some powerful theoretical influences in this course, and this week’s readings are good examples. Each of the writers challenges (“problematizes”) the comfortable conception I’ve had of my job, as a dutiful public servant, selflessly helping children realize their full potentials. And while I can’t accept all of their conclusions, they are helping me become a more conscientious practitioner and a more skeptical critic of public schools.
David W. Orr’s “What’s an education for?” (from his 1994 Earth in Mind) calls the whole system of schooling into question by showing schools as the dupes of Satan–self-deluding co-conspirators in the destruction of the planet. Instead of making me feel proud to be an educator, Orr made me feel guilty
As a priest in the church of Education, I have had an implicit faith in the value of education. I have preached its value as an economic benefit to students and their parents, and sought to provide students with positive growth experiences. Mr. Orr smashes my idols, and makes me wonder why any decent human would strive to be well-educated, when being so makes you a co-conspirator in the dangerously abstracting, theorizing and de-humanized system that is right now destroying species, eradicating habitat, and oppressing the majority of humans on the earth in a life of material poverty. Education is not of God, but the Devil, when it blithely perpetuates a self-destructive status quo. As Orr (1994) puts it (p. 11), “we are becoming more ignorant of what we need to know to live well and sustainably on the earth.” Orr has me thinking about the extent to which I am preaching the six “myths” of educators. How much do I preach a gospel that shows western culture as “the pinnacle of human civilization?
The educated language that designates the culture of Europe and the USA “western” is a product of colonialism and imperialism, along with the rest of education as we in the USA know it. John Willinsky’s “Out of the Past” (1998) argues that the past is inescapable, and functions as the short hand version for “universal truth” in our culture. And it’s true. I have read from a crooked gospel.
I have not had to think twice about telling my students that we are the inheritors of “western” civilization, which mostly is restricted to men writing in the European cultures north of the Mediterranean and the USA. I don’t even have to tell students this: the mostly white male authors whom they are assigned to unquestioningly read tell them so. The “defaults” of our system are white and male (thus colonial and imperialistic), and our students “get it.” Willinsky’s is therefore a challenge I can happily take up: I can, along with students, “step back and examine how the subject has come to frame the world” (p. 255). Giving students a meta-cognitive activity (“why are we reading so many dead white men?” may also serve to make the schooling process less alienating and mis-educative.
If nothing else, Willinsky reminds me that humans “cannot step beyond the historical coding of the world (Derida),” and that as decent, conscientious humans I need to stay skeptical, and constantly “consider imperialism’s influence on the teaching of history, geography, science, language, and literature.” By surfacing for students not just the knowledge but the way in which the knowledge is biased and partial, I can hope to “change the way this legacy works on us.”
The more moderate tone is taken by Alfie Kohn, whose “What does it mean to be well-educated?” (2003) acknowledges the many shortcomings and blind spots of modern American public education. I especially like the way he critiques the “Bunch 0′ facts” of modern schools, and its sinister purposes: “To emphasize the importance of absorbing a pile of information is to support a larger worldview that sees the primary purpose of education as reproducing our current culture…defining mastery in terms of the number of facts one can recall is well-suited to the task of preserving the status quo.”
But as bad as US schools are, through enlightened reforms aimed at getting kids to be critical thinkers, Kohn points the way forward. I believe that with computers, education can be radically de-schooled and democratized, and an opportunity to be educated can taken by a significantly greater portion of our population than now can. On a positive note, he reminds me that all may not be lost, and my praxis may have resulted in real education: “To be well-educated then,” Kohn answers his question at last, “is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.” In the lives of former students who have gone on to lead what appear to be satisfying lives of continual learning and growth, I see that some of my efforts may have been educative, a comforting thought amid the defensiveness and despair I feel at most of these critical theorists.