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)

Normal Accident Theory