst of the students? This is a common reaction of teacher’s unions, and I think it’s a legitimate one.

    Yet, I’m not convinced that the current mantra of “more computers in the classroom” is not an artifact of succumbing to the pressure of said Education-Industrial complex. Computer literacy is important, but I’m not convinced that students need to spend more than an hour or two a day at school using them to gain the skills needed for modern life (and certainly not at the expense of other kinds of skills such as art, music, and shop classes).

    I also reject the idea that everyone should go to college immediately after high school, for I think having real world, earn-your-own-minimum-wage experience is invaluable first, with a good dose of manual labor. Too many young college students waste valuable tuition screwing around when they first begin because they haven’t developed sufficient self-reliance skills. They can learn that by trying to party and hold a job, and learn those consequences with less expense. The idea that parents should pay for their adult kids’ college education seems to me also a part of the complex: How about reducing administrators and making college affordable so that kids can work themselves through college, with no prejudice toward them if they take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree?

    And how about widespread implementation of an idea sure to rock the university establishment: Granting credit for passing exams in subjects that one has learned on their own, even if you never attend a particular university, and paying no more than reasonable examination fees for same? With a detailed syllabus available to anyone in advance, including recommended readings, so that anyone could gain most of their college credits without paying such high fees?

    Footnote: I mentioned at the outset that I thought I had just coined “Education-Industrial Complex.” Double-checking on the draft of my novel, I see that the term I used was directed at higher education, “University-Industrial Complex.” Someone else also thought that one up before me, at least as far back as 1986, in the context of biotechnology industries. Drat.

  4. Cooper Zale Says:

    Again… honoring your extensive comment with a hopefully comparable response…

    I found your article, along with others, by googling “Education-Industrial Complex.” I’m disappointed–because I thought I had coined the term myself a few weeks ago in writing a scene for a novel, then find that others have beaten me to it!

    Ah well… it is too good a phrase to avoid coinage this long!

    Anyway, I have mixed feelings about how the term is being employed. I read Peterson’s piece before yours, and when he complains about “throwing money at the problem” and talks about state standards subverting teachers responding to community standards, I detect code words favoring right-wing bias against paying teachers a decent wage (with the behavior of many students in some schools, you couldn’t possibly overpay teachers), and the attitude of some local rubes that students shouldn’t be taught no evolution nonsense, nor nothin’ else that contradicts their infallible scripture. These types want indoctrination, not true education: inculcating within students the joy of learning and ways of critical thinking.

    I am familiar with some of those code words and don’t know if Peterson is trying to transmit them between the lines. I do find myself siding often with more conservative types in pushing for educational liberty vs being socially engineered by the state. My own kids ended up “homeschooling rather than high schooling” because that state control of their education seemed to be hindering their development. (So is that concern more legit than religious folks not wanting their kids to have a secular education?)

    On the other hand, there do seem to be major structural problems with our educational system. But I’m not sure the problem is solved by “removing low performing teachers”–simply because by what standard do you measure such, without succumbing to the same kind of pressure that led to the No Child Left Behind “Teach to the Test” response? If the students don’t perform well, is that because the teacher is bad, or because s/he was stuck with the worst of the students? This is a common reaction of teacher’s unions, and I think it’s a legitimate one.

    Agreed… the whole area of evaluating teachers needs a lot more thought. It should not be about encouraging all teachers to teach to the test but rather creating an enriched environment where students can learn (and as much as possible on their own initiative).

    The main structural problem I see is that public education is a massive hierarchical institution modeled not-unlike the defunct Soviet Union, rather than a network of locally-focused venues where students can come and pursue their development in an enriched environment with caring adult mentors and teachers as needed. In our school systems, think how many degrees of separation their are between the students, parents and teachers who are directly involved in the developmental process and the real decision-makers up at the state level who are mandating what, where, when, and how students are mandated to learn.

    Yet, I’m not convinced that the current mantra of “more computers in the classroom” is not an artifact of succumbing to the pressure of said Education-Industrial complex. Computer literacy is important, but I’m not convinced that students need to spend more than an hour or two a day at school using them to gain the skills needed for modern life (and certainly not at the expense of other kinds of skills such as art, music, and shop classes).

    Doing the same old drill sheet on a computer rather than hard copy is no step forward, but learning how to use the Internet as a self-directed learning tool is valuable to everyone in my opinion. Just like the printing press in the 16th Century revolutionized European society and facilitated the Protestant Reformation, The Enlightenment and the transition from monarchies to republics, I believe the Internet will revolutionize learning and completely transform the role of the teacher and the education system.

    I also reject the idea that everyone should go to college immediately after high school, for I think having real world, earn-your-own-minimum-wage experience is invaluable first, with a good dose of manual labor. Too many young college students waste valuable tuition screwing around when they first begin because they haven’t developed sufficient self-reliance skills. They can learn that by trying to party and hold a job, and learn those consequences with less expense. The idea that parents should pay for their adult kids’ college education seems to me also a part of the complex: How about reducing administrators and making college affordable so that kids can work themselves through college, with no prejudice toward them if they take more than four years to complete a bachelor’s degree?

    Agreed. I think college is best framed as one of many educational options a person might call on to facilitate their development.

    And how about widespread implementation of an idea sure to rock the university establishment: Granting credit for passing exams in subjects that one has learned on their own, even if you never attend a particular university, and paying no more than reasonable examination fees for same? With a detailed syllabus available to anyone in advance, including recommended readings, so that anyone could gain most of their college credits without paying such high fees

    I think some forward-thinking colleges are starting to do that.

    Footnote: I mentioned at the outset that I thought I had just coined “Education-Industrial Complex.” Double-checking on the draft of my novel, I see that the term I used was directed at higher education, “University-Industrial Complex.” Someone else also thought that one up before me, at least as far back as 1986, in the context of biotechnology industries. Drat.

    Well… keep wordsmithing!

  5. Anthony G. Picciano Says:

    In 1994, I wrote an article (Picciano, A.G. (1994).Technology and the evolving educational-industrial Complex, Computers in the Schools, 11(2), pp. 85 101), describing the emergence of informal networks and alliances centered on the use of technology in K-12 schools. While I have not pushed it, I believe my article is the first documented use of the term.

  6. Cooper Zale Says:

    Anthony… Would you be willing to send me a link to your article? If I write more about the education-industrial complex I would like to be able to site what you have written. It is such an appropriate and powerful framing!

    Cooper Zale
    http://www.leftyparent.com

  7. ali Says:

    This is even more true about phd granting institutions; I wish I had never wasted my life there.

  8. Cooper Zale Says:

    Ali… I would be interested to hear more of your experience and your thoughts!

  9. Peter DeWitt Says:

    Cooper,
    This is my favorite piece by you so far. Thank you for sending me the link today. The issue is that we are now living in a situation others have created for us and it feels like a runaway train.
    Suburban schools are now beginning to see the issues that city schools have seen for years and it’s about time they wake up. I taught in a city school for many years and I am now in a suburband school.
    Thanks for sharing this Coop.

  10. Cooper Zale Says:

    Peter…. your comment made my day! If the things I am calling out are resonating with someone like you (who is in the midst of this big system and still trying to provide a real learning opportunity for kids) it encourages me to keep up my witness and advocacy!

  11. Will Says:

    Nice article. I would think the fix would be the same as fixing the problem with the Military Industrical Complex. At the core of the problem is privitization and corporate influence. That has to go in order to have real honest progress. By the way, one can also see this same trend in the Prison-Industrial-complex or the Healthcare-industrial-complex.

  12. Cooper Zale Says:

    Will… thanks. In many ways the larger corporate community builds its major institutional markets, including with the prison and health care industries as you point out. I actually work in sales operations in the health insurance industry, but for a non-profit health insurance provider.

    The issue is to what extent the influence of big business facilitates or retards the normal development of the particular institution.

  13. Peter DeWitt Says:

    Great post Coop.
    It’s funny because when you and I began corresponding last year I felt like we were on different pages. I was the public school guy and you were the one who was not a fan of public schools. Through our communication back and forth, I realized that we were more similar than different.
    I enjoyed this piece very much and agree that if we are truly going to help individual students we have to get away from our present course. I think public schools have always needed to change but I believe it even more now.
    Thanks for always inspiring me to think differently.

  14. Cooper Zale Says:

    Peter… Thanks again for the thoughts… I checked and I guess I had sent it to you before. I put links at the end of my comments when I think something I’ve written expands on the subject of your piece and/or my comment (plus getting a few more folks hopefully reading my blog).

    In continuing to read your blog I see your position evolving beyond the consensus conventional wisdom around what an education system needs to be to be effective in the 21st century and particularly the whole of “school”, from a place where young people are “taught” (acted upon for their own good) to a place where young people “have resources to learn” (act on their own behalf). Perhaps a subtle distinction to some, but to me, a profound one. I would be curious on your thoughts on this!

    I have to confess that I personally am pretty negative on school as conventionally constituted (instructional rather than holistic or democratic-free), and am a strong proponent for life learning (aka unschooling). I can’t see how, if attendance is mandatory, plus what you do as a learner when you get there is controlled by others, and a significant percentage of kids wouldn’t choose what they are being required to do, that your venue does not take on components of a “velvet incarceration”, and spoil the real pursuit of learning dynamic.

    That said, since I know kids and parents that just love a good instructional school, I move to what I feel is a more effective position of “many paths”, promoting a range of educational options for kids. I think given access to all those choices, at least a percentage of families would choose the more self-directed learning venues, and from eventual successes they would grow in popularity.

  15. Delpha Powell Says:

    Cooper, thank you for writing this.

    When I used that term at my school last year while trying to make sense of the convoluted way we educate (or fail to educate) our children, it was met with a collective sigh and, “Oh, yes, that describes ‘the system’ perfectly.”

    Have been using it ever since and just now decided to Google it as well! I knew I couldn’t have been the only one to see it that way.

    20 years ago, over the protests of my husband and several friends, I pulled our children from the jaws of public education and braved the waters of home education.
    A friend used to say, “But you don’t really home school, because you are never at home!”
    Right. We car schooled, park schooled, museum schooled and back-porch schooled while caring for two grandmothers. We schooled at the riverside and at the humane society, while out camping, and while delivering meals on wheels. We ‘lived’ at the library, volunteered at the children’s museum and took classes in areas we thought might be interesting or fun or necessary for a good education.
    I had no idea what a good education was supposed to look like, but I knew what I didn’t want it to look like for our children.
    20 years ago I promised my husband (who didn’t think we should abandon the ‘sinking ship’) that I would eventually return to public school to do whatever I could do to help. Working 5 years now in the public school system, I wonder if it is even possible to help. Resources of time, money, talent, and good will are being spent on things which keep us from being sued, or create another fundraiser or make us look good on our report card. It seems as though we place a higher value on maintaining ‘a system’ instead of providing the finest possibe education for our children.

  16. Cooper Zale Says:

    Delpha… you’re welcome… glad the piece resonated with you and the term “education industrial complex” is a useful descriptor of a situation that many who are involved in schools maybe understand at some level but do not name. I keep imagining how different public schools could be if they were truly run by the immediate “stakeholders”, the teachers and the students, following a democratic model, the model we supposedly want kids to learn to be effective citizens in our democratic country.

    If you have not read it already I would be interested in my piece “You May Have Missed the Corporate Takeover of Education”, documenting the beginnings of the education industrial complex in the early 20th century. I would be interested on your further thoughts on that.

  17. Doug1943 Says:

    Interesting. I’m a conservative, but have found little in this blog post, and even little in the comments, with which to disagree. (Okay … I don’t think that a school which was ‘run by … the teachers and the students’ — one man, one vote? — would be anything other than a continuous party, unless the students were Asians. I have an image of my six-year old granddaughter deciding what she is to be taught … )

    One thing that I think many people on both Left and Right tend to avoid looking at: demographics.

    Is it not possible that an educational system which works best for children from middle-class homes with an intact family of college-graduate parents, might not be optimal for kids from, say, a Chicago public housing project?

    And in the latter case, the general Leftist case, that the problem lies in ‘society’, not in the school, is, sadly, true. (Of course, leftists generally mean, by ‘society’, “It’s the capitalists’ fault,” which is not true. Would that it were, because then it would be remediable.)

    I live in the UK, and have taught in our equivalent of high schools in both a ‘deprived’ and an ‘affluent’ area [both in mainly-white areas, by the way], and the difference was like that between night and day.

    Nothing — or very little — to do with the quality of the teachers, or any ‘instructional methods’, or difference in material provision. In the school in the ‘deprived’ area, I cannot imagine any change in the educational system that would radically transform the dismal reality: you could triple the school budget, hire only Finnish teachers, teach using only Direct Instruction, or Constructivist, methods (chose your panacea) …. and at best you might lift a small percentage of otherwise-doomed kids onto the path to a decent life. But not more.

  18. Cooper Zale Says:

    Doug… I appreciate your thoughtful and provocative comment, and will try to honor it by attempting to respond in kind!

    I read a discomfort in unmanaged human nature in your initial concern about teachers and students running their schools by the democratic process. Though I don’t share that discomfort I would guess that most people, on both the left and the right, would agree with you there, and believe that people need to be properly disciplined, trained, and demonstrate mastery of that training before they can be allowed to run their own lives and chart the course of their own development. My own life’s experience, some 57 years now as both young person and parent, has given me a more positive take on human capabilities, including that of six-year-olds like your granddaughter.

    I certainly do agree with your point that a school that might work well for one group of people does not necessarily work well for everyone. But I don’t think it is an issue of rich vs poor so much as that every person is a unique soul that is best served by crafting their own unique developmental path. The government (representing the larger community) can’t be expected to look into each one of those unique souls and know what is best for them, and then design one sort of educational venue that will best serve all of them. Despite some of the thinking over the past two centuries of industrial society, I don’t think human beings are interchangeable widgets that can be given a standardized education as if they were. The best that government/community can do is to allow the broadest possible diversity of educational paths so that the young person and their trusted parents and mentors can make the most appropriate choice.

    As a student of history, my take is that the development of human civilization began with hierarchies of control (slaveholders over slaves, lords over serfs, whites over people of color, men over women, privileged over underprivileged) but is inexorable moving towards circles of equals (democracy, partnership, egalitarianism). As a self-described conservative, I would suspect you do not share this view of human development, but I will let you speak for yourself on that. So based on my take on our species’ developmental path, it seems right to me that all our educational institutions should model the circle of equals, democracy rather than a more authoritarian hierarchy of control.

    I would love it if you are up to continuing this conversation. I await your thoughtful response to mine.

    Cooper Zale
    http://www.leftyparent.com

  19. Doug1943 Says:

    Cooper: thank you in return for your civil response. (Obviously, neither of us are mainstream Americans.)

    First, let me say that, contrary to your expectation, I happen to agree with you that the human species is moving towards a more egalitarian and democratic society, albeit along a bumpy and uneven road, with serious setbacks along the way.

    Human nature doesn’t change very much, if by human nature we mean everything that influences how we behave which has a biological substrate. No doubt there is some natural selection going on, but that’s far too slow to explain how, within a few generations, Vikings turn into peaceful Danes, Mayan astronomers become oppressed Guatemalan peasants, Jewish merchants and scholars become commanders of tank columns, and so on. Material circumstances are key, not some inalterable essence of being that is imprinted in the blood.

    I give the credit for the most recent advances to capitalism, of course, and am joined in my appreciation for this system by Karl Marx. No more unrestrained pangyric to the ability of capitalism to undermine oppressive traditional societies exists than will be found in The Communist Manifesto, which should be required [sorry!] reading in all of our schools. (It should then be followed by Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, and his The Better Angels of Our Nature).

    Be that as it may, I think that it would be useful, for cynical skeptics like myself, if you spelled out in a bit more detail how it would be decided, in the sort of schools you envision, what is taught and learned. I suspect that you believe that, in a proper democratic school, children would learn pretty much the same thing that I want them to learn in what you would call an authoritarian school.

    I think you’re now homeschooling your children. This means that you decide what they should learn. No doubt, your methods of teaching and guiding them are subtle and respectful, but I am absolutely certain not just that your children have been taught to read (or would have been had you homeschooled them from the start), but are probably more well-read than average. I’ll bet their vocabulary is larger than is the norm for their age group, too. And that this is down to decisions made, not by them, but by their parents. And quite right too.

    In fact, I suspect that if my grandchildren were turned over to you for their education, I would probably be satisfied with the outcome when they were 18. Yes, they might have picked up some annoying liberal political beliefs that I would disagree with, but that wouldn’t be nearly so important as the fact that I’ll bet they would, to pluck a few educational desiderata at random, know who Napoleon and Cromwell and Caesar and Leonardo da Vinci and Jane Austen and Plato and Winston Churchill were; know what radiocarbon dating is; know that, if not why, planets closer to the sun must move faster than those further out; what atonal music is; have read Lincoln’s Second Inaugral Address; know what the Reformation was; know what a standard deviation is; know what it means to call something a “Noah’s Ark”, and so on.

    I’ll bet they would have the skills to research information on the internet, and to be properly skeptical of it, and to drive, and to negotiate the world of credit cards and bank accounts and so on. (Maybe I’d have to make sure they learned how to use firearms properly, but that’s no big deal.)

    Let me argue it from another direction. The advance towards a more egalitarian and democratic world did not occur, is not occuring, in a vacuum.

    We literally could not have had a liberal democratic society (other than one embracing a small minority of society) 5000 years ago. It took the growth of the forces of production, over many millenia, to get us to where we are today — and that, only in the advanced countries. (Thus the folly of expecting liberal democracies to grow up in backward countries, where illiteracy, poverty and superstition is still rife.)

    And someone who is six years old is in the same situation as an illiterate African or Afghan peasant. They don’t have the intellectual wherewithal to make rational decisions yet. That’s why there is an almost universal human consensus — even among backward peoples, who often have great respect for education — that learning to read and write and do arithmetic is a good thing. It empowers you. So our children don’t get to make a choice about that. And a good thing too.

    Do we really disagree here?

  20. Cooper Zale Says:

    Doug… I think we do disagree in some key ways which makes for the worthwhile discussion!

    But I’m glad to read that you share my take of human society’s transition from hierarchy to circles of equals. I see part of that transition learning to acknowledge the inherent worth and dignity of every person and treat no one as an inferior or superior or as chattel. As that societal transition is reflected in you and I, I imagine we share the belief people of color are not inferior to white people and women are not inferior to men. Our human history is all about moving from various types of “us and them” thinking, including a superior “us” needing to somehow control the inferior “them”.

    Where I may take it a step farther than you is seeing that young people should be brought into that circle of equals thinking, even before they reach the age of majority. Would you agree that they are not chattel, and they are not inferior while their parents are superior? I always note that “child” is a pejorative word in our culture, one used to accuse someone of being irresponsible and erratic.

    From my experience as a young developing person and watching my own kids develop, “children” are neither irresponsible nor erratic. To the extent they are made privy to what’s going on around them they are generally very thoughtful while being cognizant of their limitations. As my mom always used to say (she was an unorthodox egalitarian parent for the 1950s) “Kids will tell you what they need!”

    So when it comes to imagining educational venues for young people, including possibly something described as a “school”, I would say that all learning needs to be initiated by the learner, on their internal time frame and pace. Society should not dictate the learning process, for in doing so they hinder and diminish it. What society can do is facilitate that process by allocating its resources to give young people an enriched environment where they have access to knowledge, opportunities for play and imagination, and access to adult (and older youth) mentors and counselors as needed and requested. IMO, real learning is not something done to someone it is something done by someone at their own initiation. Maybe they initiate to put themselves in a classroom to be instructed on a particular subject or maybe they do not.

    Transitioning from hierarchies of control to circles of equals is all about also transitioning from directive to facilitative leadership. In a circle of equals it is the assumption that everyone speaks for themselves and is an empowered agent of their own behalf. I view young people no differently than adults in this regard. In this thinking do I part company with where you are at?

    My partner Sally and I pulled our kids (now young adults) out of school to let them homeschool during their teen years. They negotiated with us to pursue a more self-directed form of homeschooling known as “unschooling”, as pioneered by radical educator John Holt. They chose how they would spend their time and what knowledge and skills they would pursue. They ended up involved in a myriad of projects that I would have never thought of suggesting but contributed profoundly to their development. Going beyond my mom’s mantra, our kids not only told us what they needed they pursued what they felt they needed to be fully realized human beings.

    So where I think we see things significantly differently, is that I would say our children should make a choice about what they learn and we should trust human nature (unlike John Calvin and all his contemporary disciples) to let them drive their own lives, with our love and suggestions of course, and even our advice when asked.

    Now that I think I’ve clarified where I’m coming from I’m really interested in your further thoughts!

  21. Doug1943 Says:

    Cooper: we clearly disagree about the nature of humans, and maybe about human nature too. To me, the way in which humans have become more equal, is that they have become more equal in formal political rights. But surely you agree that in terms of knowledge and various personal characteristics, there is a huge range of among people. I am not the equal of a Nobel Prize winner in physics, with respect to knowledge about how the physical world works. But I am sure you agree about this.

    What the human future holds, no one knows. I hope that as we understand and gain control of our own biology, we’ll be able to produce future generations where everyone has a plentiful supply of desirable human qualities, such as high IQ and physical robustness. In the meantime, we just have to plug along.

    A possible relevant quote which you may like from, of all people, Leon Trotsky:

    How man enslaved woman, how the exploiter subjected them both, how the toilers have attempted at the price of blood to free themselves from slavery and have only exchanged one chain for another – history tells us much about all this. In essence, it tells us nothing else. But how in reality to free the child, the woman and the human being? For that we have as yet no reliable models. All past historical experience, wholly negative, demands of the toilers at least and first of all an implacable distrust of all privileged and uncontrolled guardians.

    Anyway, let me give you a couple of links to sites with which you are probably already familiar, but if not, in which you will be interested.

    http://www.educationrevolution.org/
    http://www.johntaylorgatto.com/

  22. Wade Says:

    Great comments. I am an educator attending a leadership conference. I listened to a gentleman today by the name of Nicco Mele. He has written a book called The End of Big. Basically, he shared some of his thoughts about the rapid technological changes and the effects on our country and world today. As I thought about how difficult change is in society and in education, my mind drifted as I compared education to the Military Industrial Complex in our country. How many institutions, businesses, jobs rely on education money for their economic existence. I’m in education and can see the difficulty in trying to break away from an education system created essentially in the 1800′s. I have two thoughts for you… First, why not create a new educational model based on technology driven individualized instruction. Take a school system somewhere that’s willing to change and make them your test trial. Then expand from there. Second, let’s have true campaign finance reform. No campaign contributions from big business, corporations, or foreign countries. Contributions should only come from tax paying citizens. People who have a real interest in what’s best for America, not there business bottom line!

  23. Wade Says:

    Oops… their bottom line

  24. Cooper Zale Says:

    The problem with trying to do something different in a public school setting are the damn standards and high-stakes school assessments around those standards. Forces all public schools to be instructional, particularly those in poorer neighborhoods where kids don’t have as much opportunity to be involved in enriched environments and be mentored by adults outside of school.

    But yeah… individualized learning. I’m not a big fan of “instruction”. Sure some instruction is okay if someone comes to you and asks you to explain to them how something works or to share your expertise.

    My own kids “unschooled” after we pulled them out of school in their early teens. A lot of their learning happened thru technology, on the Internet. See my piece “Unschooling Rather Than Highschooling”.

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