Following up on my piece yesterday that called out the “Education Industrial Complex”, I want to talk more about the impact of this hugely hierarchical and bureaucratic leviathan and its impact on the very personal, naturally self-initiated process of learning. These mega institutions that exercise such control over us rather than facilitating our own initiative (though well intentioned) I see as remnants of an ancient world view of external authority (which I call “Patriarchy”) that I see as an obstacle towards our human development in the direction of a a more evolved “Circle of Equals”.
To set the context again for this follow-up, I want to go back to Dave Chandler’s words that I think capture the essence of this leviathan I am wrestling with, 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.
In a well-meaning effort to ensure that every kid in America can get a quality education (certainly a progressive humanistic goal that I heartedly support) kids are compelled (with the force of truancy laws and social convention) to spend approximately one quarter of their waking hours from age five or six until age seventeen or eighteen in school. That is the reality, perhaps framed by me with a more negative spin than most people usually contextualize our participation in the K-12 education system.
Your response to this framing might be, “Kids should be so lucky!”, and for millions of American kids, their local public schools represent perhaps their only opportunity to escape from a hostile and non-nurturing environment of poverty, danger and irrelevance. Those youth would certainly not be well served if suddenly all our public schools were closed and the millions of adults, who perform their critical service working with our youth as teachers, no longer could offer that service.
But given that, I am a firm believer that learning (and a human being’s education) is essentially an intimately personal process that has to be self-initiated and self-directed to be effective. Others (including teachers, parents and other mentors) can participate in that process when called-upon or otherwise needed by the learner. Think “when the student is ready the teacher will come”.
But it is hard to self-direct ones learning when you are compelled to spend so much time within a huge bureaucratic institution where what you learn, who you learn it from, where you learn it, when you learn it and how you learn it is pretty much mandated by people other than yourself, and to make matters worse, people you have no knowledge of or redress to. That is a hierarchical top-down control model with a vengance, creating an educational environment that is completely out of whack with the natureal process of human learning.
The classic anecdote is the student just getting into their current project, whether writing a poem, looking through a microscope or finally grasping a difficult mathematical concept, when the bell rings and they are forced to move on to the next class instead of following their natural inclination to stick with a compelling learning experience.
Add to this that instead of monitoring the pace and effectiveness of ones own learning, you are constantly judged by the adults around you who continually conduct high-stakes evaluation of your academic output and your behavior as you attempt to produce that output. This is necessary because in a huge bureaucratic institution with top-down control, the people who are responsible for your learning are not your teachers, but someone farther removed. That farther removed person has no opportunity to interact with you as a human being and personally size up your development. Instead they have to rely on an abstract system of numeric evaluation and ranking reducing your human uniqueness into a single number or letter that says nothing directly about you, but merely how their abstract criteria compare you to others.
If the learning process was just about you, or even just about you and your teacher, then all this extensive testing, grading and ranking would be unnecessary.
But in the process of all that high-stakes evaluation, the intimate internal human process of learning gets torqued into an exercise in competition with others, where your own self-evaluation and internal compass is not as important as how you are viewed by others and in comparison to others. Like myself at many points in my own school experience, students can get caught up in seeing education (and maybe life in general) not as a self-directed voyage of discovery and development, but a stressful negotiation of a maze that depends on impressing others towards getting some hidden “cheese” at the other end.
I can remember my own experience in fifth and sixth grade with the SRA reading program. One of those “innovative new programs” sold by a big education vendor to school systems including in the town I grew up in. It included all these short essays in shiny color-coded (by degree of difficulty) pamphlets. I remember getting into doing the program like a trained seal, getting excited when I completed each essay, successfully answered the questions, got my little gold star and eventually transitioned (happy day!) to the next more difficult color. The content of what I read I quickly forgot once I had successfully taken the little quiz at the end. All I wanted was to be one of the cool kids who were already reading the purple pamphlets and not the red ones any more.
So instead of giving me the opportunity to sit down with a good, memorable science-fiction book of my choice and set fire to my imagination, I was instead getting addicted to this fabricated reading program that the Ann Arbor school district probably spent tons of money on which was teaching me to read for the joy of “leveling up” rather than the joy of the content of what I was reading. Again, most likely a well-intentioned program to help kids with their reading skills while bringing a handy profit to the company that created it.
The point here was that the SRA program was not designed to meet my needs as an individual learner, but designed instead to address a market need based on statistical data about student reading skill development. The product was crafted by analysts and technicians that had no idea who I was or what I was interested in learning. I was not the customer whose needs were being satisfied by this learning tool, it was the school district, that could say they had a “state-of-the-art” reading program. By being directed by my teachers to use it, my own inner direction and inherent joy of reading was being compromised.
And think of most teachers’ experience in this huge bureaucracy. They generally have less and less control of the educational process themselves, and instead have ever-increasing administrative and testing functions, plus more and more scripted curricula they need to follow. And the trend is towards evaluating teachers too using the same sort of reductionist criteria, reducing their professionalism to a number that compares them against others. Again, I see this as a result of the degrees of separation between the decision-makers at the state level and the teachers that are impacted by those decisions.
Both the joy of learning and the art of teaching get lost in the shuffle, replaced by mandates on what, when, by whom and how from above. And again, mandates that are mostly well intentioned and are systemic one-sized fits all responses to learning issues discovered by looking at testing statistics for large populations of students.