While in this series I'm primarily concerned with universities, it is worthwhile to take a bit of a broader view and examine the greater educational context they exist in. Not all, but many, of the problems universities have today are baggage inherited from our system of mandatory public education which, as noted in my previous article on Now You See It, is designed to produce efficient worker bees in an assembly line model of value creation, where workers and their tasks are specialized and compartmentalized to the point that they begin resembling the machines they're operating- whether a welder in a factory or a copy machine in an office.
Indeed, universities face extensions of the same problems facing primary and secondary education, and together, these institutions form a vicious cycle. Public education molds students into a certain form and instills specific values (most of them terrible- more on that later, but for now, I defer to Paul Goodman's description of our generation's "morality fit for a slave") which institutions like universities or employers react and adapt to in dumbing down their own processes. As standards slide further, they're seen as proof of the need for more of the same from public schools: more testing, more discipline, more math and science, less free time, etc.
Ivan Illich in Deschooling Society humorously notes that, "No society in history has been able to survive without ritual or myth, but ours is the first which has needed such a dull, protracted, destructive, and expensive initiation into its myth (45)."
I'll talk first about one particular piece of baggage universities inherit from public education, then use that into a springboard into discussing several others, as they're ultimately all interconnected. I will also say that I have nothing against most teachers, as in general they're doing what they can in a terrible system and at rather low wages, at least in the US.
This first issue is that schools invert the learning process. In schools, we get Education and Teaching, both processes done to a passive set of kids by the teacher. But no real learning can occur passively. Learning is always an active process. But in schools it is completely passive: sit down, shut up, listen and pay attention, write down exactly what I say. School learning becomes another product to be consumed.
Learning is also something that can, and should, be done all the time as a natural result of living, a natural result of Praxis, not a separate activity done outside and above the things we truly care about in our lives. Worse, our schools teach us (one of the few things they very definitively teach us) that "learning" can only happen in school, and the only things worth learning are what you learn in school anyway. After all, that's the only way to advance in school, get good grades, get into college, and get a high paying job so that we can live the American Dream.
So learning turns into yet another product to be consumed, like sitting in front of a television, and our schools have the monopoly on its distribution. These, respectively, are the first two issues, and already a vicious cycle become apparent. As more and more learning becomes institutionalized in schools, students must necessarily spend more time in school to learn those things to get ahead, even if they could learn them more quickly and effectively outside of school. But with the monopoly on learning, what begins to matter are the credentials one obtains, not necessarily the skills learned or practiced. Since formal schools become the only way to improve oneself, students flock to them as never before. Employers and universities respond by requiring more and more credentials to gain employment or acceptance. So more and more students flood back to school. What required a bachelors 30 years ago now requires a Masters, and what once required a high school diploma now requires a bachelors. Soon we'll be a nation of underemployed PhDs, always moving from one degree to the next.
John Holt expresses this sentiment, and some of what is wrong with it, in this passage in his book Learning all the Time:
"Not long ago I heard a college president refer to himself as a "womb-to- tomber": that is, a person who would like us all to be learners all our lives. What he actually meant, of course, was that he would like us to be students at some educational institution, with or without walls, all our lives. He meant that he would like us to be responsible to some expert or body of experts for what we know, that we would for all our lives be in the position of having to prove every so often that we were shaping up, knowing a satisfactory amount of what these experts felt we ought to know."
As the decades pass since Holt's statement, this is looking to be even more so the case. For even back in Holt's time, Ivan Illich noted that "If we add those engaged in full-time teaching to those in full-time attendance, we realize that this so-called superstructure has become society's major employer. In the United States sixty-two million people are in school and eighty million at work elsewhere (55)."
And yet, somehow we learned some of the most fundamental components of the human experience outside of school. "Everyone learns how to live outside school. We learn to speak, to think, to love, to feel, to play, to curse, to politick, and to work without interference from a teacher (Illich, 35)." Though for how much longer we'll be trusted to even learn these things on our own remains to be seen.
Davidson wrote in Now You See It that "we've confused high standards with standardization." In doing so, we're destroying the fundamental diversity of thought, spirit, and way of life that should be at the heart of a successful society. As students, or former students, we are all products of our education system. We've been stamped into "patterned people" as Organic Teaching pioneer Sylvia Aston-Warner would say.
"I said to a friend of mine, a professor, recently, "What kind of children arrive at the University to you?" He said, "They're all exactly the same." "But" I said, "how can it be like that? The whole plan of primary education at least is for diversity." "Well," he answered, "they come to me like samples from a mill. Not one can think for himself. I beg them not to serve back to me exactly what I have given to them. I challenge them sometimes with wrong statements to provoke at least some disagreement but even that won't work." "But" I said, "you must confess to about three per cent originality." "One in a thousand," he replied. "One in a thousand.""
For as much talk about celebrating diversity as schools may or may not offer, they espouse only one standard. Students who don't measure up to that standard are considered delinquent, handicapped, unruly, in need of medication, slow, or remedial.
"[School] is not liberating or educational because school reserves instuction to those whose every step in learning fits previously approed measures of social control." Ivan Illich
And yet there's a sense that these unruly students are fighting back against something. Of this Abraham Maslow said in Motivation and Personality: "Crime and delinquency and bad behavior in chlidren may sometimes represent psychiatriaclly and biologically legitimate revolt against exploitation, injustice, and unfairness."
But rather we consider these children to be abnormal for revolting, consciously or subconsciously, against our attempts to adjust them to the norms of the schoolhouse classroom: sit down, don't talk, don't play, be serious, write exactly what I say, I'm the arbiter of good, not you...
Maslow continues to ask rhetorically, "Adjustment means a passive shaping of oneself to one's culture, to the external environment. But supposing it is a sick culture?" (268)
Students that have been expected to conform to the demands of public education, treated like dumb children who can't be trusted to learn on their own, given no responsibility or freedom or chance to engage meaningfully with the world on their own terms, nor given the chance to explore whim or curiosity or fancy or discover any natural phenomena on their own, cannot be expected to suddenly do those things in a college or university. Some manage of course, maybe not until their second or third or fourth year (I didn't really manage to do those things till after I graduated), but the fact is that students coming into universities are handicapped by their mandatory schooling. And so it is inevitable that universities are dumbed down, perhaps even imperceptibly or unknowingly, to accomodate the needs of students who have never had to think for themselves, act for themselves, or engage meaningfully with a topic or learn of their own free will. College courses, particularly the Freshman and Sophomore courses, look disgustingly like High School classes, which probably aren't all that different from the ones in Junior High or Elementary school for that matter.
But as Maslow points out, just because something is average (i.e. most people are doing it) doesn't make it normal. Average is a statistical fact, normal implies making a value judgment about what is good and bad. Normal instead is often taken to mean what is traditional or habitual. He uses a fantastic example to drive this point home:
"I remember the turmoil over women smoking when I went to college. It was not normal, our dean of women said, and forbade it. At that time it was also not normal for college women to wear slacks, or hold hands in public. Of course what she meant was, 'this is not traditional,' which was perfectly true, and this implied for her, 'this is abnormal, sick, intrinsically pathological,' which was perfectly false. A few years later the traditions changed and she was fired, because by that time her ways were not 'normal'" (267).
If deciding what is normal is a value decision, we may as well make it consciously rather than relying on what has been.
A common argument I've heard many times is the following: we all came out of our public education system, and we came out okay, right? Maybe, maybe not. But I think that's avoiding the real issue here, which is, what do we want to value? In the context of education, do we want normal to be the disempowering, individual-consuming maw that it currently is? Or something that celebrates freedom, initiative, self-direction, and actualization? How much more richness, creativity, empathy, and depth could our culture have if we weren't spiritually killed by our school system, if we didn't have to learn to turn ourselves off for eight to twelve hours a day (consider homework, too), half the days out of the year.
"The adults actively discourage earnestness. As James Coleman of Johns Hopkins has pointed out, the ‘serious' activity of youth is going to school and getting at least passing grades; all the rest... is treated by the adults as frivolous. In fact, of course, these frivolous things are where normally a child would explore his feelings and find his identity and vocation, learn to be responsible... The result is a generation not notable for self-confidence, determination, initiative or ingenuous idealism. It is a result unique in history: an elite that had imposed on itself morale fit for slaves."
Paul Goodman, Compulsory Miseducation
I'm reminded of a discussion group I once participated in during my second year at the University of Oklahoma. Somehow the topic of education came up, and I began vehemently arguing for a major reform of our public education system. At that point I'd already been exposed to the idea of unschooling. We'd been discussing this for quite some time when one of the participants, Javen, got frustrated with my "abnormal" views.
Javen went on the offensive. "I don't know what terrible experience you had at school... but most people turn out fine. Every French student in every school in France is learning the exact same thing at exactly the same time, and they turn out fine." I didn't know what to say, as his personal comment caught me off guard. Looking back, I should have retorted, "Yes, but what are they really learning?" Truth is, my school experience was fairly normal. An 'A' student, teacher's pet, and even had my mom as a teacher for two years.
I include this anecdote to illustrate two facts. First, that average or traditional is certainly confused with normal in the case of schooling. We assume that because it is done this way now, it has always been that way, should always be done that way, and worse, that that way is the only or the best way to get the task accomplished.
Second, that the most vehement defenders of the status quo are typically students themselves. Again, however, this defense is made while ignoring the value decisions we inherently make in accepting the system as is.
Goodman noted that "Perhaps the chief objectors to abolishing grading would be the students and their parents. The parents should be simply disregarded; their anxiety has done enough damage already. For the students, it seems to me that a primary duty of the university is to deprive them of their props, their dependence on extrinsic valuation and motivation, and to force them to confront the difficult enterprise itself (54)."
I suspect that the sunk-cost fallacy is at work here, and explains why students are the school's staunchest allies. The sunk-cost fallacy says that, the more time you invest in a certain thing, activity, person, or group; the more highly you tend to value it independent of its actual value. It's what makes us stick with a long-term relationship long after we know it's done, continue on a project we know is doomed for failure, or finish the book we've started even though we don't enjoy it. Or defend an institution that beens the nucleus of our lives since the time we were four or five. I think back at the amount of time I've spent in my lifetime in class, taking tests, and doing busywork. It is a terrifying thought that much, if not most of this, was for naught, something I thought I'd firmly grasped only to have it slip through my fingers like grains of sand. It is easier to pretend in value of those wasted years, and it's psychologically ingrained in us to do so.
"A great neurologist tells me that the puzzle is not how to teach reading, but why some children fail to learn to read. Given the amount of exposure that any urban child gets, any normal animal should spontaneously catch on to the code. What prevents it is almost demonstrable that, for many children, it is precisely going to school that prevents -- because of the school’s alien style, banning of spontaneous interest, extrinsic rewards and punishments. In many underprivileged schools, the IQ steadily falls the longer they go to school" (Holt, 1).
By taking children out of the real world, giving them no autonomy, freedom, or opportunity to make mistakes, develop their interests and explore their curiosity, and learn from their mistakes, but instead turn themselves off as they swallow a prescribed universal curriculum against their will, several things happen.
Children can't grow up or find themselves. To grow up means they have been given progressively more mature things to do, more responsibility and freedom and initiative, to engage with the world in meaningful ways. In previous ages, this would have started happening whenever kids were old enough to be useful- around the time they were 10 or 11. Helping out on the farm, around the shop, in the studio, in the community: these all provided a way for children to gain valuable experience, make and learn from mistakes in a low-risk setting, develop independence, freedom, and responsibility, and discover who they are and what their vocation is. Mandatory education probably helped when it first arose to prevent the exploitive practices of urban factories that arose in the 19th century, but few would argue that American children are in danger of being worked like slaves in 21st century sweatshops.
This cycle of Praxis is one that any human being engages in naturally as part of their life: Take action, reflect, learn from your mistakes and from what you enjoyed or disliked, then take more action based on those insights. We learn constantly in this way simply by engaging with the world on our own terms. Through experimenting with many different things in this way, making lots of "little bets" as Peter Sims would call them, we learn what we are good at and what we enjoy, and perhaps what we feel called to do. Conversely, we learn what we're not good at and what we don't enjoy. The only way to ever know is to actually do those things.
Instead, children are treated like children until they are 18, and often until they are 22 or older- "If students want to live off-campus in their own cooperatives, they are avuncularly told that, at twenty years old, they are not mature enough to feed their faces and make their beds" (Goodman, 57). They are treated like children, so they act like children. Every day of school, for half the day (longer if you include the ever-increasing loads of schoolwork), students are told exactly where to sit, when to talk, what to say, what to learn. They are never given freedom or responsibility, of the true kind, but only in trivial things (Do you want to study Spanish or French? Nevermind that foreign languages have little meaning or sense until one is exposed to foreign cultures, foreign peoples, foreign countries). Independence, freedom, responsibility, autonomy, initiative... these are not magically gained upon coming of age. They must be won and developed, degree by painful degree through the process of Praxis, reflective acting with and in the world. These capacities are built, not by teachers teaching abstract arcana, but by the learner in the very act of freely engaging with the world. It all starts there, with the act of freely choosing.
John Holt wrote that the one thing schools could do to improve their education today "would be to let every child be the planner, director, and assessor of his own education, to allow and encourage him, with the inspiration and guidance of more experienced and expert people, and as much help as he asked for, to decide what he is to learn, when he is to learn it, how he is to learn it, and how well he is learning it. It would be to make our schools, instead of what they are, which is jails for children, into resources for free and independent learning, which everyone in the community, of whatever age, could use as much or as little as he wanted."
I recall a girl I knew in college. Let's call her Cindy. One day, in her Senior year (so she must have been 22 or so), she wrote a post on Facebook that went something like this:
"I don't know where my life is going or where I should be headed. People tell me just to walk forward. But what if I don't know which way is forward, even?"
I include this because I suspect so many of us feel this way, or felt this way until either very late in our schooling or until we finally left our schooling years behind. Cindy was just courageous enough to vocalize it, for all of her learned helplessness.
I wanted to shake Cindy by the shoulders and say, "It doesn't matter which way is forward! Just step anywhere, and go from there! Take a step, and if you liked that step, keep going, or step in a different direction..." I didn't know what Praxis was then, but if that's not the core of the idea, I don't know what is. Of course, my vehement response was because I similarly felt unsure of which direction to walk towards in my own life.
A couple more comments on Cindy's situation. First, her (our) learned helplessness. Because we've never developed our faculty of self-driven action and reflection, when the time comes to do it to decide something truly important (like finding our vocation or profession) we are paralyzed with fear. We are terrified of making a mistake (which schools teach us to fear), of studying the wrong major or of sending all of our expensive tuition money down the drain. We are taught that we must have analyzed the thing inside and out on paper before taking action, but in school, we're never allowed to take action on our ideas anyway, so the planning and analyzing later just becomes an excuse to procrastinate once we actually gain the freedom to act. We read and debate and ponder and write and think (though probably not too hard or innovatively, because what we really want is for our Teacher to tell us the Right Answer) instead of trying something, anything, and learning with our feet and our hands what we like, are good at, and feel called to do.
Second, that as a generation many of us are still unsure of our identities, interests, passions, vocation (call it what you will) until we are well into our third decade of life. I'd call this criminal but that word seems too personal, because schools as an institution strip away our human faculties in a machinal way and thrust us, sheared, naked and bleating, into the wide world with legs too weak to stand upon, so long have they been sitting at the uncomfortably tiny school chairs. Our only choice is to turn back to schools, to universities, to further shelter us in "continuing education". They manufacture the demand for their product.
There is no good reason why teenagers, or even children (true children, the kind that are ten or younger) shouldn't be given the opportunity to engage meaningfully with the world outside of an academic setting, to learn about themselves, the world, and their peers and mentors. Indeed, I suspect they learn far more there than they would learn in school.
One might say that kids do have these opportunities: in youth sports, in youth music bands and orchestras, in afterschool programs. That may be true. But school, and schoolwork, still takes up an overwhelming portion of a kid's day, to the point that there is precious little room for a kid to fill with activities of their own choosing. Holt wrote that, "One of my own students, a girl just turned fourteen, said not long ago, more in a spirit of wry amusement than of complaint, that she went home every night on a commuter train with businessmen, most of whom could look forward to an evening of relaxation with their families, while she had at least two or three hours’ more work to do. And probably a good many of those men find their work during the day less difficult and demanding than her schoolwork is for her" (32).
I also wonder how many of the kids in these extracurricular activities do them because they were told to by their parents, or, perhaps having started them of their own volition, had their natural interest co-opted by overbearing parents anxious to use success in those extracurriculars as a means to the only end school teaches us is valuable: getting into a good college, studying something like Medicine, Law, or Engineering, and joining the rat race (which still exists among my generation, we're just less materialistic about it).
Rollo May in Man's Search for Himself makes the convincing case that the chief task of any of us is to grow into our own independent, responsible, actualized selves. To do this, we must learn to leave behind the conformist mass and judge ourselves and our actions based on internal values rather than external approval from our peers or authority figures.
The chief problem here is that our 12-16+ years of schooling conspires to do exactly the opposite, to make us all the more dependent on authority figures and our peers for direction and approval. Few children know any adults well besides their parents and their teachers, all of which are authority figures. But whereas parents can theoretically give their kids individualized attention to fit their specific needs and desires, teachers must adopt a nearly universal approach for their entire class, both because of the sheer number of kids they are responsible for and because of the necessity of teaching a set subject from a set curriculum. Further complicating things, teachers are one of the few authority figures in society that combine all authority roles in one, in what Ivan Illich calls the "Triple Crown of Authority". They set the rules, advise and counsel students about those rules, and finally enforce those very rules. In most other authority figures in society, these roles are segregated: therapists and lawyers counsel, policemen enforce, legislatures or councils set the rules. Combining these three roles in one authority figure, with whom students spend more of their time with than perhaps even with their parents, augments a school's natural tendency to make children dependent on external approval rather than being internally motivated.
Take the 20-30 young children in a class, who would rather be talking, playing, perhaps reading an interesting book or comic (interesting to them, that is) or nowadays, messing around on their phones. To get them to do something against their will- sit still, shut up, copy down what the teacher says- requires external motivators. Carrots and sticks. Don't do your work and you get detention. Do it well and you get a good grade, a gold star, and eventually, you'll get into a good college. Pleasing this authority figure becomes the path to success in life, then. It doesn't matter what you thought about that book or passage- it matters what the teacher thought. Schools create externally-motivated, lifelong "students" passively waiting for the next dose of teaching.
This attitude, as I wrote before, must necessarily trickle up to our universities. Holt writes: "a senior, soon to graduate cum laude from one of the leading Ivy League colleges, told me not long ago - and I have to add that he was no radical or troublemaker - that he and everyone he knew were wholly convinced that their surest chance of getting an A on their papers and in their courses was to repeat the professor’s ideas back to him, though of course in somewhat altered language" (87).
Kids who don't do this are labeled as failures, learning-handicapped, remedial, delinquent, etc. Being normal or gifted means following the instructions and fulfilling the wishes of the teacher satisfactorily or very well, respectively.
So kids get to college, and probably finish their university studies, having never actually done or made anything of note of their own free volition. They've never had the opportunity, and have quickly learned that their personal pursuits are not valued or appreciated by the authority figures because they don't fit into the curriculum and aren't what the kids are "supposed to learn". (And who decides what we should learn anyway? When did we learn to trust a stranger's opinion of what should go into our mind over our own desires, needs, wishes? It's all very Orwellian.)
All this conspires to make us all dependent on authority figures for approval and validation of our work but also dependent on them for direction. We cannot evaluate our options, compare them to our interests and strengths and come to a decision of our own of what to do. It's hard even for us to be curious about people, phenomena, or things just because they're new or interesting, as our natural curiosity was stamped out along with our self-drive and initiative. Because curiosity implies personal whim and spontaneity, a deviation from what is planned or expected, and therefor anathema to the curriculum-based teacher. This may be the most tragic loss of all, as "Curiosity is the wonderment of Life. It is the sense of adventure in our soul. It is leaning to cultivate profound interest in the journey itself, the learning, the surprises. It is the essential ingredient in every dynamic interaction in life (Zan Perrion, The Alabaster Girl)."
According to Maslow, curiosity for the mysterious and the unknown is a defining trait of psychologically healthy people (75). Yet in school, curiosity is treated almost as a disease that gets in the way of real learning. Students who wish to get ahead and earn the "carrots" dangled in front of them quickly learn to kill their curiosity and live in a half-awake state of boredom.
It is a mistake to think that we are capable of compartmentalizing our lives, especially as children, to the point where this does not do long-term damage to our personalities and our essential human nature. Rollo May noted from his work with adult patients: "When they talk about lack of autonomy, or lament their inability to make decisions—difficulties which are present in all decades—it soon becomes evident that their underlying problem is that they have no definite experience of their own desires or wants. Thus they feel swayed this way and that, with painful feelings of powerlessness, because they feel vacuous, empty. The complaint which leads them to come for help may be, for example, that their love relationships always break up or that they cannot go through with marriage plans or are dissatisfied with the marriage partner. But they do not talk long before they make it clear that they expect the marriage partner, real or hoped-for, to fill some lack, some vacancy within themselves; and they are anxious and angry because he or she doesn’t."
May wrote this in the 50's, but I don't think the situation has changed. I think we just have more toys to play with nowadays. It's easy to whip out a laptop or smartphone to keep one's boredom, despair, or anxiety at bay. Because if anything, the causes behind the "Age of Anxiety" have intensified. We are more schooled than ever, and with the internet and social media, more plugged in than ever to what our peers think and say of us or of the things that are important to us.
While May attributes the cause of this problem to society in general, and I would argue that the specific culprit, in large part, must be our education system. Through what other modern institution did every person in the United States today pass through, spending (in most cases) at least 12 years of their lives in it? Indeed, Ivan Illich noted in the 60's that compared to 80 million Americans in the work force, there were 60 million involved in the education system. Although we don't usually realize it, school is the institution that defines our era, the same way the institution of the Catholic church defined medieval Europe. Yet, like medieval man taking the church for granted, we think that school is the way it is and the way it must be. We can talk about superficial changes- usually more testing, less vacation, more homework- but the central thesis of the school remains unchallenged. I can only hope that a Reformation is not far off.
As a result of all this Schooling, we are well-adjusted, sure. But as Maslow put it, "Adjustment is a passive rather than active process; its ideal is attained in the cow or in the slave or anyone else who can be happy without individuality."
And so we go to college because it's whats expected of us, what our teachers and parents and all the rest want. We go to college because it's easy, and we don't know what else to do. Having spent 12 years continuously in school, never having had an opportunity to engage with society or contribute to it or create value for anyone or discover ourselves through work or play, the only thing we can do is continue in school for another four years and hope that at last one of our professors will be able to reveal to us what it is we're actually supposed to do once we get out of school. And, failing that, either study something that pays a lot (money doesn't make anyone happy, but it doesn't hurt, either) or study something that will mean we never have to leave college.
Holt wrote this advice in a letter to a former student wondering what to do in their lives: "What you stand a good chance of learning at the high powered universities and grad schools is how to fit into the system as it exists. There are no guarantees even about that, since there are a lot more people trying to find comfy jobs within the system than there are jobs for them. Still, you have already proven that you are pretty good at that game, if that’s the game you want to play. But I think you will continue to hate playing it—and you will have to go on playing it for many years even after you get your Ph.D.—and I don’t think it will enable you to do the things you really want to do. The advantage of that road, and the reason many young people take it, is that it is kind of like an Interstate Highway—large, clearly marked, just the thing for high speed driving. A lot of young people take that road because it is such a good road—never mind where it goes. Also, Mom and Pop, to continue the metaphor, will pay for the car, the gas, and the tolls, as long as you stick to that road. The other roads are not very big or smooth or clearly marked or easy to find, and there are many places where there are no roads at all and you’re going to have to make your own trail. It’s hard, risky, uncertain, and in your case, your parents will almost certainly not like it" (A Life Worth Living, 344).
We hope that the university will finally be different, but it can't be and won't be, because like its very students' minds it was co-opted into doing something it was never supposed to do. And we kids come to accept more of the same because we are the same kids who came out of our public education system: cowed, anxious to please, scheming for the 'A', passive, incurious, wanting to do something with our lives but now sure how to even start.
...sees much and knows much