Paradigm for the
Age of Recreation
H. Alan Tansson (H. Alan Jackendoff)
Portions of this book have been previously published by the author for
limited distribution and comment. Copyright 2004
The credo of the Age of Recreation is self-actualization: “Expand your world - be all you can be!”
The word ‘school’ derives from a place of ease and amusement, i.e. recreation – a place to nurture growth and continual re-creation of the self to its potential. Ironically, educational reform since the Middle Ages has been trying to allign this ideal with reality – where knowledge has become ossified and teaching divorced from the practical world.
Tansson suggests that we can bring the classroom into harmony with the classical objectives of the liberal arts by adjusting our concept of recreation to include new venues for social participation. By inventing new types of community programs our perception of how education fits into the larger society will shift.
The simple truth is that communities must work in concert with their schools to co-opt the media’s monopoly as the pre-eminent socializing agent of our children.
And how should we invent new community programs? New venues for media and media production are obvious candidates. But Bacon and Eggheads goes beyond this. Tansson sketches his picture of an “Age of Recreation” where life and theatre merge, and reenactment of cultures from throughout the human past provide a cornucopia of possibilities to stimulate economic growth far beyond today’s message of recreation: “Expand your world, buy all you can buy!”
What we currently see as a crisis of education can be dealt with in three strokes:
1) realign the traditional knowledge components of the classroom around actual social contexts - the complex fabric of jobs and dreams and dynamics holding our economy together. This is what Tansson calls “Life Literacy.”
2) Change the core process paradigm of knowledge transfer to one of experience transfer.
3) Focus the long-term goals of system around the support and development of teachers and coaches. For our business and political and scientific leaders of tomorrow must all be qualified as teachers who nurture a desire to learn throughout our communities.
Everything can be carried out simply with a change of perspective – and Tansson provides several hypotheses for just such a paradigm-shift. Drawn from some of the greatest educational philosophers of the past, ancient ideals can meet up with the present - and. new ways to state these ideals will, of themselves bring about an evolution of structures and forms that define education today.
education, educational paradigms, lifelong learning, teaching, learning theory, practice, recreational culture, modern culture, adolescent motivation, oral culture, video documentation, Skills Thesaurus, Foxfire
Target Age Group: college and college graduate
Category: education, humor
“I started reading every sentence with a critical comparison in mind, and threw it down …. When I gave it a second chance and read it for pleasure only, I was suddenly overwhelmed with its scope. I have only read two or three such intellectual tour de forces in my life.” Herman Niebuhr, author of Revitalizing American Learning (1984) and participant in the White House Conference on Productivity.
This book is dedicated to William Howell, who had over forty industrial patents in things as different as truck batteries, silicon ovens, TV tuners, and flash cameras, and showed me what oral tradition was, as he passed on a way of thinking and getting things done in a world full of knuckleheads.
My thanks to Dr. James King, who proof-read the original manuscript like an English teacher, to Christine Restifo, friend of Sheila King, who proof-read the final manuscript, and to Sheila King who on her death-bed made me promise not to give up on the Enlightenment. Most importantly, however, I must thank my partner in life’s literacy, Kay Meadows Conti, who has never stopped supporting me, nor stopped helping me make time to finish this book. Which is to say, this is really our book – for I never would have been the person to pull it together without her holding me together.
This book doesn’t address a classroom full of students on prescription drugs, nor does it provide another prescription for preparing our children for successful careers. The book is about our paradigm of education - the role of education in its broader setting. Secondly, this book does not fully address the current industrial process model of education, for that model is one of the great inventions of the Age of Technology and Scientific Management which built The United States of America into the 20th century’s giant. The world of public school education is a highly complex business which most of us do not understand. I myself have worked in industry for much of my working life, and cannot fathom a quality control system designed to handle so many different raw materials and turn them into a single catalogue of products. Even the Army doesn’t have such a mandate, for its recruits are of a single age-range, it is a school with only one grade to focus on, with a budget to spend hundreds of times more per student than any school system. And so I consider the situation which our public schools face to be utterly mind-boggling.
But who is it that lays down the law to tell these administrations what their job is to be? It is us, the public, the media and the politics, as well as scores of specialist commissions we fund to tell the schools what to do and how to do it.
Our own picture of education is what lays down the law, and this lies within the scope of an “educational paradigm” which is something we can intelligently discuss between two covers. I believe there is something in our current paradigm – the model which we, the voting public maintain - which is holding back our schools and legions of well-meaning and hard-working stiffs from the job they dream of doing.
My original subtitle for this book was “Cracking the Educational Paradigm.” It would seem that this is what we need to do if we are to make our educational system actually work for us. But ‘cracking,’ as in ‘cracking a safe’ has negative connotations of breaking in, and I prefer to picture a chick trying to break out, cracking its snug shell when it is time to leave. It is about time for us to leave the snug confines of our shell, and this is the hope I hold out for this book. That is, to get each of us pecking at the shell.
Sir Francis Bacon, Keeper of the Keys for the King as
Francis Bacon was the author of The Advancement of Learning. This book is said to be the foundation stone of empirical science. In it he lays out the arguments and methology for the advancement of human society through learning. In his utopian story, “The New Atlantis,” he describes a national research program, with specialty institutes governing the different classes of experimental research and categories of knowledge. Even the advancement of learning was relatively controversial in a western world governed by church theory.
But there are many features of today’s world which compare to those at the turn of the 16th century, and so Bacon can be quite symbolic of our situation regarding the educational establishment today. His emphasis on getting back in touch with the realities of our immediate environment as the source of curiosity and new energies for change is paramount. Here I would point to the immediate environment of every child – the world of media and of money – which are passed over in school as if our intimacy with them excluded any need for further understanding.
In the Advancement of Learning there is a famous thought on the workings of our brains, and the “correctness” of their contents. Bacon was a pragmatist. He knew that he himself, and his most sagacious friends would always be subject to certain constraints on knowledge and thinking. He discussed these as confusion of images caused by the limitations of sense perceptoin, yet he included a special case, the most powerful, called “idols.” As with any idolatry, we easily fall to worshipping the wrong things, false ideals we take as God-ordained realities:
“Idols are imposed upon the understanding, either, by the general nature of mankind; the nature of each particular man; or by words, or communicative nature.
The first kind we call idols of the tribe; the second kind, idols of the den; and the third kind, idols of the market. There is also a fourth kind, which we call idols of the theatre, being superinduced by false theories, or philosophies, and the perverted laws of demonstration. This last kind […] may be rejected and laid aside; but the others seize the mind strongly, and cannot be totally eradicated...." from Book IV, Chap.4, para.8, Advancement of Learning, London 1605, by Francis Bacon (Lord Verulam) 1899 Colonial Press edition.
In describing idols of the theatre, Bacon explains what Thomas Kuhn pronounced in the 20th century - that at each stage of scientific advance, we are held back by a dominant paradigm, ‘which may be rejected and laid aside.’.
I have also looked carefully at Bacon’s essay “On Friendship,” and the role in thought which human interaction and story-telling plays.
He compared the process of talking to a friend to walking through a cloth merchant’s warehouse. Here you would see hundreds of interesting and uninteresting patterns filling up the shelves all the walls. That is what our thoughts are like to us. What you think is interesting in your head turns out to be overly confusing and dull when it is unfolded; what looks boring and dull when it’s all folded up inside may, on opening, stun you and your friends with its graceful harmonies of color and form. We just don’t know and can’t tell what we have and who we are unless we open up the cloth of our minds and share with each other. This is what physicists and mathematicians and others at the very forehead of science do all the time. Eggheads talk to other eggheads – but they, of all people, insist that the core process is the absorption of knowledge contained in books.
We need to have someone to talk to in order to inspect the actual design of our own thoughts. It is true, that if we don’t have a friend to talk to, we can try writing our thoughts out – but we are liable to develop intricate justifications for the contours rather than seeing them unfolded as for a friend. Talking to another person forces us to hear our thoughts from a new perspective, reverberating back in our ears. It can be an act of discovery. Education is a social phenomenon.
All of us have an inborn faculty for apprehending body language, pauses, asides, eye contact and facial expressions…. through modelling - our identification with the person delivering the message. This is how oral transmission of experience can sometimes pass along many layers of knowledge – including emotions, beliefs, and interpretive skills. Education is, for most of us, a person-to-person process; which means that the focus of an educational system should be on coaching and teaching rather than on the knowledge being transmitted. Educational philosophers and reformers from Roman times through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance have been saying this – and emphasizing the importance of student differences and the role of good teaching. By the 19th century the practical complexity of the classroom, of learning and teaching methodologies, had raised teaching to a scientific discipline – and yet, throughout this, the focus was on ways to maintain the advantages of person-to-person instruction and guidance within a classroom of buzzing and rambunctious kids.
Which is still our problem.
This brings me to the central topic of the book - our paradigm of education, and the two halves of a broken shell – our idols –pictured on the cover.
Let’s return to the image of a baby chick in its egg. The surrounding iridescence of its assumptions represents its entire world of thought. From the inside, it is overwhelming. But when the food is used up, it has a hunger to break out. How long does it take before the chick pushes at its shell, tentatively pecking at it a few times? Once pecked at, and cracked, how incredibly long and how strenuously would the breaking through seem to take. Then, how quickly does the chick find itself in a new world, and forget about the old understanding of things!
I provide several working hypotheses over the course of this book. One is that we have left the Age of Agriculture and the Age of Industry, and have entered the Age of Recreation. This may or may not be a good thing, depending on how we decide to manage it. Knowledge has been supposedly built into every system and computer-aided tool we use –with a few days or weeks of specialized training being all we need to put whole new technologies to use. Most of us are familiar enough with high-tech to realize that its impacts on knowledge and skill has been to democratize the ability to do things and to look things up, dumbing things down rather than creating the vaunted “knowledge economy.”
Recreation, however, is sold to us in the guise of self-actualization: “Be all you can be!” This is more profound than we are likely to admit. Self-actualization is truly a measure of life skills, which have always been harder to come by than knowledge. Besides, wisdom is more often the by-product of self-actualization than material prosperity…and so the purveyors of self-actualization show prosperous seniors climbing mountains, hand-in-hand in designer clothing, suggesting that wisdom is simple with their latest prescription drugs or the serenity obtained from good insurance.
What is interesting, however, is that if self-actualization within a larger society is to be the dominant metaphor for life-skills, then the industrial process model of schooling becomes very difficult to maintain. Think about it. There are more things than ever to learn, and the breadth of educational concerns grows greater with every advance of technology and every new connection in the global village. But knowledge-transfer methodologies are no longer the central concern.
Rather, if self-actualization is to be the dominant metaphor for life-skills, knowledge must be put to the side, no matter how important it may be. The most appropriate use of classroom time must center around coaching students in appropriate learning techniques – where ‘appropriate’ means something very personal and unique to each of them.
I claim that any type of knowledge can be discussed in terms of a “literacy” – and that specialized knowledge can be both transferred and tested as an applied skill, e.g. as a literacy skill. My motive in this is not to relegate educational subjects to the realm of industrial or military training – a field which I am intimately familiar with – but rather, to make different and specialized fields of knowledge more amenable to oral culture and modern media - in theory.
For the most part, few of us have a very complete model of society – and this is the driving thesis of this book. Specialization has done what John Dewey feared, in Education and Democracy at the beginning of the last century. Children no longer grow up with a microcosm of the larger world in their backyard. In Dewey’s childhood the whole community was part of the process of socialization. He saw this disappearing before World War I, and lived to see it practically vanish from our community life by World War II. Today, life at the local level is impenetrable even for adults. How then, are we expected to develop or even discuss an integral philosophy of socialization?
Socialization is the larger context and purpose on which our entire education system rests…. Yet we naively conceive of this purpose as being to pass along “life skills” to our children. What, indeed, might these life skills be? Driving, keyboarding and mousing are perhaps the most critical skills of the day. Nearly every job uses a standard computer interface for machine controls or administrative service work. Low-skilled jobs have touch-pads and scanners that don’t require any language literacy, and of course forklifts and cherry-pickers only need motor skills. While technology is making basic on-the-job skills more and more homogeneous, the demands of our complex economy is making our jobs more and more specialized. Job placement agencies will always insist you need five years’ experience on each new edition of software to be qualified for any position, yet most business leaders will admit, much of the really specialized knowledge of the workplace can be learned on the job.
So what are the “life skills” we are talking about in school?
Since the Ancient Greeks, there were those who believed that an education system gave society the ability to help perfect its citizenry, developing their character and morals. But of course, school in those days, even to modern times, were not for everyone, but only the aristocracy and leadership. Later, when public schooling was seen as a basic right for everyone, there were Darwinian idealists who conceived of a scientific method, human husbandry resembling the perfection of laboratory plants - in which we might perfect humankind itself. For those of this opinion, our schools should be the factories in which we forward the rational evolution of the species. This may seem a far shot from the schools of today, except that one may detect a subtle bi-polar approach – in which two discussions are in fact being carried out at once: “how to create the best education – providing technological and political skills for the leaders of tomorrow?” The social evolutionism is left intact – given a belief that education is the handmaiden of science. The subtext of all this, however is: “how do we provide minimum education to make everyone else into motivated citizens?”
Both of these place education in its role to support the economy. This is not necessarily an incorrect assumption as the basis for the design of an educational system, but it considers “the economy” as one and the same with “the social good.” This is ludicrous, but unfortunately it is about all we have at the moment.
Political correctness no longer allows us to define ‘the social good’ in moral, albeit religious terms. Even social stability and peace aren’t valued ends in themselves, but as prerequisites for economic stability. Economic indicators, in fact, are the only generally approved way to gauge social welfare, and it is upon these same economic indicators which the happiness of citizens is assumed to be derived.
The educator in us answers, that to base social welfare on economic statistics ignores the sicknesses of wealth, the ennuie and addictions that accompany and even support a stable economy. To focus the ends of education on their support of economic indicators is a patently false objective.
Socialization conceived of simply as the transmission of basic life skills would seem sorely deficient as a guiding principle. There is a simple wrinkle, however, which saves the concept for us. For among the oldest assumptions of educators – nested in their conception of morality and the development of character – was an understanding that most of the traffic of society was un-educated carried out by inappropriate and counter-productive means. You must accept or at least forgive the self-righteousness of the educated, here. Education was intended, in fact, to counter the common life-literacy skills – which included the language and morals of scoundrels, liers, and cheats as the standard used by the rest of mankind. A fruitful education intended to arm the student from innocently accepting the standard coin of the realm. The ends of education were not to take the boy (girls came much later) and simply prepare him for the marketplace – better a common thief or the family’s cook should do that. Rather, education was to give the boy tools to recognize the con and the hoax, to know quality and moral judgment, how to avoid or defuse the swindle and blackmail, to face the moral dilemmas which their uneducated cousins tramped blindly through. Education, in this sense, had always focussed on analyzing the literature of antiquity, developing an intimate familiarity with models of human action and common sense – learning to speak and think in concert with the greatest.
The transmission of life skills, in this sense, goes far beyond any discussion of the skills our children will need to succeed – even if this is not framed within the larger question of how to maintain jobs by helping our country compete in the world economy. If we are to truly discuss the transmission of life skills, it is to know how to recognize hype, false claims, misrepresentation, bureaucratic show… and the list is wonderfully endless… for all of this requires knowledge. The transmission of life skills includes nearly all the old-time knowledge about modern social reality, of history, of natural structures and engineering, of applied mathematics, physical fitness and psychology of art - stuff which educators have been talking about for years. But we would be hard-pressed to derive a syllabus from today’s knowledge-based curriculum which taught life skills as I suggest we define them here.
This book has broken itself down over the years into a number of sections. I have named them, and placed them consecutively, in an effort to define the scope of the book itself. Sections One and Two are entitled “Life Literacy and Education.” The first section covers my use of the word “literacy” to include life literacy, or what I frequently refer to as “socioeconomic literacy,” regarding the ways of the marketplace and a society in which money, production, and consumption play such a dominant role. The second section, entitled “Education” covers both the theory and history of the topic of that name.
The next two sections are titled “New Paradigms in The Age of Recreation.” They provide several hypotheses for us to try out regarding the real role of teachers, how testing might be reconceived, a model showing a much stronger connection between education and the economy than has been suggested to date, and finally, that we have left the Industrial Age to have entered – not the Information Age, but rather The Age of Recreation. Along with this I add several startling discoveries of utopian potential.
The last two sections, “An Action Plan for Cracking the Shell of SocioEconomic Illiteracy”
Almost twenty years ago I wrote the following essay, which slowly became this book. It says almost as much as the rest of this book, and so it is here in the Preface, just in case you want to save time reading the rest.
I should be worried about my gums, but frankly I'm too lazy, and more concerned about the years of plaque gooing the gums of our educational system, which seems much closer to losing its teeth than me.
Every dentist associated with a periodontal surgeon will tell you it is neither scrubbing the teeth or running the water that's important, but working on the gums holding the subjects together. Our schools don't need new toothpaste, more diligent brushing, longer hours, louder water, or electronic dancing toothbrushes with spray nozzles.... But perhaps you believe technology will do the trick.
Let me at the bleeding gums of American schooling and Polemical Pyorrhea of Educational Reform! Our educational system is the last hold-out of socializing our growing kids to a world larger than their TV sets. The world is larger, isn't it?
Kids who know they want to be doctors or newscasters or 4-million-dollar quarterbacks or simple crime-stopping drug-busting policemen know what they have to do in school to get there. Doctors, dancers, concert pianists, olympic athletes have driven a mental sports car through school, but, like driving, they may not see much of what they're passing through. This is not especially the optimum goal of good education.
The way we learn is structured by why we
want to learn - not just by the genetics of growth, and mental root structures,
and natural curiosity. Why we want to
learn is to help us all find our own place in this world - which is what
socialization is. Whether we decide to
get out and be a ranger on
Our teachers, from kindergarten on up must act as integrators of experience, bringing children into a larger corpus of local human society. But do they understand the spiderweb of connections that their subject has to the working world of values and meaning surrounding the child and their families? Our teachers are like us, no better off. We are all about as literate in the socioeconomic fabric of modern existence as the Sudanese herdsman is literate with United Nations’ Development Plan reports on his herds and the statistics concerning the grasses they eat.
But I ask you, between us and the Sudanese herdsman, who is more alienated? I would guess that the Sudanese herdsman can recognize something of what the World Bank paper is talking about…. if it was to be read to him in his particular tribal language. We would probably not understand a paragraph of a Federal Reserve report on the relationship of jobs and home income to interest rates.
Our educational system cannot succeed unless there are visions, values, interests, and a curiosity aroused about the world outside school. And if I am one of the great silent majority of students - my principle vision of the rest of the world is through a video screen, and I will find very little of that world over twelve years of classes to keep me paying attention.
Twenty years later I’ve learned that dentures aren’t all that bad. After hearing all the latest and greatest techniques for saving my teeth, they are about the oldest and simplest fix. So if we are too lazy to do anything drastic about our educational system, even with the overload of ideas I’ve thrown together for a cure – I do believe that some simple fixes (and not necessarily the ones I’ve built this book around) will make themselves obvious to many readers by the end of this book.
You once could list where and how our youth were socialized - the family, the church, the school, the marketplace, the playing field, the factory, the army, and of course, from books and popular magazines of all sorts. The list has stayed the same, except that today, one obtains life literacy first and foremost through the media. This first section of the book explores a number of avenues for life preparation, and the roles which education and training seem to play. There is an underlying motive, however, to see if there is any way for education to compete with a free and uncontrolled media.
I did a short stint at NSA once. NSA in this case stands for the National Security Agency, and not Network Savings Associates. I probably worked there once, too.
From the movies, you would think that NSA is all glossy concrete and chromed steel and barbed wire and secret doors and such. It might be, but they never let me see that much. I went through several security gates and only had a pass good for a couple of corridors, so I stuck to them to get to my job. Otherwise, it was just like any other big corporate industrial site. Except for two things. The first is that there are no phone lists at NSA, and the second is that if you walk down the halls of NSA like Charlie Chaplin you can raise a smile. At a corporate site they take themselves much too seriously.
I was there to design the training for a very high-tech laboratory being installed at the cost of many millions of dollars. Its installation had to be timed perfectly with the manufacture of some secret chips, of which I knew nothing. I was responsible for identifying all the possible human training failures in the process, writing procedures, and insuring that there would be no glitches when the time arrived to make the chips. Many millions of dollars were being spent on this operation. Everything was critical.
I had one trainee. She had been a manufacturing lab apprentice during her junior year of vocational high school the year before. It was part of a nationwide government outreach to education, and she passed the security clearances. Apparently, NSA was a good soldier in those days, and participated in these kind of do-good government programs. Perhaps it still does, but I couldn’t tell you.
Anyway, she was a conscientious worker, and a good learner; so they assigned her to the manufacturing lab full-time, and I gathered she was getting her high school GED diploma on the side. Her local school system considered her a drop-out.
Not that NSA was banking the entire mission on one high school apprentice. There was a chief mechanic and an engineering supervisor, as well as a Navy captain running the program. They had to have training too, for repairs and as redundant labor, should our young worker call in sick.
The apprentice was, indeed, a good
worker. But she was not, by any means
any sharper than hundreds of other factory hands I’ve worked with or
interviewed, or run across over the years.
She was not a Rhodes Scholar, nor a National Merit Scholar, nor did she
even have top-notch SATs. For I believe I asked her about that. She was just a solid worker. Working with very fancy and complicated
equipment, in a very high profile position, with big Navy and Air Force and
Army brass standing next to her in the cafeteria line. Her career path was bright, and since then
I’m sure she has done nothing but improve on her options in life. She may be CEO of a semiconductor facility in
I only mentioned career paths here as a side-issue. My point here is about what it takes to do a job well. That is, how little it actually takes to be proficient and extremely valuable to society. Much less, in fact, than our general hullabaloo about getting a good education makes it out to be.
An emergency medical technician does not have the experience of a doctor. They may join the team as an apprentice in the Rescue Squad, driving the van, while they are taking classes and learning procedures. One procedure at a time, which EMT team members may start asking for help with. Meanwhile, the apprentice is learning all the critical parameters of the job. And emergency response is extremely critical.
When they begin, they are a little more than a candy-striper in a vehicle, handling the litter, keeping checklists of supplies, cleaning the van. As they train, they still haven’t learned what a nurse has to learn for a degree. Nursing is education and training. Emergency technician is just training. Obviously, an EMT is not a doctor ¾and yet, they may be certified in emergency procedures that only certain types of doctors routinely perform. After a time, they may be far more proficient than a doctor in those procedures, in fact.
My trainee at National Security was trained to operate highly technical equipment, and learned the basics of very specific calculations and quality checks. Meanwhile, she learned how to operate¾that is, conduct herself, and think ¾ in a very high pressured technical environment. This is, in fact, the learning that made her most valuable to NSA. This is what prompted them to place her in a critical position, rather than attempt to hire or transfer someone from somewhere else. She was a far safer bet for the entire program’s success, since she was a known quantity. And she had just as much as was required.
What I would like to suggest is that she was literate in a particular working environment which she shared with others having an extremely wide range of skills and education. In this particular job, they could all talk the same language. That is why she was put on the job.
The member of the town rescue squad becomes literate in the world of hospitals, nursing, ER, police and firehouse work. With each of them, they can talk about the mix of speed, attention, and precision, about the communications, the assumptions and errors, the pain and the fatigue which make up these worlds.
The point of this essay is that it is exactly this literacy which can be shared with others, if others want to know, and if others know how to ask.
Knowing how to ask, knowing what to ask, may be a new skill for most of us, however. Learning to extract the core skills¾cognitive skills¾ from a discussion of someone’s job is something we don’t generally know how to do. We tend to confuse the skill with the knowledge of equipment names and procedure numbers and legal requirements. Map-reading is the skill rather than knowing all the locations on the map.
We can be taught how to ask about work environments. Teachers and students can all become, in effect, virtual-apprentices in a number of different worlds. Just as so many of us in the working world find ourselves specialists, or semi-specialists, in a number of different worlds.
Developing a talking literacy in the action environment, and the classes of decisions in as many vocations as possible can create participation and understanding of the dynamic world going on around us. Everybody in a good old-time democracy should be able to see themselves ourselves standing in line with the big brass of this planet, and know what they are actually facing on a day to day basis.
But the real point is, no one likes to feel like an illiterate when it comes to striking up a conversation with someone – and besides talking about sports or films or the weather – there is not much left that people can talk about in common. Most of us feel illiterate in other people’s worlds. Which is a shame.
The essay entitled “The Apprentice” is the opening essay in this book in order to introduce the concept of literacy, in this case, “job literacy.” It is here for several reasons. Firstly, to speak of “literacies” is to speak of speaking itself, and the arts of coherent and compelling speech were among the very first subjects included in the classical education of the Western World, from the Greeks to the days of Francis Bacon. Today, when high-level focus groups of academics and business leaders try to determine “the needs of the coming century,” as they did recently and will continue doing for years to come, they tell us how the working world has evolved both technologically and demographically, and extrapolate this into the workplace of the future. The last such focus group I read about, in 2006, resulted in a call for a “new kind of literacy.” Whether they knew it or not, by choosing the word ‘literacy’ they were essentially agreeing with the ancients on one of the basic goals of education.
throughout the earliest days meant both rhetoric and grammar, where grammar was
the combined skills of reading, transcribing from dictation, and writing. In ancient
To speak of “job-literacy” I must explain my concept of literacy. … with rhetoric , include the ‘con-man’ syndrome AND the fact that most people confuse success in society as proof of socio-economic literacy.
To pass on knowledge is to pass on a literacy of the practical application of action, or in the broadest sense, in the context of activity.
We all know that the oral representation of knowledge and verbal tests of that knowledge are often of equal importance to the individual as the practical application of the knowledge itself. Individuals take great stock in belonging to social groups – often denoted by cultures and subcultures – and a test of belonging is often based on a demonstration of literacy.
We generally use the term “illiterate,” as a pejorative designation of someone who misuses a language. An illiterate is not someone who is deaf and dumb. An illiterate can speak, but they use their words incorrectly. If they are lucky to pick the right words, they have no ability to adjust their use of language to the context, or to use it under the actual circumstances of life. An illiterate can’t recognize situational cues or common cultural references; moreover, when they recognize the cues, they generally respond inappropriately. Illiteracy of this type is often the butt of B-movies and cheap sitcom humor.
Several years after writing the previous essay, I began a proposal for an after-school program of middle school “Media Scouts.” My idea was to train a core group of kids who would begin a process of collecting video interviews around their neighborhood, indexing them to the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, and posting them on their troop’s website. A video manual was to have been created as Troop Number One trained Troop Two, and so on, until we had a self-propagating process to create new troops of kids around the community and the country. I have written all about this and other possible “job literacy” projects in the Action Plan section of this book (“Apprenticeship Launching,” “Media Scouts” and “Skillsthesaurus”), and I sincerely hope this book will help to get the entire process started one of these days.
Yet I had assumed when I wrote this, that a query instrument to uncover different job literacies should not be overly difficult to develop and teach to others. Could I transmit my own job skill - asking people questions about their jobs to others –to twelve and thirteen year olds?
And so I sat down and analyzed the roots of my own curiosity, to see if I could come up with a simple set of questions that anyone could learn to ask. Indeed it took me several months before I came up with an adequate solution. In a flash of creative wit the solution came to me. And while it is not perfected, it provides ready “instrumentation” for an in-depth and fun job analysis, with tools one can find in any dollar store – in fact, two for a buck. A fifty-cent poker deck can be modified in the space of an hour into a query instrument that works with a game of solitaire. I’ve shown it in the two tables below – the first one has the questions that are asked when turning up face-cards and wild-cards. The second table is a list of action verbs which are tied to questions when turning up number cards of the different suites. The purpose of showing these tables is to demonstrate that a fairly complete set of questions about work – much more complete and pertinent than any set of questions you will ever come across in a job interview, can be included in a fairly small package. I also won’t claim that this is categorically complete – but since the importance of a questionnaire is to elicit thoughtful responses, anything outside the two grids will probably make itselves known fairly quickly.
Critical Work Contexts
INFORMATION INPUTS - distinguishing between types of inputs in each context
Things were almost always the same… and this day didn’t seem any different. You have no idea how you realized what was going on,but…
It was clear that several things were about to break loose!
It was clear we were not on the same wavelength!
The tools weren’t doing the job we’d expected.
My senses weren’t working… I really couldn’t see what I was doing.
PRIORITIZATION - ordering of information in the temporal, organizational, personal, or physical contexts.
You should have been two people, or maybe a whole team – somehow you got through that day…
It almost never happened, but that day everything came together at once
The procedures said one thing, and your boss said to do another
You just didn’t have enough hands
DELIBERATION and ACTION TAKEN
It was definitely a risk, because this was really what the job was about…
Something had to be done, and at that moment!
Everyone told you otherwise, but ~
There just weren’t enough resources, and it HAD to be done anyway
You were drained emotionally and physically. It was a tough decision.
QUALITY STANDARDS for each context
It was a critical error that might blow a job. Did it ever happen?
How could you detect it in terms of timing?
What was the hardest to detect in terms of communications with team members?
How could you detect it bad tools, or errors in technology?
What kinds of levels of stress did you have to watch out for?
FAILURE and DEVIATION HANDLING
What did you do when things did go wrong?
Affecting production or delivery schedules, lead-times. Failures due to bad timing
people problems that could or did blow a job, organizational failures
failure due to
Bad tools, technology malfunctions
Failures due to emotions, stress, fatigue, boredom
Joker (or 3-of-a-kind).
When did you realize that [something] no longer got in your way?
production or delivery schedules, tight lead-times, others’ poor timing,.
people problems that could or did blow jobs, organizational head-aches
Tools, technology, materials that were difficult to handle
Job stresses, fatigue, boredom,
Working with Data
Working with People
Working with Things
Working with Yourself
Boredom / Excitement
Inattention / vigilance, care
Stress / Joking
Setting up, precise organizing
Impatience / Patience
Greed / hunger / lust
was sitting down to eat the other night when the phone rang and it was a
pollster asking if I minded answering a few questions about our modern
society. Since the pollster identified
herself as being employed by the local state university, on a project
coordinated under the Kennedy School of Government at
There happened to be a number of questions about trust – about trusting politicians, different ethnic groups, my neighbors, store clerks, etc. All of which got me to thinking – since I tend to be one of those polyannas that trust everyone until they give me a reason not to. I realized that I had found it impossible to answer any of those Harvard questions because I found that I always will place my trust in the individual, but entirely distrust the system within which we are forced to interact. That is, I have worked at nearly every level of job and trust everyone to be continually forced into untenable situations by the system. I have worked in management and management development, in systems development and in quality control of systems development. I have worked in labor and low-level service jobs as well contracted under impossible conditions to write the training manuals for these jobs.
Indeed, in the unstated reality of my culture, I trust the system to be inscrutably screwed-up, and find that I trust everyone to do their best and keep their sanity under the circumstances. This means that I trust everyone to cheat on their obligations to their job about as frequently as they’ve been boxed into untenable and unworkable jobs – by the business hype and ideal goals and behaviors set by management and marketing that do not correspond at all to the actual life on the ground. The world of Dilbert is the system none of us trust.
What is more inscrutible is that we are judged on our ability to make the system work for us. The official game is this: the more you can become part of the system, the more leverage you have on the life around you – because “the system” is everywhere and everything pertaining to society. Your success is measured by your ability to speak society’s language, that is, to use the rules to your benefit and ultimately, to increase your prosperity. It is an unspoken truism that if you are fluent and successful in one field, you can become fluent in another, though you don’t know the first thing about it. Success breeds success.
This is all superficial. It hardly needs to be stated.
But why, then, do so many of us – even those who are doing their utmost to become part of “the system” - believe that learning to outwit, or even cheat the system is OK? Because The System is what Nature was to our ancestors, that’s why. The official game is a war of day to day skirmishes and decade-long campaigns to get the system to work for us in the same way that nature, properly husbanded, works for the farmer. Till the earth and it shall provide. But beware of trusting nature, for it can wipe you out with freezes or a drought, or downpours at harvest-time. The system is just as ruthless – and it takes the utmost in wit, cunning, knowledge and guile to make it work for you. But what is most interesting about this analogy, however, is that while Nature was unpredictable, “the system” is not. At least in theory, one can become part of the system, and manipulate it to one’s benefit.
are satisfied to LEAVE the rest of “the System” as a black box that we don’t
care to open. We are happy with the
assumption that if I can prove my mettle in
Making the system work for you does not require knowing anything about the entire workings of the social economy – you only need know about a single small tile of a massive mozaic, and if you can leverage that tile – you can get the weight of the whole mozaic on your side. Now you are in the picture. Kids can intuit this very early on. It’s part of the American Success Story, and integral to the media’s caricatures of life.
But there is a good bit more that nearly all kids intuit, quite early, about life. First, there is plenty of horror that they don’t want to be part of. There is also plenty of fun they’re not allowed to have, cars they cannot drive, and adult things they don’t care to buy. But there is also that four-letter word that everyone uses, sometimes interjected through an entire discussion - referring to an activity which adults do and children are told they cannot fully comprehend. And it is these last three items, which I call “The Fear, Fun, and 4-Letter Word Factor” which many children consider the sin qua non of any literacy in the language of life. To have them under one’s belt is the real focus of growing up for a very large percentage of kids, and the most of them that education cannot reach or fully prepare for society. To them, life is mastered outside of school.
our first day of vacation and, with nothing better to do in
day of vacation. I’m sitting among
yachts in a bayside harbor resort frequented by
Just the morning before, a few hours before the rodeo, I was sitting in an inner city meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, hearing a tough-looking bald thug in his mid-thirties share the iner turmoil of the fast life on the streets – dealing and stealing, living to party and make his next hit – trying over and over any new way to lessen the pain of coming down, because for years his highs had lost their high and his only obsession in life was to avoid the pain of living without something in his bloodstream.
After the meeting, I mentioned to a fellow my age – a guy I’d seen come off the street homeless several months before – about our plans to drive to the Chesapeake for vacation. He said he knew the area well. He’d begun his career after graduation in the Marines. He’d been among those chosen as the finest of the Nation’s Finest, and assigned to the President’s honor guard. Today, with half his teeth, he is rebuilidng his life as a laborer. He’d lived the good life in his youth, fraternized with many men in the history books. But he went on beyond that, to explore life and make what he could of it on his own. He knows something today he never knew before, and he swears he will not fail himself and his family again. His option is the grave, or worse – prison.
Now there is a connection between this acquaintance of mine and the far different realities of the yacht-owners and cow-punchers. The connection is in the game, and a feeling that there are rules to getting life right. In the case of Alcoholics Anonymous, however, they have seen the game is more than one of becoming part of, manipulating, or bucking the system. For them it is truly a game of learning how to live all over again, from ground up.
That select club of alcoholics is a very important category of game-players, for it cuts across all boundaries in every walk of life – ex-boxers, businessmen, cops, dealers, pimps, schoolteachers, lawyers, musicians, stable owners, prostitutes, government workers, railroad men, homeless, clergy…you may add to the list ad infinitum. There are also consultants and writers, like myself. What is so interesting about this group is that they know, and reaffirm on a daily basis, that there are a set of basic rules about the game of life, outside of which lies emotional chaos, with the likely loss of everything you hold dear, and either death or prison thrown in for the nightcap.
How is it that I go to Alcoholic Anonymous meetings? Simple. Being a social philosopher turning half-a-century old, I thought it might be necessary to go out and try some of that hedonistic existence the advertisements and action films make so much of. I had stuck my nose up at all things crude and pleasurable for so many years, I thought it would be hypocrital to write about a world I did not know first-hand. Thus after several years of tyring to squeeze more life into life than was necessary, never saying no to myself for even the smallest innocent pleasures, I also succeeded in squeezing all the life out of life –obsessed and addicted to all my newest habits. This proved a mixed blessing, for in order to get any productive work done anymore, the best solution was down at my local AA club, where I could get my daily medicine of life experiences first-hand.
What is shared at these meetings? Sure there are tales of every sort of drunken idiocy, depravity, and horror. There are tales of dealing and stealing and sentencing and homeless vagrancy. But most often and most importantly, are tales of the evolution of feelings, the path from social alienation to commitment, the surprizes that come with emotional growth and maturity. “They never taught none of this in school. Of course, if they had, I wouldn’t have listened to it none. I was too busy doing things my way.”
And the connection which this has to education? It will be remembered that for many years ‘education’ was as much to protect the youth as to protect the culture from the many sources of contamination abounding in the vast, seductive, and dangerous world out there. Where education was meant to instill life skills in youth, workplace skills were not the center of attention.
The focus of classical education in the Western world, was on spoken literacy, methods of argument, rules of logic, and a familiarity with the lives of great thinkers and speakers from the past. It was, as I myself hope to argue, to develop students into teachers who could best promote the cultural ideals to the next generation. The final objective in the Trivium (rhetoric, grammar, and logic) was to perpetuate a process of education, rather than ‘graduate’ consecutive generations of students.
It is patently clear why, for well over a thousand years, there were arguments over the relevancy of this kind of education. The subjects worth learning were at the core of social communications, creating a community of learners, and the basis for civic and moral leadership. The argument went that learning to be an orator was to learn to be a teacher and a leader of men.  In the proper study of the trivium (extended to the seven liberal arts), all the known sciences and history of knowledge could be incorporated.
rhetoric and grammar through the lives and the words of great men, classical
schoolrooms helped youth prepare for the dangerous and seductive outside world
as well. For two thousand years, up
until the late renaissance, that world changed little in the ways of life, in
farming, commerce, or industry. To hear
all the old stories was to gather experience relevant to the current
world. The institution of a major new
religion provoked a long controversy about the use of pagan (Roman and Greek)
authors. Even some Christian authors provoked
controversy. To read
I began this book with a premise – that children know very little of the actual workings of their world, and therefore the majority could make little sense of the end purposes of their classroom subjects. But the upshot of this premise was, that the only place that a child learns about the real human factors of life – the mishaps and misadventures, the seductions of “the world out there,” was from the media.
Here is where they learn that to talk about something with the latest lingo, vocal inflections, cynicism or effusiveness is to claim literacy in whatever territory they’re talking about. Here is whree they learn that to handle the latest technologies is the mark of knowing what there is to know – what counts in knowing, that is.
Here is where they learn that to have money is analogous with success, and that success in any endeavor that includes wealth is correlative with social and economic literacy – for indeed, your show of belongings proves you’ve got the economic side of your social effort under control.
And so my premise was incorrect. Anyone who is successful considers themselves to be “socio-economically literate,” even if they are ill-at-ease with any of the economic factors and market variables on which the source of their successful life depends.
Not only this, but anyone who can participate in the small-talk and gossip of any given sub-culture – such as that of the rodeo or the yacht-club, can be happily confirmed in their own life-skills by simply participating in this self-contained universe of choice. Notice that to simply participate in a self-contained and self-centered world, not necessarily to excel in it, is the objective. This is the first objective and often the long-term goal of proving one’s life literacy skills. To speak to, and be shown respectful response by, other respected members of your chosen world is the challenge of all your opening moves in the participation game. After that, making moves that elicit predictable responses is the first acknowledgement that you’re in control of your game.
Awakening to the sound of seagulls and boat engines through a light fog, I notice a 150 foot behemoth pulled into the harbor last night, her white steel towering over the white fibreglas bathtubs knitted into the docks around her. I can only imagine what the owners do for a living. Whatever it is, as any of these yachts testify, they are clearly “educated” in the most practical sense of their game, whether highly-paid think-tank consultants or mob bosses. A tall straight mast moves silently behind her and the talk of a skipper and his deckhand wife sing out a laughing duet with the gulls. You can get to thinking all is right with the world pretty quick, and that this is just how things should be in this here land. Tranquility and ease.
And so we are led back to the educational crisis in an Age of Recreation.
I believe that the child in most of us must strive for something, and my imagery of a yacht harbor on a misty morning goes beyond success, directly to the fruits of success. Here the best and the brightest – young balding entrepreneurs and congressmen in safari shorts, share harbor with slightly overweight old billionnaires in oily jeans. The crafty and ruthless are here with the beautiful and the famous. Accomplishment and success are certainly at the back of our minds when we catterwaul about improving educations opportunities for our children, and so I mean to have out with it.
The rodeo people remind us of the kind of effort and achievements that can have meaning in today’s world. I can be a bartender or even a bouncer for six days a week, and ride brahmas on my day off. There’s little education needed for this, and it too, is considered “the good life.” Besides, if I’m reasonably good at it, a millionaire urban cowboy will take me on as a deep sea fishing mate and deckhand on his million dollar bathtub. I will respect his mediocre roping skills much more for it. These, then, are the super-ficial rules of the game.
If I am a child growing up I learn about this behavioral world, of chit-chat and wit, of disrespect and respect - from the media: the films, sitcoms, talkshows, sporting events, soap operas, gameshows, reality shows, skill and talent survivor competitions, news and documentaries, cartoon imitations of it all. I form my judgments and make hypotheses about the game of life and the rules for success. Many a child has developed a fairly consistent hypothesis of that game by the time they are five, and will spend much of the rest of their growing up years testing, confirming, and firming up the rules.
You cringe at this old metaphor. It is admittedly childish, that “life is but a game.” Every one of us considered it during our teens, and usually threw it away ashamed at its crass over-simplification.
Yet games are nothing but partial analogies of life – the choices and risks and moves with which we follow out our fate given the various turns of luck. Life is not a game, but games are derived from life, draw from life, and are our defacto representations of it. Moreover, games are fascinating to kids and are easily assimilated into their world. I remember as a child sleeping and waking to thoughts of “Chutes and Ladders” or “Monopoly,” poker or gin rummy. During our absorption in any particular game, we are simulating an event of fate in a carefully structured universe. In this sense, games are very real events that we choose to participate in – just as sports can become far more than recreation, but can provide the path to fame and a highly-paid career. Every time we compare games to some partial representation of life, we are accepting its converse – that life is partly a game.
It is day four of my vacation. I am sitting by a motel pool in which six very adolescent girls are playing a childrens’ game of tag. It is called “Marco Polo,” in which the person who is “it” closes their eyes and calls out “Marco!” The rest must announce their locations by calling “Polo!” after which they can duck and swim. Like any game of tag, it is spirited for about 20 minutes after which it dissipates through the stretching of rules and the unravelling of attention-spans. I am not sure what primal instincts are represented in games of tag – nor to I want to go there. As clear as you can recognize “play” in watching a family of young otters frolicking on a riverbank (you have no doubt seen the same stock films that I have seen), there is no doubt that games of tag hearken back to something primal in us. And yet, from here, all of us develop different conclusions, and begin guessing at the game, and life’s rules, from very unique and individual vantage points. Most of our individual vantage point still comes from the vestiges of the modern family and, as alluded to, directly from the media.
Yet perhaps we can discover a way to teach a new game – one which even five-year-olds will notice is more consistent with the greater reality - the “real deal” behind and beyond what we learn in the media. For, apologies for holding onto the metaphor of games, all of us probably have faith that there are some rules worth knowing about, indeed that the nature of the game is quite different than it is made out to be on the surface. For even if we see through “the game” for what it is, as I will testify to play it is to accept it, we can be broken by our own incomplete conjectures.
I shall return to this subject – and my current hypothesis - when we have occasion to discuss metrics, testing, and grades.
“The shell game” was a slight-of-hand trick performed by parlour magicians, making you think you saw a pea being placed under a little clam-shell - one of three or four clam-shells, face-down on the table top. You were told to keep your eye on the shell as the magician moved the shells rapidly around. Then you would pick the one you believed the pea to be under. The trick was that the magician would pick it up, not you. Of course, you could never get it right unless the magician wanted you to, since the pea was between the magician’s fingers and not under any of the shells.
I’d imagine the trick goes back to the days of Mark Twain, or even further back, maybe to Mark Anthony or Marcus Aurelius, or the first mark ever made with a stone. Con-games with shells are very old¾ and there were always con-men who used this game to build your confidence in your superior powers of perception following the shell, so that you would lay a bet on it - you against the house. And of course, as soon as your bet was large enough, the house would always win.
When we refer to the “shell-game,” nowadays, it is about some kind of scam where everyone believes they understand the complex arrangements being taken to safeguard their money. The shells are moved around on the surface with great conviction and skill, giving you the impression that you, the investor, are following everything, while the house is merely going through the arcane and mundane motions and dancing that it always does. But you know the funds are there. In actuality, the con has absconded with the funds long ago, substituting something else for them in order to keep the illusion going long enough to let him get out of the embezzlement charges clean and clear.
I did not explain the shell-game in order to suggest that socio-economic illiterates will get what they deserve. That they will be fleeced by the great industrial PACS and the politicians in their pockets. I introduced it as a metaphor for school.
Why should I learn? What does the man on the street tell his kid? The diploma. A diploma says that I can be given a random task and I will behave well. It also says I can read and write and follow directions. Therefore I can probably learn the job.
I must learn in order to earn a living when I get out of school. I must learn because school is valuable. It is valuable because it is tied to making money. You go to school for a certificate that gives you particular rights to claim a job.
To the kids, it is money which has the value, not the schooling. The most talented believe they have talent and will sell their record & make their movie & join the NBA and have a million bucks before they’re twenty. Perhaps they have friends with connections, or a rich family, and that is how they’ll get money. If so, they think they can stop worrying about school. Otherwise, they probably need the sheepskin. And we would say they need the sheepskin no matter what. You have to have it. It is what you DO when you live here.
This is socio-economic literacy for the world outside of school. This is the reality of the teen. But what does the six year old really know, or the twelve year old?
THEM: “Why do I have to go to school?”
THEM: “Why can’t they just teach me the job in school?”
US: “There are too many different jobs, and they can’t teach you them all. You have to be educated and literate enough to learn any kind of job. That’s what you learn in school. You have to learn to read and write for every job. You have to learn to do basic arithmetic and math and science in case you want to be a doctor or work in a laboratory or as an engineer. That’s why you have to have a general education.”
THEM: “Do we use Shakespeare or trigonometry on jobs?”
US: “You would need to know
Shakespeare if you wanted to work in the theater, or write movies for
THEM: “I don’t want to learn everything in the world because I might need it. I can look it up on the internet if I need it. Besides, I’m not interested in any old job. I’m interested in getting money. Let us study that! There are people I see all the time that really know how to make money, and it’s about making “big money” deals. Why can’t we learn about that kind of money?”
Can anybody tell me about this stuff we call “money,” that we take for granted from infancy onwards? How does it work, and where does it come from? Who even uses cash anymore, except hot-dog vendors and drug-dealers? Why don’t they just give everybody in the world a credit card, and then nobody will be poor anymore?”
So where is the pea?
Explain to me that life literacy extends to intelligent conversation about the green stuff you’ve been stuffing your pockets with, or carrying around and carrying on about for your entire life. THIS is, in fact, my single strongest argument for the claim that we are socio-economic illiterates.
It wasn’t really a pea that they slipped between their fingers, it was a magic bean. A magic bean that you think you can see and feel, but it can disappear on you while it is in your pocket. Money is based on confidence. The magic bean is based on faith.
But no, someone else tells us, money is what “bean-counters” count. It is tangible assets, notes of credit, loans in time and interest, balance sheets. It is too complicated to teach in school.
They used to squeeze a month into our 12 years of school to discuss economics. Supply and demand curves was the extent of it. We either got it in Civics class or Home Economics. It seems amazing that things haven’t changed all that much. It is even more amazing that a year in Economics isn’t a standard requirement for an undergraduate degree. Unless you are a business major, it’s an elective. This is amazing.
Now I did two years of undergraduate work
His message was simple, simple enough to explain to a 4th grader. Money comes to those who create value, and find value where no one else saw it. If you think of money as a thing in itself, however, you are worshipping Mammon---as a thing in itself, you can plunder the wealth of others, or nature, and your money is just as good. But if you think of wealth as common good, of a way of supplying more people with the joys of life, then you will find riches nearly everywhere you look - you will invent wealth, real commercial value, and you can become rich. He went so far as to say “shame on you, if you haven’t gone out and gotten rich - for that would be proof that you have made something which people have wanted, and you have made this a better world.” There are many simple holes in this argument, but they are not so subtle that they can’t cause a 4th grader pause to think about what is right and what is wrong with different ways of getting rich.
Money exists just like electrons exist. We can trust both money and electrons to behave very predictably in the circumstances they are generally put to. We know electrons are there, because we see what they do and we can easily measure their charge¾but the best we can do to actually see them is create some very extreme situations, and let them make tracks.
Money behaves less predictably than electrons, but we have many more tools to see it. It’s the measuring of it, and the conversion of basic economic values that gets sticky. It’s the relationship which money has to the value of transactions between people which we must come to understand, but it includes thinking about time, and obligations. How it comes to get so complicated so quickly is anybody’s question. But then, it is a magic bean.
But as long as our economy is well and kicking, and we elect others to manage our politics and defend our standard of living, I imagine we don’t need to understand how to protect what is valuable about how our present world works. Nor should our kids need to know any more than we do.
I don’t think you believe me.
Passing a middle school, there is a banner across the entrance proclaiming “Life Skills for the Future,” and I wonder if they ever discuss balancing a check-book among those life skills. Heck. Why should that be one of “life’s skills” anyway, when everyone has an ATM card? Accessing money needs no skill at all!
There is supposed to be a strong statistical correlation between one’s education and one’s earnings. At least we are led to believe this is the case. The statistics are probably kept by the insurance companies and the colleges, and are carefully skewed to leave out all the high-paid athletes, movie-stars and crooks who don’t fit the model we are trying to prove.
It is probably a case of modern folk-wisdom. If I were to ask anyone whether I should finish my schooling or drop out to take a job, whether I call random people at their house, or stop and ask them at the mall, they will all say “If it’s a good job, take it. But STAY in school! Go to night school, do anything. But you HAVE to get your diploma somehow!”
Folk wisdom says if you get an education you will get a job and become credit-worthy. If you don’t get an education however, we all know that we can still buy a car, and also become credit-worthy.
We need money. We are motivated to succeed in our education because we want many other things. Education means all of these things to us. We want to afford recreational expenditures that allow us to escape from the rat-race. We want to escape as frequently as possible, so if the opportunity arises, we need good plastic.
This is the freedom we believe in. At least, this is the freedom our actions suggest we believe in.
Now if you were to ask someone to tell you what money was - they would surely arrive at the “universal motivator” explanation. This explanation says that money is what motivates us, or facilitates us to have whatever it is that really motivates us. Which is to say, if you asked anyone “why is money such a good motivator?” they would respond - “because if you have money you can DO things.”
In fact, the current ethos of entrepreneurial capitalism is very close to suggesting that free capital is the basis of freedom. Access to money is what personal freedom is currently based on. And by basing the retail world of economic transactions on credit we have found an efficacious way to assure the personal freedom of nearly everyone who is credit-worthy.
Only Johnny knows that if this is the rationale for education, then selling drugs is much easier and more exciting. Besides, if he’s good at it, he might get as much money together as a professional athlete.
The complex reality is that Johnny has neither a rationale for education, nor a definition of money.
Now I might tell Johnny that the real rationale for getting that diploma is NOT his ability to get credit, nor his ability to earn a good living, but rather his ability to stand up and hold his shoulders high with all the other graduates. Because if he doesn’t get his degree, he will forever be trying to prove to himself and others that he is smart enough to have one, and that he’s read books and knows history and physics and biology even if he never finished high school or went to college.
I might tell Johnny that everyone that I’d met that made something out of themselves and never finished high school or went to college ended up respecting learning and knowledge far more than the run-of-the-mill high school graduate. And I might also tell Johnny that I’d met many drop-outs that did quite well for themselves in this world, and nearly every one of them fit that category. They were some of the most interesting and curious and well-read acquaintances I ever ran into, except for the truly erudite scholars who couldn’t hammer a shingle.
So that does it for education. What about money?
The complex reality about money is that there are few economists who could explain it to anyone but graduate students, and even then, with many qualifications. Why is this?
Money is perhaps the most important phenomenon of everyday real life. It is the chips, it is the game, it is rules, and it is playing board. Every ‘monetary’ transaction is an instantiation of the socio-economic fabric, the well-known “flap of a butterfly’s wings” taking place amidst a myriad of obligations and inter-dependencies, which at any given time hold us together as a society and a world.
At some point we need to grasp that the fundamental circuits of human societies are kept functioning by the nature of promises, obligations, and good faith in the handshake of a common language of human interaction. This is often the role of money. And this is something which may someday be simpler to understand because every child will understand society as a fabric of human values, held together with promises, obligations, and good faith. And it will be somehow clearer to realize that the behavior of money is rather like a mirror of the thousands of interacting strings in which it ties things together, strings vibrating like the strings of a rather cosmic (but really earth-sized) orchestra.
This may all be well and good, but as money itself disappears into an electronic medium, social freedoms will become even less tangible as they are swallowed by complex economic realities. Our place in society will be ever-closer to that of a commodity. The complaint that we can be bought and sold like any thing will be quite true. Unless, of course, we already understand the new representations of our social and monetary value, which are representations of nothing more than this thing we’ve been “getting down with” in this essay.
We are not far from that point. I would suggest we make sure that every 6-year-old who asks the simplest questions about money can be given a good answer by a 6th grader - a good answer which explains the chips, the game, the rules, and the playing board as few adults understand it today. And if a twelve or thirteen year old can’t do that, then we will have lost an important battle for civilized life. At least for civilized life between age thirteen (when our kids are just drinking on the old railroad bridge) and when they start driving and drinking with false IDs.
At THAT POINT, a high school senior should be able to tell us the part which credit, risk, interest, and accounting have played in the development of technologies and flow of history.
The real test will be if a high school senior can take a look around their community and the omnipresent shopping centers and the millions upon millions of dollars of stock lining their shelves and explain the roles which credit, risk, and interest play in keeping everything afloat. If they cannot, our schools will have failed them.
If we do nothing else to bridge the chasm between our classrooms and the real life outside, if my entire premise about socio-economic illiteracy is dropped like a hot potato, if we insist on maintaining the status quo, if we accept symbolic education supporting a well-run techno-industrial state, we should still add this one thing to our curriculum even if it means dropping something else out. Human beings in today’s world must understand the meaning of money in the larger cooperative world in order to understand and appreciate what the freedoms in our society actually do for us.
If you stop to congratulate yourself on belonging to this amazing period of laser printers, heart transplants, DVDs, flat-screen TVs, global warming and Anthrax ¾ stop. Things aren't changing any faster than when my grandmother was arriving in this country in 1903, or faster than the changes in the world her own mother was witnessing just a decade before that, in 1893.
is the period Henry Adams muses through in his Education. He talks about his own great-grandparents
(who included two presidents), and how they lived in a period of smallish
wooden ships, carriages, kings and wigs - and argued over the fate of a nation
and the notion of a state and a people.
engineers that built the fair had built massive train trestles and Suez Canals,
and would soon cut through
Growing up I used to wonder how a single generation accommodated to such quick transitions - but now I’ve been given the chance to witness a few historical turnarounds first hand. People absorb the shock, tire of talking of it after a week, and treat it like business as usual by the time the next shock hits -- a month later. In twelve months of shock treatments, excited gossip, and quick forgetfulness, you can take in a lot of change.
may have been thirty years ago now, but it seems to me that the cold war just
ended. It didn’t take a month before
everyone accepted it as non-news.
Funding for the biggest pseudo-academic experiment in history had given
out, and a guy named Gorbachev changed the state religion of an empire larger
Emperor Constantine before him, this kind of change is rather big stuff any
given thousand years of sociopolitical stories.
Yet we treated it with the mental tools we have for all newsworthy
events. BIG SPLASH, 9 o:clock NEWS. Repeat the same news-talk every hour for a
week with minor variations. Then we are
bored. Besides - who would even remember
the fall and internal dismemberment of the entire Soviet Union, or Apartheid
Education of Henry Adams struggles with the bitter loss of
we be expected to consider the experiment of
We believe in some kind of gyroscope that keeps us on course, smoothing the rough and tumble transitions. But in fact, we are participating in the experiment, still. It is not over, neither has the Summary Report been written.
have watched political realities restructure literally overnight. A century of South African white domination,
called ‘apartheid’ went away more quickly than the
I might be speaking of the European nations turning into states of the EC, or of the system of American public education as we know it. Outside of the healthcare system, it is the most entrenched and massive organizational structure in existence in this country. In terms of a sector of the economy, education often trades first place with Defense. Education has more economic clout than insurance, the legal system, more than corporate PACs, or the media. This means that, as a system of values, it has more inertia as well.
However. Our society is changing.
The Education of Henry Adams was not about his life in school, but about a lifelong journey, exploring the roads and forests and fields of thought that his parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents experienced. It was about the birth and growth of a country, as he mused about the birth and growth of all the people in it. Then again, it is no more than a personal memoir in the shape of a book. Written over a hundred years ago, and still speaking directly to its readers ---I can read it as if he were standing around speaking directly to me. It is a book that passes on a piece of his experience, a whole organized sector of a man’s thought. His story represents the end of an era, a transition in this country’s personal history. It is a very personal, yet historically significant story.
was close enough to the birth of this country -chronologically genealogically,
and personally ¾ to
express himself as Everyman, in the middle of The American Experiment, a
flowering of the Enlightenment (the Scottish Enlightenment of Hume and Smith
and Locke), which helped many men and women of that period believe that they could take human progress
in hand and fashion new structures which might be more just and beneficial, to
allow a more consistent and universal flowering of humanity. They believed in scientific and political
husbandry, and crafted a constitution and a government through the sharing of
their learning, and the arguments taken from
all of western literature ¾the Latins and Greeks, the churchmen and
scholars. Foremost, they were in a fresh
land, and they were all farmers and businessmen with ample experience of life
and the quirks of people. And that was
the American Experiment that
And here was this journal of his, a child of humanity wondering, and worrying, about what direction the progress of humankind was taking. He had ample reason to worry, though the Spanish-American War had not yet taken place. The world was very very different, and the changes seemed irreversible.
are at another watershed. The models we
currently use drain down to the bays of the past. They represent the hold-outs of old
paradigms, including the agricultural paradigm which the founders of this
country believed in, and which
Our system of schools, including colleges, and the entire structure of training for our social playing fields and business battlefields is about to change. The interesting phenomenon to watch will be the surprise on everyone’s face when they see that the growing need for changing our model of education is about a change in our entire model of society.
A new paradigm will suddenly occur to us all, not merely to the academics interested in raising the value and the ante for classroom time¾ but to the car dealers who are sick of selling cars and want to open new kinds of restaurants.
The new model for our educational systems will not be simply built around “lifelong learning.” It will not just be to sell more educational services with different labels to otherwise disinterested audiences. No. It will be integrated through every part of the social and economic spectrum.
The new value placed on schooling will be for “re-creational self-development” in all the positive ways to expand the pleasure in life by learning to expand on human nature. This will take specialists in human nature and learning styles, pedagogues in the old sense, of those who are trained to distinguish learning traits and differentiate learning blocks. Teachers will not be subject specialists, but process technicians, showing us ¾when we are children¾ positive ways to organize and assemble and sort our energies - rather than dis-integrate, dissolve, destroy the fruits of our energies. Schools will represent the social core of what is economically dynamic and rewarding, and education will be about ways to create new values out of thin air, out of human energies. Not only that, but our community leaders will come to realize that educational resources will be their greatest asset, when they are tired of depleting their inheritance, the assets of lands and farms and developed roads and century old architecture, and parks, and natural resources; educational resources will allow them to replenish the total potential economic credit of local society to whatever limits the national equilibrium will allow.
I do not fully understand the philosophical model of entropy. There are many forces which drive us to want everything to be homogeneous and level. These don’t appear, on the surface, to be integrative forces, but seem negative and disintegrative. Nature often slashes and burns as part of the opening up, with breathing room for regrowth. Wars often destroy the culture and accumulation of human capital that took centuries to accumulate. These kinds of events not only raise my fear level, but stress me out.
Revolutionaries and radicals believe in tearing things down with no respect for life limb or the fragility of an ecology, believing intensely in the capacity of Nature to regrow herself in a purer and “righter” way. These kinds of events not only raise my fear level, but stress me out.
The allure of dis-engagement, which is at the basis of recreation has something in common with the slash and burn principle of Nature, could in fact hasten a new paradigm. There is an undercurrent of yearning for new horizons, discovering ways in which all of us can be explorers, which the ad-men will take quick advantage of¾pushing us into this new century the way Adams described the allure of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1892: squeezing the last vestiges of a world of the 1700’s through the eye of a needle ¾through the force of the giant turbine on display there¾into the 20th century.
I almost feel foolish to tell you what the secret is going to be for this incredible turnaround. Of course, I have to tell you now that I’ve been pulling at your patience so long. It sounds so absolutely foolish and stupid. It is not. We are about to become an oral society again. We are about to learn why individual differences and personal stories and idiosyncrasies are more rewarding than the caricatures of life and cartoon emotions provided to us by media. This sounds ludicrous. The sensory power of the media is so absolutely dominant in our current model of culture and society you know I’m out of touch.
I didn’t say it would be easy. I also didn’t say it would be quick. We are only just approaching the watershed, and I can’t say that I know of any streams leading down to that further coastline of human progress. But I have faith it is there, because I have faith in human nature.
We will come to understand the educational system for the continuum in which everyone in the local landscape helps each other learn. There will still be schoolrooms, and teachers, and school administrators. But their roles will have changed to embrace the entire community, and bridge all of its resources.
I see teachers as eventually becoming our true community leaders ¾and they will come to their positions as highly-trained and heavily supported counselors and coaches of cognitive life. They will be the human resource developers par excellance, and will be the most suited for positions of leadership. They will also be drawn to teaching for new and different reasons than young teachers previously took up their textbooks and podiums of pedantry.
Schooling will be where we learn how everything ties together into a fabulously interlaced webbing, a society more dynamic and mesmerizing and worthy of wonder than the changing faces of the sea are to a lighthouse keeper.
Ah, I have such hopes for the new paradigm!!
But I see I might have to write a few more chapters to convince you of this possibility.
To the extent that education belongs to and is paid for by the public – all the issues regarding its ends and means are fraught with politics and bureaucracy.
Even in ancient Greece, when two of Socrates’ students – Isocrates and Plato – opened competing schools in Athens, each was based on different theories of the nature and purpose of education in society. Contemplating the evolution of educational doctrine from ancient times to now, makes it clear that the issues underlying education are more complex than those governing politics –for a philosophy of education entails all the questions of ideals and justice to be found in society, but also those of psychology. One cannot escape the fact that education addresses every aspect of social philosophy, and touches on nearly every point in cognitive science.
What does it take to respect the aims of educators, and have faith in the judgement rendered by a philosphy of education rather than the political rhetoric of businesses and school boards? This book is meant to serve as an apology to the public –for they must bear the burden of teachers and schoolrooms.
I come from a family of teachers, though not a long line of teachers. My mother, besides being a mother, was a high school teacher and guidance counselor (her father owned a drugstore). My father was a professor. However, his father had a tobacco shop, though earlier in life he drove a wagon with a team of horses, and after his tobacco shop failed he drove a truck. He did not think much of my dad’s decision to become a teacher. On his deathbed my grandfather told my dad he was a disappointment because he hadn’t taken a man’s profession. For most of my life I felt the same as my grandfather – I thought that it was more important to go out and live life rather than standing at a blackboard teaching about it. But after wandering for years, I came back to honoring the family profession. And my route was through castor oil.
beans grow on an amazingly prolific plant, rather like the weeds which grow up
alongside railroad tracks to become trees.
And these giant weeds produce thousands of big pods like honey locusts
came to learn about castor beans as my stint at NSA was drawing to a
close. I was up at a trade show in
The oil is extremely useful stuff. Before the era of petroleum-based products, resins, and plastics, it had been used as a plasticizing agent to waterproof sailcloth and used as the base oil for thousands of paints and cosmetics and gels.
This particular engineer was in his "golden years," trying once more, after hundreds of times, to get someone to recognize his patent on converting castor oil to diesel fuel.
Nobody was biting because diesel fuel was too cheap, and so nobody was interested anymore in spending money to get off a petroleum-based economy.
Nobody was interested except other fools like himself, who couldn't understand what drives the economy, and what therefore distinguishes between what is real and unreal..e.g. the bottom line.
When I walked by, he was trying to sell his idea of a diesel fuel conversion module that sat on the back of a truck and went from farm to farm in India and let farmers sell off some of their castor bean production in return for fuel oil for their farms, thereby reducing the need for foreign currency to pay for oil. I was the fool he got entranced.
soon as I got back to
soon as I got back to
Things were not looking as promising as I'd hoped, until he asked if I knew anything about multimedia information systems. Since, after castor beans, this was one of my leading interests at the time, I gave him a good answer.
"Yes," I said.
"Well," said he,"I happen to have a whole shelf of wonderful interviews with agricultural research scientists which we want to make available to teachers. Kind of like 'video brochures' of jobs in agriculture. I need to find a way to get them out to the school systems."
Now it should be evident how this story of castor beans brought me smack dabbling into the business of schools. And so I said I would be happy to develop a proposal for a multimedia database of videotapes for free, if he would give me the OK to say I was doing real work for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even though it was free work.
By this time my current contract was ending in two weeks with no other jobs on the horizon. Since it is very hard finding a job if you are not already employed, if you can truthfully say you are "consulting" for any government agency, you stand a much better chance to land a real job.
And so very soon I was free to wander all over our capital city introducing myself to Hither and Yon (Gwendolyn Hither and Amy Hsin Yon work in important offices in and around D.C.). This can be a lot of fun.
Of course, I did my research first. I read everything old and new and slick and slim on what teachers were doing with traditional job counseling. And I pored through old texts on teaching and volumes on curriculum planning - and statistical reports from 1947 to 1972 that I pulled out of the trash at the local teachers' college. Just as if I were analyzing a factory floor. Which is one of the things I can do for a living. I also scrape factory floors and sometimes sit on them to put together shipping containers for Manpower Inc., especially when consulting jobs are slim.
And after all this research, with pages of scribbled questions and answers and the names and phone numbers of people I'd talked to all over the town, I found myself suddenly plop in the office of the Under Secretary of Education.
I walked in, briefcase in hand, with my proposal for an educational outreach for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I was rather tense.
My proposal suggested that our teachers represent one of the most alienated groups of American workers ¾knowing little or nothing about what people actually DO for a living. That is, they know the 3R’s inside out, but have no idea why they are worth learning in the first place. Other than if you learn Reading Riting and Rithmetic as well as the teachers learned them in school, you get good grades. Teachers too often come from a long line of teachers' pets, who found that the security of the schoolroom suited them just fine. They tend to have a strange belief that everything outside and after school is somehow foreign and irrelevant to success - success as it is defined throughout childhood: i.e. in the classroom.
My proposal went on to suggest that there was no way of successfully integrating the 3R’s into the excitement of having skills and a trade, unless our teachers understood these things and could integrate them into their lesson plans.
Therefore, I suggested that we needed something more than video brochures on the exciting careers in agricultural research. In order to insure that my friend's video brochures were not one more white elephant system developed with taxpayers' money, I felt we must come up with ways to change the culture of teaching. That is, we had to seed the schools with teachers who understood how to use video stories about the workplace in their classes, so they could show other teachers, and eventually make teachers excited about the world outside of school.
But I am getting way ahead of myself.
At this point I was standing in the Under Secretary of Education's office. I had just finished copying and binding my proposal at a local photocopy outlet, and was sweating profusely from the sprint through the front door and down a few corridors to make my appointment.
had found a parking place on the street directly in front of the U.S.
Department of Education. J&J Towing
and Storage in
I introduced myself and sat down. We had spoken over the phone and he had invited me to come up. I handed him the proposal. As I took it out of my briefcase, I noticed little white dots flying. The telephone rang. It was the Secretary of Education. Mr. Under Secretary didn't notice the flying dots as I did.
It did not take long to discover the reason for the dots. The bottom of my 3-hole punch had come off, and my briefcase was now a quarter-inch deep in holes. This would not have been so bad, except that it was an old briefcase with many worn leather edges. Briefcases aren’t designed to be water-tight. But they should be dot-tight. Mine leaked badly. A track of perfectly round white paper dots led from the Secretary's door to my feet. There were dots everyplace. Now they were on his desk and on my lap. Static electricity threatened to take them up the walls.
He swivelled in his chair, and was looking out the window, discussing the follow-ups from their morning meeting.
This was my chance. I discreetly brushed the dots from his desk back into my briefcase, then eased myself over the floor, calmly maintaining a sitting position - in my younger days I was still good at the ‘kazatski’, that Russian dance done from a squat - just in case he should happen to look up. I carefully squatted around, picking up those I could reach.
However, when you are very nervous about business proposals, you sometimes forget yourself. I lost patience and forgot myself, and was suddenly crawling around on his floor furiously picking up escaped holes from my 3-hole punch when I heard the squeek of his chair turning around.
He was reading my proposal and apparently didn't notice my rear end sticking up from in front of his desk. Perhaps he was too discreet to say anything. He expected this sort of behavior from geniuses.
"You've done it." He said. "You've taken Ag Extension and applied it to primary education. We paid a team of consultants a million for two years to try to do this, and gave up. Now we’re no longer looking, and you walk in and give it to us for nothing."
I was back in my chair before he looked up. I breathed hard and said:
The Under Secretary commended me on the work, and asked me to develop the proposal to include industries beyond agriculture. Of course, I was flattered, but since the U.S. Government cannot work like the bottling company down the block, he did not write me a Purchase Order and say, "Go to it, my boy!"
It is unfortunately more complex. And since a man with a family must earn a living, and since I had just finished my current contract and had a family and was not publicly or privately funded, I will only tell you that I left another trail of dots as I backed out of his office.
cannot spend too much time with Ms. Hither and Yon in the offices of
Nevertheless, the long discussion about the future of teaching that I had with Mr. Under Secretary bears repeating¾for despite my disdain for the current model of “teachers”, they are worthy of our respect. They are truly “on the front line,” as many a teacher will tell you.
And this is why my proposal suggested that during their summer vacations, teachers could choose to take on the role of Government Information Extension Workers. I was following the lead of the Smith-Lever Act of 1914 which created the Ag-Extension worker as the conduit to move new science and technologies from the Land Grant state college system.
The obvious way to expand the teachers’ world-view was to hire them during the summer¾in a new kind of "camping experience" to work for the Department of Labor doing job analysis, helping in the incredibly daunting task of designing the job training programs for our continually displaced workforce. It just so happens that I am in this underfunded business. For as long as technology changes, and the economy expands and changes, workers are being thrown into new jobs, and sometimes out of their jobs altogether. Meanwhile, as the teachers did job analysis interviews for the Department of Labor, they would create a video library of their own, whenever they found jobs with young and exciting role models for their students. So the Ag. department’s video library would be expanded to cover jobs of all types, making the media database into a living, growing entity.
More importantly, however, a core group of teachers would become local, known representatives of the Department of Labor in their communities, changing the community view of teachers as the center of job and work knowledge in the community¾a point of contact, a reference for all issues economic and developmental. And after teaching seventh-grade English and a few summers with the Department of Labor, teachers could move on to the State Legislature. I should emphasize at this point, that this was what I had in the proposal which that Under Secretary a decade or so ago had read. I would not think of proposing anything so absurd today!
In fact, while you may think I have disdain for the current paradign of education - it is not for our teachers. It is about time the American model switched back to investing power and strength into its teachers at the center of tomorrow's society.
I had my way, one day it will be hard to conceive of a time when people thought that the teacher’s primary role was to transmit subject matter. No one will remember a time when our teachers were not the individuals who knew most about the workings of our world, and the context within which all subjects made sense, and were the most trained to understand and work with human differences. Or when teaching was the natural stepping-stone to social, political, and economic leadership.
Why would anyone think that teachers were once more alienated from the workings of society than nearly any other profession? When teachers, and much of what they taught, were considered about as useful as that old-time castor oil, which every family kept on the shelf for every possible ill.
But we are not there yet. And in this modern day and age of computer and DVD-based delivery systems, I have run into many hi-tech Philistines with the arrogance to suggest that teachers are an anachronism of the past, kept around because of an old-fashioned notion that they are simply good for us.
Our teachers often refer to themselves as at the "front line" of any social change. This is true. As a group they become personally acquainted with 100% of the population as it grows up and moves through the funnels and filters that eventually provide the basic social tools to our culture.
Now surviving on the front line and keeping up the fighting spirit is a great task. Not many make it through a real war in that position for very long.
of my favorite people is my former wife's uncle, Uncle Bill. Bill Howell was a mousy little engineer with
the 4th Div 8th Infantry, who landed with his crack platoon on the beaches of
himself was no stranger to danger, being the one who had to sneak out in the
dark and lay advance communications lines.
He was in the group that liberated Paris, then went through the Ardennes
and was one of the guys that helped hold the Bulge, and when Hollywood made the
films, he was played by Kirk Douglas or John Wayne or some equally mousy
engineering-type squirt. And to look at
him, that’s about all he was. Eventually
they walked into
He has more stories than he ever tells, but the one he tells easiest is when he was hit in a little town in France, was laid up in a hospital in England for six months, and the day he came back to his unit they were by chance trying to take the same town. He remembered every street like it had been the night before. So he led them in at night and they took the Germans by surprise. They never would have given that job to Mr. Peepers in the film version, but then, film-makers believe in caricatures, and aren’t the best judges of human character.
Our teachers, on the other hand, should be. Our teachers may not see thousands of kids each year, but they see more than raw recruits in their classes, and over the years they will have seen the same kids over and over. Many types of young human beings, with many minor variations...
With the proper training and classroom tools, they can tell who will succeed at what, and who needs what kinds of support to get motivated to succeed. Which brings me to the point I want to make in this essay. Teachers are no longer needed as the principal mechanism to deliver information into students' heads. They have a more important role. For there are books and computers and videos and CD-ROMs to deliver information. Teachers are people and capable of understanding people. They are around to help us become interested in things, and help us understand things at our own speed and in unique ways that we, as kids with unique faculties and hang-ups and mental walls can appreciate.
Of course, there are a few problems with this ideal picture. The first is the fact that it is very hard to stay alive on the front line for long. Our teachers are pushed to the maximum. Kids have never been easy to handle, but the numbers of them on prescription drugs for Attention-Deficit Disorder and mood swings makes it moot to compare today’s classroom to anything previously known to teaching.
The second problem with the ideal picture of what teaching might be is that teachers are people with unique faculties and hang-ups and mental walls as well.
A third problem is that we believe school is where kids are filled with tools and skills. The operant term is “filling” - and it suggests investing millions of local taxes into process technologies for filling things, and, of course, paying for the stuff going into all those containers. Unlike process technologies in industry, the criteria for regulating the flow are state-mandated benchmarks, and not necessarily designed for the services at hand. The more, the faster, the better.
I have nothing against benchmarks, or government-regulated measurement standards, since most measuring conventions got started through some king’s decree. But I would suggest that these indices of learning success will become incidental if we focus on helping our kids discover the reasons why they want to fill themselves with these skills and tools.
If we had to rely on pumping water up the trunk of a tree and out to the leaves, I believe that trees would be built more like pumps. It is the growth and life-processing taking place in each of the leaves themselves that ultimately creates forces pulling moisture up into the cells, up through the sap-feeding systems of the plant. If a tree trunk had to pump, I don’t believe its roots could handle the strain. Roots are supposed to be absorbing water and the raw nutrients of the soil into the plant, but can’t be bothered pushing and blowing them up into the trunk.
Can you imagine the enormous, disproportionate structures trees would be, if Nature had designed them the way we’ve designed our educational systems? Assume first that all those little leaves had no interest in staying on the tree, but they were told they HAD to in order to stay alive. That the tree wanted them and loved them, and needed them to keep the forest alive and growing¾ that the leaves were part of a team thing. I think most of the leaves would probably wither and fall off the plant pretty quickly if it were left to them. I believe we would have to find another system of creating the oxygen for our air (or, for that matter, food for the plant) if we had to convince all the leaves to play the game.
Pumping nutrients into leaves just doesn’t work, and pumping knowledge into kids won’t either.
Beyond what they see in films, our kids have no idea what it is to be participants in our society. They have no idea of why they want to be participants in society. Except, of course, to become like the participants of the films ¾to look cool, act cool, be quick, you’ve got to be good with technologies, and stay in shape. Otherwise, participating in society is mostly defined by what they do at home ¾ watching TV, internet surfing, playing computer games, watching films, or shopping for deals on clothing and trips and technology. So they go along with the game, because there is this thing called money, which they are told they can’t earn without going to school. But they all know the lie, since there are scores of professional athletes, wrestlers, NASCAR drivers, and pop singers who have plenty of money and no education.
So we had better come up with some other answers, other reasons to learn reading, writing, arithmetic than the decree of the king - which kids believe in less than teachers believe in benchmarks.
On the front line, it is the teachers - and only the teachers - who can help discover in each child what it will take to get the osmosis of learning started. Once started, the teacher must maintain the flow, regulate the nutrients, stay vigilant for clogging and blockages that need prodding and cleaning.
It is a daunting task to be in the room coordinating 30-some very different human structures through the tasks of the day.
But if they are allowed, and helped, in focusing on understanding each of these different human structures, our teachers will absolutely succeed. This is, after all, their greatest motivation in life - even if it is to make a difference in just one kid. So the idea is to help them make a difference in a dozen each year. To succeed in this task, you figure, for each child entering kindergarten, we have the talents of seven different teachers before middle school starts. By middle school and high school we can safely say there will be another twenty teachers poised to discover a learning connection with kids who have not yet caught onto the excitement of learning about a world we will all get to participate in - and the game we all have different skills for--- and for which any of us might play the hero one day.
Drag is that particular physical characteristic of dynamic systems to experience both friction and inertia, thus slowing down their movement through their immediate context. I will not (at least consciously) discuss cross-dressing.
“Learning drag” is what happens when we confuse one educational subject with another, and apply all the standards from a properly-learned performance to an improper one, and test the demonstration of skill by jamming it into the wrong clothing. (Oh my, there, I’ve done it!)
Learning drag can be corrected for by identifying the incorrect paradigm being used to learn (or to measure the performance), and swap it out for something more appropriate.
For example, it is very often hard for us to see that we are using the wrong muscles to lift with or the wrong concepts to direct us. A good coach may catch these kinds of errors right away, but not us. It is frequently the same with learning. We use the wrong muscles. My college crew coach worked for nearly two months to get me to hear the grunt I made at each stroke, which he could hear across the river. As befits a philosopher, I was using talking muscles to help me push water – and tying up energy in my breath that physically impacted the coordination of energies throughout the rest of my body.
The very first confusion he had to clear from the heads of everyone in every one of his boats was that we were not “pulling the oar towards us” but “pushing the water behind us.” For as long as each of us pictured his own oar as the object of work he knew we could never learn to feather and catch as a boat, to row as a team working the water at once. What he could not tell us, until we felt it ourselves, was that if our oars caught the water and pushed it away in one simultaneous stroke of eight separate oars, the boat would actually lift out of the water and become easier to row. Then all we could feel was water being pushed by muscle, and the oar was our trusted lever. Thinking of the oar instead of the water is a case of “learning drag,” for pitted against our individual oars we were separate, and if oars hit the water at separate times the boat would stay low in the water and the aerodynamics would never change.
This is to say that natural induction is often counter-productive, since it is only natural for the individual to assume they are working their muscles against the oar.
Something which we do naturally is extrapolate rules from one context or application to another. Sometimes we are on-target, and sometimes we are off. Again, when we use the wrong model, we can find ourselves applying the wrong rules. A boat made of the strongest oarsmen, all pulling their oars separately, may still be quite fast – but they will never find out what their boat is capable of, since they will never progress beyond the point of brute force. I have seen a ‘brute force’ crew win the Olympics, but their incorrect model is holding their boat back; they might have won by five boat-lengths instead of five feet.
A blind person creatively extrapolates their sense of sound to include things sighted people would consider characteristics of vision. Overtones and echos create a sonar version of sight, and allow them to generate spatial analogies of perspective and shapes. Call this what you will, it is an extreme example of how rules in one framework can be successfully applied to another. We have leapt far beyond the example of the impacts which a conceptual model (pulling the water v. pulling the oar) has on practice. Here we see that rules governing one activity can be used in another. When we are learning something on our own, we are all blind. We extrapolate whatever we have from any model whatsoever and will try it in the foreign context. If it carries us through we will use it again and again, modifying the rules only slightly to meet the circumstance.
On the crew, we applied the most obvious context rules to our activity – each of us is in a seat and given an oar. Each of us is instructed on how to slide the seat and handle the oar. Our muscles are used to slide the seat forward and extend the handle of the oar as far forward as possible – then to turn the oar to catch the water and pull it back into our bodies, extending our legs and leaning back with the handle of the oar in our stomach; to turn it back – or “feather it” out of the water, and slide forward again for the reach and catch. It is natural to think that this is all about me and the oar, my leg, back, arm, and stomach muscles (in that order) and my sliding seat. But no. It is about making the boat move forward by pushing water behind us as cleanly and simultaneously as possible. It is about connecting my wrist to the neck muscles of the man in front of me – for I can watch them tense and my wrists will ready themselves for the catch. Who would ever guess that helping my boat to win a race is not about me and the oar!? Especially since the dumb coxwain would yell “Pull!” “Pull!”
It is conceivable that a blind man might counsel a young blind boy “Can you hear the difference between the echos in this place and that? This is a hallway and that is a room.” We would not expect him to add – “you can extrapolate the way sound bounces to the way the room looks to the sighted person.” He does not know what rules he is using. He simply says “this is the sound of a hallway. Let us go and check. It probably has steps at the end and high windows with drapes.”
As I said, when we are learning something on our own, we are all blind. It is doubtful I would ever have heard myself grunt, or if I had, recognize the impacts this had on my rowing. Certainly, no one our crew would ever have recognized the mistake of “pulling the oar”, nor would we ever have learned to make the boat lift without our coach.
So the question is, how do we notice when we are using a model with slightly inappropriate rules, when there is only partial utility? How can we backtrack through our mistakes?
Remembering my own days of schooling, not that I am the best example of a challenged kid, but whenever I could not figure out what we were supposed to be learning I did my best to guess the rules. And during tests I would pray very hard as I searched my mind for the rules to use – although I knew they were definitely not the ones the teacher had been talking about. Having a lot of outside knowledge, I was an above-average guesser – and so I did not find out for many years that I didn’t really understand many subjects.
Not that we want to tell Johnny not to make guesses at rules without having to memorize the answers to tests. It’s just that when Johnny is facing a learning block we should look around for the creative path which he took that is has proved to be a dead-end. In the example of blind people, I intended to show you that there are many creative paths which we would never consider, but which will work nevertheless, and we are none the wiser as to how someone has been getting by thus far.
Once upon a time, I took it upon myself to try to un-train grizzly engineers from standing in front of young engineers with flipcharts and blackboards and slides with hundreds of bullets. I was trying to teach them the basics of training design. Certain types of information fall into certain categories. Some categories are taught with examples and problems; for some you simply create a checksheet which can be handed out and needs little or no explanation. Some types of training need nothing more than a job-aid or card, which can be taped to a computer screen or kept in your wallet until you have it memorized. It seems incredible now, but it took me months to discover the obvious problem.
They all confused information transfer with pedagogy - with years of sitting in classrooms taking notes and regurgitating. This was their dominant model of instruction. Where every minute of training in the industrial setting had a clear application on the job – to use the pedagogical model was like handing them an oar and expecting them to focus all their muscles of attention and memory and problem-solving on the blackboard, and prepare for a test at the end of the semester.
My job was to show them how to push water and move the boat. All I had to do was recognize that engineering, which was their field, had all the rules they needed for making instructional decisions. Then I had to train them to act like engineers and not like school teachers when they got up in front of their fellows.
If they wanted to use bullets, it better be for a military briefing, and accompanied by a job aid. Everybody better be able to walk out of that room and go into battle with every bullet ready for reload and use.
If they wanted to tell a story or a joke, it had better be to illustrate a point worth remembering, because it would be remembered. Pre-reads, hand-outs, tables, slides, photos, hands-on equipment, real-time video, exercises, Q&A teleconferencing, each had their appropriate use. The instructional task would lay out the very precise objectives for the time we had, and the greatest potential failure conditions. Instructional design was more like analyzing and designing a bridge than it was imitating what they did in high school or college.
On the job, training COST REAL PROFITS. When you compute the cost of keeping a student in a chair and the hourly wages your company is paying them, against the profits they could be bringing in during that time, your goal is NOT to keep him or her in class. It is too expensive.
Now my instructional design class had all this in it. But as many times as an engineer took the “Train the Trainer” sessions, these guys could not grasp the concepts. They would give my Training Department some lip service to get their budgets, and continued to teach the way they always taught.
If I trusted even the smartest engineer to go and give it his best, he chose the pedagogical paradigm. We would get a few good stories, an inappropriate joke or two, and half a day wasted in front of forty engineers billing at $125/hour - telling them what they could read in any issue of Power Engineering magazine in 20 minutes at lunch. Costing $20,000 of the corporate training budget was not a very good return on investment, when the old basketweaver from liberal arts (i.e., me) could’ve gotten the same testable results for the cost of forty sandwiches, pickles, and Pepsi.
The word “training” meant “classroom,” and a classroom meant “schooling.”
First, a note on my concept of “learning drag.” It is a metaphor comparing learning processes with something physical – specifically the impacts of a medium on an object moving through it. The metaphor is not entirely appropriate. The phenomenon we are actually describing was once called “apperception,” and considered to be one of the great discoveries of 19th century psychologists. Apperception was all the rage of educators in the 1890’s –for it implied that whatever you perceive is shaped by pre-existing associations and conceptual structures. [example]
Apperception was considered a function of perception –it took place throughout life experience, and was not simply to applied to issues of learning. It describes nicely how the coach taught us a new way to perceive our activity – allowing us to make something happen which would not have taken place otherwise. Apperception might explain my sensory perception of an intense effort being accompanied by constricting my throat and holding my breath. It does not include the counter-productive effects on each stroke, or the symptom of letting air out in a massive grunt. I propose that ‘learning drag’ includes the notion of apperception, but applies it to the context of ‘moving forward.’ It is the educator’s task to find out what pre-existing associations and cognitive structures are being used to sort experience – whether in the child or the teen or the adult - in order to work out a plan to neutralize them, and let new learning take place.
This is not an easy task, but it is made somewhat easier because the dominant culture of students shapes so much of how they “apperceive.” A teacher may not know a student’s cognitive structures, but they can guess at the pre-existing associations they use to sort experience – for these are drawn directly from the culture, specifically that of the media, and is made evident by the local subcultural cues they choose to display.
In the case of educators themselves, the forward motion which is being impeded is supposedly the “improvement of school performance.” I shall try to show that as long as we are pulling our oars and grunting, we shall never improve the system beyond its current level. No matter how much brute force we apply in terms of money and technology – even where we can afford to reduce the class-size in half – there are conceptual issues which will hold us back. One of these has been foisted on education by the political and business establishment – and it is the system of benchmarks. I actually applaud the concept, as it comes from the training industry. But we have incurred a grave misapplication of principles which will impede any progress forward.
Training and education are different animals. Unfortunately, like cows and deer and bison and elk can interbreed to produce jumping cows or lumbering beasts, we often get them confused and put them in the same pen. We have, unfortunately, in our current education system, created a great lumbering beast with very little economic value. Neither does it have much natural value in enhancing the environment – for cross-breeds of elk and bison do not survive well in the wild, and jumping cows do not provide good milk.
Education is for anything and everything which can be applied in life’s future. It is not essentially measurable against its aims, for “life’s future” is different for everyone and has entirely different acceptance criteria according to people’s differing personalities.
Training is, on the other hand, a measurable endeavor. Objectives which can be precisely stated can be precisely taught and precisely measured. The acceptance criteria is practical; quality is scientific – that is, as statistically based as the measurement of physical systems.
The notion of benchmarks is derived from the military and corporate training model. It replaces the pedagogical paradigm developed over decades of American experience with the organizational paradigm of today. Objectives-based training, you see. In our old pedagogical model of schools, it was the student’s responsibility to learn - or else he or she would flunk, greatly embarrassing the parents and relatives of the poor student in question. This had to be changed in the litiginous and risk-free society we currently live in. It was practical to take up the andragogical model, where the adult is self-motivated, and it is the system’s responsibility to make that self-motivated adult succeed.
Stated this way, the problem of mating the elk with the bison is clear – we tell the child they are still responsible for their learning, but we will now blame the system if the objectives are not achieved. There may be a mixed-message here, but this is not the key problem. The key is that in the industrial, corporate, or military model – the adult learner has accepted the game of learning before each and every class. In today’s training environment, learners are typically given a list of learning objectives and the precise criteria used to test their accomplishment. The adult learner, however, is motivated to accept this contract – for they have entered into it as they would a contract. This, essentially, is their apperception of the educational experience – for it is played within the context of free will which is used within the larger envelope of personal goals and objectives. A child placed in Kindergarten and sent to school from the end of August until June has not necessarily accepted anything except immediate necessity. The negative pressures of discipline once provided a strong motivation to play the game. But we are no longer allowed to discipline a child for misbehaving, nor flunk the child for not learning.
And yet it is the responsibility of society to motivate every child to obtain the skills with which to earn their living. Since there are so few standard families around to sustain a common culture and provide that envelope of personal motivation - we have placed total accountability with the school, and responsibility with our teachers to pull off this miracle. And we have imported the technology of the military and corporate life - i.e. the testable objectives of training systems - to monitor our teachers and schools, and make them accountable to the great national task.
No educational agenda can ever hope to succeed if it exists apart from the meaningful framework in which learner lives and operates. For without that, there will be no drag -there will be no movement at all. Without a way to create self-motivated learners, our education system remain a useless hybrid - resembling an effective training organization like a drag-queen resembles a home-coming queen.
How I got Interested in Learning Theory
When I wath in the fourth grade, I thtill lithped. D'en thomeone figured dat thoon it wouldn't be tho very cute, and dey'd better get me fixthed.
So they sent me to a lisp fixer, who came to the principal's office once a week on Thursdays. Because it was hard to imagine anyone making their living fixing lisps, and, to oblige all these grown-ups, but mostly because it got me out of Mrs. Doul's 4th grade bathroom green basement classroom with pipes running across the ceiling, I went. It was not because, perish the thought, I believed there was ANYTHING wrong with ME.
The lisp fixer told me just where to place my tongue on my teeth when I said ETH's, and when I did she told me I was saying perfect ESS's and so just to oblige her in her office I put my tongue on my teeth where she told me, and when I left her office I did as I pleased. And after a while, during Family Council at dinner time, my parents would ask if I was learning anything at the lisp fixer, and I would show them all the silly exercises where she would tell me to put my tongue, and I showed them that it was really silly and, "see, there's no differenth between ETH and ESS, so I oughtta thtop going to d'ose Silly meetingth in duh principalth offiSS."
And they said, "No, can't you see she's doing FINE. You're starting to say your S's correctly."
And I turned to my big brother who was in the 7th grade, and was very smart and asked HIM if HE could hear any difference between ETH and ESS, and weren't mom and dad just thticking up for the adults? And he sort of grimaced and put some food in his mouth, because we were still friends in those days, and sang lots of ukelele duets, and I figure he didn't want to lose his harmony parts, lithp or thtutter or not.
And to get another vote in my favor I turned to my little brother who was in Kindergarten and very outspoken on many subjects, like what kids he liked and what kids he didn't like - and I asked him if he could hear any difference when I thaid ETHTH and when I thaid ESSSS (and I thaid them very long so he could tell there was no differenth). And he thaid there WAS a difference, and he thought that the second sounded right. And he got tickled for about a half hour thtraight after dinner. And I figured I'd better put my tongue on my teeth and try fooling my parents, too. My little brother was just siding with my parents, because we weren't exactly friends just then. That was obvious enough.
Theveral weeks went by. And at Family Council and with the Lisp Straightener, I put my tongue where they told me - - just to humor them. For the truth was clearest to my ears, who was closest to it, that there was no difference between ETH and ESS, and they just had their mind stuck on that ESS. Until the proverbial day - a day which obviously changed my life, since I'm still writing about it - when I discovered what it really means to have your head up your ETH.
Slowly, but very thlowly, my tongue - of its own volition - began to tire of ththticking itself forcefully out the corner of my canines to pronounce what is known in Lisp Sstraightening Sssircles as a Ssssibilant ESSSSSS. My tongue had decided that the center of my upper teeth was adequate and cost less conscious effort (on its part, not mine). So with that little bit of practice, each day at Family Council, and once a week under the eagle eye of the Straightener, it had begun to say ESS more frequently than ETH, without me being any the wiser - since I obviously couldn't see any difference between the two. And pretty soon I wasn't saying ETH hardly at all.
That's when the Lisp Straightener asked me to read into the wire recorder. It was the same paragraph she'd asked me to read the first day I came to her office. Then she played back my voice. This was before tape recorders, so I was pretty excited, and real attentive. I heard me saying a few sentences loaded with sibilants. Then she put another reel on the recorder, and played that for me. I waDTH THaying all the THame THentenTHes loaded with THibilantDTH, only I waDTHent THaying them right. She had tricked me that first day, and made a wire recording then, too.
I turned slightly pink and displayed a sickly sweet smile, which is otherwise known as a shit-eating grin. For indeed, I first experienced that feeling that all those years my head had been up my proverbial you-know-where. And so, from the 4th grade on, I became interested in cognition and the truth-criterion of knowledge.
If practice made perfect, then no one in the NBA should ever miss a foul shot. It is the exact same set of moves, from the exact same location, with the same sized ball, using all the same finger muscles. Figuring anybody who makes the NBA has been playing basketball since they were ten, how many foul-shots have they taken - in practice or in games - by the time they are out there on the court at the NBA finals? What could go wrong to make them miss?
I got started studying the phenomenon of practice for a very specific reason. Not because I had spent my entire suburban youth - from third grade on - practicing several sports each year, and musical scales year round. Banish the thought. Practice was a way of life. Boredom. Frustration. Fatigue. Exhaustion.
Not because it got me much of anywhere. I was usually always on the bench and played second fiddle to the real talents, besides. I believed everything they told me about “If at first you don’t succeed --- try, try again.”
The reason I started looking at all the different components of practice is when I first realized that there were lots of things my body could do without me knowing how it was happening. This is obvious. This is why we train our bodies as if they are uncomprehending animals. But that had never occurred to me as interesting until one day I was wondering how people could easily distinguish the sound of an evil laugh from a full-bodied hearty HO-HO Ho one. This is one of those silly things that strikes you like a hammer-blow to the forehead -you’ve been staring at the sky full of clouds and you suddenly notice the sunset.
At that moment I became aware of the important role which passive perception plays in our everyday lives. Up to then, I had believed that learning was all about learning things consciously, like we did in school, studying them and repeating them back at tests until we knew them.
As soon as I recognized my first example of passive perception, I saw it all around me. Particularly in the activities that defined my life up to that time - practicing sports and music. All day long, with no time for play. Practice to become better at it. So maybe Mike Holly is going on to the Olympic trials for breaststroke. And Jim Tanner is state champion for butterfly. So what if you’re always a lap behind? Everyone can’t be a winner. You practice practice morning and night, lap after lap after lap after lap, just to hold your head high and stay on the team with the local heros!
Well, so what was all this practice doing? How could I ever teach my body to do things it didn’t know how to do? Would I ever learn to do a flip-turn like those guys? How many years of practice before I could do a lip-trill or double-tongue fast enough to fool my teacher? It was not from lack of practice.
And so, many years after this, I began to think about practice. The callousses, the hurts. The boredom and frustration, when there were so many other things you wanted to do. How you would take yourself beyond fatigue, beyond breath, to a place where your brain could think of practically nothing but the pain and the number of moments it had to go before you could quit. How did you prod yourself on? How did you fake yourself out?
I thought maybe the winners didn’t get bored with it, or frustrated either. To them, each step, each stroke, each second third and fiftieth try was readying a few more cells in their body, one mini-step closer to assuring their ultimate success, and proving that humankind’s dreams of self-betterment were real. Like I said, how did you fake yourself out?
When my kids hit their middle teens they both turned into body-builders. I had never forced either one to practice anything as I had been forced. Per mother’s instructions and gentle prodding (often at the top of her gentle lungs) their only world of discipline was their schoolwork. No sports. No music. No TV. Just books and play and TV at their friends’ houses. After all that growing up with no practicing experience it turned them on something fierce to watch as their their musculature responded, week after week, to each of the exercises prescribed for them atthe local gym (where all the hotties hung out). They were soon becoming the image of their coach, a nice ex-Mr.Universe who did some time as a bodyguard for the mob with an extra fifteen years in the slammer as trigger-man, which oddly enough, takes no musculature at all.
We had always dreamed of having our kids get a well-rounded education. To our unbounded glee, both kids suddenly took up that strict regimen of life they’d never known. Practice schedules: wake-up calls to run, curl, push-up and whatever before school. Gym after school. Absolute attention to their diet and careful ingestion of every fibre and root and berry which might improve bulk and substitute for steroids, for we didn’t allow the steroids. In fact, it was a sure thing - if you just followed the instructions, after several hundred thousand pulls and pushes and grunts and stuff, you could have giant shoulders and biceps, striations in all the right places, and properly greased and flexed alongside your benchmate, a perfect representation of the exoskeleton of a tick. Which, if you’ve never looked at under a microscope, is quite like that of a crab. The new ideal of mankind was to have a massive striated breastplate, carefully-rendered pincers, and a little head turned to the side. They were enthralled with the living breathing posturing realization that practice can indeed make you perfect.
My daughter’s Junior prom photos were very romantic - posed as Miss Universe- strapless, with back muscles flared and biceps flexed, as she held her diminutive date above her head, his tails on her head, entwined with her hair in the breeze.
Which reminds me that, for a long time, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the phenomena of practice, either. When I practiced, in fact, it made no sense. Only after I parsed it all out into its components did I figure out that everything, everything about learning, balances on pacing - and discovering the proper pacing strategy was different for each skill, and for each person.
Learning to learn was about pacing yourself against the edges of fatigue - those mental and physical boundaries which caused you to lose it, and fall out of the game of practicing. Bouncing from one type of learning to another, different types of pattern-development on different patterns, keeping the pinball in play. The practice game is a pacing game, as you rack up miniscule points towards a better performance. The game of life is like this, too.
We’re all built with different pluses and minuses, attitudes, aptitudes, and abilities. Some of us must say things before we can understand them - some of us must watch and watch and watch and chew.
There are some of us can do perfect imitations of animals, accents, and comedians. Some of us focus on a page of print and see the white as the meaningful “print” and the black as the background, It makes reading especially hard. Some of us get our only meal at the school cafeteria, and haven’t seen clean sheets for the drunken mess we must step over to get to the bus on time each day.
It should be an immensely rewarding - but extremely convoluted task, for a school full of teachers to help each new kid wander through twelve years of their life and eventually discover the pacing strategies best suited to them. Of course, it may be a different pacing strategy for each of the basic skills they’ll need to eventually participate in our social economy in a self-confirming and fulfilling way.
Education of our kids is not a standardized scenario for standardized mentalities. It is not to be defined by the carefully wrought potential products of the academic or the sports program, nor measured only by the number of graduates we get accepted into colleges divided by the drop-out rate. My goodness, if we are to measure the success of our schools it is only in the success of our society - for we can no longer depend on our families or our churches to lead the way.
Besides the school system, the only other scapegoat to depend on, or blame, would be the community (which includes the backyard, the street, and the shopping mall), and the media. So we’d better count on the school system, or figure out a way to make it all into a continuum - where even life outside school and practice feeds something to do with human needs. Like the need to play, and the need for refreshment, and the need to ‘chill’ as our bodies and minds are expanding and growing on their own.
How can we do this?
How can we structure our lives so that we learn and grow through play, and through habit-building and repetition of patterns. How can we pace things so that our interest is maintained - to learn to coordinate our bodies and minds in so many different ways. How do we pace our confidence, to learn about ourselves in all those different states of fatigue, discouragement and interest? How do we overcome each stumbling block. How do we learn to concentrate?
How do we learn to make the black print come into focus, instead of the white? How do we un-notice all the sensory junk, that blooming buzzing jungle, that our minds tell us is important, but our teacher keeps saying is getting in the way - feelings and energies that don’t help a particular skill-set develop? How do we maintain interest on objectives which are purely defined by the accidental configurations of the world, or by the rules of a somebody else’s game? How do we concentrate all our current resources into the pinball game of practice - the balancing game of learning to learn? Or indeed, what practice do we need to perfect that game of life --- learning to grow?
This is what we need coaches for - coaches who are our real teachers in life. It is teachers, in fact, above anyone else who have the chance to be our real coaches in life. And our teachers and our schools must accept the role of helping us learn the game of learning… to find our pace, and learn to pace…. to uncover our areas of fatigue, frustration, boredom, and exasperation, and play off of them in a pinball game to keep the exercise ball in play. To help us learn to love the game, and let practice build the biceps of an academic skill. And of course remembering that if an NBA player can’t make every foul-shot, why should we expect practice to make life perfect?
There is this phrase among engineers that goes, “Don’t go re-inventing the wheel,” which means, “Don’t go back and try to figure out what everyone else has figured out long before you.” Which really means, “Respect what those before you have done.” It is unfortunately used to mean “don’t question our assumptions on this job,” and is not, for that reason, a particularly helpful maxim.
There is another reason that people use this phrase, and that is because they don’t want to expend any more mental energy than is necessary to get through the task at hand, and move onto something else. And so I should warn you that this is a particularly dense chapter which you are free to skip. The next essay, and most of the following chapter are also pretty tough going – so if you want to trust the fact that we are in the midst of re-inventing the educational wheel, please go ahead to “The New Basis of Civilization,” which is simply an essay with some conjectures – a form of writing I prefer to that which lays before you.
I have done my best to respect what those before me have thought. In fact, nearly everything I am asserting is about as old as the hills, as modern as the latest report commissioned by the Department of Education, and going back to the days of Aesop and Homer. Mankind is hardly new to education, nor are any of the potential relationships of man to man, woman to man, parent to child, etc. So the basic tenet that education is a means to raise children to their adult roles is expected to be restated many times and in many ways. What is new to each generation is the social environment.
Let me say that again. What is new to each generation is the social environment. Everything we surround ourselves with change the permutations of possible combinations between men; how individuals interact are now mediated by entirely new potentials, and require new explication and re-integration as we search out fresh pastures and the ‘next level’ of social and human achievement.
Yet we are admonished time and time again “not to reinvent the wheel” even though we only intend to improve on the design for changes in the road surface. Gravel, mud, and railroad tracks want different wheels.
Our goal is to take a new look at the general theory of education, with the premise that we will not necessarily find anything new, but that given the changed circumstances of society and its priorities, that different aspects of the mix may come to the fore while others fall into the background which were in 1960 considered the cat’s pajamas.
For now, I’d like to find something better than “reinventing the wheel” when it comes to an analogy for performing creative intellectual work. It is rather typical of engineers to relate intelligence to levers and wedges – and the physical principles of levers and wedges are what makes wheels work. But don’t tell that to the guy who invented the wheel.
Now there is another metaphor which might do us better. It is inimical to engineers: Basket-weaving. The philosophy and science of weaving - including all the textile arts - has been sadly neglected, and whoever makes us realize that making thread from wool or cotton is more important than wheels and wedges deserves a MacArthur prize. After you’ve tried sewing together enough shoes, bearskin jackets, and leather trousers from cat-gut, whoever it was that made the leap to weave a flaxen shawl or a silk robe the way you weave a cane basket deserves a place in the Engineering Hall of Fame! And whoever came up with a loom deserves the chairmanship of Microsoft!
Using an analogy from the world of fibers is much more compatible to a complex intellectual process of breaking everything down to component strands, spinning, carding, warping and weaving the whole into a new fabric which may closely resemble the old, but is more durable and expedient for today’s uses.
I was never taught much about textiles.
As a child I had dreamed of becoming lots of things, among them, an “efficiency expert” like Thomas Gilbreth, one of the fathers of scientific management at the turn of the last century. He was the actual father in Cheaper by the Dozen, where I had first learned about job and performance analysis.
My very first job, however, was for my father, who suggested that I take touch-typing in tenth grade so that I could find work over the following summers typing the forthcoming manuscripts for his book Money, Flow of Funds, and Economic Policy at seventy-five cents a page. It will become immediately evident, whence the term ‘socio-economic’ should find so prominant a place in my own title. You see, I was not a fast typist on a Royal Standard typewriter, and earned about thirty cents an hour – so issues of job analysis and the injustices of the economy were etched deeply into my brain.
Finally escaping to college, and having
forgotten about my childhood dreams of becoming an efficiency expert, I studied
Cultural Anthropology in order to discover why different cultures seemed to
provide their adherents with so much of the meaning of life…. Which is to say,
by the time I got to college I wanted to get serious about the study of the
meaning of life. Getting out of college,
of course, I found out there were few, if any jobs during the Vietnam War era
for all the cultural anthropologists with advanced degrees being churned out by
universities. My interests had shifted,
as they often do at that age, and by the time I graduated, Gregory Bateson’s Ecology
of the Mind had taken me into the theories of perception, during those
early days just before the birth of Cognitive Science. Jobs being what they were, I took work
wherever I could – and after a stint as a typist in the
I arrived at the engineering firm several
weeks before a minor core leak in the reactor at
I tried to construct learning theory around the different possible ways to point to a pattern that you’ve never seen before. Taking a lesson straight from the Lisp Fixer of my childhood, I felt that distinguishing and differentiating something is, fundamentally, another way to say that something has been ‘learned.’ Distinguishing and differentiating does not substitute for the ability to reproduce – but when conceived as a mode of ‘pointing,’ or ostension, they are related to one another as well as to tracing and copying. At least they seemed about as connected to each other as a wheel is related to a wedge and a lever and a screw.
After leaving my philosophical typing job I had been at work on a childrens’ book on practicing. This is where the previous chapter came from, but without the pictures. I was deep into the problem of how the senses seem to work in tandem without any conscious intervention of the individual – just as I had learned to speak an “Ss” without differentiating it from an “sth”, and could be tricked into recognizing the difference, somehow my senses were capable of learning things without me. In fact, I might be the last one to find out!
The key to all childhood practice, it now seemed to me, was learning to pace oneself through several categories of fatigue and boredom as one continually pursued imitation and repetition.
Pacing is something I hardly understood as a child, and something which few of my athletic coaches had ever stressed but which I found written up in Runners’ World publications. The teaching of musical instruments has historically developed a complex culture of pacing strategies, and after years of struggling with a french horn it was natural that I should arrive at such conclusions.
Lisping had opened me to the critical importance of being able to make differentiations in sensory data, and that rote performance and dumb repetition might have something to do with pattern recognition. After all, I figured, if I am simply looking at a blur and can’t pick out what you keep pointing at – how does it suddenly appear out of the blue as bright and unmistakable as a neon sign? The problem of pattern-recognition is a special case of the general problem of recognition. This seemed to be a version of the problem of pointing. But of course no one generally bothers to notice that pointing is a problem.
And so I decided to take a closer look at the theory of copying. If you can’t make this logical leap between pointing and copying, consider this. Copying is an alternative way to consider representation of something, which entails the ability to see, or point at, particular features which are to be copied. Copying is also inherent in the process of imitation, which would seem to be an easy target if we want to study the learning of skills. At least it would seem easy.
Now there are many good performers who have no idea of what their correct performances are really about - whether these be test-taking performances or sonata-playing performances. They can not explain how or why anything fits together, and cannot modify their act under altered circumstances. But they can give you the right answer or perform the piece perfectly every time if they are in the right test-taking or performance setting.
There are some problems with this. The key problem is that they might never learn to modify the performance under novel circumstances. They know the answers to a thousand questions by heart, but cannot fathom the answers if the questions are altered somewhat. The jazz riffs have been perfectly mastered for a single arrangement and at the same tempo as the recording, but just don’t come off with much balance when the band is improvizing on its own. Given these examples of rote memorization, blind imitation can be particularly blind and poverty-stricken.
But in many cases imitation, even blind imitation, can be a valid route to true understanding. This is NOT a preferred methodology in today’s model classroom, but I am a firm believer that under some circumstances, for some learners attempting to grasp certain concepts or rules or grammars, that rote learning should find its place again.
Consider someone blindly imitating a role model ¾let’s say, the latest TV tough guy like ‘da Bronz’ ¾ without understanding how or why this tough guy acts the way he does. It is only after you have gotten the imitation down to a science that you realize you are now as screwed up inside as the role model for the original Bronzorello must have been. Which is to say, the internal generation rules got created after the patently fake exterior was put on.
Do something without understanding it, and the truths underlying your actions will come slowly and slyly upon you. Which is to say, if you do something long enough, eventually you will figure out what it is you’ve been doing all those years.
We have struggled over the last half-century to erase all vestiges of rote learning, or the presence of this maxim born of deep human truths… for there is no logic left standing to support rote learning. Education should be creative. Education should engage our conscious faculties and increase our feelings of self-worth.
But why shouldn’t education have the look of learning piano or karate? Why shouldn’t it mean calluses and sprains, stretched muscles, exasperation, fear, doubt, boredom…and faith?
We all recognize the problems with an education theory that is based on imitation. For example, we have all witnessed someone (obviously someone dumb) trying to teach something with the admonition,
“Now, just watch what I do, and you’ll understand…”
We can expect that the most critical aspects of their demonstration will never be seen by the person who must perform the imitation. The learner cannot yet recognize the pattern, and doesn’t grasp the production rules.
This is the problem with teaching by imitation. What the learner must do is to rely on many different sensory faculties, and many approaches to tracing or reproducing a copy in order to make their attempt. If they are lucky in imitating the demonstration, many instructors simply will confirm that the lesson has been learned and go on to the next--without wondering why or how it was learned.
A good coach purposely changes the situation and keeps watching. Being able to maintain the integrity of patterns under altered circumstances is a mark of having learned something, because it generally means that some part of the brain or body has miraculously (unconsciously) produced the generation rules.
This is the key to carefully programmed rote learning - for it turns out that experience of any kind cannot be got through just a single channel of the brain, but must be absorbed in many ways, and reproduced in any number of forms. This, in fact, is the logic to rote learning. While we are doing things over and over, mutely attempting (under the lashing eyebrows of the instructor) to maintain a constant dumb performance, all the while our body is undergoing its standard cycle of changes and adjustments to the environment, while different mechanisms are put into play to keep that dumb imitation of a performance the same. This is, in fact, how the performance generation rules are eventually derived, or theoretically, how they can be derived without our conscious intervention.
This is NOT the centerpiece of a theory of learning, however, nor is it the basis upon which an educational paradigm is to be built. Rather, it is a counter-argument to our prevailing way of thinking, which is intended to wake you up to new possibilities. It is a way at looking at a number of inherent problems with pattern recognition and pattern generation. We have already considered the critical importance of differentiation to skill and concept learning – that is, the ability to point out the differences between similar patterns, or recognize distinct configurations in muddled clouds. The next step is to put this into a larger context.
And the larger context is my very own model, “The Alliterative Learning Matrix,” otherwise known as “mypothesis.” It is yet one more attempt to come up with an ideal set of principles from which anyone can generate a map of all the problems of learning out of just two M-words: our Motivations to learn and the built-in Mechanics of cognition. Through extrapolation of these into their many components, we can then derive a discussion concerning the arts and sciences of teaching. The only real problem with this little system for remembering (my mnemonic), is that there are too many M-words in the dictionary suggesting themselves as metaphors for important categories and terms which I want to use. What began as just two M-Words was suddenly ten, and then fourteen or fifteen until I completely lost count. In fact, as you may find out yourself, it quickly becomes an obsession, and you cannot seem to stop generating M-words for the life of you! This has one saving grace: the alliterative learning matrix is also onomotopoedic, that is, it becomes an example or realization of itself – letting you see how quickly something so simple becomes a complex system, an absolute chaos of inter-related causes and conditions, reflex reactions and synaptic synergies!
In any case, once we can generate the most high-level map of why and how we learn, and extrapolate this to an educational envelope which includes both schools and teachers, it will become quickly apparent that the arts and sciences of teaching are not what our teachers are allowed to do under the present circumstances, though most of them have jumped into their first years of teaching brim full of pedagogical science and all the arts of their personal creative style to fill their charges with enthusiasm for learning. We will use this alliterative learning matrix to see just how difficult teaching will be under the best conditions, and come to realize that it is veritably impossible given the assumptions foisted upon our educators in today’s reality.
I might have used ‘P’-words, I suppose, since I’ve already discussed pointing, the problem of pattern recognition and pacing, adding ‘promise’ and ‘prizes’ for the learning incentives. But ‘M’s can be stretched into a continuous hummmmmmm as long as you can hold your breath, and to do the same with ‘P’s you must make the sound of a lawnmower starting up: “The PPPPPPPPPPPParadigm of Learning.” Besides, it is matrix (a proper one with columns and rows) rather than a paradigm, which is why I have stuck with the ‘M’s. However, so as to stand out in the text, I will first show you the matrix in the form of a 1950’s hood ornament, thus:
Figure 1: The Alliterative Learning MmmmmMmmmmatrix = My Hypothesis
Learning Motivations and Mechanisms are the ‘Why’ and ‘How’ of that famous old mnemonic for business presentations: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. It should be quickly obvious that the ‘Who’ is the student. It is a little less obvious that the ‘What, When, and Where’ in the scheme are variables which the ‘How’ and the ‘Why’ will help us figure out – that is, these are the basic constants that teachers have at their disposal as they (or any of us) try to educate the student (or anyone else, like our partners, for example).
I will make the best of this hypothesis in a moment, but I must also explain why the word “Mastery” is circled. It is not just because this is the goal of the entire process, but also because you have no doubt noticed the second diagram which will give you good cause to doubt my entire alliterative construction. I hardly have to explain why.
This drawing has two ‘hot’ words in it: miracles and magic. They are ‘hot words’ especially for their New Age connotations, but of course they were just as hot in Sir Isaac Newton’s time. I try to cool them down somewhat by adding a qualifier (which is not an M-word): ‘co-incidence’. But finally, there is that glaring problem of a new construction to our vocabulary. It is my own, and I call it– “The Moebius Metaphor.”
I have found that the Moebius strip is very helpful as a metaphor to understand a basic conundrum in life – the rather rapid oscillation of global and local perspectives in both our thinking and behavior. We are often faced with choosing between acting for ourselves alone or a larger community of people – which is the local/global riddle in its most relevant and obvious form. We are also familiar with coaches telling us to stop getting hung up on details and concentrate on the larger picture – the follow-through, the goal, or whatever.
My hypothesis about ‘Mastery’ is that it it is somehow linked to the problem of making local/global connections – through the many nested levels of sensory perception and conceptual structures.
In the picture of the strip I have stated one condition of the metaphor, that – “what applies globally does not follow locally.” It can be said in many different ways – but most importantly, taken as a whole, the strip is a realization that both local and global are one, that they are two truths taken together, both opposed and unified. Here’s the twist – that by twisting a strip of paper one can connect opposite edges to one another, also two opposite sides of any ‘argument’: the two faces of the paper become one continuous face. Confronted with a Moebius Strip and the idea that at every local point the opposition of two sides and opposite edges is real, one finds a very fruitful comparison to life: that the oscillation between local and global is continuous and everpresent.
As I said, the Moebius Metaphor might just be a key to understanding what has confounded educators and trainers for centuries – that along with the term ‘co-incidence’ (or as coaches like calling it, ‘the Click’) we have a way to describe that something, that ‘Miracle’ that is going on in the process of ‘Mastery.’ Once a diver gets a double twist gainer for the first time, it never leaves them…. But getting it the first time can be a hard process.
Conceptually, how do you get someone to “see the gestaldt”? It happens differently for all of us, when suddenly the global picture merges with the local one – they provide each other with the definition that somehow firms up their inter-relationship, and what were simply words suddenly have meaning. It happens differently because the twist could be anywhere, and usually it is barely visible.
Now to any 2nd grader who has been exposed to Moebius Stips, they are old and stupid and simplistic – there is little in them of interest. But it is very easy to pass a strip around the class when you are trying to assess the many apparent “paradoxes” in the logic of life. For when you have them look at the strip ‘locally’ – that is at any given point – your fingers can be very sure that they are touching two opposing sides of the paper, and two opposite edges as well. But if you run your finger down any edge or face of the strip – taken ‘globally’ – you are bewildered to find yourself suddenly on the opposite side. And then, of course, you open everyone’s eyes wide by letting them take a scizzors and start cutting the strip down the center – for they find they can never cut it in half –only make it into a bigger loop. And this demonstration is also very applicable to those paradoxes in the logic of life, as well.
Now if you place each of my diagrams into their place in the previous diagram, you will notice that the Moebius Metaphor fits into the Mastery diagram – but that the Mastery diagram itself helps complete and understand the Motivation branch of the larger Learning Model – which itself is only the “how we learn” and “why we learn” branches of the larger “who, what, when, where, how, and why” of Education as a whole. I will let you try drawing this larger map for yourself, for it is still way beyond my comprehension – and would definitely require a fold-out, which my publisher has saved me the trouble of considering.
Once the drawings are nested inside each other, the meaning of ‘The Click,’ ‘Co-incidence’, ‘Miracles,’ and ‘Magic’ become a bit more evident. I will leave it to you to make most of the connections, since a lengthy discussion would be overkill and require hyperboles of New Age proportions. However, I shall explain “The Magic of Happiness.” This is included, and so-worded, because we shall have recourse to it when discussing the meaning of “Life Literacy.”
Remember that the Moebius Metaphor is only a metaphor, but I have used it as the glue holding mypothesis together. Without the Moebius Metaphor I am probably sunk, for I also propose that local/global continuity checks are used as a measurement criterion, a general test of perception – and become the basis for Metrics.
This will complete our coverage of the Motivation side of the Alliterative Learning Model. I must add that for all the miracles of mastery and meaning that might take place at the cusp of the local and global, there is ample room for mistakes.
This is especially true of “the Magic of Happiness” and its contribution to personal Meaning. It is in fact just as counter-productive (if not more) than it is productive. I will treat this briefly below, when we must address the innateness of arrogance, hypocracy, and bluffing – for indeed, every teacher must deal with the obstreperous and willful side of human nature, especially the most natural and childish of human natures.
Let’s turn to the “Mechanism” side of “How we Learn” on my Alliterative Learning MmmmmMmmmmMatrix. It includes “behavioral modeling” with mimicry. Memory includes both memories of conscious perception of experience as well as programmed memories, e.g. “habits.” It includes the unconscious recording of nonconscious perceptions – such as a particular smell of a battle bringing back the scenes and screams of that instant of war. Memory is random, ad hoc. It is a mechanism we can tame to the uses and needs of education.
The other branch, Modeling, is similar to Memory in that it, too, is taking place whether we want it to or not, beneath consciousness, along with the stream of perceptual life, ad hoc. Mimicry and mapping are simply convenient M-words to assign to the two aspects of perceptual problem-solving. Perception is about pointing, pattern recognition and testing. Perception is all about making differentiations on which action can be based.
They say if you ask a person to write down a list of all their personal heroes over their growing up, you will have a good handle on who they are. It is also a good exercise to play on yourself if you are interested in finding out who you are. Our heros provide us images of how we would like to actualize ourselves – that is, what our potential might be. It should not take much to demonstrate the importance this may have to education, or for any educational model-building – since our personal models help us prioritize what is and is not important to pay attention to, believing we can guess what may or may not have been important to our particular heros.
Kids often grow up to have many different types of heroes, not exactly realizing how different Uncle Bernie is from Vanilla Ice. Sometimes, it is difficult to decide which hero you want to act like in a particular situation, since several different heroes might have gotten you into the predicament in the first place. As I said, it is an interesting exercise to go through for yourself.
You are allowed to list heroes from literature and film as well as from real true life. This is important, because the ones from life may turn around and disappoint you after they have become your hero - whereas the ones in books and films never change. But of course YOU change, and you may have a second or third opinion as you grow older and watch the film or read the book again and again. Those characters frozen in time will continue to make the same mistakes and say the same old lines, and you may one day see through your nostalgia and realize that they don’t impress you so much anymore.
There is another difference, however, since real live heroes who you have known and talked to leave you something very personal, which is nearly indelibly branded in your consciousness - part of your growth - and this will not change no matter how much you change, or how much they change.
Let’s look at this predilection for identifying the self with others. It is fundamentally a representation test checking continuity of the self with its immediate environment. This test, however, can quickly lead to imitation.
Now we are all familiar with the term “model.” A model is an hypothesis or an ideal (which is nothing more than a representation of something within a larger hypothetical system). The basic purpose of a model is to refine it. If one does not have recourse to the facts, or if one is simply in the organization stage of an activity – you create a model of the action environment, and let the activity itself test, correct, and fill out the details the model.
The model is an ideal representation of something – anything - put together to help direct our actions concerning it, all of which end up as a series of tests of our original conception. Consider an old-time paper street map. If I am using my map to deliver a pizza, it can show me all the roads and how they connect, but not how the houses are numbered, one-way streets, nor any of the new developments. A map generated from an internet service will give me a good idea of where each number on any street will lie, but may also send me the wrong way down a one-way street. Neither map will show me five grueling minutes of switchback turns up the side of a mountain between the person’s mailbox and their front door. Pizzas and parcels must be delivered to the front door.
Clearly, there are different kinds of maps of the exact same reality. A road map is not a topographic map; a topographic map doesn’t include the soil and sedimentary contours. Neither type of maps show the power lines, the bus routes, or the infrastructure of sewers, water mains, or zoning districts. Luckily, towns and rivers have the same names on all the different maps and their relationship remains somewhat constant. So even if you and I are using quite different maps we can still agree on the main contours. Of course, this may still put us at odds over the characteristics of the lines which hold them together. Now you will remember that we are actually talking about mental paradigms, so-called “models,” and not maps at all. In my model of learning, if the railroad and power lines run straight over canyons, I am not insisting that the roads and sewer lines do.
The metaphor of maps – and many of us in various teaching professions are familiar with the term “mental maps,” – is very pertinent to our understanding that vast mass of obstreperous students who have their own models of the world. The model they’ve picked up from the media, no doubt, in conjunction with a dysfunctional home life. Here we are concerned with passing along our model of society – the social ideals as well as the knowledge and skills needed to participate in it – and these kids are openly hostile to it, simply refusing to integrate any of our model into their map of the world.
What appears on their map doesn’t seem appear on our map at all, as hard as we try to make the connection. The closer you get, their predilection for creating new fads will put you on the outside of their world.
They can do very well proving their maps work just fine, and that the school models represent something they’re not at all interested in. Not only that, but this is insinuated in everything they do or say, in their walk and mannerisms and all those scorn-lines showing on their face. This is part of a sign-language to influence all those other kids sitting on the fence, who would like to believe in our model – since it is being offered with less risk and lower interest payments than the competing world view of those worldly-wise street kids. They promise short-term pay-offs with high-risk and a good chance of high interest over the long-term…. But most fourth graders have a hard time contemplating how long the long-term really is.
In the really short-term, like all the time left before lunch or recess, you can count on their shared interest in being comfortable and feeling safe. So if you let them see how uncomfortable it will be if they don’t learn the school’s way of doing things. The school-way is derived from the broader prevailing definitions of society: the social standards of performance arrived at by several generations of boards of education and curriculum planners having hundreds of years of collective experience in the ways of the world. And so for that time between lunch and recess, depending on the weather outside and the number of distractions in the hallway, a variable percentage of the class may agree to work with your maps. They may eventually become interested in your model. But even then, if they already have a workable map of the world, it can be extremely difficult to get them to accept the utility of another. The best you can do with this kind of kid is to convince them to carry both maps with them at all times. Later in life, when interest payments on today’s preferred life seem to be holding them back, they may find that their facility in using your map is quite helpful.
Several chapters back we were calling this the problem of “learning drag.”
I was once at a picnic where some folks had to leave early to attend another affair. Even though it was their son’s picnic and they were the main guests, early in the afternoon they excused themselves with an explanation of the distance to the affair, and how long it would take them to get there. Having used the map in their head, which judged all distances as measured from their own front door, they never noticed that their next affair was only 14 miles east of the picnic, twenty minutes away. We explained to them that they could take a county highway, East 534, right at the convenience store two blocks away, directly to their next destination, they put up a fight. They were afraid of traveling on an old county road they’d never heard of before. They insisted on driving eight miles west on the same road to the freeway, taking that north forty-five miles to their house where they knew just how to catch the expressway. The affair was “right off the expressway” fifty five miles southeast of their house.. And so to the chagrin of their son and grandchildren, they left two hours early to race to their next destination.
Some people are just like that. They just refuse to replace their maps or models with ones that will make life easier, safer and more rewarding. Especially when someone is insecure and fearful of losing their self-image, confirming one’s own maps of reality always takes precedence.
Our obstreperous students say they know the way to where they are going. They insist they are only 14 miles away from tasting success far greater than anything we have to offer. They can’t see the swamps and topographic details and detours that could make those 14 miles take a lifetime, or leave them in a behavioral rehabilitation clinic. In many cases, because our maps only show big green blanks for the swamps and quarries, we can’t really describe what they are in for if they take that route. Our map doesn’t show the hiking trails, and our directions sound extremely long. Or answers sound like we’re simply scared to leave the beaten path, and prefer taking the freeway north forty miles.
What we can’t make them see is that for the most part, is that we are talking about the same kind of road, or map. We need to draw the connections between the motivations to learn in school and motivations to succeed outside of school. Essentially, we need to integrate the picture of life in school with the picture of the life outside. This is a big challenge for the education business - to add topography, sewer and power lines, as well as population and wildlife data to our maps. We need to convince kids from the day they enter Kindergarten, that we indeed know what we are talking about when it comes to their incomplete models of the world.
My models of the world are where I derive my meaning. I begin with one or more models of myself ¾ who I am, what I believe, how I feel and respond to things. Few of us (outside of therapy) have carefully-drawn maps of ourselves, but simply know our way around our neighborhood, instinctively getting from place to place. But if you put me down here, there, or elsewhere on this instinctive map, I will usually walk you through the same basic routes. And like those folks at the picnic, it is tough to motivate me otherwise.
We represent things to carry out the most basic activities; we use low-level feelings as the tests to check our day-to-day and moment-to-moment activities. Indeed, our senses seem to communicate with each other in complex inchoate representations which, if we are at all in touch with ourselves, become emotional representations. If we are not particularly in touch, we tend to turn our immediate world into a narration which we can sort out as a story rather than an inchoate mass of unprocessable energies. In our stories we are mapping events against a model – or rather, placing them on a map of cultural ideals, judging who was master of what situation where, when and where we got off-track – who gave us wrong directions, and who was protecting territory they didn’t want to expose.
All of this is about ad hoc definitions of performance that can be judged successful or not. Which is to say, that all of this is about metrics and mastery: all of this is about providing the feedback loops which are core to our individual self-image.
The principle we are actually wandering around is that of random associations – of ‘ad hoc’ maps and the imposition of individualized standards.
My wife and I are sitting at the kitchen table discussing vacation plans over breakfast. The cat has just eaten and is curled up between both our feet with his eyes closed, softly purring. He stretches out to yawn and I notice his presence, and insert his name in our conversation. Immediately he turns to look me in the eye. Not only does he show me that he knows his name, but that he has been processing our voices and the sounds of our conversation as part of his ‘ambient,’ or complete environment. He is not only aware of us, his contented condition is fully participating in us. He belongs.
I look across the street and see a woman gardening in front of her house, an older man sitting on the steps deep in thought, and a girl about twelve years old trying to learn to catch a twirling baton she has just tossed in the air. It is a picture of family serenity and peace. Without knowing what the man are woman are actually thinking – for it may be of debts or divorce – the picture and the activities as they appear on the surface assert a very simple truth: mutuality. The three are participating in life as a group; the action speaks for itself: they belong together.
Driving down one of those unexpected rural roads cutting through urban sprawl, my shortcut is cut short by a school bus dropping off kindergarteners to their individual homes. This gives me plenty of time to give thanks for my present condition and try to figure out how to get all of life’s commitments done in the little time allotted. But the bus driver seems to be sharing gossip with each of the parents. My resentment is slowly building up. I may as well be caught in a traffic jam between malls. But the resentments are short-lived as I watch a small child lifted off the bus by happy parents. One little boy is met by both grandparents, and before the cars start up again I see him walking hand-in-hand along a rock wall back towards his home. This is the ideal picture, the picture of a paradigm moment that represents what we want “home” to be for every child. A sense of love, security and promis resides in that picture and politicians of every stripe allude to it as the touchstone to give meaning to any of their programs. It is a sense of belonging which we see and identify with – from either the child’s still innocent point of view, or the confirmation of purpose in the grandparents’ chance to provide it.
So like every hack politician, I will look to this picture to make my point. And like a politician I will not remind us all of the depths of trauma incurred when the innocense of this scene is broken with the truths of the world. To take that “belonging” from anyone is to strip someone of hope, to expose raw emotions and bare bones existence. To replace promise with bitterness and cynicism, security with hunger for things to hide the fear, love with instant gratification. Enough. You have just had a cheap lesson in rhetoric.
In any case, let us recognize the ideal for what it is. How many children get the opportunity to feel this? The family that we idealize was not always so. Go back in history and think of how often circumstances ripped this picture of a family apart. Wars, sickness… but also economic pressures, social pressures. Consider how many novels begin with some calamity of childhood that colored the hero’s makeup and represent the beginning of the journey.
Children are extremely vulnerable because they can readily identify themselves as a special class of human beings that have not been admitted into the fraternity of life – because they are not old enough and have not had enough experience. Little do they realize that this sense of “not being admitted” exists for a large percentage of those who already drive cars and earn hourly wages and even big salaries. We need only survey our memories of childrens books, teen literature, romance novels and th eclassics ot remember how often the action revolves around this theme – either through a sense of longing to belong, the events surrounding its loss and restoration, or the path to its discovery and final attainment. I use “sense of belonging” because it includes both love and participatoin, and can be stretched ti imply ownerhsip, control and their negation – freedom. “I belong to you,” instead of “to be part of,” which is what the term ‘participation’ alludes to.
My hypothesis is that we use a sense of belonging (you can use the phrase as you would “a sense of time,’ or if you are New Age, a ‘sense of place,’ or Feng Sui) as a gauge of success in our efforts at life – of life’s integrity - and that we do this from earliest infancy until death.
You will no doubt take this with a grain of salt, add pepper and onion flakes to suit your own tastes. You can do this. I am no more concerned with the word ‘belonging’ or what it may mean to you than I am with the idea that we might be endowed with such a gauge. It is, as I said, merely an hypothesis. I propose it here in regards to the premise of my book. For if the child in us has a primary motivation to belong to some larger society – that of the street if he or she has failed at home, or in the classroom - then that same motivation should provide educators with a “hook” to motivate students to attend to subjects – if the subjects can be believably related to the visible world outside of the classroom.
But I have introduced this hypothesis for another reason – and that is as a clue to developing a hybrid system of metrics, or methodology for grading – in our classrooms. As I described in my Alliterative Learning Model, metrics are intrinsic to learning, at the most primitive level of feedback requirements for self-directing systems. An ideal system of metrics in the educational setting will be both self-directed and useful for the system to evaluate its own successes and failures, and to allow the classroom, and above the class – the administration of the local school - to adjust and correct itself.
I had always rejected the cant and reallying cry of Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism – that all society could be interpreted thorugh the inherent choices and parsing of options based on their components of pleasure or pain. And my instincts have equally rebelled against the profit motive as the driving force behind economic growth and the evolutionary justifications of free competiton as the keystone to freedom. My heart and my gut rebelled – for pleasure, pain, and profits were too linear for my soul, too material and quantifiable in simplistic banalisms (that is, truisms). The human being is driven by higher goals and more complex passions – everything beautiful we have felt as a child is given the lie by the materialistic triumverate.
The power of the communist and fascist versions of mateirals came through the substitution of “participation in profits” for simple “profits,” with the distribution mechanism being the primary differentiator – social paricipation was recognized as a dominating need and force in motivating people to whatever policies the state directed. The absence of “participation” is “alienation” or “exclusion” as an opposing principle, and it leaves pleasure and pain as the basis of the rest of life’s personal motivators and meanings. But let us try out the term “a sense of belonging,” and see how that does. To belong to someone or something, to be a slave of an obsession – to be punished for disobedience by feelings which stress and disintegrate the flow of one’s feelings for “being at one” or “being continuous” with one’s environment, continuous with the flow, etc. etc. Complex experiences can be absorbed, checked and parsed by continuity testing. Both pain and pleasure are modes of the same continuum which can flip from one to the other as one’s vantage point shifts and discontinuities disintegrate the picture. You can extrapolate this for all it is worth, which is another book – but for our purposes here it suffices to note that if such a guage existed, it will be key to the game of motivating me, you, and our children in their unchosen roles as students. And this is why they need knowledge of the expansive social world around them – to find reason to be motivated to school activities – which can otherwise appear arbitrary and tyrannical on their ‘belonging’ gauges.
But far more interesting for our purposes is the tandem implcation of such a ‘gauge’ or ‘sense’ – for the very act of parsing experience is the criterion of adequacy we use to accept or reject things as “true for our world.” Described as cybernetic systems organizing ourselves as continuous with our environment – we must have feedback, and we must have standards to gauge the feedback, in order to direct our short-term actions, and to learn through the accumulatoin of statistics on past assessments and their predictive value in improving our play and achieving results. Students need assessment as much as teachers and adminstrators do – perhaps moreso.
We have arrived at that long-awaited crossroads in our journey, and lo and behold the famous Sphinx, with its conundrum of grading in education. If we don’t solve it we must die, for it implies the very standards of performance against which our education system will be evaluated by any society we are working for. Since I don’t want to die at the hands of any Sphinx, therefore we must solve the riddle.
We must have metrics. By “metrics” we generally mean “tests” and “grades.” Teachers need metrics. Administrations need metrics. Parents need metrics, and of course, students need metrics. All for different reasons, mind you.
Grading in our schools is our best attempt at assigning normative values to the knowledge and skills and attitudes that education is supposed to provide its charges with. At the same time, from the standpoint of the student, testing and evaluation is inherent in the learning activity itself; for any learning whatever can be considered the integration of data into a useful whole, whose use and truth value can be, and eventually must be, tested in practice. That integration process is itself a reward for the learner – yet there exist any number of tests for usefulness from any number of perspectives – including psychological and social ones.
Grades are the currency of life for children. I used the term ‘currency,’ because when they are admitted to the world of adults they get paid in cash. Grades are collected as future credit which can be “cashed in” for future rewards. By accepting or rejecting the assumptions underlying the world of grades children are given the opportunity to accpet or reject a sense of obligation to social standards of performance.
The curriculum and methodology of any period
represents the social standards of performance as distilled by the wisest
social planners of the day – standards distilled from the collected wisdom and
experience of their culture. From the
child’s view many, if not most of these standards of performance seemed
arbitrary, and resembled the wisdom and experience of their culture as closely
as brandy resembles the fruit it is distilled from. And what child wouldn’t prefer grape juice to
brandy anyway? It has been so since two
of Socrates’ students, Quintillian and Plato, opened up rival schools in
But let us assume that the child acepts the game of grading as their way of buying into society’s standards of performance. They accept that the curriculum may or may not be useful, as such, in their future lives – but that their relative abilities at performing certain kinds of intellectual tasks is being sharpened and ranged for some unspecified future roles in the world. Beautiful children, children of the rich and power and extremely talented children may buy into the game only so far as to minimize their risk at losing the benefits of their competitive advantages. Grades are often justified as teaching competitive awareness in a competitive world – this being for our culture one of the built-in standards of performance we must impart in order for students to survive in the real world. But of course, this is an explanation brewed from hogwash and based n allusions to “survival of the fittest.” Many a kid chooses the competitive game of their preference, and learns to compete ruthlessly in the real world – “the fittest” out there today are not judged by their scholastic aptitudes but by their socioeconomic literacy – the truism that success is no special friend of good students, but that “money talks,” and lets the rest of us know who is to truly be judged wise.
So much for seving the function of survival.
Of course, we all are familiar with “grading on a curve,” which not only stresses compettion, but makes the lowest grads lower and the highest grades higher as a way to adjust the spread. Teachers do this if everyone falls far below the expected results or far above, just to help the students differentiate where they fit in the crowd.
Certifications are evaluation for fitness – do I know enough math to pass onto the next level, or enough English to write letters to clients? Certifications are grades alright – but could be used at the beginning of a class to sort out those not ready, or suggest the remedial steps need to get ready for Day One in class. This kind of testing lets students advance in a subject but doesn’t force them ot do so any faster than they are ready, able, and motivated to do. It would mean that they have to know why a class will benefit them – just as an immigrant laboror eventually feels held back by his or her command of English and attacks the books with zest – or resigns themselves to day labor jobs.
Different subjects are conducive to different types of evaluation and testing, just as well as using the same sort of grade scales for all subjects and skills is like force-fitting a linear scale to compare waveforms – because the administrative input screen in the office only lets the secretary enter linear scales. This too, is obviously poorly distilled bathwater in today’s world. We use the same linear scales because they are the only generally recognized currency that other schools, parents and auto insurance companies recognize.
Then there were those old-time report cards that gave students grades for effort – recognizing who tried harder than the rest of their class – though they failed miserably at the simplest accomplishments. “A for effort” rarely contributed much to passing a student on to the next grade.
Now you remember that we are discussing rades within the existing framework – where students accept the grading game as a perfectly legitimate means of gauging their performance against society’s standards. Grading was the game that the adult world assigned kids to play irrespective of its value to the futures kids already had worked out for themselves. NBA scouts don’t care about grades, nor does the Teamsters Local, where Uncle Ned has already hooked me up.)
It is rather interesting that grading was once a progressive institution – since it broke through the previous system that rewarded the elite and those who could pay with the best jobs on graduation. Grades showed that those with inate abilities or motivation to master a skill set were better suited to a job than the graduate whose father had previously served in the position, who inherited it by rank, tribe or family or perhaps obtained it through membership in a secret society, or more likely as payment for a previous favor. Grades for achievement and skill seemed an absolute key to assuring democracy, such that nepotism is seen as corruption and not a just reward for attaining rank and power through ruthless competition of the fittest. After all, isn’t that what one struggled for in days of old, to provide livelihoods and sinecures for one’s family and friends? Why else would you expend such energies to take control of a political party or a Balkan state? Why else would someone risk his life to become the ‘capo’ of a neighborhood or warlord of a province? To distribute favors to friends so they could give favors to friends – helping out all their family members who were not able to compete. Corruption has its own scheme of randomization, which leads to its own brand of relative justice, after all. The meritocracy ended this. But a pure meritocracy based on grades achievements and abilities only supported the fittest – and is biased against those without the kinds of abilities the state – and thus the schools – would be after.
Merit ends up being based upon standards of social utility. Whether we are talking of grades in a classroom or competitions in the community, whoever plans the contest and sets up the reward structure establishes a playing field on which relative merits can be judged – and no one does this without the objectives of promoting the value of certain skills and abilities. Without the rewards and the standards being set, there is no merit.
Children from challenged neighborhoods that cannot provide quiet time for homework or enough nutrition to concentrate on lessons will be unjustly denied an equal opportunity to participate in the meritocracy. Similiarly, ungifted students or those challenged by trauma or by psychological abilities outside of the norm will not find a way up through the meritocratic folds – where the old methods of conneciton and corruption would have givne at least some of the these ungifted slugs a respectable place of participation. Those who weren’t on the winning team could still find their purpose and place helping out their family in whatever small job that family might find for them. A “democratic” society based on rewards for abilities doesn’t give much option for those at the tail of the bell-curve – except, of course, the lottery – which gives everyone assurance of random distributive justice. Another familiar option we’ve devised for those at the tail of the bell-curve of ability is to reserve a category of jobs for them and them alone – such as certain chains have reserved for those with Downe’s Syndrome. (These jobs, too, would probably go to the most able if the economy foundered and jobs were scarce for computer programmers and aerospace technicians.)
By challenging our assumptions about grades I don’t expect to overthrow the meritocracy, only to challenge our assumptions about its correct and universal application to all of educatoin. The recognition of logical and ethical faults in the general application of grading as the basis of social rewards once led a movement of small-minded intellectuals (in our days as flower-children) to push for an equally illotgical and unjust alternative: no grades at all, or universal pass/fail standards. The goal was to drop all qualitative measurements in favor of the most egalitarian standards – but at the same time leaving the model of social rewards for educational accomplishments in place. The assumption was that this would lead to every one receiving the same rewards.
Assumptions underlyin a meritocracy have already thrown up the challenges of creating a level playing field of opportunity, equal access to equal services, and all the paraphenalia of handicapping that intellectuals can come up with to make education work just like sports.
It is evermore clear through the discussion of grades that our current model of education falls right into place to support the model of entrepreneurialism, and suffers from all the same ills and intellectual conflicts we face regarding social welfare economics and the proper role of the state.
To say that grading is intrinsic to education says very little at all. Evaluation and feedback loops are inherent to complex systems, and that different types of feedback, including quality control, production management, direction control, or system maintenance are inherent to systems in general. The issue at hand should NOT be to consider dismembering one grading system for the sake of another, but to dismember the discount store mentality of universally applying a single standard of measurement for each and every tax-supported aim of education systems. In today’s interlocking internet web-based Google-united world of information, the justificaiton of a “universally-understood” lowest common demoninator for excellence is just another gallong of hagwash. Every shcool could in theory, design its very own scales of rating students’ abilities, progress, enthusiasm, work habits, curricular knowledge, curricular integration, or any chosen scale whatever – and provide an interpretive conversoin program on their website to allow students to transfer credits against some complex national standard and then – with expected losses in the translation – convert them to scales which could be recognizable by administrators at their next institution or job. It becomes absolutely unworkable within the current assumptions of meritocracy – where every grade earned is equated to some monetary value, and no losses in translation can be admitted under pain of lawsuit. In view of the incredible inequalities in wages which we tolerate, our penny-wise sense of monetary justice has created quite an unbelievable barracade to change.
The real point, if you remember the purpose
of this investigation – is not to make a merit-based system of grades and
rewards work better for hte talented third of hte class. For them it works – and for them, the entire
system works. Our schools already provide society with enough good students to
meet the needs of our professions. For
them, to be sure, our sceince and industries may find themselves falling behind
This book has as its stated objects to find out whether our schools can ever again compete with media as the primary vehicle for transmitting experience and clutural values to our children. If we don’t care about this, and are perfectly willing to let the media be the dominant force in shaping society’s self-image, then we should not complain about education’s failure to perform this function, or its failure to ameliorate the devastation of values by the media. Besides, in a country where you can rein in and control the media, where the social planners of economic security and growth control the media, this is our ipso facto primary education system (that is, a state-controlled media is more important in socializing your citizens than the primary, secondary, higher and adult education combined). The one in our schools is simply an adjunct whose proper role is simply job preparedness, and through the grading system, reinforcement of the dominant ideals of a commercial culture.
Even if this is our preferred psition, that we do not intend education for anythng more than conferring on our children the ability to meet the minimum standars of social performance in our culture, and utilize schools as the societal sieve that separates kids by their abilities and final utility to the society, we should want a grading and evaluatoin system that distinguishes psychological differneces and cognitive abilities to a much greater specificity than we have today.
It would be ludicrous to write a book about educational paradigms without paying one’s respects to the long tradition of debates on the subject. “To pay one’s respects” means, in this case, to include one’s predecessors in on the discussion, and of course as is only right under the circumstances to introduce each of the participants at the table.
Actually, they have not yet sat down at their respective tables, which you will notice are labelled by century. The participants seem busy forming little groups all around the room – introducing themselves to those they expect to be their allies in the upcoming debates. The rules have been distributed, but there seems to be some confusion. The first speaker in each match is from a table of later century - and should already know the positions of his opponent. The critique is to be given by the educator who was usually simplified and generally mis-read – but probably having as lucid command of the field as his opponent.
Comenius is to lead off the Great Colloquiem, representing the 17th century team. His critique will be presented by Cassiodorus, representing the 5th to the 9th centuries. Quintillian –speaking for the 1st century in Rome - will follow William James, of the 19th, and we all expect a rather feisty critique – though it is expected that James will to hold the day.
Leading off for this afternoon, John of Salisbury, from the 12th century, will follow upon Froebel, leading off for the 18th. It is sure John will take the attack, and our academic odds-makers favor him two-to-one. If John wins, Herbart has been promised a challenge for his century. If Froebel wins, we shall convene to the chamber music gallery – where the conference center has a demonstration of the latest visual synthesis technologies available to educators of the 21st century.
Let me describe what’s going on in front of me right now. .
Sounds of tableware and glassware clinking. Water being poured.
We are in “The Jefferson Room.” There is a long speakers’ table at one end and separate round dinner tables scattered throughout. Most of the participants are in the costumes of their century, except for a fellow who seems to be the organizer, handing out odd-looking black skullcaps. He is wearing one himself; it fits tight to the head and covers one ear. There is a small gold tube jutting out from the earflap around to front of the face which is clearly a microphone.
Moving quickly from person to person, speaking over the din
Please put on our latest “Babel-cap.” It recognizes the language you are speaking and provides you with translations of what everyone is saying. It’s the latest of information technologies to revolutionize social life. Our latest pocket educational tool – the Notetaker – is included in the gift bags at your table.
Looking our way
Here you are! You’re sitting in on the conference? Well I think that’s wonderful. Have a cap! You’ll find you can understand everything, if the speaker’s speaking Latin or Italian. Even if they’re speaking English!
And he hands a skullcap to you, which you put on.
(in perfect English)
Where am I? And for heaven’s sake, will you people STOP addressing me in Plato’s name! Plato was my biggest rival when he opened his school in Athens, even back when we hung out with Socrates
Isocrates is the name – defender of primacy of Athens over all cities, and champion of the faith in oratory!
Aside, as if to himself, but loudly enough for others to hear
I should have known better. I’ve seen enough pictures of Plato’s bust to realize from the first. Is Plato here, by the way? Who is that other old Greek?
standing to one side and laughing at the scene
Plato wouldn’t be here, else he and Isocrates would take over this conference. It could be Aristotle, but I think not. There are others missing, too. Where is Hume? There is Locke reviewing Cassiodorus’ writings with our Brother Comenius. I don’t believe I ever read Cassiodorus.
I say, Mr. President, you are very good to recognize Comenius!
But you haven’t gotten to read Cassiodorus? I would have thought he was in your library. I should say, there was a man on top of his game! Ready wit, and a memory of every paragraph in every book he ever read – which was every book available in Europe at the time. Several thousands of volumes. Augustine alone had three hundred. He specified the basic library for the entire Middle Ages – along with a critique. When he hears this “newcomer” propound the basics of education, we can expect the 5th century to give us a top-notch critique!
Excuse me, but you are...?
HORACE MANN, Mr. President. I am credited with introducing the first standards to that odd collection of common schools found in your country. Our country, that is. By the way, I saw you once as a child, on a trip to Washington. I shall never forget the thrill!
That Moravian Comenius made me think carefully about education, Mr. Mann.
If he had time he’s have written textbooks showing everyone how to teach everyone else. He publishes them all with pictures, you know. For young mothers ... he has them teach infants the sounds of vowels and consonants in their cribs to speed the recognition of speech. Comenius has made a true science of education....but then, for him it is all a matter of spreading God’s word. Your standard schools are free of all creed, I hope?
Don’t be worried on that count.
Do you have any idea who made up the invitation list? I would not have expected you at the 18th century’s table.
Do you know who I think that is, over there?
By Jove, it’s Machiavelli! Mr. Mann, I’m beginning to guess what this is about, and why Plato isn’t here. That is not Aristotle that Machiavelli is talking to, but Xenophon who wrote on tyranny as well as the education of kings.
I always forget Socrates’ other students. Xenophon and Isocrates, there are those two. But the rest?
I forget them, too. Several of them had a rather bad reputation as sophists – training youth to the worst of legal arts in the perversion of logic – so we should keep in mind that students of even the best teachers and methods don’t always grasp their lessons, do they?
Quintillian is here for rhetoric but I have asked, and it seems that Cicero is missing. Which tells me this is not to be a colloquiem about rhetoric in education.
You and I and brother Comenius believed that every child in a nation should receive an education. But how many of these good philosophers thought education was only for the wealthy – for the princes and rich merchants and men of the church?
Machiavelli over there was laughing at them all – why waste time on grammar? What a wealthy young man needs most is advice for his class of men! Well did Signor Nicolo know the seven deadly sins and how to work them to advantage, for sure they were not sins of grammar! Adams, Burr and I took him into our counsel several times to protect our state from leaders of this sort.
And so, what have you concluded? What type of colloquiem has brought us here to sit and argue our thoughts?
I think it is about sophistry - versus the true aims of rhetoric. Which is to say, I believe, it is about the difference between the claims of knowledge and wisdom. No, let it not be wisdom but the demonstration of wisdom – which is the closest claim anyone can make for truth.
The sophists were like country lawyers teaching the Athenian soldiers the arts of citizenship – how to speak, to make and defend an argument in a forum of other citizens. They taught knowledge of facts and arguments. But Socrates, of all of the sophists, was put on trial and sentenced to death. Socrates believed in ultimate truth, and the access of individuals to that truth – but only through demonstration, not the knowledge or memorization of facts and arguments.
How did Machiavelli’s presence tell you this? It says not a thing to me. And why is he a clue to Plato’s absence – or Cicero’s or Aristotle’s, or Hume’s?
Hume is not the key, for I have already heard an elderly American gentleman from your century’s table discussing his philosophy of the sensory world – and I believe that John of Salisbury, representing the 12th, argued Hume’s case. Hume read John, most assuredly –both are adamant on the continuity of the senses, and their role in providing men with knowledge of nature. So Hume has been covered both fore and aft. But no, there is no one here arguing for Plato or Aristotle. There is no one arguing for the absolute access to truth through knowledge. Nor does anyone here believe that education and knowledge – rather than a reputation for wisdom – can justify power over the uneducated. Even Xenophon, who writes of tyranny, gives no such argument – and his Education of Cyrus is about creating a man of integrity.
An interesting contention, Mr. President. But what of Socrates, himself?
I believe the people of Athens were partially right about Socrates – though not as Plato would have us believe. I’m of the opinion now that Socrates believed the deepest truths related to one another like pieces in a chessboard relate to each other. You can demonstrate them, but not fully know them. For who can know every sequence of configurations on a chessboard, let alone of human life, or Creation?
To demonstrate truths it would be necessary to have knowledge of the moves that might be made; knowledge of different configurations only help to calculate ones moves to win a game. But I think the confusion would always arrive among Socrates’ students that he attributed some importance to winning the game. I don’t believe the teacher cared one way or another, as he unfolded the configurations of Nature and life for others through his discussions.
Plato, and his student Aristotle, believed that the truths which wisdom uncovered could be discovered by reason and set down. The worst of the students were simply impressed with the ease in which Socrates won games – and sought to teach that as the truth.
Yes, and several others, like those two here today, saw the cautious middle road – which asked for no more than wisdom. NO MORE THAN WISDOM!! A joke, it seems, doesn’t it? The demands of justice and equity and statecraft place a high value on knowledge and arguments which once showed a configuration of truth – this is far more ready than finding wisdom, isn’t it? And yet how do we educate someone for this? Those of us who are here seem to have struggled with this problem.
Why is it, Mr. President...
I was once a ‘Tommy’ you know...
Why is it, Tom, that you or I, or anyone in this room hasn’t seen this over all these years?
Because we have not all been together in one room, as now.... and because Plato and Aristotle and Cicero have been “accidentally” left out. For they knew the game, too, and would always force your moves to allow them insist that the outcome of the game represented the truth, rather than the skill of the player.
But this is the sophists, and certainly not Plato, or Aristotle.
The sophists knew the game. The game is attributed to them, as you know – but Socrates seemed to have intuited the rules, and the relationships of the pieces better than they. He saw that only practiced players could obtain the intuition – and that this represented a power over others. But he also saw that the intuition of these absolutes would create a man of character, of high morals, worthy of citizenship. The sophists were no better than Signor Nicolo when it came to the practical uses of knowledge. All of them treated knowledge ironically. They were like lawyers who change the tune of truth depending on their client, and size of their pocketbook. Adams and I used to argue over this story for hours, but I never caught on.
I am beginning to see. But still, why is Machiavelli here?
Because the idolatry of practical knowledge must be ironic. I am willing to lay a bet that everyone else in this room believes that the ultimate purpose of education, its guiding object, is to build character, moral fibre, and personal integrity. That is why we are here and Plato isn’t. And I will even bet that the people in this room...it IS named after me, isn’t it?....represent the majority of educational philosophers with an impact on history. For they are the ones who believed school was meant to be more than we found it. And all of us found schools obsessed with filling students with yesterday’s knowledge. And when we looked a bit closer, we saw that it wasn’t the fact that it was old or useless or yesterday’s or today’s – for as we questioned, for you see I read Comenius and Petrach and Milton and also Abelard and Alcuin and Isocrates before I thought to speak on the subject – and came to agree with them that all educational purpose was the formation of character, to create the citizen capable of moral action. To the common baker and tradesman on the corner, just as to many aristocrats and well-educated chamberlains, school is a place to be filled with knowledge. For all of history, schools have sunk to that philosophy, egged on by Plato. For him, education is to obtain knowledge, which is based on the pursuit of truth. The one with the truth, the enlightened one, has a chance of reaching the ideal, and should be allowed to rule for the good of all. But you see, Signor Machiavelli doesn’t believe this any more than we do.
Ahha. You are clever, Mr. President. And I wanted to thank you, incidentally, for standing up against Hamilton’s National Bank.
Thank you. Let me tell you, the complexity of this world is amazing when it comes right down to it, don’t you think?
Enter, Steven Jobs behind Erasmus. He is intent on showing the great reformer his latest pocket technology for taking notes.
ERASMUS of ROTTERDAM
But Sir, excuse my imperfect English, you do not understand what I write! You tell me that you have read all my work, and I don’t know how this can be, but you do not understand me – even if you have miracle boxes to record everything you see and hear and print it all into books in your pocket!
ERASMUS of ROTTERDAM
(calling out to Petrarch)
You there, are Petrarch, no? Do you speak English ? Explain to this fellow that I have introduced notetaking as an art. An art!! It is not to copy words, but to exercise and develop the understanding! Students must learn to digest the words and annotate their lectures well. This is a mark of understanding, and on this we both can measure what is learned. What good is it if I hold up a mirror to the greatest sage and show him everything he says, when I can remain as dumb as a mirror? Notetaking! Annotation! Creating study guides for yourself and others! These are methods worth showing another educator – not little moving mirrors!
(not solemnly, but singing in rhyme, as is his wont)
If mirrors can bring
Great sages to field and to bower
each shepherd with his flute,
and nursemaid with infant,
then mirrors are a boon of God here on earth!
You’re no help!
(spotting a very medaival French monk)
I will hazard a guess. It is Alcuin. He would understand, if I could but but explain the invention of notetaking and annotations to him. For he has invented the first textbooks to make a whole people literate. Charlemagne saw a whole people united through learning, armored against him – what better way to create a great empire than to give learning to its leaders. And how else to give learning than to teach them the grammar and literature of the Roman Empire! Idiots we all are. Look what Rome has become! No, no. I won’t bother him. He would not understand me either.
Better the Pope can entertain my jibes, and invite me to do his advertizing! Poor Alcuin!!
I think you have lost me, and I have lost you. How could I expect you to understand these wonderful educational inventions of mine, either?
I regret to announce that Cassiodorus had Super Bowl tickets and seems to have slipped out of the hotel. If you would like to hear the debate between Comenius and that esteemed monk, you must assign it to your college classes for a mid-term assignment, and have them perform their skits when they come back from spring break.
In this section I hope to demonstrate that the ends of education will never leave society and its eocnomy in the lurch, and that – there are alternative ‘production models’ which can be arrived at through social consenus in which issues regarding ends, means, and quality standards to measure educational success should be left to the educators – while the subject matter that is most obvious to the layman, is flexible and subject to the whims of local school boards.
Today’s culture of recreation is a product of the “me” generation. It is almost entirely media-based, where films and advertisement and made-for-television formats provide our definition of ‘fun,’ ‘excitement,’ and wit. And while recreational culture is the very world which our kids are entirely in tune with, concepts of recreation run very deep into cognitive science and social philosophy, and it should be clear to anyone who opens the book that I mean to co-opt the term ‘recreation’ from the hedonistic tragi-comedy of today.
From the standpoint of kids in school, there is already a mode of recreation we can look to for help. While no child willingly accepts the concept of being a “product,” conceived of as throughput in the factory school – they quickly become aware that school is an accidental construct, a place to put them while they are being cut into shape by the system.
“Learning to play the game” is more than a metaphor for them. The game is to maximize rewards provided by the system while maintaining your personal integrity and freedom. You can choose to either play with the system or against it, but for the smartest and most able players, the real game is to manipulate it, making the system work for you. You maximize your participation in this social construct, and maximize your uniqueness and freedom as an individual.
It is this game, in fact, which I suggest we objectify as our model life skill in the Age of Recreation. It is up to our educational establishment to take the reins from entrepreneurs – to show that self-actualization is indeed the name of the game in school, and that the system of education – all of its rules and paraphenalia, all of its props and scripts and costumes and funky lines – are designed around the students’ game, which is a true simulation of the larger game of life.
In the Age of Recreation, the greatest life literacy is to show that you have gotten the system to work for you – and that to all appearances, it is you who manipulate “the system.” Yet if “the system” of schools can be continuous with the community, and through the community with the family and the workplace, what masquerades as manipulation for the sake of the game is actually the effects of feedback from true participation in the world.
Recreation is at the basis of motivational psychology – even the highest spiritual values can be shown to be on the same continuum with values embraced by “recreation.” For the student to truly understand their game, to know recreation for what it is, they will see that even economic value is contiguous with life’s other values, and while it appears that the enjoyment of life is subservient to economics, from the standpoint of what is most important in life, it is the values themselves on which all life literacy will be based.
In a now forgotten book, The New Basis of Civilization, Dr. Simon Patten PhD & LLD describes the need which modern working stiffs had for melodrama.
He was writing around 1905 and was trying to figure out why intelligent human beings, most of whom could read, would go see the same claptrap story about Simon LeGree tying Nell to the railroad tracks....over and over again. He decided we all have a need to feel intensely:
"Once again the primitive man faces the conditions of the primitive world; the strong stimulus of the enemy who follows to the death, the awakened wit which casts about to baffle the cunning of the rival; the renewed imagining of hate, love, terror, curiosity, danger, daring, and fury- all the elemental stuff - concentrates the thoughts and momentarily rouses mental forces to a keener effectiveness than any scheme of nights schools has yet discovered."
He goes on to investigate the impacts which industrialization and urban culture play on the need for amusement. In fact, he suggests back in 1905 that one of the "new bases of civilization" will be a society built around amusement and recreation. And he suggests that the increased need for these amusements in an industrial society will actually create the need for entirely new social institutions "to become the vehicle of recreation as the home has become the vehicle of family life."
The guy already had it figured out that the traditional family would change as women sought independent incomes and middle class kids took longer to get married after they had independent earnings. He even predicted a wonderful new economic synergy - that workers would soon be striving to earn money to pay for their amusements rather than simply to stay alive. He prefigured our current economy driven by advertising - peddling new recreational needs.
Optiminist as Patten was, he figured an economy driven by all the new recreational needs would train all of us to fully participate in this new civilization. It was, after all, just over the horizon, now that slavery was ended, Reconstruction was done, and the Spanish American War had been successfully concluded.
In 1965, or thereabouts, another economist, John Kenneth Galbraith took a look at the changes which had taken place since
Three different pictures of the practical value of a broad liberal arts education in life.
I used to drink with this guy named Rick. You might think that I spend all my time drinking, but this isn’t true. I used to spend all my time drinking, but not anymore! I’m too busy now writing about all the people I met over a beer and bourbon.
Well, let me tell you about Rick. This isn’t his real name, because he is a special services cop for the state, and I don’t think I should tell you his real name. He gets off around midnite, and would pop in to “water his horse” at about 1 every morning. His job is to track down and bring in all the escaped and armed convicts before the bounty hunters do. So his work takes him into the nightspots and holes of every city or town along the coast or up to the mountains. “It’s a real glamorous life,” he says, “I get to dance with cockroaches.”
I guess you’d say
an ex-marine from
I was the first person in that bar that knew what he did, until I blew his cover. It’s not that he needed a cover, it’s just that he was ashamed of saying he was a cop in this hip-type bar we met at. He thought no one would talk to him if they thought he was The Pig. Well, I wanted him to know he had no reason to be ashamed. He’d finally told me after a few weeks of our talking history. I asked him why he always came in the same time, and he decided to tell me.
History is a pretty common subject at a bar. It’s usually about what Hitler might have done with technology, or some details about some war stories, or about different versions of jet aircraft produced by some plant in the mid-west they once dropped off parts to. Truckers drink in bars, and have covered a lot of territory.
Rick was the first bar-person I’d ever met that started a conversation about the 11th century Turkish expansion across Asia, and went on to discuss the barge traffic on the Hackensack River at the turn of the century from the standpoint of New York City’s grain consumption. He was a font of knowledge, and I loved to get him started.
Rick has a heavy stutter, so it is always hard for him to start, and he loves to get wound up, because the words start bubbling out as fast as his mental machinery can make bubbles. He says his social skills got arrested at age six. He knows the revolutionary war and the statistics and stories of all the local battles, and is fascinated with ironwork and the craftsmen that made it all. His curiosity is so fabulous, in fact, that whenever we’re drinking together, I want him to keep going, so I can bottle it and cap it in the empties and take it home. But he only drinks one, and then leaves.
That’s because he runs a tree-farm and nursery from 8am to 1pm, before he takes off and goes to work. Besides raising trees and gardening products, he does commercial pond installations and fells trees for neighbors. I found out that when he limped in, and I pried. He was ashamed of himself. He’d been stupid and careless, slipped, and ripped his leg open with a chain-saw.
Rick qualifies in anyone’s book as a “man’s man.” Only, like I said, you’d never know it for looking at him, or talking to him. I am telling his story, what I’m sure is just a very small part of it, because it represents something more than we usually think of when we say “a renaissance man.” It is also a rather different picture of a Rambo or one of the “Men in Black.” In fact, it is important to our model of education.
First of all, we need to proclaim loud and clear to kids and teachers and parents and employers ¾ that anyone can be good at many things at once. We do not choose a career one time in our lives. In fact, ever since farmers were part-time carpenters and metalworkers and cooks and soldiers and moonshiners, people have thrived on multiple jobs. Sometimes demanding multiple personalities as well.
Let us return to the bar. This one, however, is a typical American sports bar, where the jukebox is blaring and the sound is off on half a dozen wide-screen TVs. Baseball, basketball, golf, racing, auto smashing, boxing, diving, skating and tennis work fine in pantomime. So do the commentators and their enthusiastic faces. Life becomes very connected in one of these places ¾ ads for cars and sneakers and Las Vegas and beer, are all experienced simultaneously thru multiple TV screens hanging between the glitz of old beer signs, gas station pumps and 4-oared shells.
This is, above all, American reality. Say it's a sad thing... be a snob.. but for me, I somehow take from it a hopeful glimpse of human reality and the world to come. That is, the run of the mill utopian society only needs to engage each of us in as many sides of living and experience as possible.
Take the several hundred cable stations out there, for instance. Somebody is watching each of these specialty channels. In fact, I would suggest they have created more high-powered critics of specialty skills than anyone would ever have imagined possible just twenty years ago.
You'll allow me to be an ignoramus about ice hockey or football if I'm heavy into animation, guitar riffs or brahma bull-busting.
Critiquing the skills of others represents something. The interest is there, and they’ve mastered the terminology and performance criteria¾ now all they need is some time, a room to practice in, and a few other self-acclaimed aficionados to practice with.
There are guys and girls who have just come from a Civil War
reenactment¾the black powder bunch, and
some who have been at a medaieval tournament.
I got picked up at the airport in
I can almost picture weekends at the local Shenanigan’s
Grille ¾like some old bar in
You’re a champion gargoyle-cutter, and maybe he is the second counter-tenor in the Guillaume de Machaut Ersatz Boy's Choir. Well, perhaps you’d have a harder time getting accepted by the guys down by the tap, but probably not. Half the town did that big Renaissance Fair for Kiwanis six years back.
All that I’m saying is that it doesn’t have to be sports for the next hundred years. In an era when factory boys became the Beatles and a couple suburban boys became the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead, it became known right then that bikers and housepainters and mackerel fishermen and countertenors could get along and respect each others’ specialties.
If my generation gave our culture one positive thing to balance out these last two presidents, I’d hope we’re remembered for the days when all kinds of people could hang out together, listen to the music, and forget all our differences.
Balinesia is now a major tourist destination, with big
hotels and beaches, and I am sure plenty of good clubs. But the
I've never been to
Balinesia, though I once met a half-Balinesian in
I found out about this because I asked him. I knew only two things about
The second thing I knew was something that only the ethnographic anthroplogists found out - that the entire culture seemed to be based on multiple interlacing networks of athletic teams and artistic clubs - competing against each other in scores of sporting and artistic events. What was most interesting was that, at any point in a persons’ life, they were members of 3 or 4 different clubs for sports of skill and coordination, or for mummery, dance, costume-making, or oratory. You were enrolled in a particular club based on your family and your position in the family, whether you were first-born or third-born son or daughter made a difference, since you were competing against your brothers and cousins and parents ¾ who had been assigned to different clubs based on their position in the family.
Team allegiances were created to confuse the more inflammatory tribal (i.e. family) allegiances which had been too disruptive and bloody to maintain the peace.
Clubs also extended social inclusion to any member across the country, since they were also support-groups functioning like fraternities or sororities or Rotaries, with local chapters in every town.
Now this is simply my recollection of the description of
I went to elementary school in the 1950’s. We never used the front door of the classroom ¾ it was reserved for the teacher, the principal, and our parents on visitation nights. We kids got to our seats from the hallway through the cloak room, which is where we also lined up for recess.
The cloak room was painted institutional avocado like the rest of the school, and was a very long closet with hooks and boot-racks for each of the kids. My school was built in 1905. My 2nd grade teacher Miss Hartzell was built in 1923 when she learned her teaching methods from professors who grew up during the Civil War. Therefore, we all sang Civil War songs during Art & Music period. This is what I call social and cultural ‘drag,’ like the physical drag caused by friction and eddies of air around moving bodies.
I am sure that if I were a teacher today I might
also be drawn to use the books I learned from as well as teaching examples from
the era I grew up in, e.g. the over-worn period of hippies and
I don’t think I want to learn kid culture, because it changes too fast; however, what is meaningful to kids is kid culture, and I’d better have a grasp of that.
The problem is, this is a losing battle, since it depends on knowing every new fad - which is a job for a bunch of kids, and not me.
There is something childish and innocent in believing things can, and should, be changed in their entirety. As if the world might be swept free, cleaned up, and turned around - all fresh and new, with nothing else needed than a way to turn around the intransigent old farts who are holding it all back.
Well, this is childish nonsense. This is why children have fads. Also adults who identify with children have fads. Nature gives us the proclivity for fads to fool us into believing things are changing, though I don’t know if the children of Maori tribesmen had fads.
The opposite of a fad is called “a drag.” That’s obvious whenever a kid says that something is a drag.
There is always a drag on change.
I remember science fiction magazines in the 1950’s illustrated with a world that was entirely new - as if in 2020 every building in the country had been ripped down and rebuilt with something up-to-date - the whole landscape was curvilinear and the color of satin gloss mango. There were no cars or trucks left over from the previous thirty years - heaven forbid you might run across a 1962 Dodge in one of those science fiction pictures of the future, nor telephone lines or old gas stations. In essence, there was no social or economic drag. Apparently, all political and cultural memory had been lost in some cataclysm of amnesia.
There were, in effect, no artifacts of the past - no social or cultural leftovers - no lawbooks built on two hundred years of precedent cases and decisions.
Changes do take place however, with or without fads. And they happen despite all the friction from in-grained habits and old culture. But there will always be people like that, cultural hold-outs, creating social drag. Moreover, there is legal drag to keep the pace of change to a minimum. There is another kind of drag, when the timbers are already rotten but there’s no money to rebuild the house, and so the whole structure sits vacant for another thirty years before it falls in and has to be leveled. I just passed a business office in a metal quonsset hut from the post-war period when I grew up… I imagine I probably look like that to some kids.
SO here we are musing about our educational system, knowing that some type of change must take place. There are many young and childish minds out there who would jump on the latest fad. It is already too late to jump, you can take your time…. since computerization is well into full swing and the chairman of Microsoft would donate billions if he could do so without including a Microsoft operating system and look like he is doing it all for self-interest. Alas, he is a changed man, and is only interested in buying our educational future. But I am afraid that it cannot be bought. Neither can it be systematized or engineered with any kind of scientific precision, as if there were a surgery we could perform in each of our school systems. There is still the matter of schoolrooms, teachers, teachers’ aides, administrators, superintendants, old computers, aging buildings, lockers, buses, books and desks. And of course, we cannot get rid of all those disruptive innattentive students. At least there are very few cloakrooms left.
Consider all the books that have ever been
written by wise and waggy tongues …. For there were even books in
You figure how many humans have put all their best efforts into restructuring the lessons of their lives between the hard covers of a book. They all had this idea that if you or I were to spend a weekend with that book, we ought to be able to absorb what it took the poor author 50 years to experience.
Let’s say I were to spend my weekends, setting aside 10 hours on Saturday and 10 hours on Sunday to read one whole book --- not a novel kind of book, but a book of an author’s experience and thought. After just one year of weekends I will naturally have absorbed the life experience of 52 different lives. …at least up to that point in their life when they finished their book. Fifty-two books a year – simply packing in all that experience!!!
You and I know that this is a phantom dream. I might think I was wise if I were to read all these books and be able to quote all these damn authors, but you see what I am driving at. Even these books are captions to the pictures the authors have drawn of their experience, and the pictures they have drawn for us are just cartoons. We have not absorbed experience in those 52 week-ends. For experience cannot be fully put between the cover of a book.
Let’s take it from a different angle. Could we do it with fifty-two real long movies??
It is not necessary to read anything to learn about life. Any 12 year old could have told that you in Dickens’ day, just as any 12 year old can tell you that today. Today’s kids have learned to fully appreciate all aspects of life from TV. Sports, marital infidelity, the drug subculture, fashion, purchasing power, recognizing real values, and realities behind the scenes in politics, the police station, and the TV News Bureau. At least as close as that reality is to the world portrayed on TV dramas and sitcoms. In Dickens’ day they were thrown into the steamy soup of life and absorbed it down to their hair follicles.
Of course, today’s kids are spared all that and we must prepare the babes of the present for the dire circumstances of future existence. They too need to use their credit cards and pursue divorces. And perhaps they may work and participate in a dynamic and exciting society, too. Perhaps it is so that they may fully experience what there is to experience. Or perhaps they will simply operate pushbutton remotes to take them to simulated physical, sensory, and mental places. To sit back and absorb virtual experience, if indeed, that is how it is to be done in the future. We needn’t prepare them much, if that is how it is to be.
Besides, undaunted by our 2500 year experience with the written word, technology has studied the failure of books, sold the family cow for a magic bean, climbed the beanstalk of computerization and stolen the goose that lays the golden egg.
If reading doesn’t work, then watching and playing with interactive things sort of like books should do the trick.
NOW we should have the education thing solved!! All that is necessary is to pull together all the wisdom of the ages on the web, tie it to interactive media in the hands of our students, and it will immediately be experienced, and thus absorbed into their lives. Education will be solved.
We’ve gotten to the junction box where we must wire up our schools. Somehow.
The eggheads in industry and hometown politics have sold us on the dream of a totally interactive schoolroom.
The technologies are wonderful, don’t get me wrong. An “educational utility system” conceived of like a water or highway system once enthralled me… it certainly would seem to be the next item on the agenda of national evolution. One would think that walloping up the support for such a great effort should be like lobbying for airport expansion to spur on the aircraft industry. That’s how we did it in the old days.
I have taken another look. The new technologies are actually wonderful because of the new economies they create, but not for their intrinsic utility. We don’t need the high technologies for the speed with which they will give us access to educational materials. We need them because they provide economies to the business of running the classroom - and the home-work-room - which will let us put our energies to making more money out of educational systems than we have been accustomed to in the past. Which is to say, there is money to be made from revamping the classroom, the community, and the home as an interlaced whole. Of course, wherever there are several social constituencies actively in favor of something, there is money to be made by making it happen. One can virtually “make” money by realizing peoples’ values, that is, “making them real.”
But from the standpoint of learning theory, interactive computer-based methodologies probably won’t pass on experience any better than book-learning -because experiences must be meaningful to the learner to be passed on.
Meaningful means that it has been integrated into all the associational schema of the learner….which for most kids today, primarily includes what they know of life through the medium of TV, video and computer games. So on the surface, it looks like by making all the interactive media work like big computer video games, the kids will be interested, and will absorb things better.
But these media are already the modality of life which every 5-year-old has learned to experience like junk food. Gobble it, forget it, and let it lay around on the car seat. Who cares?
I would not discount the many wonderful uses to which interactive educational media can be put. In fact, I will be the first to espouse interactive media for certain types of educational delivery. But only if ‘educational’ media are used to bring kids closer to themselves and to others. Interactivity will work if the medium is integrated into the living context - the people, the social interactions - it is used in. And only if that living context includes associational schema which touch everything in the lived world.
Otherwise, all interactive media will become just as boring as books ever were, and cease to pass on anything.
It interesting to note that just after WW II, when Vannevar Bush created the dream of a web-like internet of electronically-based microfiche exchange for scholarly research, some educators at Harvard (Tiedeman and Sternberg) were commissioned for a study on the future of computers in education. Their multi-volume work focused on creating a super guidance tool. Educational psychology back in those days was just getting over several decades of focusing on “individual differences.” The authors’ logic had been that while the curriculum was fairly stable for everyone - the importance of the electronic computing devices would be to interact with students to help them identify their own differences - optimizing their skills and interests at the same time exploring the social world, obtaining interviews with workers, learning decision-making skills, and exploring the many stories of the workplace. Their arguments were built around the need of every student - and everyone else as well - to look for self-confirmations in the world around them. If this were the underlying motivation of students, then it would be the role of the computer to help students find the various educational paths to self-discovery and confirmation. But the eventual transfer of information was still to be left to books and teachers.
Computers and the electronic media have not exactly developed this way. At the same time, the realities of the schoolroom today are not what they were in 1954 when Tiedeman and Sternberg made their suggestions. We have by-passed their suggestions, for all we have of their dream is a rather lame product called “SIGGY,” which the Educational Testing Service of Princeton NJ doesn’t invest much interest or time in. SIGGY doesn’t pay like hundreds of thousands of SATs and K-12 testing programs do, so SIGGY never gets updated.
Besides, while I believe that a beefed-up automated Exploratorium of skills is absolutely necessary and do-able in a few years of efforts (and corporate support), an Exploratorium of skills and stories is not the answer. We still need teachers. They are humans who can get to know their students.
Today, computers represent a multimedia portal for information searches, transmission, and the reproduction of print, film, and audio materials. They are even less a facility for computing and storing information, since optical discs and memory sticks do so well for storage. Moreover, all forms of information reproduction can be handled on a single medium - the CD-ROM.
By the standards of emerging technologies, CDs are already almost ‘primitive.’ They are physical, and durable. They can be mailed, and don’t even need instant transmission or massive baud rates or security systems installed.
I must scream very loudly not to trust the dream of the instantaneously productive schoolroom. Of an electronic utility line that allows any teacher and any student to tap into the entire knowledge of the world. It is pure hype of fantasy which is not the point at all.
The real cost is not the creation of materials - that is a minimal social cost which we can all absorb through our professions, organizations, and corporations. The real investment will be in the administration of the materials… in supporting the delivery mechanism, i.e. the teaching environment.
Remember: we need more help from our schools than ever before. There is more to learn - at least in training that small oligarchy of eggheads who must keep our science and technology running. We could forget the whole effort, of course, and simply separate children at birth for their future social roles. We could make them happy with the part they play in the scheme of things, and run it all like Huxley suggests, creating virtual experience scenarios and have kids sit back and absorb them with pushbuttons. This may, in fact, be closer to the scheme of things than we’d like to admit. And in fact, if we simply spend the monies on the technologies alone - and hype up the existing supplier economies - we will have nothing more than more expensive hi-tech schooling. The same giant textbooks and the megalith publishers who distribute the books will still rule the day. They will tell us that with more tech, we can hook up more kids, and pump them full of the “knowledge” they need. Teachers will simply tow the line, hook up the lines, and be blamed for everything.
Excuse me. The principals will be blamed for everything.
This is why I came down heavy on the eggheads. I have good reason to believe that most of them don’t know what they are doing. The organization of business changed radically as they pumped the economy with the need for PCs and servers - but the expansion of business was not all due to people getting smarter, or running things smarter. There was simply much more money and credit available to modify your business. The networked office was a self-fulfilling prophesy for dynamic business growth. The analogy for educational growth to look at business is not there. We are not measuring any of the same things.
What the eggheads and their happy market professionals would tell us is actually a dream out of poorly-written science fiction, where thousands of educational options are to be beamed into our homes and schools allowing everyone to learn almost anything. Their science fiction writers didn’t think of spam, pornography, obsessive-compulsive Ebay shoppers, and instant-messaging getting in the way of all that learning we were supposed to be doing.
I have to say it again - we are indeed entering a very special new age. Audio, video, print, and interactive games can be distributed and played on exactly the same medium. We have a virtual cornucopia at our fingertips. Blank CD discs and DVDs cost practically nothing, and already ancient equipment is all that is needed to play them.
Most communities can afford distributing free educational materials and delivery systems, since the devices needed to use them are already being discarded by businesses around the nation who need fast communications technologies for the exigencies of business competitiveness.
Educational competitiveness could still be achieved with a Brittanica on every desk and in every home…. It is the paths to knowledge, and the successful structuring of how to use that knowledge that means competitiveness for a society’s coordinated systems of education. Baud and megabytes mean nothing after we’ve reached a certain threshold.
Paths through the same curriculum can be traversed, yet when a single CD can contain a whole Brittanica, and a spool of 50 CD’s can contain a customizable set of hundreds of printable books, down-loadable learning games, exercizes and introductory films - the competitiveness of an educational system will be based on each teacher’s ability to structure paths through the same curriculum - in a myriad of ways for a thousand slightly different learning blocks, met by children in ways only teachers will recognize. This is the challenge and this is where the real cost lies.
The only hurdle for the society to overcome is the rules of a market economy, which protects the copyrights and pays for each user of every printable book or usable game, or viewable video. Here is where the concept of an educational utility does make sense.
In which case, I could propose several new sectors of education business that will grow up to support it. I would guess that the time will come in the not-to-distant-future, when recreational media (like TV and films) that provide actual lifelong learning and skill-development to previous couch-potatos will achieve real market values, not unlike the business sectors of health and fitness. Recreational learning could actually become as important as recreational escape - if our world wasn’t so numbing as to make us want to escape so frequently.
But there is another business sector which I might lobby for if we had a true cornucopia of educational materials. The new and ongoing need will be the service sector providing new tools and research-based technologies to assist teachers in their expanded roles in the school. And the numbers of customers won’t be limited to the hundreds of thousands of teachers in our schools, either. It will include skill development professionals in government, industry and trade schools.
It’s a wonder we try to build competitive businesses without the investment and tools to build human resources.
I repeat, it’s a wonder we try to build competitive businesses without the investment and tools to build human resources.
I guess it is easier to model them, and provide perfectly functioning simulated replacements.
Back in the middle-sixties, when Marshall McCluhan was having his rapid rise to (since-vanished) fame, the French film-maker, Francoise Godard created a movie about a traffic jam, called “Week-end.” The movie’s action unfolded as people all up and down the road got out of their cars and began interacting with one another. Love plots, comedy plots, a little sinister activity here and there. The separate vignettes slowly became fused as the population along the country road slowly degenerated to barbarism and eventual savagery. It was a spoof on McCluhan’s suggestion that with the modern drift away from the written word to TV and film, our culture would regress to that of a primitive oral, tribal culture.
This stuck in my head for years. I am an oral kind-of guy, you see. I happen to think that what has meaning for us are associations which cluster and knot up in very personal ways. The meaning is inherent in the way we know how to unfold, untie, expand and extrapolate the associations folded up that piece of information. The meaning is to be found in the personal activity which makes us a part of the sense data ¾ which tends to be emotional data we are clothed in.
The fact that meaning works this way is a good reason why conversation acts this way. Not only does conversation have a similar structure, but so does the lady next door.
Logical discourse she is not.
Shaggy dog story she is.
Somewhere in-between she is the epitome of rhetoric.
Standard conversation starts on a topic and darts here and there with a word, a memory, or an association which demands a good story, or a simple explanation. After many such stories, the conversation invariably returns the original subject the way a Broadway tune returns to the tonic.
were we talking about? Oh yes, I was
telling you my son just got back from college yesterday! I don’t know how we
got talking about the old
Casual conversation is what we do when we are trying to re-create the meaning and feelings of a particular moment for someone. It is also when we are trying to engage them in our story and what is meaningful to us.
As we move through the story, we switch frameworks, change the scene, throw in new actors and all their background. Tempos and lighting changes, as if we are trying to be dramatists. Not that we are consciously using the techniques of the stage ¾rather, all the conventions of theatre are strictly imitations of the conventions of the way things naturally organize themselves in our minds.
Now let us discuss McCluhan’s aversion to a less literary and more oral/visual tradition. Perhaps there are some benefits to the savagery of talk?!
What if we considered how effectively oral cultures have passed on traditions, how easy it is to re-create a story that was told to you, no matter how many years before? What if we suggested that passing on emotional experience can best be done through oral transmission?
If we could suggest this, then we might just consider it as one of the better ways to pass on meaning from one person to another.
Not only that, but we are at an interesting juncture in technological history, when digital video can be created, transmitted or stored for little more than the cost of a telephone call. I pictured what our technological society would be like if we were primarily an oral culture, as McCluhan suggested and Goddard joked we might become. Putting the least cynical, and most whimsical spin on it that I could think up, I decided that in a high McCluhanized future world, with everything gone oral, that our technologies might actually start talking to us!
Now you think you’ve seen this kind of thing in a Disney feature or a Microsoft advertising fantasy. But what you saw there was a machine acting like an imitation person - like a droid from “Starwars.” This is NOT what I mean. Rather, our machines will let us meet and hear the people who designed and built and tested the machines. They will tell us why they are built that way. They might go on for hours and hours, talk is cheap and so are digital copies of it; they might let us in on the personal dramas that made these machines and systems what they are.
I have found that the engineers and designers always had wonderful stories to tell about how and why the machines they built worked the way they did, even when they worked on the most inscrutable systems.
was lucky once to work alongside a very old engineer. He had been retired for thirty years, which
put him in his mid-90’s, but he worked as the ombudsman for our company. Cornelius Weygandt III was his name. I believe his great-grandfather, the 1st
Cornelius, was a competitor of Michael Faraday.
He would invent things in
Cornelius that I knew, Cornelius the Third had installed the wiring inside the
columns of the railroad bridge leading into
Corny also designed the reversible electric motors on the infamous ocean liner, the Andrea Doria, which sank.
What is most important is that I felt I had seen the faces and heard the stories of people who had built the physical world around me.
But the real point is this, that anyone who has ever taken pride in their work can tell you one or two great stories about a few hours on the job, if you can figure out how to ask them. And those stories are about places and things that you will probably recognize later in life when you use it, or drive by it, or see something like it on TV.
And for the person telling the story, even if that story only represents a few hours of a lifetime of work¾those few hours may be the ones that make that job meaningful. And their life is enriched by the chance to tell that story and touch that meaning, and participate in the world again for a few minutes.
Hearing a story about that experience, told by the person whose eyes and voice convey its meaning, has a good chance of passing on that meaning to you. You are still an outsider, but you have become in a way “initiated” to the life which was part of some small or large corner of our daily routine existence ¾ the lamp posts at a parking lot, the security log-on at the ATM machine, the glue behind the label of a bottle of rum. All of them have a story or two to tell.
Being a long-time technical writer of horrible machine manuals, I have long believed that instead of paying me to write unglorious and slipshod instruction books, our machines should be able to show us who built them, and let us download their human histories and play them over the TV. Not only this, but we could meet the person who tests their operation at the factory and get a really good demonstration of what not to do to prove they can be broken. This is far better than the manual we throw into a drawer, never even realizing it is altogether in Spanish.
My work in the world of engineering had brought me to the conclusion that we could soon begin to document the technical history of our complex systems through structured, oral debriefings¾run by a “smart” computer and recorded on digital video. The conversations would be “keyed” or indexed as the interview progressed by the system and the interviewee; which would let us ask questions of the video database. Even with old reel-to-reel and serial videotapes, I had proven that instead of having engineers write long follow-up reports and debriefings, it was far cheaper to give them a questionnaire on their computer about their project, while they videotaped the answers to questions, and let the computer fill in time-codes.
Not that we would ever really want to get to know our lawnmower, or the inscrutable garbage disposal or the electric can-opener, but our kids might just decide to show how they know more than we do, because they have more free time. Heaven knows, for the price I’m paying, I wouldn’t mind having a few CD’s worth of well-designed introduction to troubleshooting my automobile that I could use to troubleshoot my mechanic, along with some quick shots of the assembly and testing of my actual vehicle. All of this is not just easy and cheap, but could be used to improve the manufacturing processes themselves. So there. This may have nothing to do with improving our educational system - but believe me, a little science fiction never hurt a model-builder.
But the world that I am talking up can actually come about. For years we’ve known how valuable audio/videotape training is for teaching motor skills, safe handling procedures. It is not better than a simple checklist or job-aid for transmitting a procedure properly, but when it comes to describing action verbs or conveying emotion, there is nothing like a film. Not everywhere, not with everything, but enough so that the webwork of connections between everything in the socio-economic fabric start appearing more like a recognizable design, so that each of us can start imagining our own separate places in the tapestry. And a new dimension will have been added to each of the stories we share with others.
In the future we should be able to throw something the size of a car fuse into a standard screen interface, submit technical queries about product maintenance and replacement parts on our car, or simply stroll around the old Philipino sweatshop where those bluejeans were assembled and shipped.
But I’m not sure this is what Francoise Godard believed when he created his film “Traffic Jam” as a spoof on Marshall McCluhan’s fear of regressing to an oral culture. As I remember the film more than thirty years later, it reminds me more of the traffic jam our educational theory may have driven into.
Around midnite, at the all-night hot-dog stand just off the railroad tracks by the docks, my friend Tiny and I stopped by for some free hot-dogs, ‘cause our friend Mietsche ran the stand. Mietsche was a reformed ex-jewel thief, but he was supposed to have been one of the best cat-robbers in the business.
When we got there, the brother of the city bail-bondsman standing in front telling Mietsche a story. We got there at the beginning and became his audience. He was holding a couple thousand in bills, and had a gun sticking out of his belt. The gun scared me, and I got up the courage to say something.
"I don't mind you waving around all that money, and your stories are like the movies. But why's your rod sticking out? It's asking for trouble if somebody else comes by."
My voice quavered as I finished this carefully prepared communication. He looked at me, took me in for exactly what I was - a scared college kid with a few guts. He took the gun out of his belt and put it in his jacket pocket, and went on bragging. As we were leaving he took me aside and said,
"Listen kid. Any time you want a free haircut and manicure come by my shop."
I thought about the offer for a few weeks, but it wouldn’t have mattered, because I found out later he’d been gunned down with a double-barrelled shotgun in front of the hotdog a few days after we were there. There was still cash in his hand.
When I found this out I knew I had met the real thing. He wasn't all hot air, but a real mobster. The only thing was, he was a little fish who didn't have much self-confidence, and had to prove himself with his stories. This is a common symptom of someone who plays second fiddle fourth chair to the big Cahuna. He just told too many stories.
Stretch limo with a bad muffler pulls up, rear window is down, nothing inside. Driver window rolls down.
“Hey Joe, Mr. Big Cahuna wanted me to give you his regards. He says it’s no problem, bro. You just tell too many stories.”
Pan to rear window. Double-barrel shot-gun blast under the roar of a bad muffler, as limo takes off.
Cut to a hand with a wad of money hit the wet cobbles, and the bills start blowing away.
When I realized I had to open up a chapter about story-telling, I remembered this one. It is my best story about story-telling. It is also a story about an event in my own life which alludes to some type of ‘life literacy,’ though I shouldn’t brag about the days I hung around with crooks
I would like to get to the bottom of story-telling. Stories are about events. They generally have a beginning and an end. They are a special kind of talk. What is important about them is how we tell them, why we tell them, when and where we tell them, and to whom we tell them.
Stories about ourselves are about events in our lives. If I tell you a story that I heard from someone else, or one that I watched on TV, retelling it makes a statement about the ‘story event’ we participated in. I will not elaborate. The operant term here is ‘event,’ and the problem with events is they are nested within larger events. Events are not always neatly drawn. Events in our lives may bifurcate and criss-cross and intertwine and trail off to nothing. They may slowly build to an explosion, or may simply feed one or more subsequent events – like the linear processes in a potato-chip plant.
Stories are about beginnings and endings, about causes and effects, about appearances and the truth of things. That is, it is the inner nature of stories to represent these things.
Consider Aunt Thelma returning from the mall. We are prepared for her pointless chatter about everything that happened on her shopping trip. But her need to represent these things – as unfortunate as it may seem – has a deeper meaning to Aunt Thelma. They are her daily testimony.
Story-telling, like recreation, exists within the larger context of events, and the integration of ourselves into our world. Story-telling, like recreation, is about induction, discovery, and re-integration of things to a steady-state. Aunt Thelma’s testimony is essentially recreational. It is play. She is throwing her hypothetical world out on her own terms, taking a reading and justifying her bearings. As she re-tells every detail of some trivial event, in her mind’s eye she is laying herself bare, open for humiliation – to have “gotten it wrong.” Of course you know from experience to never ever question Aunt Thelma’s interpretation; she knows this and that is part of her game. To her, this tale of her opinion of the behavior of another shopper represents an event with a beginning and an ending, a tale of causes and effects, a characterization of what is proper and what is not, of appearances and other folk’s mistaken concept of reality. And as she relives each moment of her trip to the mall, she is actually bringing together a complex series of thoughts and behaviors in a kind of tapestry. Telling the story, for Aunt Thelma, is a recreational event, which she is now integrating into a larger life event.
Most of the time we tell a story, it is intended as a communication act – that is, to influence people’s thoughts about us or the subject of the story. Aunt Thelma, however, is usually recreating her trip to the mall for herself – to relive it through our eyes and with our approval (and whether we grunt or yawn or not).
The bail-bondsman’s brother on the other hand, was not only recreating the excitement of the events by reliving them through our eyes – but he was consciously reliving the risks, by telling them with pertinent details and names attached. The very act of telling his stories was like adding “to be continued” to them, where the continuation of the story ended his life.
To get a feel for the interplay of stories with events, consider his murder. It was the beginning, end, and midpoint of many life events (probably long-forgotten) touching many different people. One was an investigative reporter – who may still remember this particular case, having unravelled possible causes of the crime. The murder may have played a part in someone’s conviction and jail-time, another story. He most assuredly had some family, and this incident played a part in their stories. One trail of the story became several paragraphs in a book on education. But then, not all stories are about events, some of them are about inchoate feelings which we manage to turn into something by telling about them.
“Hey Jack, how are you doing?”
“ ’Nother day, another dollar.”
We all know the feeling. Most adults have accomodated themselves to it, but for kids, ‘boring’ is one of the worst states to be in. TO be doing something, actively participaing in time, is better than boring, when there seems to be participation in nothing at all: anomie, disassociation, alienation from everyone who is doing something fun or meaningful.
The easiest way out of it is to to conceive of some objective – ‘a place you can get to from here.’ And whereever ‘here’ is, whether it be a classroom desk or a cot in a prison cell – and wherever ‘there’ is – beit the look on someone’s face after you pull a prank on them, or the sweetness of revenge on the guy that put you there – that objective can make the duration of moments disappear for a short time. Life has momentarily assumed the character of “an event.”
But notice what we are actually doing. For by identifying our time as ‘an event’ we are defining it – circumscribing it with boundaries which we can identify with a possible beginning, and having an ‘end,’ or goal. Throughout our partiicpation in that event we have essentially collapsed time into seuences of activities leading to the goal-state. We have objectified time leading up to the final coincidence of moments – moments which have been given meaning through these ends.
Telling stories is often our way of sorting out the beginnings and endings of things, as we would like to believe we have experience them. (This probably isn’t always the case, which I am sure some readers will duly note. I am just speaking generally, and haven’t sorted it out for myself yet.)
We often find ourselves embedding our own story into a larger story, to give the both of them meaning. The number of layers of embedment may simply be a factor of how many stories we are familiar with. But by linking our own local story (or interpretation of someone else’s story) to a more global context gets at the essence of meaning, and the creation of personal meaning. History, for example, is a set of linked stories about events. We extrapolate meaning from history by attributing causation (either necessity or accident)) to the events. Some of us are quite satisfied to know only one or two stories through which we have given all of humankind’s past and future its meaning – whether the ‘greater story’ be Herbert Spencer’s version of Darwinism, or the Book of Revelation. Tactfully embedding our own story into the architype, it becomes our key to participating in time.
We all blush at those times when, instead of simply enjoying ourselves and the fulness of experience, we have found ourselves comparing our own lives to those of a film or a novel. We have all met that ambitious youngster who interprets every chance event in life as an act of God, confirming their part in the greater story of the faith.
The only point which I intend to make, however, is the fundamental importance with which we treat our personal passage through time. Simply to remember how often an infant cries from boredom and the complex meanings which we rightfully attribute to those creis when we run to comfort them should be enough to remind us how fundamental the perception of time is to our well-being.
I have another hypothesis that emotional life is intimately tied to our sensing of time. Emotions are generally recognized to be responses to the sensed environment. Emotional responses as ‘perceptual acts’ when they are caused by a sequence or juxtaposition of events. We consider emotions as a ‘perceptual modality’ in the recognition that our mood influences how we see things. Emotions, of course also may have a physical biochemical origin distinct from the perception of events, and may be ‘treated’ as a malady with drugs – but in general, we recognize the interplay of emotional life with an individual’s perceived environment.
That most people are innately built to laugh or cry or moan is clearly not a response to time, but our innate emotional responses to things – when they are perceptual acts - are usually linked sequentially to some cause, and objectified as an event.
Now these emotional events – of whatever type – are the stuff of talk, and sometimes, of stories. There are many children (and adults as well) who cannot really verbalize their emotions, and indeed, there are often cultural biases against doing so. But there are other ways to get around verbalizing about one’s own emotions, if we are allowed to verbalize about these things in general – either someone else’s, or in the format of a story. A childrens’ story, for example.
I would also consider that we develop techniques early on in childhood by which we objectify and handle our emotions, that is, to explain them to ourselves as events. Given this suggestion, it is not too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the growth of our personal characters may be closely related to our arsenal of techniques to objectify our lives as events… again, to see ourselves as one or more stories.
IF THIS IS SO, then the importance of stories – how we learn to interpret them, and how we tell them – is of paramount importance to our lives and the growth of character. And the obvious corollary to this is that everyone of us needs every opportunity to practice this life skill.
The name most closely associated with suggestions such as these is Erving Goffman, whose works The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Forms of Talk, and Frame Analysis lie between sociology, psychology, linguistics, semiotics and ethology. Which is why such a fundamental subject as everyday talk is often left out of our conception of proper academic studies. One of the many things which Goffman has done is demonstrate that the way we structure stories in novels, theatre and film, is probably very close to the way we structure them internally – and that all the breaks and lacunae and asides, are quite acceptable to our internal story-telling logic. Analyzing the structure of casual talk, in fact, yields immense treasures in understanding options for human interaction, and the complexity of games of respect and judgement which is demonstrated throughout our adult life.
There are other obvious roles for story-telling. Ever since Freud, modern culture has been intimately familiar with story-telling in therapy. Harvey Cox, an academic theologian of some reknown, has pointed to the importance of testimony in religion.
My own college studies were in ethnography and folklore, where the oral tradition of myth (including hero and anti-hero stories) is the primary form of passing on a world-view, providing examples of character and emotional responses which could be used to demonstrate moral ideals and action.
There is an African tradition of story-telling which I believe to be quite significant – for its stories are all about the power of language and creative invention – in them, literacy is equated with “life literacy.” The tradition is called “signifying,” and it comes to us through animal stories of “The Signifying Monkey.”
Those of us who grew up in the 50’s and 60’s are familiar with it through Walt Disney’s ”Song of the South,” and old Uncle Remus. Joel Chandler Harris’ Uncle Remus Stories are about animals using language and creative misinformation to give them power over their interaction with other animals. A much earlier African, Aesop, provided his Fables to the ancient Mediteranean world - and they were included in elementary education for nearly two millenia.
If you have followed my long and winding tale about the place of stories in our lives, you will readily admit the importance we assign to story-telling in the media. Don Quixote’s intoxication with tales of errant knights rescuing damsels from scoundrels and dragons is hardly out-of-date, for we still tend to confuse our models for real life with the standard plots of sitcoms and cartoons.
Erving Goffman’s works on the many forms and contexts of talk belie oversimplification – but one simple fact he has made quite clear, that the incredible color which the play and ritual of talk includes, the interchanges, lacunae and assumptions which are part of everyday speech provide a continous theatre – albeit the theatre of life itself - which we learn to participate in from our earliest days. He is not quoting As You Like It that “All the world is a Stage,” (or worse, “life imitates fiction”) but rather that the many odd conventions of the stage are very like – if not formally like – the structures and systems of representation to be found in the ritual of everyday talk.
GOAL HERE IS TO OPEN UP EVENT-reading as the critical parameter for greed, gluttony, craving---- this is outside of the SENSE of BELONGING , … and only important to education in terms of cognitive types, different kids having different event-scenarios.
We tell our
children that if they do well in school they can be anything they want to be,
and will grow up to have everything they want.
Unfortunately, by the third or fourth grade their logical skills are
developed and they can look around and see other ways to obtain the same
rewards. Because they have a little
street sense they have begun to recognize street sense for what it is, the
ability to talk a good game, being nimble with words or fast with a fist,
playing a good game or bluffing one. And
all around them they see that you can succeed if you’ve got the right stuff to
strut. So a large number of them decide
to take their chances on tomorrow while they have fun today. And while it is not exactly clear to them how to take advantage of these options if
they don’t have the
The most common antidote to this malady is in the form of educators who would do whatever it takes to make education fun. Make learning easy. Let the kids cut their risks, do what they like to do, and we can still prepare them for the future. The illogic here is too obvious. The real logic underlying it is not.
The fact is, we currently live in a recreational culture. Most people live to enjoy life, to grow, to participate in their world, to discover who they are and who they might be. This is what “entitlement” comes down to.
The down-side of suggesting we live in a “recreational culture” is that it seems built around a premise of self-centered motivations of the individual. On the up-side of the equation is the part played by metrics. While we often confuse recreation with play and games, in fact, both play and games form a part of our need to test and check, our search for metrics. We may have a natural urge to measure ourselves against others; this is simply competitive play, where the motivations are about rewards, prestige, positions, and prizes. The deeper motivation is to discover metrics through which we can place ourselves in our world.
Our society has confused competitive play with the engine underlying our economy, our “entrepreneurial spirit.” We would do better considering it the flywheel – as capacitor and gyroscope. The generation of value is the energy driving the flywheel. The term “value” can be considered to be both material and esoteric. The discovery and creation of metrics is key to the process.
Our culture says to adults that they are entitled to discover themselves and their world through some form of activity – preferably work, if not work, through some form of recreational play. If we cannot make our school lessons consistent with our social and political and economic ends, if the majority of our curricular objectives do not coincide with our social objectives, this should be our problem.
For kids, their “work” is to be in school – and for those that are not yet motivated for the working world – they must stay there anyway, since there is no place else for them to go. This is one piece of this reality which every student will admit to. The school’s right to babysit. They will agree with this argument, and we can tell them to do whatever we want, simply to keep them all busy. For they will all admit that they are not yet adults. As yet, there is no other mandated place to go during the day. They still think of themselves as “children,” whose basic definition is “being watched over.” This is an assumption that has grown with them from the womb, whether they were watched over or not. Summer is an anomaly which everyone has taken for granted, but could logically be done away with. Summer used to be the height of the growing season, when children were needed for all kinds of simple daily chores back on the farm. But in today’s world parents can rejoice. There will soon be no practical reason for summer recess once we have hooked up every desk to allow for every educator’s ideal - independent paced learning. Vacations can be scheduled at any time of the year when the parents sign for their daytime baby-sitting rights and take back the kids for a week or two.
To suggest that we make learning into a string of motivation games is actually suggesting that if we were simply to focus our ecology of learning around self-discovery, we could lick the motivation problem. This argument suggests we design a curriculum that lets our kids learn while they play and play while they learn. We just need to hook up every desk, put all the books online onto games, and redesign all the playground equipment. In this way we can insure that every child will pass the mandated language arts, history, math and science tests for their grade level, while the gifted children can excel beyond our wildest expectations.
However, when every desk is hooked up, and we have spent billions converting the entire curriculum to interactive games, the “fun” and interactivity of computer games will have been assimilated to such a degree in our world – on every cellphone and computer interface screen - that the medium will appear about as old as steam engines once did to six year olds of my day.
attention and interest in the game-aspect of learning, in the so-called “fun,”
the interactivity of on-screen learning must still compete with the special
Recreation is a natural part of the phenomena of living, it is about the play of creativity and skill. It is about induction, discovery, and re-integration of things to a desired steady-state.
Play is a life event called “play” because it is on the player’s terms. Group play is entered into with a contract of mutuality, often recognizing unstated codes of behavior and expectations – and as long as these, too, are on the players’ terms it remains fun. As soon as the terms are imposed from outside, or the chances for participation, creativity, skill-play, and discovery are diminished, or the end-results are weighted against any resolution outside of the desired steady-state – it ceases to be fun.
The problem is, we can only create “fun” where we can create excitement in the anticipation of some outcome. It works until the outcome becomes clear and the anticipation dies. In classroom games the same few kids always play to win, and the anticipation and excitement in the rest of the group is lame and forced. Most of us can remember groaning when someone in the role of teacher told us how much fun we were going to have playing a game with prizes. The self-confirming pleasure our instructor took seeing several participants who actually played.. It was like the Chinese water torture for the rest of us, stretching time to infinity. Unless someone could find room for creativity and skill– on our own terms – to make the teacher or others look foolish. Suddenly the torture could be fun. But there was no motivation for learning what we should have been learning.
In the adult world of kids – if you take a look around the real world of recreation - you will see hundreds of forms of adult fun and relaxation have proliferated over the last few decades. There are millions of couch potatos involved in the proliferation of competitive sports, and the proliferation of reality television – with its court-room and survivor and mating soap operas and video-taped drug busts. But when the TV goes off, there are also a thousand new hobbies. Every type of collectable, hobby or esoteric interest has a network of clubs on the Internet, with regional, national, and international get-togethers on a regular basis.
Soap-making and radio-controlled boat-building, sharpshooting, mastering the medaival battle-ax, inlaying, cane-growing, lock-picking, cartooning, auto finishing, icon carving, bell-ringing, mesa-climbing, egg-painting, dahlia breeding--- there are international clubs and pastimes appropriate for every type of person. It is just a matter of finding out who you are and where your creativity lies. What one wins is pride in one’s effort, and the prestige of interaction with the masters of a chosen craft. Nearly everyone knows someone who personally knows the person at the top. This confers a very potent sense of belonging to the world. This is competition with a slightly different edge to it. The number of hobbies anyone chooses to take up is up to them, for each is a world unto itself, and no one is threatened by who you are outside of that mini-world – the respect and the play is all within the mutually agreed-upon conditions. If I have Downes-Syndrome, work at MacDonald’s to eat and pay bills, and support my self-image by being a world-class egg-painter of the XYZ style, it doesn’t affect my self-worth to know that the person that got first place this year is also a champion chess-player, Director of the Madison World Trust Fund, 2002 Olympic slalom medalist, and Statistics Champion of the World. What difference does that make, if that same person asked me for my secret enamal recipe for Cadmium Orange Madder. And the number of hobbies and clubs and pastimes relating to different aspects of our world is virtually unlimited. Give it a few hundred years of creative play and we might have an idea where we could be headed.
I cannot downplay the role of technology in all this, because the internet has made this newly-developing part of adult culture possible. Isolated people with the most abstruse hobbies could suddenly search each other out and communicate and trade materials and share resources. Unfortunately, the growth of many new pastimes and hobbies has gotten notoriety through some of the more anti-social and deranged corners. We must bear in mind that the entire field is just recently cleared and plowed. If much of it appears overrun with weeds today, it only means there is plenty of room to plant complex and well-managed gardens tomorrow. And most of us, even those who gravitate towards weeds, would prefer to spend our growing time where there are lots of nutrients and care. There will always be weeds ready to grow, but they are easy to isolate when they get out of hand.
As to the ways which kids see themselves and organize into types with certain interests, we have not moved far beyond the classic categories of kids when I was in school. You were either a jock, a grease-monkey, or a brain. This is probably close to what it must have been in Civil War days: you were a farmer, a tradesman, or college bound to be a teacher, preacher, doctor or lawyer. Now we have a few more categories – like the skate-rat, the computer game junkie and the tech-head.
But what if we could find a new way to get kids to see themselves? So that they’d start with half a dozen possible paths to identify with, and as they tried one out they got to talking to kids in the group and discovered another half-dozen models of themselves to try on?
At some point I believe that the community will provide ample growing space for kids within its own organizations and clubs. As if the Lions’ Club created the “Optical Scouts,” expanding their theme of distributing glasses to a kids’ organization exploring all realms of optics. But if the kids’ club was not just the club, but integrated into the mundane community activities and events of the Lions Club itself, children would meet old-timers and civic leaders in their own recreational world. The Grange Associations have done this for years, and church organizations have created a continuum of youth groups which are integrated into the overall church program.
There are many ways we could begin parenting and mentoring and guiding children into extra-curricular activities that bring them into the community. The crux of the problem is not creating more new organizations; in some towns we have plenty of organizations. It is in developing the activities that will match the kids to a wide range of older sponsors.
Perhaps the greatest achievement of modern society has been the invention of the industrial production model, with all the inticacies of modular integration, capital flow, planning and control. Applying this to our schools, as if students were products, however, has not proven simple or effective from a statistical standpoint. Since education is for the present and foreseeable future a major sector of the economy, it stands to reason it must be evaluated against standards of industrial production. Any new paradigm of education, then, must reevaluate the notion of the student as product. This may be the source of our present failures. Society wants clear-cut reports on student development towards educational outcomes. If such reports are forthcoming – if production planning model can be satisfied, society will be satisfied. But if we are to maintain the humanistic ideal for education we must enlarge on the production model somewhat. It is the purpose of this book to suggest one or more approaches to do this.
The educational establishment will always struggle to maintain its independence from the short-term political economic imperatives. Yet since economic and political imperatives will always push to change subject matter priorities, it may be possible to accentuate the independence of subject matter from educational needs. A system which featured the flexibility of subject matter – such that the priorities of states, counties and townships could be accomodated – would be the ideal solution for taxpayers. Yet the means by which the educational process itself may be evaluated by educators – to gauge the true educational outcomes for a better society – is still consistent within the industrial production model. Indeed, this says nothing more than we have a strong quality control and preventive maintenance system under our roof.
I find I am frequently wrong, and sometimes misguided. On the expressway to work several months back, I became very dizzy and had to pull over at the first rest stop. When I got out of the car I found myself completely disoriented and unable to make a single decision regarding what to do next. After much hedging and hawing and becoming very confused, I called work and explained I was sick. I couldn’t tell them that I didn’t feel sick, but felt more like I was having a stress breakdown. This had happened once or twice before in life and I recognized the feeling. But I wasn’t particularly stressed that day¾ which caused me considerable additional confusion.
It was interesting that I could remember the feeling of a stress breakdown from a decade before, but couldn’t remember that the previous night I’d been comparing Spanish, Greek, and French brandies as well as a new label of Jamaican rum I’d picked up for over the summer. “Testing” is somewhat more than “tasting” of course, and I had continued my scientific experiments by combining a few wines and seeing how my tomato plants would look if planted roots-up and leaves down.
Can you blame a guy who hadn’t even gone to bed drunk to think that this might have contributed to the morning’s feelings of unease? It had never occurred to me that seven hours later I was about 40 proof. I have told you this because it is part of my nature - when sober - to taste and test ideas, building vast academic models of things before ever coming up for air or inspecting them critically. You should have guessed this already.
When I’d first started on many of the ideas in this book, I had just been converted by an academic fellow named Dr. Reck Niebuhr to his paradigms of the ‘ecology of education,” and “the educational utility.” I was brimming with energy. I ran for a seat on town council and spake and spake at meetings and of course no one understood what any of this had to do with education or town council at all. I’m sure I looked like any other candidate with conviction, and might have been convicted right then and there had my fellow townspeople not been so tolerant.
Perhaps it’s not that anyone was tolerant, but rather that I was running against a small-town machine, and they were content to let me talk pie-eyed nonsense. As long as I wasn’t taking pie-eyed pot-shots at them: compared to my nonsense, they looked competent and staid. When I lost they co-opted a few of my ideas (like the location of the new town hall) and asked me onto the Zoning Board¾ buying me into their machine to keep me from making trouble. That’s how political machines work. They either chew you and mangle you, or they absorb you and use you (until they decide to spit you out, which is a story for another book).
While I was running for office I figured I’d better know what made the town tick and who belonged to whom. So I developed a model of community development which connected adult and K-12 education to everything and connected everything and everyone to it. This kind of model is very powerful, even if it is empty, or wrong.
At least it was powerful looking.
It consisted of a large triangle with spherical vertices and different levels ¾ rather like the design for a Bauhaus swimming pool. I had it drafted and printed in architectural computer graphics by my able secretary who was trained in drafting nuclear containments. I was Director of a Training Department at a large engineering firm, and had a secretary who had previously worked in the Computer Graphics Department, and she gave my Swimming Pool of Learning an authoritative appearance. It looked like the specifications for concrete, rebar, and signage, right down to the small print which signified the schedule for chlorine testing.
What a model! It makes me sigh whenever I think of it. It was so beautiful and all-encompassing. I considered everything that might go on in a town to pass on experience and rumor - from the formal infrastructure of information ¾ our libraries and databases, postal services, and cablecast media - to the informal infrastructures that let gossip and role-modeling take place. In short, I listed all the mechanisms besides books that everyone used to help each other learn and grow with, both from and through each other. These were the professional societies and church groups, neighborhood block parties, and teams. The model gobbled up everything I could see in my community. It was definitely a good exercise which I recommend to anyone.
Consider all the participants of the Babe Ruth League, the Volunteer Rescue Squad, and the Catholic Youth Organization, the groups that held meetings at the VFW and those that supplied labor for bingo. All this constituted the information paths of the town. Add to this all the other places people meet and trade gossip – the ice-cream stand, the ball-fields, the short-cuts and railroad tracks and wooded lots that kids and immigrants and derelicts without licenses use.
Reck’s lecture on learning had me pumped up. I started asking how do all these people learn what they’ve learned? What structures support learning from your uncle, from an old friend coaching soccer? How many skills got picked up in the army and brought back to the town? How many of my friends and neighbors in town tried starting something like a club or a business? How many got thrown on their ass and failed? How might I, or anyone else in town learn from them? What could I find in town newspapers anymore? Were there any town newspapers anymore?
How much learning came from books, stored procedures, or the cumulative experience of law? How much came from sitcoms and soap operas, and how much came from that vaunted college education?
I had an answer for that one. One thing that came from that college education outside the community was the ability to recognize situations outside the community’s own experience. For, as sometimes happens in the all-inclusive worlds of small towns or big towns, a new situation may just arise which requires new kinds of thinking skills. And it might help to have people with a slightly broader base of knowledge on-board. The importance here is to have at least one person on your board who speaks the language of “outside,” which means “college” to most people. Every other seat on the board would be better served by a local with no pretensions.
“Don’t get me wrong, college is good to have, in fact, necessary to have…”..just don’t expect things to work like they taught you in college. In fact, sit back and watch and keep your mouth shut. If we need you for something, we’ll ask.”
This was what I learned when I was brought into the inner circle of local government. My model exactly predicted it, for I had thoughtfully designed my learning triangle to have an inside and an outside.
Now there is a rather extreme example of this kind of behavior which occurs in the annals of educational anthropology, that is, what college might represent for the members of the Lions Club.
Apparently at one time, the Zulu taught their children everything needed to be a successful Zulu. This was taught in the family, the games, informal community gatherings and clubs. Children would learn how to act and speak properly, how to show respect, how to perform transactions, and whatnot. Children would also be sent to the colonial schools to learn English trades, to learn to do business among Westerners, as well as speak “Tut-tut” and other colonialist whatnot. Of course, a Zulu child who behaved at home as they were taught in school would get a whipping and never grow up to be a proper Zulu. And every child learned to pay attention to which world they were acting and speaking in¾ for being multi-cultural and multi-lingual apparently did not pose horrific problems.
You should also be careful to note that whatever philosophy of learning system is proposed, it cannot be limited to a mechanism that passes along existing knowledge and traditions. It must not only enculturate, socialize and transmit knowledge and rules from the past, but should allow the knowledge and rules to be continually tested and re-constituted.
The model I have just told you about was
unwieldy and cumbersome and as I said, looked like the design for a
In the old family and tribal tradition, knowledge was passed down from father to son and mother to daughter in a person-to-person fashion, without the interference of authorities and scientific monitoring equipment. I grew up in a family of teachers, where the tribal tradition was rigorously adhered to.
Schools at the opening of the 21st century, however, have been structured according to an industrial model, where the students are conceived of as raw materials, and the curricular objectives are treated as if they are processing and packaging lines in the education factory. But we do not find a classroom filled with educational technology creating little packages of knowledge and skills – we still find lots of teachers. Overworked teachers.
The teacher is the least respected part of the factory process, perhaps because many teachers – like those in my own family – believe in the old tribal traditions and refuse to give into the factory model. Meanwhile, they serve as the critical piece of equipment in our educational factories, and they know it. Teachers are the equipment with most stress and least maintenance. Like the expansion joints in an otherwise solid structure – they must make all the accommodations to daily exigencies, shrinking budgets, and social heat. Teachers are expected to fill the gap in the breakdown of the family, even to replace the parents in teaching basic social skills.
Well, perhaps the industrial process model is incorrect – in fact, I have probably argued throughout this book that it IS incorrect. Nevertheless, it would seem that we might invest some process engineering into helping out the plight of our teachers. Whether their students are conceived of as unique human beings or as “products” which must be molded and shaped and wedged and hammered into pre-determined packages for the consumption of colleges and employers or their local selective service board, it is indisputable that students are there to be helped along in life. And teachers need to be able to tell them apart - to remember who does what well, who has trouble tying their shoes, who is dyslexic, whose mother is an alcoholic, and who is mostly living by their wits on the streets.
For all that we ask of them, our teachers might use some technological aids of their own. I know there are many who would conceive of computerizing the classroom, taking the entire load of transmitting knowledge off of the teacher. This is not a new paradigm, but a crude translation of the old one.
And what if the primary role of the teacher is NOT transmission of knowledge, but something else?
It is clear that the role of the teacher within the present paradigm of education is being pushed beyond its limits. The interpretation seems obvious: the present paradigm says that teachers, as we have known them, must go.
At the same time, the failure of education in our larger society suggests that it is the current paradigm which has to go. And teachers, seeing their ranks (including their roles and their prestige) assailed from all sides, are the ones fighting the hardest to hold onto the current paradigm.
Naturally, we will do what we are wont to do, and as it is said, throw out all the dirty water with the baby in it. We are in the middle of this process, and the teachers will lose.
But let us take a step back. The role of the “teacher” in both primary, secondary, trades, and higher education is to act as the primary agent in the transmission of knowledge and the development of abilities. Then along come computers, with the interactive hi-tech packaging of all the knowledge and training schema in the world: suddently the teacher no longer seems to be the transmission agent of choice. How convenient.
Perhaps it is not knowledge and capacity which is at the center of the paradigm. If it were, as in ancient and medaieval times, about character-building, the transmission of morals and culture --- then the transmission of knowledge and capacity is somewhat less important. Perhaps it is about something a bit broader and more compassionate. Perhaps it is something we don’t yet fully understand – such as the ongoing reconciliation of the self, millions upon millions of individuals, with the past and the future of the species.(???) Were this the scenario, then it is the human characteristics of the teacher which lie at the center of our educational effort.(?) Social and economic capacity is simply the first derivative of the primary function. But let us take a look at if this might be possible.
Rhetoric, Grammar, and Logic may seem far removed from the world of today. Certainly, in the face of criticism of the irrelevance of our education system to the world around us, the ancient Trivium and Quadrivium are about as relevant to world affairs as an archeological dig.
That comparison may bristle the hairs on someone’s back, for an archeological dig might turn up evidence of mind-blowing proportions – like, for example, ____________, or a necklace with an international coin collection in a Mayan gravesite. Even these discoveries wouldn’t have much effect on the Super Bowl game this year, which is, after all, the epitomy of human relevance, as gauged by the amount of money spent on advertising.
I will attempt to show how, given the ancient setting and aims of education, how the Trivium and Quadrivium, which made up the so-called “seven liberal arts” might have been a category scheme which allowed the teacher to cover all aspects of a grown-up’s life, with adequate knowledge of the world at large as well. If this might be the case (and you can bet I’ll stretch the supposition to its limit) then we might try to fashion something similar to embrace our present curriculum – not that anything will get thrown out, but rather, that we shall find many more available slots to fit things in.
The objective of our schools is not to produce educated children, nor to produce the next generation of leaders - but rather, the ultimate objective of our schools is to produce wise teachers.
Educated children will be the by-product of wise teachers under any circumstance. But if our system of schools and schooling is designed to produce wise teachers, we will suddenly have an ever-fresh pool of national resources to go on to become wise social, political, and economic leaders as well.
This is exceptionally counter-intuitive for me – since I always adhered to the old dictum “those who cannot do it, go and teach it.” And lest today’s teachers jump to the conclusion that I am suggesting that teachers are the source of society’s wisdom, I am saying nothing of the sort. Teachers may consider themselves the residence of our society’s knowledge, but so is the internet – and any idiot inmate can teach himself to access knowledge at the prison library.
We all know of the critical importance of education to society, and can all speak bombastically about one or another aspect of education and its importance for the future of humankind. But substitute the word ‘knowledge’ for ‘education’ in whatever we are asserting, and see if that’s really the source of our bombast:
“We all know of the critical importance of knowledge to society, and can all speak bombastically about one or another aspect of knowledge and its importance for the future of humankind.” There, you can see what I mean.
Catch anyone who speaks worshipfully of education and you will find that the idol they are bowing to is Knowledge. Knowledge gives a person capacity to enjoy and understand and question things more fully. With knowledge comes control, and the power to discern possible actions – if not the outright control of circumstances. With knowledge comes respect, and arrogance. And of course, it was the apple from the Tree of Knowledge that gave us the capacity to discern right from wrong and know our nakedness.
I would suggest, therefore, that for just a moment, we substitute the concept “capacity” for the term ‘knowledge.’ I don’t wish to make this into a general argument about knowledge – it is only for this particular argument regarding the idols versus ideals of education. For I would suggest that in almost any circumstance in which you use the term ‘knowledge’ regarding education, the term ‘capacity’ could be used to more effect – that is, to get you closer to what you actually want to say.
Teaching of any of the basic subjects is about transferring an important capacity to the child. In general, these are capacities which society requires to carry on a successful life. This is arguable, since the capacity to do basic arithmetic is currently accomplished by simple keystroking. Spelling and basic sentence construction are also trusted to an employee’s keystroking abilities rather than to their knowledge of grammar or vocabulary. And of course, the most basic lessons of history are no longer a prerequisite for public office. Alas, only those who possess the talent for science and technology need any of the capacities passed on in the curriculum.
I will stop being cynical. I sincerely believe that our schools are where we have the most leverage on socializing our children for the future. It is, of course, about our children – but it is more about the future of our society.
Let’s put the question of education to the side for a moment.
Consider a social fabric built around the passing on of experience. Consider a political economy focussed on social capacity-building. “Social capacity-building” includes all the capacities of the economy to provide a healthy and full life to its society. To be socialized in any political economy is to become part of one or more groups, and to have the capacity to accomplish work in and through those groups. One is socialized into a group through others passing along experience and skills and literacies from the past. One becomes a fully-participating group member as you begin to contribute to the larger social enterprise of exploring and building the group’s future.
Where the social fabric was woven together around the successful transfer of experience, where social capacity-building is the focus of the economy, we would be considering a social and economic fabric that served to develop teachers, coaches, and mentors as its highest purpose. These are the people who knew how to make knowledge personal, to help others take ownership of situations and needs, to develop and live their own story within a larger world. This is basically the only change in our current model of society which is needed to support my proposal for a new educational paradigm.
Of course, today we have it quite upside-down. We say that our educational structure is about our children – but in fact, it is mostly built around supporting our existing social economy. It must be. The phrase “our children” is simply a reference to responsible planning for future economic capacity and readiness. Invoking “our children” covers the effort with a film of righteousness and an aura of innocence – but we are really talking about capacity-building.
As one of the many variables in that future readiness, teachers can be weighed-in or weighed-out of any equation regarding education. Currently, our teachers are not at the center of the equation – rather our future economic capacity is, and “our children” are the iconic image we happen to use to symbolize that future. This slight confusion has cost us quite a lot. It has also put teachers in a most unenviable place of being held accountable for every failure in our society at large, with absolutely no say in the matter of how things might be done. They can’t even reprimand a child for foul or illegal behaviors without being taken to task for hours of scrutiny on the subject.
I will not go any further on this subject but to say that our social rhetoric overflows with contradictions, compromising nearly everyone with hypocrasies of the oddest sorts.
Dumping the traditional cant of “education for our children” is a good place to start. It doesn’t communicate a thing.
Our educational system is naturally built around and for our children. The question is – of what is it built? What is the “system” in that education? If that system were to be structured around the development and support of our teachers – doing the job they have been trained to do, which is to work with children, to help them become part of our world – we will be going a long way towards the natural growth of a “system” which supplies us with a capable workforce as well as a discerning and wise leadership for tomorrow.
Early in the history of NASA there was a great need to cross-over disciplines and integrate the problem-solving structures in the organization. Research focussed around the means for technology transfer between the various departments, which at that time represented highly-independent disciplines of knowledge. It was found that each group tended to have “gate-keepers”of specialized knowledge, who were able to translate the priorities and understandings of one discipline to another, and provide groups on either side of the divide with techniques for asking questions – the questions to ask and the words to use when asking them. NASA identified the gate-keepers and learned to replicate what they did for groups that had no one performing the function. That is, they learned to create gate-keepers of knowledge.
We can do this. What I mean is, we can redesign society just slightly, here and there, adding person-to-person communicatoin/translation nodes to help translate social experience from one subculture to another. Of course, Madison Avenue already does this – and arrogantly assumes a monopoly on translating its reality into yours, giving your world-view some wider coherence. (The Church gives your world-view its other-worldly coherence, and makes no claims on tying together earthly worlds beyond keeping your eye on the Lord’s work.)
I believe that with a conscious effort across society over a number of years, we can take the job of making life coherent back to person-to-person interaction, where it belongs. My pet theory is that this overwhelming task of social engineering can be performed quite handily across the country, by the collective hands of our many service clubs, churches, and in all those private institutions which promote everything from the arts to health and exercise.
I am not a great fan of high technology, but for those who insist that technology will be the savior of humankind, I suggest that digital video technologies and web-streaming can create a renaissance, a rebirth, of the oldest and most powerful modalities of human learning — oral transmission of experience.
We can erase the language barriers of specialization by developing the stories and story-telling techniques in all our specialist realms of knowledge, across the sciences, technologies and the everyday workplace. While we cannot understand a complex relationship without all the underpinning knowledge, we can understand the human components behind decisions, and understand the importance and connection of these decisions to the outside world. With each new story we will begin to tie more of our own world together, highlighting the experiences of real people in all the jobs and sub-cultures of our working world, we can break down the compartmentalization of knowledge for our kids and ourselves.
Not only that, but the best story-tellers are going to be people our kids might want to emulate…people who let them know why they want to learn different subjects in school. We can bring this about cheaply, and without burdening our schools in the least. And in doing so, not only can we overcome our own socio-economic illiteracy, but we will provide the sub-text of reality for students throughout their years of life sitting in school.
The text of the reality is that students must sit in school.
Most kids don’t want to sit in school and learn because they would prefer goofing around, and this has always been the case.
Our culture of specialization allows us to entrust our leadership and our future to an elite oligarchy of think-tanks in the same way we entrust our car to the local garage. It is difficult to question their judgment, for they have more information and knowledge than us. We’ve left ourselves with no choice.
That our educational system and our democracy are closely intertwined almost goes without saying. John Dewey’s classic Democracy and Education made that explicitly clear. That both our democracy and our educational system may be based on the same paradigm of knowledge is somewhat more subtle. But bringing our schools into harmony with the world we actually live in is going to be do-able for no other reason than there are too many people in the business of education and science who fear giving in to the highly-specialized political garage mechanics in power --- for they will engineer our way into Huxley’s Brave New World… providing the optimum contentment of the optimum numbers, leaving those outside the bell-curve to wither away. Those of us in the business of education must integrate our system of schooling into the world at large, or we will suffer the consequences of a political elite which promotes our alienation from it — ensuring apathy and the slow asphyxiation of democracy.
How do we picture education as it is linked to the model of the larger society today? I picture an old lithograph of Hobbes’ Leviathon with ‘Education’ written down its spinal column, ‘Labor’ on its muscular arms, ‘Science’ on its forehead, and ‘Politics’ on its larynx. Heaven knows, this is no new model, except that every profession vies to be on the forehead and at the seat of consciousness.
Anyone familiar with the term ‘paradigm’ of course, knows that paradigm-shifts take place with the discovery and introduction of a new principle – which then serves as the central reality around which the current coordinates of reality are shifted. If, indeed, there were a way to picture society, with our entire educational structure integrated with the economic life which supports it and which it in turn supports – I will tell you what to expect. It is rather like a polarizing lens suddenly highlights a new organizing principle which has been discovered as ubiquitous to reality. The different coordinates used for describing the world will stay the same; only their angles and relation to one another will shift.
I will give you an example.
Before the present days of our recreational society, we lived in an industrial society. As recently as 1967, in a book called The New Industrial State, no less of an economist than John Kenneth Galbraith provided the research and arguments to show that the key motive of the workforce at that time was not profit, but participation – taking pride in being part of things bigger than the self. He was very clear in showing that it was not the profit motive that served as the basis of our entrepreneurial economy, and that profit was not the real motivation of free markets. Several generations of academics since his book have re-asserted the underlying human premise of profit as the glue which holds together our economy, and the unquenchable appetite to keep it fueled – but Galbraith’s analysis is not to be taken lightly.
For here is another example of a similar principle, but applied to education. All children, since before the days of Aesop’s Fables, have longed to become grown ups, to be allowed to participate in the many varied activities of the world. I would suggest that to the child, the level to which they believe they are participating in things becomes a metric of value and self-worth. Our culture holds out the opportunity to all of us “to become all you can be.” Whether seen through the contributions one makes to one’s world, or in terms of participating in the universe of games and recreation, the word ‘participation’ can again be construed as our subjective metric, that is, as seen by the participant.
And so we have the suggestion for the keystone of an arch connecting economics to education, and I will emphasize the old saw that a paradigm-shift may not change the outward look of things all that much, but may significantly alter our working priorities. The term ‘participation’ is rather nice for another reason, in that it has a long history in the discussion of spiritual matters as well.
To return to our educational model-building, let us see what the term ‘participation’ can do for it. The philosopher John Dewey suggested that human beings take the longest of any animal to wean their children. Our education system is part of that process, teaching our young the tools and cultural habits needed to succeed in a complex world. Yet from the standpoint of childhood, nearly every little boy or girl dreams of escaping the confines of their nursery, of becoming part of the world at large – free to do what they want and take what they can.
The child longs for the secrets of adulthood, and society traditionally tells our children that our schools hold out the promise. Yet once in school, children are quick to see the disconnect. Their classes don’t connect them to the world at large, nor help them to participate in anything but the classroom itself. The metric of participation, when applied to the classroom as we find it today, is only useful if the child adopts the life of school as one-and-the-same with the world at large – so that participation in life at school is the same as participation in one’s world.
Perhaps schools fail our kids because their classrooms don’t tap into their curiosity and impatience for an integrated picture of the world. It is not simply tapping into childhood curiosity for knowledge – for knowledge is only one modality for participation. They thirst to become part of this world, even in childhood games. If you dig down in your memory of childhood, or go back to studying children’s literature, you will recognize that in the mind of the child, the world “out there” is in hiding. It is a world full of secrets.
But again, the child is much wiser than we generally want to admit. The popular media provides our kids with a quite integrated picture of experience and life – and they are quick to see that it is also our most integrated picture of experience and life. The media projects life as a game of consumption, of competition and risk; a world of destruction and recovery, of feeding and unquenchable appetites; a world which above-all idealizes the game of life. The savviest of children can have this hypothesis worked out by the time they reach first grade; devising subtle real-life psychological games to play with the adults assigned to be their ‘keepers’ in school. They are already participating in the game of life to a high degree – but not in the premises of the game which school is promoting.
If I am right about the child’s metric of value and worth being ‘participation’ in the larger world, it becomes pretty clear why our schools fail to make the grade with many sharp and talented kids – who prefer to focus their energies elsewhere, on other priorities and other games.
In the classroom they begin to learn there is something else at work in the world: that there are subjects and disciplines and rules and theories. They learn about sets of behaviors and a toolbox of knowledge and skill. These are an alternative set of tools and another language of grown-ups which lies outside the world of media.
Unfortunately, many of these behaviors and tools are disassociated from the real activities of life which the growing child sees all around. The rules and language can only be interpreted as a game. As a game, the education game simply competes with other games in the child’s mind – and unless they are efficient at the education game, and can get an output of satisfaction commensurate with their input of effort, they will focus on games in which they can experience more participation in life. Naturally this is interpreted as “freedom” to develop themselves – which is one of the guiding principals of our democratic society.
This much said, I will turn to the analysis of the culture of education. In order to help our schools bring the majority of children to school with an overwhelming desire to participate in the culture and reality of the classroom, stripping the false illusions and consumer-laiden ambitions of the media, we must take a look at the social paradigm within which education lies.
I once heard a macho-type guy, an ex- bar-owner in his forties, admit that he was just a big baby growing up. He had teen-age kids of his own, and said that the more he watched them avoid growing up, the more he realized they are just like he was. So – he said is got to finally face growing up himself if he expects them to make it. Of course, in today’s culture, we are more and more used to hearing admissions of this sort – after all, psychotherapy is close to a century old and has made itself a respectable business.
I watched my mother grow and change some of her most characteristic and debilitating traits up to the week she went into her final coma. I don’t believe any of this was due to therapy, she was in for cancer and facing death. She had gone back to school, got herself a Masters Degree and became a Guidance Counselor. Then, finding some self-respect as a professional, she started growing up all over. And apparently she really discovered how to learn, because she learned to change her behaviors, too, and experimented up to the day she died. This is the real definition of “lifelong learning.” It is not just a new motto for the education industry to extend the age of their consumer market – keeping up the demand for textbooks, teachers, and facilities. Lifelong learning is, according to some, an underlying tenet for life itself.
A chapter on macro-economics belongs in this book because the philosophy of education cannot be discussed independently of school boards and budget legislation against the public outcry over higher taxes. One could ignore the envelope of economics altogether and pretend that money grows on trees – which it does, by the way. The education business knows it can whine and fuss about everything we need and daddy government and mommy taxpayer will eventually increase our allowance…. because “education” is about our kids and their futures, and everything the politicians stand for. We all know Education is the best way to dump money into making society better if no one wants to face making it better for the impoverished and “socially challenged” in the here and now.
The Invisible Hand of Free Market Economies is relevant to education because under the present setup, there is a logical flaw in the conception of why education is to be funded at all, let alone how we are to fund it. The flaw is fairly obvious, in that we do not have any good logical tools to discuss where and how to limit the concept of a welfare state – and we are struggling with both education and healthcare as the major bulwarks against the privatization of just about everything.
National security can be privatized, our occupation army employs almost as many highly-paid private contractors as soldiers, and there is talk of privatizing the CIA and FBI because professional contractors will get the job done better. Indeed, the wealthy and powerful would have us put our faith in the Invisible Hand of complex systems, to bring us to a state where growth is the natural equilibrium, and prosperity will abound for the betterment of all.
What seems to me closer to the truth of the situation is, that the invisible hand which accompanies the privitization of education might just provide us with what our economy needs – an oligarchy of highly educated smarts from the upper tail of the bell curve; and they will be trained to run the country the and world, as they placate the rest of the bell curve into their share of the prosperity.