by lizard

Education is everywhere right now.  The mainstream media (providing a slew of cheap publicity for David Guggenheim’s new documentary Waiting For Superman) has brought to the forefront the “crisis” in education like it’s something new.  Well, it’s not, but for us Americans with crippled attention spans, it’s the flavor of the moment, so yum yum.

A friend of mine recently turned me on to a book first published in 1969:  Teaching As A Subversive Activity, co-written by Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner.  The authors use innovators like Marshal McLuhan (the medium is the message) to launch their critique on conventional teaching methods, and it’s still relevant, probably more so now than it was then because of the degraded state of our education system.

The national debate seems to be leaning toward allowing free marketeers to push their privatized charter school scheme because there is no national priority to fund schools like we fund the war machine.  But nowhere in the debate do we address the fundamental methods of teaching, which must adapt to 21st century tech-brats, and nowhere in the debate do we even consider why our public education system has been eroded and ignored, because that might entail pondering subversive thoughts about who our stupidity and ignorance ultimately serves.

In examining the structure of a conventional classroom setting, the authors state:

“…what students mostly do in class is guess what the teacher wants then to say.  Constantly, they must try to supply “The Right Answer.”  It does not seem to matter if the subject is English or history or science; mostly, students do the same thing.  And since it is indisputably (if not publicly) recognized that the ostensible “content” of such courses is rarely remembered beyond the last quiz, it is safe to say that just about the only learning that occurs in the classrooms is that which is communicated by the structure of the classroom itself.  What are these messages?  Here are a few among many, none of which you will ever find officially listed among the aims of teachers:

Passive acceptance is a more desirable response to ideas than active criticism.

Recall is the highest form of intellectual achievement, and the collection of unrelated “facts” is the goal of education.

The voice of authority is to be trusted and valued more than independent judgement.

There is always a single, unambiguous Right Answer to a question.”

That was written 40 years ago.  I graduated high school in 1997.  And I’m not inclined to say there’s been much progress in how we educate our kids.

Part of the problem we face now is “education” hasn’t kept pace with the megaphone of consumer culture, and the result is this country produces more passive consumers than critical thinkers.

Again, someone is benefiting from the way this system is set up.

So, yes, our education system is in crisis, but that’s old news.  The real tragedy is that innovation has been lurking in the shadows for decades, waiting for a conducive environment in which to flourish.

We are still waiting.

  1. CFS

    Knowing several teachers, both working in the second decade at the job, I’ve formed the opinion that it’s school administrators that hold back the potential of many pupils and the desire of many teachers to teach in unconventional manners.

    There is no bureaucracy more stifling than that found in public schools. Not only do they prevent teachers from innovating, but they also syphon off a lot of school resources. In one eastern Montana school district the administration gobbles about takes up about 40% percent of the budget. And when the new super intendant came in about five years ago he redecorated his office to the tune of $100,000, including a large plasma flat screen so he could watch Griz football.

    I’ve come around in my opine of charter schools. If they can innovate more effective teaching methods and give back control of school policies to the local level we should at least see if they work.

    • I’m going to agree with you. The system we have – and that in and of itself is the problem – fails to embrace innovation. Standardization is the priority. Embracing critical thinking doesn’t even factor into that type of structure.

      Besides that, it fucks with conformity.

  2. “The real tragedy is that innovation has been lurking in the shadows for decades, waiting for a conducive environment in which to flourish.”

    Your prayers have been answered. The favorite protege of Missoula Public School admin, Mr. Hoffman, claims to have forced innumerable preachers to watch his favorite porn videos, and he also claims that they were “developed” for use in public (whoops) schoos. Fruits of his labor, though not publicly released, are everywhere to be seen, but, baby let me tell you, since a lot of students can’t, just how advanced public education in Montana really is.

  3. The Polish Wolf

    Who it benefits, I think, is at the same time not as sinister as you think and more frightening, in its way, than you propose. First of all, I’ve observed classrooms in Germany and Ukraine, but only for a limited amount of time. The general thing that can be said is that European schools, and from what I’ve read Asian schools, are not any more ‘outside the box’ than ours; indeed, they are much more focused on career building and less focused on some kind of ‘well rounded citizen’ – students choose their focus, and they are taught around that, generally very early. Universities are the same way – students take very little in the way of core classes, because they take only courses relevant to their desired careers.

    That said, one thing they are FANTASTIC at is taking tests, because tests are a much more integral part of their lives than they are here. They have to pass tests as early as middle school if they want to get into a good high school. So, it should come as no surprise that they smoke us on test taking – not until the SATs do most American students have to take a long test that has real results.

    But who does this benefit? The European system benefits an economy with relatively little mobility but a large middle class. More generally, a ‘right answer’ oriented classroom benefits the bureaucracy CFS identified. They can check off a list of hoops a student jumped through in a quest to become well rounded, they can get a good stat for getting kids out the door and into college (prepared or not). There is a huge disincentive to do anything not measurable in numbers for the simple reason that no bureaucrat can be recognized for producing a product that cannot be quantified. It is the Iron Cage – all the more frustrating because there is no ‘villain’, and the source of the problem is the same bureaucratic mindset that makes us so efficient at other things.

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