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Back to School…With Much to Learn

Even if the first day of autumn is still several weeks away, the passing of Labor Day always seems to signify that summer has come to a close. And with what we hope is a last hurrah we brace ourselves for the start of another year – it’s back to school and back to work. Of course many of us worked all summer, others took no break from learning, and still others returned to the classroom before Labor Day. Yet there is something about the passing of Labor Day that seems to say with a somewhat exasperated sigh: the summer is over.

Although, even if some of us have had enjoyable and relaxing summers, it has proven a cruel season for the world. Indeed, for many of us it was hard to relax or enjoy this summer – it was a summer that seemed to declare that we still have very much to learn. Though this is a recognition that stirs up another question, namely: if we still have so much to learn than what is it that we have been learning in school?

From one perspective it is easy to respond to this question with the common philosophical response that sagaciously declares that the more we learn the more we become aware of how much we do not know. While such wisdom has an undeniable appeal and a certain truthful quality, it ultimately remains an unsatisfactory anwer. For though it affirms an important element about the pursuit of knowledge, much of what it seems we do not know today pertains less to us as individuals and more as it applies to the larger society.

This summer has provided us with numerous instances of cases wherein much of the world suddenly found itself confronting how much it did not know, not because of how much had been learned, but precisely because of how little has been learned. To provide a grossly over simplified list: from the galling evidence of the persistence of racist and sexist systems, to the militarization of the police force, to tech firm’s blithely experimenting on their users, to the devastation of civilian populations in international conflicts, to the political inaction that has become the new standard, to the rising tide of reports on the impending threat of climate change…and the list, sadly, goes on. It is not so much that the more we have learned the more we have realized that we have much to learn, but that the more we learn about what is going on in the world around us the more we realize that we are not learning much of anything. History – be it political, economic or social – is the topic with which everybody seems to have a passing familiarity, but from which the lessons have been forgotten after the test booklets were turned in to the teacher.

It is against this backdrop that some of Ivan Illich’s dissatisfaction with school (as an institution) makes sense, as Illich wrote (in Deschooling Society):

“School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is.” (Illich,113)

Though it is a dour sentiment there is something in the above lines that is worth reflecting on as the school year begins once more and as millions prepare to go back to the sanctioned educational space. While learning and education can be transformative and enlightening experiences what we often encounter in school (from grade school to graduate school) is the way in which our educational aspirations are channeled into at best odd and at worst unenlightening directions. Many are the students who, after a summer away from the classroom, will return to drilling unceasingly for standardized tests; many are the students who will find themselves sitting in lecture halls anxiously hoping that this course will one day help them get a job; and of course many is the teacher being bent to the previous demands of test preparation and job preparation though they question the value of such pursuits. Certainly the pupils are learning a great deal – but often what is being learned is how to score well on a test and how to construct one’s identity for a résumé. School has become the societal promise that if one follows the schooling roadmap that one will be able to succeed – but this promised success is proving ever more difficult to find. It is not simply a matter of massive student loans, testing mania, or an emphasis that the purpose of education is to be able to obtain a job – it is the subtle subconscious recognition that the things we are being taught are not the things that we need to learn.

This is not to suggest a clear pedagogical program – in our present world predicament it is quite evident that there are many things we need to know, and in the best circumstances one could picture school being the perfect place for these matters to be worked upon. After all, could a purpose of education not be to look at the worrisome headlines that grace today’s newspapers and ask the assembled students: how do we actually address these issues? Such open ended questions are precisely the ones to which standardized tests are allergic. We face real troubles these days – ones for which there are no simple solutions – and it is precisely when faced with such problems that we require a type of thinking that is not content to just fill in the proper bubble, construct an argument based upon scoring the most points in a grading rubric, or plan a future course of action based on the hope of financial remuneration instead of non-monetary enrichment. Writing about education – in a way that echoes some of Illich’s concerns – the theorist Neil Postman wrote:

“public education does not serve a public. It creates a public…The question is, What kind of public does it create? A conglomerate of self-indulgent consumers? Angry, soulless, directionless masses? Indifferent, confused citizens? Or a public imbued with confidence, a sense of purpose, a respect for learning, and tolerance? The answer to this question has nothing whatever to do with computers, with testing, with teacher accountability, with class size, and with the other details of managing schools.” (Postman,18)

The core question that Postman poses regarding the kind of public created, remains the problem with which we are wrestling as we prepare to return to school. And education is a process in which we are embroiled even if we do not set foot in a classroom today – for a public is also created in the world of work and through the mass media dissemination of culture. Yet, beyond the question of what kind of public is created by schooling, the other matter which the news of the day forces us to consider is whether the public being created is up to the task of confronting the problem’s which have been created thus far.

In this regard it becomes starkly clear that we have much to learn. Though much of what we need to learn our schools – hammered by testing mania and rigid curriculums – seem incapable of teaching. And yet the start of every new school year is a moment of profound hope and potential – for it represents the seed from which a different state of affairs can grow if only the plant is tended thoughtfully. For education – more than technology – remains the best institution in which to place hopes for the future.

Thus far, we may have been taught how to pass standardized tests – but the challenges that are testing us today are ones for which we need to rethink our standards.

Works Cited

Illich, Ivan. Deschooling Society. Harper & Row, 1971.

Postman, Neil. The End of Education. Vintage Books, 1996.

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About Z.M.L

“I do not believe that things will turn out well, but the idea that they might is of decisive importance.” – Max Horkheimer @libshipwreck

One comment on “Back to School…With Much to Learn

  1. Pingback: Back to school…with much to learn… | LibrarianShipwreck

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This entry was posted on September 2, 2014 by in Culture, Education, Ethics, Government, Higher Education, History, K-12, Society, Students, Teachers, Technology, Testing and tagged , , .

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