Friday, May 29, 2009

It's good to have bright, young friends ...

... it's true ... they are alive and alert and bring all sorts of wonderful gifts whose full worth even they may not be aware of. I have at least one such young friend, Janardhan Rajan, who alerted me to the existence of this cool book called Brain Rules (Amazon, another) by John Medina. I love books about the brain, cognition, mind, intelligence and so on, and I am now compelled by forces beyond my control to acquire aforesaid book. Anyway, here's one quote that is totally, totally germane to this blog that I picked off of this cool presentation by Garr "Presentation Zen" Reynolds. (It's got 131 slides, but you'll love it!)
There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and the cubicle.
I didn't say it -- Medina did. And the guy knows how the brain works: at the molecular level, too. Anyway, classrooms killed me when I was a student, and I have presided over the cerebral deaths of thousands of students as someone compelled by circumstances to confine my students to a classroom (a stricture I violated from time to time). I've railed against lectures and classrooms for years, and now comes a book that confirms what I have long believed.

So what is it about our society that keeps us from doing any better? Why has "education" remained one of the great con jobs of modern times, a con job so perfect that the "most successful" of the victims will swear by it and do everything in their might to defend it? I think the analogy of the frog in a pot that is slowly brought to boil and hence fails to jump out and save itself may be apt. We had a system in place to handle a small number of students selected for a lecture type of environment. And the we decided to scale up the model to handle tens of thousands of students in lecture halls. Didn't work. And yet we persist with it.

Modern educational methods compete with astrology, medical quackery and cosmetics for promising far, far more than the actually deliver. The sad thing is that since education is so greatly valued that people engage in wishful thinking and buy into the whole scam. There has been the occasional child that has exclaimed that the king wore no clothes, but few are listening. The lucky ones are those who are both talented and also so unfit for formal education that they choose to drop out and rely on their native abilities to achieve their goals. In a sense those who are not brilliant but are in fact suited for formal education -- a big chunk of the population -- work their way through the system because they seem to be succeeding in it even though it is, in fact, not giving them as much as it promises. But they care little, because they 'know' that they need it in order to 'succeed'.

This brings me to Ivan Illich's classic critique of modern education, Deschooling Society. I've got to take a look at that book again, but now from the perspective of a wizened old educator.

Formal education used to be a means for the small fraction of people of a reflective bent of mind to gather the means by which they could explore life's purpose and perhaps try to answer the great questions that faced mankind. From that noble purpose, formal education has been coopted and debased by a corporatized society that has transformed education into a machine that churns out cookie-cutter drones who will staff their factories and offices and produce standardized goods and services, punctually, and with a smile. Sadly, neither the so-called education, nor the decades of work under the corporate roof help the individual confront the fundamental existential questions that have always been at the back of his mind but which he never had time to think about, so engrossed was he in his work, and distracted at other times by the corporate entertainment firehosed through the media.

If he is lucky, he falls dead while still on the job, engrossed in his meaningless work. The unlucky ones are finally ejected by the corporate system and at a late stage in life find themselves face-to-face with Life's Ultimate Questions: questions they ought to have tried to answer early in their lives, but which they deferred to a phase in their lives when they can could do little about their situation. And preoccupied with that sad thought, they fall over and die.

The tragedy, again, is that the average person believes that the purpose of education is to provide him with skills that will enable him to become a 'successful' cog in the corporate wheel. Any real education that might help him confront the reality of his existence and enable him to ask questions about his role in life is dismissed as so much fluff. The stranglehold of the corporation on formal education is almost complete. Sadder yet are the institutions and educational frameworks that neither educate nor prepare the student for becoming a productive cog in the wheel. In fact, this category of institutions dominate the 'educational' landscape. They are worse than useless. Not only do they not educate, they 'uneducate' their students using the worst possible methods. Talk about a perfect storm.

What we need today are major revolutions both in curricula as well as pedagogies and androgogies; both are badly broken, and this brokenness is reflected in the nature of our world, best expressed by the Hopi Indian word, koyaanisqatsi -- life out of balance.

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