3-for-3: If You Read One Thing About Education Today…

"I'm so excited! I'm so excited! I'm so . . . scared."

“I’m so excited! I’m so excited! I’m so . . . scared.”

…then please let it be this.*

(And, of course, the following blog post about the one thing you’ll read about education today. Yeah, read this too.)

After reading Harouni’s essay, I decided it was time for a Very Special Episode** of the 3-for-3 — an episode that would grapple with an important social issue (like education) in a way that might be considered too mature for younger audiences. Consider this your parental warning: although the content presented here may be controversial in nature, this is an episode that today’s families simply cannot afford to miss.

[Cue sappy music. Zoom in on tear-stained faces. Things are about to get Very Special.]

All kidding aside, discussions about education reform tend to bring out the worst in all of us. Talk to anyone about “the problems with America’s schools” or “the need for better public education” for more than five minutes, and it’s likely that one of you (or, even more likely, that BOTH of you) will walk away from the conversation in total disgust. Trying to understand our collective inability to even talk about the state of the U.S. educational system can be maddening, but in most cases, it seems that this failure to communicate originates in one of four critical areas:

  1. There’s the personal experience as a student factor: I went to school, so I know how schools should operate.
  2. There’s the personal experience as a teacher factor: I’ve dealt with these issues in my own classroom, and I’ve proven that I know how to solve them.
  3. There’s the personal experience as a parent factor: I’ve seen this problem in my daughter’s school, and here’s how we fixed it. 
  4. And then there’s the political ideology factor: I believe in small government, so I won’t support any educational initiatives that come from the White House.

(For my money, nothing beats #1 as the primary roadblock to real, serious conversations about educational reform. The educational “expertise” that results from personal classroom experience — the sense that, because this worked for ME, it will work for EVERYONE ELSE — produces a kind of reform-resistant inertia that perpetuates many of the educational system’s most virulent flaws simply because we cannot step outside of our own histories. And I’d be lying if I said that I don’t recognize this tendency in my own thinking on the issue from time to time.)

What Harouni proposes, then, strikes at the heart of the matter by asking that we push past #1, #2, and #3 — that we reject (or at least rigorously question) the certainty of our own experiences — in order to reconsider how our relationship to #4 conditions our expectations of what a thing like “school” should look like. This is, as you’ve probably gathered from reading his essay, not an easy thing to do. In fact, it’s proved so difficult that only a small portion of the critical/philosophical community has attempted to do so in the past fifty years.

Harouni offers quite a few explanations for this widespread silence, but I’m leaving the question of whether or not his explanations are compelling alone for now. For me, the far more interesting dilemma raised by the essay is how we might re-imagine the educational endeavor itself:

The lack of imagination evident in these narratives reflects the lack of real-world alternatives. In the real-world fantasylands of schooling (e.g., Finland, Cuba, Massachusetts) education looks more or less the same as it does everywhere else. In short, the system is missing—or ignores—its real antithesis, its own real death. Without that counter-argument, educational writing loses focus. Educationalists present schooling as being in a constant state of crisis. Ignoring for a second the obvious fact that without a crisis most educationalists would be out of a job—i.e., closing our eyes to their vested interest in the problem’s persistence—what does this crisis consist of? Apparently, the failure of schools to do what they are supposed to do. But what are they supposed to do? What is their purpose? And why should we stand behind their purpose? This is the line of inquiry that—can you believe it—is ignored.

If we somehow managed to scrape away layer upon layer of sedimented experience as a student, teacher, or parent in the (American) school system, how might we construct the concept of “school”? What might it look like? What might its purpose be? And how might it carry out said purpose?

Now, I’m not  going to pretend that I can simply “scrape away the layers” of my own experiences in the classroom. In fact, I’m not sure that I should; these experiences have afforded me opportunities and insight that I wouldn’t have been able to acquire in any other way. Yet I agree with Harouni that there exists an “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field (‘but has she taught?’),” and I want to be careful about letting my own “insider” experiences unnecessarily influence my opinions on the matter.

But if somehow I could manage this — if I could somehow step outside my own history to imagine a “counter-argument” to school, to theorize education’s “real antithesis, its own real death” — I think it would look something like these five propositions:

  1. The concept of “school” should be based in the practice of perpetual self-critique. If we start from the assumption that critique is a necessary precondition for learning, then self-critique must be inscribed in every facet of the educational endeavor. This includes administrators, teachers, students, and parents; everyone must consistently question everything so that the school remains flexible, dynamic, and attuned to the changing needs of the learning community it fosters.
  2. Schools should be transparent about their purpose: namely, to explore the complexities of reality. This is, of course, an incredibly vague mission statement — but it is so on purpose. In order to avoid the pitfalls of the current system, in which platitudes such as “promoting lifelong learners” or “preparing students for future success” have become so thoroughly bureaucratized that they fail to signify, the educational mission must be couched in a language that resists co-opting and simplification. To “explore the complexities of reality” means nothing more than to engage in the practice of perpetual critique, to designate nothing as “off limits” for further questioning and investigation.
  3. Education should disavow any connection to job training/preparation. The instant educators and educationalists began beating the “job training” drum as a means of justifying national, state, and local educational expenditures, they lost the ability to argue for schooling as anything other than the handmaiden to a set of very limited corporate interests. The “other” of today’s schools would reject this position outright, choosing instead to position itself as a safe space for questioning and investigating the capitalist impulse.
  4. Learning should be treated as a rhizomatic — and not a linear — phenomenon. This proposition requires far more explanation and justification than I have the room for here, but Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome — an “acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states” (A Thousand Plateaus 21) — seems to run directly perpendicular to contemporary educational structures. What if learning were organized around interdisciplinary nodes rather than by core subjects and grade levels? What if investigation and critique had “no beginning or end; it is always in the middle, between things, interbeing, intermezzo” (25)?
  5. Teachers and students should be “fellow travelers” in the classroom. Growing out of propositions #1-4, the idea of the teacher/instructor/professor as someone learning alongside her students — and not as someone leading her students to a predetermined “lesson” — challenges many of my own preconceptions about what my role in the classroom should be. Others have talked about this approach to the teacher-student relationship, but what if we truly committed to it? What if we constructed our entire idea of schooling — from Pre-K to graduate school — around the idea that no one person has the answer(s)?

I don’t intend to claim that any of the above is original to me; I don’t even intend to claim that any of the above is possible. And I’d love to hear what others have to say on this issue, even if your conception of education entirely contradicts my own. But if, as Harouni claims, the last half-century of educational thought has failed to rigorously engage the possibility of its own death/antithesis, then perhaps it’s time we talk about these things in a serious, Very Special manner.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

*The original version of Houman Harouni’s essay appeared in The American Reader. However, since I had some trouble with TAR‘s website yesterday, I’ve linked to the more stable Salon version of the piece.

**In case you aren’t familiar with the “very special episode” TV trope, this Wikipedia entry gives a fairly straightforward overview. And if you want to take a quick trip down memory lane, this list of the top 12 VSEs from Mental Floss is kinda’ the best thing ever. (And yes, it does include the Jesse Spano caffeine pill episode of Saved by the Bell.)

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