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I
A brave man once wrote that independent thinking and the ability to criticise are ‘the two indispensable qualities of a revolutionary’. It cannot be a coincidence that what is called ‘education’ today generally encourages neither.

A revolutionary, after all, is one who illuminates the cankers that blight a system, and one who threatens to smash them. It is not in the interests of the currently prevailing system to be so struck, and it is not in the nature of those who prop it up to do as Ajax nobly did.

Thus the successful continuation of the status quo consists at least partly in keeping the population from awareness. ‘Education’ is but one enforcer. Not only does it forestall the luminescent red flames of Orc, or drench them on their first flickering, but it serves to put us all in chains.

We may turn to the venerable Noam Chomsky for a clear and basic statement of the problem with schools and universities. As it stands, educationcertainly in the social sciences and humanities‘kills interest, deadens the mind, but makes students more passive and obedient and less trouble’.

II
But how? In the United Kingdom at least, the examination is very much the centrepiece of primary and secondary education. It is the system’s heftiest mace, the principal means by which the ordinary child is stultified. All else is subordinate to it. Indeed, by many accounts, British youngsters are among the most tested in the world.

And around the dreaded exam, a necessarily crustose National Curriculum has formed. Yet it does not matter what is taught, so long as it continues to be purveyed in the current manner. Teaching at present consists largely in bombarding reluctant children with copious amounts of dreary information, the memorisation of which alone determines success or failure and therefore worth. There is no scope or support for creativity, for independent thought, for understanding; passivity and tedium rule. Those who struggle at school leave the system early. In many cases, their doing so consigns them to the rubbish heap of society.

Their less benighted peers, however, may pay to attend some or other university. One might think that qualities suppressed or left unformed in classrooms are somehow vivified in lecture theatres, in these august seats of learning. But of course, this, for the most part, is simply not what happens.

In the universities, exams are still the same: still crude, still nothing more than gauges of memory. Above all, they continue to hold sway. And the generality of students leave their respective institutions without a critical understanding of the world about them.

III

This latter point is of special importance, and Chomsky can assist us in enlarging upon it. ‘[C]ertain topics,’ he once said, ‘are unstudiable in the schoolsbecause they don’t fall anywhere’. It hardly requires a detailed analysis to see that he is right. After all, where in academia can one be taught about the true nature of a world run by multinational corporations, about its systems of propaganda, about its grotesque, toxic and often murderous excesses? Chomsky went on:

[T]here is no academic profession that is concerned with the central problems of modern society… nobody [in the academic departments] is going to tell you what’s really going on in the world. And it’s extremely important that there not be a field that studies these questions  because if there ever were such a field, people might come to understand too much, and in a relatively free society like ours, they might start to do something with that understanding. Well, no institution is going to encourage that.

Of course, there are other reasons for the reticence of universities on certain matters, as Chomsky well knows:

Universities do not generate nearly enough funds to support themselves from tuition money alone: they’re parasitic institutions that need to be supported from the outside, and that means they’re dependent on wealthy alumni, on corporations, and on the government, which are groups with the same basic interests. Well, as long as the universities serve those interests, they’ll be funded. If they ever stop serving those interests, they’ll start to get in trouble.

The function of universities, then, is simply to administer the finishing touches to batch after batch of young people who are essentially being ‘educated’ for a lifetime of servility:

[G]iven the external power structure of the society in which they function now, the institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity and to make them controllable and indoctrinated  and as long as the schools fulfil that role, they’ll be supported.

A rather more poetic rendering can be found in D. H. Lawrence’s Fantasia of the Unconscious, where, amid much exquisite claptrap, passages like the following veritably gleam:

The fact is, our process of universal education is to-day so uncouth, so psychologically barbaric, that it is the most terrible menace to the existence of our race. We seize hold of our children, and by parrot-compulsion we force into them a set of mental tricks. By unnatural and unhealthy compulsion we force them into a certain amount of cerebral activity. . . .  All that they have learnt in their heads has no reference at all to their dynamic souls.

But one need not confine oneself to critics of education when searching for its defects. One can even look to politicians. For instance, all of the above is seemingly borne out in the United Kingdom by the verbiage of the Conservative Party, and in particular by that of the oleaginous Education Secretary, Michael Gove. In all his and their talk of a ‘global race’ is contained a frightful reality: we, the people, the standardised citizenry, are mere objects and commodities.

IV
We have hitherto seen only what education is, and not, at least in any explicit sense, what it ought to be. The time has come for a very brief exploration of this second question.

The ideas of John Dewey must surely inform any respectable vision of education. For Dewey, schools are not hatcheries that churn out children en masse, but strong communities in which all should be attuned to the psychology of the individual child and also to his place in the whole. Dewey abhorred the ‘deadness and dullness, formalism and routine’ that infected education and stressed instead activity, expression and the sensitive observation of childhood’s interests. Above all, Dewey saw the school as the best way of instigating social progress and reform, rather than as the most formidable hindrance to those things.

It can quite clearly be seen, even through this rather slapdash jaunt through Dewey’s work, that his pedagogy is directly opposed to that which festers in our schools today. And only one of these conflicting conceptions of education appears to value and cultivate the gaiety, curiosity and creativity that children so often tend towards. Thus, only one  Dewey’s  ought to be considered before any renovation of the system.

V
But to what extent can any such renovation occur without a wholesale structural transformation of the society and economy in which we live? This is an interesting question and one to which there is no definite answer. Nevertheless, we, the young, should emerge from the deadening vapours, from our inculcated passivity, and start to heave the huge round stone.

There need to rise in the campuses and colleges a hundred thousand Mario Savios, who each believe, as Byron did, that the days of our youth are the days of our glory, and who must together cry: ‘Away with this degradation!’

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9 thoughts on “On the State of Education

  1. Hah. ‘exquisite claptrap’; a nice turn of phrase. Style over substance has never been so evident. I think your literary skills would be better put to use in the field of poststructuralism – at least there, your turgidity would be at home-in-the-world (!)

    • Dear Dan,

      Thank you for your comment.

      Turgidity or no turgidity, I feel that the thrust of my argument in this post is clear.

      I made a number of substantive claims, and am naturally disappointed that you were unable or unwilling to engage with them.

      To me, then, it is your response that lacks all substance.

      Kind regards,

      SB

  2. The turgidity you refer to, I surmise, is a result of soil sifting in search of substance, and barren soil is all around us, as well as junkyards. Each of us searches for substance, for quality, in his own way. I understand your remark to him, but I still applaud his effort because he’s considerate enough to his readers to condense. He’s doesn’t go on and on. He makes his points. He arranges his argument, and one leaves his careful and directed arrangement of words thinking about his chosen subject. Your comment is close to a low blow, not really constructive, perhaps only a conceit for your own gratification. I’d say the writer tends toward the aphoristic, the epigrammatic, the apothegmatic – packing power into the short and memorable. He doesn’t always succeed. Sometimes his set-ups are a little too forced and obvious, not proceeding organically, and some of his lines are stilted, not enough air for breathing by a flow to the prose, nonetheless I think his tendency is a strength and he should be encouraged to hone his craft. Through his writing I can see the type of mind at play, and it is open and receptive to the experimental, the exception, the different. For me writing is a means to getting to know a person; the heart and mind are what are important. The writing is clothes, is a house, is a vehicle. It is what the human being wears, inhabits, uses, and not vice versa. Writing from pure nakedness, honest to the bone and sensitive, heart opened and revealed, but also plain and direct, has to be the most difficult thing to do in the world. It requires courage, and even for those who have courage, the words don’t always come out right. Words coagulate, clog. When inspiration is lacking, words arrange like pebbles and stones in rows, in formations, which may be interesting to look at but will never grow like planted seeds. Sometimes the intellect can overwork itself in an attempt to compensate for a lack of inspiration. Style and fashion rule the world for a reason, covering up and directing attention away from shortcomings, failure, misery, stupidity, cowardice. Sometimes the mask is preferable to the real face. People dress themselves up, style themselves, to feel better about a dismal situation. I myself am more forgiving, generous it may be, even amused and touched by things individuals do to make up for deficiencies real or imagined, or to distinguish themselves in their excellencies and strengths. Excess of style has its own way of revealing the truth, and it happens in time. By nature it happens. Those who are top-heavy shall eventually topple and fall, the legs underpinning them thin and wobbly. In the end there’s no getting away from what we are. On the other hand, confessional writing, too much of it, can be nauseating. I think the writer of this blog uses his vigor to burn away fat from around the core of matter under his consideration, and to prepare the way for a wedding of style and substance original to himself and true to who he is.

  3. Colossus: Pardon me for loading up your comment area. Feel free, at any time, to delete at your leisure. I wouldn’t take it personally. Anyway, for some time I’ve had words by Paul Valery which he wrote about the poet Stephane Mallarme in the back of my mind. (By the way, at your recommendation, since I don’t read or speak French, I purchased and have with me now an english translation of a compilation of Tzara’s works, with Approximate Man in it. When I was younger I was into all kinds of things, swimming around in everything odd, frankly weird, bizarre, authority and status quo challenging – still do to an extent, though now I’m weary of overt shock tactics. I’ve certainly been aware of Tzara, amongst other Dadaists. I wasn’t aware, however, of Tzara’s deeper seriousness which led him still to produce post-dadaism and as he advanced in age. This is a great discovery for me. Thank you for drawing my attention to him.) But here’s the quote of lines by Valery about Mallarme in his essay about him, which I think you might appreciate in relation to your own written efforts and writing aspirations. “Mallarme… created in France the conception of the difficult author. He introduced into art the obligation of intellectual effort. By this means he improved the condition of the reader; and with an admirable understanding of real reward chose for himself from amongst the whole world that small number of special connoisseurs who, once they had tasted him, could no longer bear impure, immediate, and undefended poems. Everything else seemed naive and uncourageous after they had read him.” “His small, marvelously polished compositions imposed themselves as models of perfection, so very sure were the relations between words and words, between verse and verse, between movements and rhythms; to such an extent did each one of them give the impression of an object in some way absolute, thanks to the balance of its intrinsic strength, drawn by prodigious reciprocal combinations from those indeterminate fantasies of improvements and changes which the mind, as it reads, unconsciously conceives when confronted with the majority of texts.” “The brilliance of these crystalline constructions, so pure, and so perfectly finished in every part, fascinated me. They have not the transparency of glass, no doubt; but in that they somehow break habits of mind on their facets and on their concentrated structure, what is called their obscurity is only, in reality, their refraction.” “I tried to show myself the ways and the workings of the author’s mind. I said to myself that this man had meditated on all words, and had considered and enumerated every kind of form. Gradually I became interested in the workings of a mind so different from mine – even more so perhaps than in the visible fruits of his efforts. I reconstructed for myself the author of such work. It seemed to me that this work must have been endlessly reflected upon in mental surroundings from which nothing was allowed to emerge that had not lived long enough in the world of presentiments, of harmonious patterns, of perfect forms and their reflections; a preparatory world where everything clashes with everything, and in which chance temporizes, takes its bearings, and finally crystallizes itself on some model.” “A work can only emerge from a sphere so reflective and so rich in resonances by a kind of accident which ejects it from the mind. It falls headlong into time.” “I came to the conclusion that there was in inner system in Mallarme, a system which could be distinguished from philosophy, and moreover from mysticism; but not unanalogous to it.” “I was perfectly disposed by nature, or rather by the change in my nature which had just taken place, to develop, in a strange enough way, the impression given by the poems which displayed to me such preparation for their beauty, that they themselves paled before the idea they gave me of this hidden work.” “A short while before I had formed, and naively noted down, this opinion in the form of a vow: that if ever I should write, I should infinitely prefer to write entirely consciously, and with complete lucidity, something rather feeble, than to give birth, thanks to a trance and while outside myself, to the very finest masterpieces.” “This was because it seemed to me that there were already many masterpieces, and that the number of works of genius was not so small that there was any great interest attached to wanting to increase it. I believed, rather more accurately, that a work resolutely thought out and sought for in the hazards of the mind, systematically, and through a determined analysis of definite and previously prescribed conditions, whatever its value might be once it had been produced, did not leave the mind of its creator without having modified him, and forced him to recognize and in some way to reorganize himself. I said to myself that it was not the accomplished work, and its appearance and effect in the world, that can fulfill and edify us; but only the way in which we have done it. Art and its difficulties increase our stature; but the Muses and good fortune only visit us to leave us again.”

  4. Excellent post… Very thoughtful.. I particularly enjoyed Chomsky’s quotes and insights as regard to this topic, thanks for sharing, best regards, Aquileana 🙂

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