Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Crisis of Education: How Thought Became a Commodity for Purchase

What is education? The ways in which the word "education" is tossed about these days generally have the effect of exuding a sense of absolute certainty in regards to what education means, while employing a logic that is at once contradictory and mystifying. Education, we are told, is the great equalizer and the great divider. In some contexts it is the foremost means of discovering a person's potential, while in others it is an unnecessary extravagance useful only to those at the helm of society. It is a process of edification and it is a product for consumption; it is a natural right and it is a tool for forging "human capital" like so much steel.

In short, pundits, politicians and an equally perplexed public wax and wane over education, each in turn when we are not shouting over each others' heads. Amidst the cacophony of PTA pledges, disembodied statistics and editorial ink, deeper contradictions which underlie these competing notions of education are scarcely examined. We huff and puff about a "crisis" of education without even asking the question, what is education?

This question may sound a bit too academic. It's not. For better or worse, the average person spends a good many years in school pursuing that lofty yet amorphous ideal vaguely referred to as "education." Billions of dollars are spent and not spent on it, and some even profess to place their hopes for the future on it. Arriving at a suitably useful definition for "education" is thus eminently practical and, in truth, an undertaking we avoid at our own risk.

To arrive at a more useful understanding of education this post examines what I believe education most certainly is not. The critical reader may now be asking, how can such an elliptical approach sort through the confusion without adding to it? My response to this justly wary observation is simple: much of the current clamor is predicated, knowingly or otherwise, on assumptions that serve a political purpose. It is only by weeding out the political motivations which contribute to the confusion that we may hope to address the question of education with unclouded eyes.

First of all, education does not mean tests and, in truth, tests are probably one of the greatest impediments to real learning.

To decipher the meaning of this current mainstay of "education" I will ask, what is a test? In one respect, the answer is quite simple: a test is an act of measurement or assessment undertaken to learn what one does not already know. The unstated and generally assimilated assumption of tests is that teachers do not know how well their students are learning and, consequently, must "test" them to find out.

Like a scientist assessing the properties of a concoction in their laboratory, the teacher is supposed to assay the minds of their pupils in order to learn as to what degree their students have digested the curriculum. And like the scientist, a certain set of measurements and statistics are employed to assess the overall quality of the subject. The student is thus reduced from a human being of inordinate complexity to a number on a piece of paper, monitored while seated in a prescribed row of desks, and ranked by their ability to meet the demands of a prescribed set of criteria.

Succinctly stated, the process is not all that different from observing the behavior of lab mice in a maze or a series of  chemical reactions in a "test"-tube.

Needless to say, students are not lab mice or distilled substances made for laboratory use, yet this is how they are treated. In fact, by such processes (should we say chemical?) the very extent to which they have "received" an education is collected into a series of cleanly demarcated numbers and symbols.

The assumption that teachers do not know if their students are learning and hence need to be "tested" is an alarming one, upon reflection. It means either, one, the current education system does not operate in a way in which teachers know how well their students are performing unless a test is conducted; or two, teachers may know how well students are performing but are forced by the system to conduct tests which are ultimately superfluous and a waste of time.

When it comes to intellectual and social development, test-based systems of education suffer from deeply engrained impediments to the genuine cultivation of these lofty goals. All too often, test results become an end unto themselves, as teachers, students, and schools are pressured to attain the right numbers in order to retain funding or prestige. This is, of course, rather ironic seeing as tests are technically supposed to assess the extent to which students handle the curriculum, not act as the curriculum itself. In other words, education is put on its head; a representation of learning is mistaken for the act of learning itself.

In all truth, it would make much more sense to promote a system of education in which teachers know how their students are fairing during the lessons themselves. Maintaining a system in which teachers do not know how their pupils are learning unless a test is prepared, or in which teachers are forced to administer tests when they already know how well their pupils are performing is plain silly.

Yet if this is the case, why do tests remain the obligatory, even unquestioned basis upon which education is conducted?

My suggestion is that tests are an outmoded, albeit politically useful, holdover from past educational philosophies whose original purposes remain unquestioned if simply because they are not perceived. Of these original goals, the two most significant are an elite desire for control and the retrenchment of a class-based social order.

Historically speaking, the most notorious test-based system of education is probably that of imperial China, whose rigorous civil service examinations were the foremost means by which one gained entrance into the upper-crust of Chinese society. Aspiring scholars could literally spend their entire lives attempting to gain the top degree by way of these exams, some of which lasted several successive days and nights. Inspired by the Chinese, Westerners eventually assimilated the practice of test-taking into their own institutions of learning, a legacy which endures to this day.

It is important to note, however, that the Chinese test system was designed with several political purposes in mind, the first of which being the desire to create a capable pool of bureaucrats who were loyal to the imperial household. An elite's status was utterly contingent on their fealty to the emperor: the privileged positions made available by successful performance in the exams were all government posts, and the curricula was meant to instill unwavering allegiance to the status quo. To successfully navigate the exams required an encyclopedic knowledge of the Confucian canon, a prescribed set of works which articulated a consensus of values and ideals that had to be internalized before one was accepted into the ranks of the cognoscenti.

In sum, the historical development of test-taking is rooted not so much in the desire to understand the degree to which a student comprehends their lessons, but in the desire to create an uncritical elite whose identity is completely subsumed in that of the state. It is also worth noting that the concept of the examination is explicitly elitist. Far from acting as a great equalizer, education under these terms is conceived as a tool for manufacturing an elite and reinforcing class fissures, if not creating them.

Thus the very origins and enduring structure of tests were envisaged as fundamentally divisive. Equally alarming, tests were designed to stifle critical thought, only permitting originality within prescribed boundaries and forums.

And while the Chinese civil service examinations functioned as a process of elite formation, other models of education have been designed as a process of plebeian formation.

With the rise of industrialization in the mid-19th century, social theorists like Joseph Lancaster developed schools designed to instill discipline and an unthinking acceptance of authority, which were seen as the requisite attributes of a proper industrial workforce. Under the Lancaster model, students were subject to continual surveillance and every minute of their day was schematically ordered according to a rigid schedule. School uniforms, crisp rows of benches, and "student monitors" were all created with the intent of manufacturing a labor force  imbued with Prussian discipline.

When one hears politicians and pundits ramble on about the need for "alternative" forms of education for those who have more "modest" aims in life, i.e. work in manufacturing, agricultural labor, etc., the legacy of the Lancaster model should give ample cause for pause.

While it is true that the type of technical training one receives necessarily differs according to occupation, it is also true that the promotion of so-called "alternative" schools is all too often a way to give up on students who simply have a harder time with their studies or who the education system itself has failed. The use of the term "alternative" is revealing. It evinces a blunt refusal to accept the reality that the current practice of education may have itself failed the student by instead suggesting that these students require an "alternative" to normal education. The narrative of what constitutes normal education remains unquestioned; these students are conveniently assumed to lie outside of it.

The term "alternative" also implies that the employment envisaged for these students is itself "alternative," or somehow of lesser importance or value than jobs usually associated with normal secondary schooling. By way of such rationalizations the practice of education as usual remains unquestioned; its dissonance remains unresolved and ever avoided.

Lastly, by suggesting that these students need or want an "alternative" education, these "experts" assume that they somehow understand the aspirations of these students. Perhaps these "experts" entertain the pretension of knowing these students' most personal of desires because they believe such "alternative" students are too stupid to know what is good for them. The students' voices are never acknowledged, apparently and conveniently confirming the "experts'" ability to intuit their hopes and intellect. 

Such elitist attitudes are only one dimension of the elitism and poverty of thought that shapes education today.

Standardized tests, just like the Chinese civil service examinations, function as powerful tools of entrenching barriers between the haves and have-nots. Government-mandated tests, district funding through local property taxes -- a structural disadvantage for less affluent areas, and curricula shaped by corporate-political interests instead of the unadorned truth, all have the effect of stifling creative thought and reinforcing the class divide.

Consider the ways in which education is often referred to and these elitist implications will be made clearer. A college education, for example, is generally phrased in terms like, "I received a college education." Thinking of education as a commodity, especially in regards to college education, invests the idea of higher education with distinctly elitist overtones. For if education is a commodity, something bought or received, then it is surely a luxury item.

As the cost of college tuition soars to ever dizzying heights, it is simply preposterous to claim that a university education is anything but a means of fracturing society into more and deeper class lines. Those of make their way to the top of the ladder then enjoy the leisure time and comfort within which they can assume to know the aspirations and dreams of those "alternative" peoples beneath them, or, rather, on whose backs they sit.

It is also economically insane to believe that current means to funding higher education are sustainable. In the past two decades college tuition has increased over four-hundred percent, far faster than any other commodity -- or luxury good for that matter. Selling off student debt in the form of securities has now become a business, literally reaping profits from the financial straits of children.

And let's not beat around the bush, the chief means of funding universities, even the so-called "public" ones, is through taking money from children. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out, colleges collude with each other in deciding how much student aid they will dole out before raising tuition costs respectively. In other words, they are legalized cartels. Only a fool can believe that this is a sustainable model for financing higher education; and only a fool can believe that the presidents and other six-figure salaried administrators of these schools are engaged in public service. They are really engaged in the embezzlement of public funds. But then again, when it comes to a necessary "commodity" like education, this is as easy as stealing money from children -- because it is.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to note what is going on now in my neck of the wood, the University of Oregon. The University is trying to create a special board which would give it greater discretion over how it raises and allocates funding. Through this board the administrators, who perennially display wanton disregard for the wishes of faculty and students, would gain even greater autonomy from the state.  They may even complete the privatization of the University.

This would be disastrous. Privatizing schools always makes expenses even more prohibitive and would subject the school to the caprices of bondholders. (The entire education system in Chile shut down in recent years because privatization had been unsustainable.) Before the GI Bill of Rights led to an influx of veterans into the public university system after WWII, the majority of college students were privileged youth who attended private colleges. This was because colleges were self-consciously elite institutions and designed to keep out mere commoners (like you and me). Private institutions were livid because they lost their aura of exclusivity.

This is to say, private institutions are and always have been conceived as elitist. The benefit of public universities is that their mission is the education of the people, not a coterie of privileged families with their own political agendas and tastes. A public university is our university -- it is literally for, of, and owned by the people, not special interests.

When wage-slave drivers like Phil Knight say that they will donate more money if the University of Oregon divorces itself from the state they are literally saying that they will only donate money if they own it, not us. For someone like Knight to claim that he feels his money will not be spent effectively unless he owns the University is flat out meretricious. Seeing as Knight recently managed to bludgeon the state government into granting Nike an indefinite tax holiday I find it rather doubtful that he would have a hard time making sure his donations were spent in a manner that accords with his wishes by the university.

What Knight and those like him want is not a greater say in how their donations are allocated but total control of the school itself. To put it differently, they want to determine school policy without have the consult the pesky wishes of, well, everyone else. That means me and you. Protestations suggesting otherwise are merely part of a smoke and mirrors routine to hide the fact that what they want, and believe to be their prerogative, is total control. Thus is the inebriation that comes with power, even if that means power accumulated by coming up with the design for the world's worst running shoe.

So what is education? Contrary to the materialistic predilections of most commentators, education is a life-long process of learning and discovery. Ideally it should have nothing to do with the amount of money you have but, instead, an insatiable curiosity and willingness to learn. Framing education as a good to be bought is, in truth, intellectually stultifying since such implies that after this commodity is bought one does not need to think any longer. They have already become an "educated person."

What intellectual drivel!

Even and especially today, the ways in which education is pursued is entirely counterproductive. It is only by acknowledging the discriminatory barriers firmly entrenched and, in fact, sedulously reinforced by powerful interests that this horrible yet sublime system may be further refined. This will require serious rethinking in regards to the way education is financed, who gets to call the shots, and how education is to understood, more generally.

 In all cases, it requires encouraging both students and teachers in their noble pursuit, and making sure that we do not leave the education debate up to those who simply cannot begin understand our aspirations and dreams.

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