Sunday, April 18, 2010

Hard Education in Hard Times

One of the benefits of reading works written in previous centuries is that we might find informative patterns. I do not say that "those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it," because that is a tired phrase. Rather, there are dynamics which are so much repeated that they might easily be mistaken as eternal components of the human condition. Social, political, and economic structures change with time and technology, to be sure, but do they change so much as we think they do? Is it really the case that the year 2010 is a marvelous and impossible dream to the people of 1850? There's not really a meaningful answer to that question, except the remembrance that people remain people, in every time.

Much changes in cultures, and across cultures, with geography and technology and so on, despite some essential similarities, and so it is with a combination of surprise and expectation that Dickens, in his Hard Times, captures so perfectly some of the very issues which are fundamental to us today.

"Utilitarian economists, skeletons of schoolmasters, Commissioners of Fact, genteel and used-up infidels, gabblers of many little dog's-eared creeds, the poor you will have always with you. Cultivate in them, while there is yet time, the utmost graces of the fancies and affections, to adorn their lives so much in need of ornament; or, in the day of your triumph, when romance is utterly driven out of their souls, and they and a bare existence stand face to face, Reality will take a wolfish turn, and make an end of you!" - Charles Dickens, Hard Times, Book II, Chapter VI

Replace "fact" with standards, replace "the poor" with students (or don't, it still reads; but that's a weightier discussion), and you have very much a picture of school. Dickens speaks, in the 1850s, to a commodified education, wherein the learning is bought and paid-for, the purpose being to elevate economically (the purpose of life itself being the same). "Now, what I want is, Facts," begins the book, in the classroom. If education is a commodity, we have to treat it as such, and we can and should only measure that which is measurable about it.

It is a remarkable fact - I say with irony - that economic trouble often is met with a stiffening, rather than a loosening, of the grip of industry on education. As with food, where the most abundant and cheapest of things - namely fruits - are the least prevalent in restaurants and grocery stores exactly because they occur without being manufactured by mechanical intervention, in education we have manufactured long strings of standards and facts to memorize, and accompanied those with an economy of learning disability, fancy hardware, and unstoppable grading programs, all when we might just have easily lived off the land with discussion. A classroom discussion is cheaper, easier to prepare for, and more rewarding than a highly contrived lesson, and yet we use it not, because no one manufactures it.

Dickens does not speak to discussion, per se, in Hard Times, but he may as well. Instead his opposition to fact is fancy, much engendered by the flightful dialogues that take place between children, especially the younger and, therefore, less beaten-down by their acquired identities as "cool kids" or "special needs" or "jocks" or "goths" or what-have-you. Hard are the times, indeed, when learning in school is more about learning how to play your apportioned role than it is about learning how to think.

When has it been otherwise? That's the rub, of course. Never and nowhere, except perhaps in those elite schools for the elite and wealthy members of societies who have, generally, had no interest in promoting the fancies - and, along with imagination, critical thought - of the sordid students of the world. We get locked into cultural morays more easily than we perceive. When was the last time any of us did something that did not correspond with our selected and ascribed identities? Even the rebel is rebel by dint of his society's culture.

I do not incite to action, here, because what action to take is a question far too complicated to begin to answer. That is not to say we ought to ignore the mysteries of how political economy drives education, for good or ill, but rather to say that we ought not allow ourselves to be easily fooled by the statements of "experts" that "studies show" or that "America is falling behind" or that, heaven forbid, we are leaving children behind despite our federal mandate to the contrary. A skeptical eye, I ask, in these deceptively credulous times, wherein we are inclined to believe any evidence that supports our inclinations. A skeptical eye goes a long way not just in education, but in politics broadly, and in philosophy and science and, indeed, life.

Life, indeed. Perhaps it is naive to ask - O me! O Life! - but when did we stop asking such important questions? What, after all, is the meaning of life? Why, after all, are we here? Surely it is not to produce and consume widgets? Surely not to memorize facts? Surely, enough of us stand face to face with a bare existence each day that we ought to demand better.

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