I recently had an exchange with a friend and former colleague from one of today's fragile new democracies, who has been involved in education reform in his country for a long time. Our discussion was about the recent events in his country, the breakdown of any effort towards constructive dialogue, and the sharp rise in violence. In that exchange, he said the following, "It is quite stressful, depressing and frustrating. ... it is quite serious and bad. What is really troubling is this great divide in [our] society that has come out of it; people are either with or against one side or the other and there is no such a thing as a civilized dialogue! It all boils down to education, if you ask me. People haven’t been taught how to discuss, negotiate and differ in opinion."
A lot of the writing about education on this website is fairly philosophical, fairly theoretical. But this comment brings things right down to the practical level. In education systems which are fundamentally undemocratic, there are a clear set of things students are learning and not learning that are largely independent of whatever might be written into the formal curriculum. I'm not talking about knowledge and skills. I'm talking about the deeper learning and character development that we usually think of as being part of the socialization process. We're not used to thinking about education in this way.
Remember Madlibs? .. those word games we filled out as kids where word substitutions resulted in silly stories? There's no silly story here, but the same approach can help us to reframe our reality. Try it.. Set aside the word "education" for a moment, and replace it with the word "socialization". After all, what are schools if not sites of socialization? Instead of thinking about education in purely academic terms, preoccupied with discrete chunks of knowledge and domain specific skills, we need to think more generally about what we are actually doing in our schools. To continue the thought experiment, instead of thinking about what the students are "learning", try thinking about what they are "practicing". If the answer is that they are practicing sitting, being quiet, and following instructions, then we are in serious trouble when it comes to the requirements for a functional democracy. That kind of education is great for autocratic governments. Complacent and obedient workers are just what those regimes want. They don't want people who ask questions, people who are engaged, people who care, people who stand up and take action. People have an inner drive to do all of those things, and authoritarian regimes need to find ways to repress them, and make citizens dependant on the control and stability provided by the regime. And when they start to fall, they do things to incite violence, to make people yearn for someone to step in and bring back control. They definitely don't want people to develop the capacities to take up that control for themselves.. and they'll make sure that there aren't functional public institutions that support civilized dialogue or other forms of public participation.
In a democracy, as my friend suggested, people need to learn how to disagree. And that's just the start of it! These are skills far more basic than long division which need to be practiced and internalized. There are dispositions that need to be cultivated over time, through ongoing experiences of being active and engaged. The requirements of democratic citizenship are very different, and autocratic education just doesn't cut it. For those of us in established democracies, we also need to turn the mirror back on ourselves and think about how democratic we actually are in school.. how critical.. how engaged.. how active.. how much do we care about the things that really matter, and how is that reflected in what we do? How, with all of our resources and opportunities, we are still managing to cultivate so much apathy and disengagement in our schools.
Now, let's finish up the thought experiment with a few last switches.. In your thinking, swap out the word "teacher" for "social engineer", swap out "student" for "young citizen", and any time you think of an academic subject, swap that out for the student's objective behaviour during that 45 minute period. With that, we've just about got it.
For extra credit, go into your school's website, or your district's, or your Ministry's.. find their over-arching statement of philosophy, whether it's a mission statement, a curriculum preamble, or a high-level policy. Do a quick "find and replace" with all the words we just transposed in our minds, fix the grammar as required, and read it again. Sounds a little different huh. That's madlibs as methodology, and it's talking one step closer to the reality of what's going on in our schools.
Matthew Hiebert 2013-09-12