Potpourri

Four of us total today. This week we took a more informal approach to conversation, first beginning by sharing stories about arguments that had gone sour on Facebook–often ending with one of the parties admitting that he or she had not read the article or viewed the video in the original post. We lamented, as e have done before, that people tend to take honest argument as aggressive or condescending (or both). Granted, sometimes in the presentation of an argument, an arguer is aggressive or condescending (or both), but still sometimes honest argument is wanted, but not received in its intended spirit. These arguments can ruin friendships, or sour family relationships.

It is difficult to remain open to arguments when we hold strong opinions and when whoever is presenting a counterargument lacks authority. Sometimes, even if we lose an argument, we are tempted to hold our ground even so. There is much more at work in argument than argument.

I’m not sure how we transitioned to the next subject, but we began talking about drugs, and how prevalent they are among teenagers, and how easy it would be to do them. We have all had experiences or seen movies or been raised to avoid drugs (usually a combination of these). One’s ability to resist drugs might come down to society and expectations. If we are around someone whom we respect, in a broad sense, who is doing drugs and offers them to us, we might be more tempted than we would if our friends and family were drug-free and the person offering it to us were a stranger. I mentioned Requiem For a Dream and Trainspotting–two films about the ill effects of drug use and addiction, presenting as good arguments as anything else against the use of drugs.

Someone brought up a particular method for understanding political preferences by way of critique–a spectrum from liberalism to conservatism with communism on one end and nazism on the other. The Nazis were National Socialists, so wouldn’t they be closer to the communism/socialism end of the spectrum? We agreed that the X-Y axis method of mapping political preferences was superior to the two-dimensional spectrum.

Similarly to the simplification of politics, history texts and presentations are often watered down. Specifically, we mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. assemblies, which change the core message (“I have a dream” becomes “follow your dreams,” or “I love myself!”).

Somehow or other, we got to talking about religions, mentioning that there are several that compete for the title of “Christian”–i.e., Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.–but that, arguably, are not properly called Christian. The Mormons, for example, have an entire additional sacred text (the Book of Mormon), the most obvious point of difference, in addition to doctrines about the afterlife (do they really believe that you become a God of your own planet, and create “spirit babies”?).

We touched on many topics today but didn’t really get deep into anything. Potential future topics: the underlying biases in public school education, and comparative religion!

Is Education Social Engineering?

The three usual suspects. Today our question was: is education social engineering? We actually answered this question fairly quickly. First, we defined social engineering as any attempt by a person or group in power to manipulate other people and shape society, and then concluded that public education fits the bill. We spoke less argumentatively this session and more sociologically and speculatively.

We observed that there are many implicit (and sometimes explicit) values taught at school, and “caught” from the overall student culture. Cliques and groups are a reality, and so are their power structures–there are leaders and followers within these groups.

Our conversation turned towards discussing the major problems with school in general, other than that it is social engineering. One of the biggest problems we identified is the lack of freedom. Compulsion automatically decreases the student’s interest, investment, and sense of value. This is contrary to one of the goals of school: to impart a cultural ideal or norm to students, namely the academic tradition. Now that I’m thinking of it, this probably comes from one of school’s original purposes which was to develop and encourage a foundation for active and responsible citizenship. We mentioned Thoreau’s “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience,” in which he states that compulsion is contrary to the foundational principles of the United States, and that it discourages personal investment. His examples are of the use of money to purchase goods–it discourages a personal appreciation of that good–but I think by extension we could include education as well.

This led to a broader discussion about government welfare. Is it the government’s place to take the citizen’s money and determine where it goes, even if it is for the general welfare? Ideally, this should be up to the individual citizen. However, that takes a high amount of trust in the individual to spend money responsibly–an ideal that is not often met in reality. People are selfish with money. However, this does not justify the government to take the money and decide where it goes. Additionally, people on welfare seem unappreciative of what they are given, because they don’t have to work for it. It seemed more apropos to us that the government or other charitable agency provide services to people that enabled them to get back on their own feet–drug rehabilitation programs, job training, etc.–rather than handouts such as food stamps that people have come to rely on almost as “givens.”

Returning to our discussion of school, we observed that many teaching strategies are also manipulation tactics. We talked about how students move from one teacher to the next at least once every year (in most school settings), which prevents them from forming lasting attachments to adult teachers/mentors, and seems to teach them that those relationships are not as important as those with their peers. Perhaps this is why students seem apathetic or even resentful (and sometimes downright aggressive) toward teachers once they reach high school. And because the teacher-student relationship is often reduced to classwork and the resulting grades, a heavy emphasis falls on work and achievement. Students take grades and feedback personally. This sort of heavy personal and emotional emphasis on grades stigmatizes failure. But the educational system progresses people to higher levels of new and more difficult skills–and how often does anyone do something right the first time they do it? I argued that failure is normal and inevitable, given the introduction of new and more difficult skills, and that it should therefore be expected and embraced. No amount of pep-talking or proselytizing in class about how improvement is really what matters or how grades are only part of the story will change the emphasis that a grade has when that is what all work comes down to: a printed report card, a GPA, a transcript, a college application. Of those who do not develop a highly emotional attachment to their grades, many go the other direction and become apathetic. We wondered why apathetic students should be compelled to come to school, when they make it difficult for the students who want to be at school and for teachers who want to contribute to the learning of their students. We had all experienced classes with one or a handful of disillusioned students disrupting the educational process, hindering the learning of all students and creating otherwise needless difficulty for the instructor. Is there a better way?

We questioned the arbitrary selection of skills emphasized by schools. Standards seem only to compound this problem. We noted that elementary standards demand skills that children are not ready to perform cognitively. At the high school level, many required classes seem out of step with the career paths that students end up taking, especially technical careers. High school mathematics seem geared towards engineering and scientific professions, and do not emphasize practical skills such as might apply to taxes or insurance. English is focused primarily on literary study rather than career writing, and seems inappropriate for those not going into highly academic professions. Furthermore, the way these studies are taught seems to disconnect them from real life. History, for example, always bored me in school, because I never understood the connections to my own life or what was happening around me. Its presentation was so dry. But now, I love learning about history, especially the philosophical underpinnings of different historical movements and time periods, and understanding how our current thought is influenced by what people long ago thought, wrote, and did. Perhaps in its attempt to be “objective,” school also ends up cutting out aspects of subjects that generate personal interest.

Again, we seemed to see that systematic or institutional education kills a true desire to learn. The emphasis on arbitrary skills, measured by grades, creates a disconnect for the student between what he is learning and how it guides his destiny. He is not assessed on whether he learns the material; he is assessed on how he assesses on the material, and he is not trusted to judge for himself whether he has learned something or not. We seem to take this for granted that this is how education should work, but it seems more obvious that testing only demonstrates how a student performs on a test and often little else. It is only through a leap of faith that we can say that test results quantify actual student knowledge/skills/learning. This is a discussion that seems to be missing from the charter schools debate. People say that charter schools perform poorly. But there are two important points: who are the students who are usually sent to charter schools? The ones that are performing poorly in regular schools? (If so, perhaps that is why charter schools perform more poorly. What is the cause/effect relationship between charter schools and their performance?) Also, how is the performance of charter schools measured? By tests? (Are the students going to charter schools students who don’t test well? Again, what is the cause/effect?)

We discussed radical alternative methods of education, including the School Without Walls. How might it look if students were not, in fact, required to attend school, but rather attended out of their own free will, and directing their own course of study? Teachers would act as facilitators–rather than planning lessons and implementing crowd-management and manipulation tactics, would provide knowledge, insight, and feedback as requested. These sorts of radical changes are slow to materialize because of the massive size of education as an institution. While all of this structure and legislation is well-intentioned, it also hinders changes from taking place–changes that might be radical, but that might also drastically change and improve the state and nature of education.

Our last comments were toward the changing world of post-high school expectations. Many parents still emphasize the importance of college, but the career world may be moving away from that. More and more people are getting a college education, making a college degree a more common commodity, and therefore less of a distinguishing factor on an application or resume. Also, many fields, especially the technical ones, value experience and references just as much if not more than study work. I noted that of all the vastly numerous times I have submitted something for publication, I am asked about my education never, but about any previous publications always. So even in non-technical fields, a track record of experience and previous success may be worth more than any amount of education.

For further reading:

Fortress of Tedium (in part about the School Without Walls) https://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/11/magazine/fortress-of-tedium-what-i-learned-as-a-substitute-teacher.html?_r=0

Normal Accident Theory https://books.google.com/books?id=q6xEAwAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false