After a recent discussion with some friends about my distaste for traditional methods of schooling, I wanted to write something organized about the threat school can pose to education. Sadly, the best I had time to do was throw together a few scattered thoughts:
-In school we tell students they must learn or face a stiff penalty. Children are great game theorists, so they understand what this means. They know that when we provide an incentive for them, we are doing so because we think they won’t cooperate without that incentive. School teaches students that learning is something that normal people are reluctant to do; after all, why else would everyone need to be forced at grade-point to do it? We are perhaps entitled to be disturbed that so many students view education as a burden. We are not entitled to be surprised.
-Consider what Mister Rogers has to say about education:
Mister Rogers’ basic message is simple: learning is organic. It’s like gardening. Schooling, however, works in an entirely different way. Schooling is not organic; it is mechanical. Schooling treats the mind more like a machine than a garden. Schooling is designed to build a machine to store information and perform tasks, not to cultivate ideas.
-Thinking of education as an organic process does not mean letting children run free and do whatever they want. Cultivation takes effort and structure. Educating children means helping them to learn the kinds of discipline necessary to garden their minds.
-Schooling places the teacher in front of the student, handing down truth from on high. Organic education places the teacher alongside the student. This gives the teacher more dignity, not less. On the organic model, the teacher is much more than a source of information. The teacher is a master gardener of the mind, the student an apprentice.
-You might wonder whether there is anything wrong with the mechanical model of education. “After all,” you might object, “people need jobs. What’s so wrong about giving people the kind of training they need to get employed? Schools create good employees. What’s wrong with that?” This objection is problematic for two reasons. First, it’s not clear that its central assumption—that schooling produces good employees—is true. Schooling creates people who are capable of learning skills, retaining information, and, above all, responding to threats from people with power (or “obeying authority,” as it's usually called). You might think this makes for good employees. A century or two ago, when this model of education developed, that may have been true. In the twenty-first century, however, this kind of employee is becoming obsolete. Most schooling aims to produce the ideal factory worker, not the ideal google employee. Second, we should be concerned with the kind of people we are raising, not just the kind of employees we are producing. Work is not an end in itself. We work for the sake of something else. If we raise people who are able to work and stay alive, but do not have the tools to even begin to grapple with the question of what it is they’re working and living for, we’re missing the point.
-Yes, what I've said here raises more questions than it answers. The fact that this tends to leave us frustrated instead of intrigued is a symptom of the kind of schooling I've been criticizing.