Friday, 24 August 2012

Einstein and teaching at its best

Anti-schoolers are very fond of the following quote attributed to Albert Einstein: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything he learned in school." Perhaps Einstein ought to have said: "Education is what remains after one has forgotten everything one was taught." The idea (for the anti-schoolers at least) is that teaching is bad. Teachers, despite their best intentions, do harm. Genuine learning occurs without the interference of teachers – teachers who make the ridiculously arrogant assumption that they have some deeper or higher understanding.

The quotation prompts a question: Let’s say that you have forgotten all that useless information you were forced by teachers to memorise, what remains from all those years spent in the company of teachers? For the anti-schoolers, what remains may be (I guess) a sense of incompetence, of being unable to learn anything without the guidance of the expert – a total loss of intellectual autonomy. Perhaps other things remain as well, but the clear implication is that they are all utterly negative. Is it true, though, that nothing positive could remain?

Let me recall something positive from my own experience – a memory that has helped me to clarify what teaching at its best might be (assuming there could be such a thing as good teaching). I was about ten years old, and our class (at a small run-of-the-mill primary school in Manchester in the UK) had been given some English homework for the weekend. We had to write a story. I spent some time on my own first in my room trying to get the initial ideas for the story. Then I went downstairs to the kitchen, where my father was. He asked me about the story. I began with what I was most sure about: the setting. The story would take place in New York. There was no need to discuss that. It was obvious. All good stories took place in America, and where better to pick than New York? Now my father didn’t exactly attack me either physically or verbally, but it was as if he had taken me by the shoulders and violently shaken me, asking: “Why New York, for heaven’s sake? What do you know about New York? What’s wrong with Manchester – with England?”

It was a shock at the time, but I look back now with gratitude at the act of benevolent interference from a man who was also a teacher. And I look upon it as part of my slow, fitful awakening – an awakening that was my education. Awakened from what? From the slumber of innate and received idiocies. Looking back at the event that sparked it I see an image of what teaching at its best might be. Curiously, there is another Einstein quote to give that image a little spurious authority (a quote that I haven’t seen in the writing of the anti-schoolers – understandable, since it goes completely against the grain of their argument):

"Great spirits have always found violent opposition from mediocrities. The latter cannot understand it when a man does not thoughtlessly submit to hereditary prejudices but honestly and courageously uses his intelligence."

Here Einstein describes a situation in which the prevalent natural tendency – even among people who have not yet been institutionalised by school – is to thoughtlessly perpetuate the dominant prejudices. By contrast, a minority are either born with or quickly acquire a more courageous intellect, and with this they refuse to lend their support to the general tide of thoughtlessness. Their refusal provokes hostility.

Now, if, as people concerned with education, we wanted to promote the idea of an honest and courageous use of the intelligence beyond the minority, we would need to challenge the majority, to find some way to do to them what my father did to me: to shake them up and ask, “Why, why these prejudices? What sense do they make?” How would such a challenge be effected? It would need courageously intelligent people to interfere benevolently in the lives of the young, trying, in the least oppressive way possible, to help them see that there is a different path that they can take. And wouldn’t these courageously intelligent people be teachers of a sort?

The anti-schoolers are right to reject the image of the child as an empty vessel, and to reject the image of a student as someone who must sit down, shut up and learn. But they are wrong if they think that every child springs from the womb ready to honestly and courageously use their intelligence, even if it means suffering the hostility of their peers.

The anti-schoolers are right to point out how deadening the worst kind of schooling can be. But they are wrong in assuming that if children are left to themselves, their naturally courageous intelligence will shine forth in each and every individual, and they will spontaneously form an egalitarian society free from thoughtless prejudice. It would be nice if that were so. In my experience, it is not so. Hierarchy and thoughtless prejudice are rooted all too often in the children themselves. That needs to be challenged. Teaching at its best can provide that kind of challenge.

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