Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Grow our civilisation

“Grow the economy,” “grow my business” – two phrases which have irritated a fair number of people who know the difference between a transitive and an intransitive English verb. I confess I share their displeasure, but what strikes me in this case is not the assault on an overly refined sensibility by one or two English phrases. No, what strikes me is the complete powerlessness of the people who are actually thinking about the English language – their powerlessness to have any impact whatsoever on the development of the language.

Apparently the use of “grow” as a transitive verb combined with objects like “business” and “economy” dates back to a speech by Bill Clinton in 1992. Via the press, the usage became commonplace in the business community. Reviewing the change in the language in 1999 The New York Times Manual of Style included this comment:

“With a direct object, grow sounds natural in references to living things: grow flowers; grow wheat; grow a beard; grow antlers. The newer usage of grow to mean expand (grow the business; grow revenue) is business jargon, best resisted.”

There was no resistance though. The learned were powerless to exert any. Once upon a time the culture had its high priests and it had its teachers, who could uphold a notion of the right way to do things – a notion, however feeble, that could stand in a critical relation to the way things were often done. Thus, culture preserved an idea of what was right and what was wrong, what was good and what was bad.

What are we to say now? Are we to throw our hats in the air and rejoice that the high priests have been defrocked and pushed rudely aside leaving the crowd free to do what it wants without the nasty wagging finger of the critic and the teacher? Is this the sort of liberation that 5,000 years of civilisation have been preparing for – a free-for-all in which anything goes? Or is the sight of the thoughtless leading the unthinking a rather disturbing one?

If we have not yet reached the Promised Land at the End of History, do we not still need a clear idea of what it means to move forward and upward? And will it not inevitably be a smaller or larger minority of more thoughtful people who will formulate, promote and insist upon those ideas of what forward and upward mean? And wouldn’t that minority deserve a certain respect – a certain authority?

The revolt against the high priests of the past was supposed to create a better world, but when that particular revolt becomes a more general refusal of any distinction between right/wrong, good/bad, forwards/backwards, then the barbarian elements are sure to come to the fore and take over (as is now the case). And the most glaring example of barbarism is in the very economy which the American president wanted to grow. Buffett says the markets are all about fear and greed – naked passions liberated from any thoughts about what ought to be done in the world – any thoughts about what is right, about what would help us move forward. Governments tremble now at the thought of what the markets will do. Let us marvel at this great liberation of the individual and of passion from the millennia of priestly repression. Perhaps History has finally arrived at its End. What joy to have arrived at last!

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.

Wednesday, 22 August 2012

Do schools kill curiosity?

A good rule of thumb when debating anything is not to take questions at face value. People ask questions for a reason, and the reason isn't always an innocent wish to fill a gap in their understanding. There might be an ulterior motive.

There is definitely an ulterior motive in a lot of the discussion about curiosity and its death at the hands of teachers. It is clear that at least some of those shouting about curiosity have merely been looking for a stick with which to beat schools - to beat them in the name of the freedom of the individual - the freedom of the individual to pursue his or her curiosity, whatever that might be.

Now schools must do all they can to cultivate curiosity, and they must provide the space for individuals to begin to exercise their freedom, but in run of the mill schools in the West (where teachers have had a child-centred approach for a long time now), that is not where the educational priorities now are.

Suggestion: The world is looking increasingly like a runaway train. Where is it heading? Why are its engines being stoked so frenetically? What's the rush?

A teacher standing outside the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, wondering about the runaway train that we are all now on, sees again the inscription: "Know Thyself." It seems even more imperative now than it was then. Perhaps if people understand themselves and their world a little better, they might see that they can stop the train and get off and do something a little more fulfilling than charging at full speed down tracks that lead God knows where. Perhaps.

Clearly there is no spontaneous inclination to achieve self-knowledge. As teachers it is our job to cultivate an interest in that - to try to make young people curious about the bizarre world that they just take for granted. Let's make the course a matter of learning by discovery as much as possible, and at the same time let's state clearly that this is pre-eminently a job for schools and inspiring teachers, because this is something extremely important that we all ought to be curious about.

For more on the defense of a rather traditional idea of teachers and schools see:The Digital Counter Revolution

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Sex and Education

It is rare to come across a film that crystallises a key pedagogical issue as well as “The Man Who Fell To Earth” (directed by Nicholas Roeg, who was also responsible for “Walkabout”, another favourite amongst pedagogues). The issue shines forth in one line of dialogue – a line I remember vividly while having forgotten every other word spoken during the film.

The background: Thomas Jerome Newton (played by David Bowie) finds himself in 1970s America. He is obviously not at home. Through a series of flashbacks and revelations it becomes clear he is from another planet - a planet stricken by drought – and he needs to find someone to help him build a spaceship to return there.

The scene: Dr Bryce (played by Rip Torn) is the university lecturer with the sort of scientific background Newton is looking for. We first see him in a state of complete debauchery, with a series of clips showing him in the same bed with one young female student after another, all strikingly similar, and each making the same comment about how he bears no resemblance to their father. Then he begins working for Newton and everything changes. Some time later, looking back at the alteration, he says: “And strangely, after that, I gradually began to lose my interest in eighteen-year-olds. I don’t know what happened to me. I’m not sure. But my mind developed a libido of its own.”

“My mind developed a libido of its own.” And is that not what education is all about: arriving at the point where the mind develops a libido of its own?

Clearly this is a film that people like Sugata Mitra need to watch – people who assume that children are born with minds that have libidos of their own. Of course every child expelled from the womb has to make sense of the buzzing, booming confusion of post-natal life, but once a boy has learnt to say: “That’s a cat,” any intellectual curiosity in the whatness of the cat is quickly brushed aside by the pleasure of pulling tails and the other joys of infantile dictatorship.

The mind only develops a libido of its own under certain conditions. Teachers – a species that people like Sugata Mitra want to render extinct – know that they have to work hard to create those conditions. Yet even then, the intellectual libido is a frail thing, like a flickering flame that must be shielded from the winds of the id.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Prof. Sugata Mitra and the Enemies Within

We want to raise a warning to teachers - warning them that in their midst are some very dangerous figures. They are arguing that the practice of teaching should end - that teachers should be made redundant. This is the anti-teacher movement.

Teaching - according to the people in that movement - is a very dubious business - something that smacks of the gulag, or at the very least, that horrible kind of schooling that Pink Floyd sang about - the school as factory, churning out bricks for the walls of the economy. The impulse to teach is the impulse to dictate, to impose, to bring one's pedagogical boot down hard on the innocent face of the child. (I exaggerate, but the implied association of teaching with Fascism is discernable.) Learning is good. Education is good (as long as there is no one at the front of the room), but teaching is bad.

Click to see the rest of the post about Sugata Mitra and the anti-teacher movement.