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The Educator's Dilemma and the Two Big Lies

The Educator’s Dilemma and the Two Big Lies
by Daniel Grego

When “educate” was used only as a verb, its meaning was clear. In Latin, the verb educare never took a male subject. Men were simply not equipped for the task. According to Ivan Illich (as quoted in the book A is for Ox by Barry Sanders) Cicero told us “nutrix educat.” The wet nurse nourished the growing child. As they grew, children began to walk, to speak, to feed themselves. This was the natural course of events. No adult thought to take credit for these developments, just as no adult thought to take credit for an infant’s breathing.

A time might have come in a young man’s life when on his own initiative or at the insistence of his parents, he would submit himself to the instruction of an elder who had mastered some art and who would assume the responsibility of teaching it to the apprentice. Girls were taught the arts of home management (this is what the word “economics” literally means) by their mothers and grandmothers and aunts. In their book The History and Philosophy of Education Ancient and Medieval, Frederick Eby and Charles Flinn Arrowood wrote: “They were taught to make garments, to spin, sew, weave and cook.”

These relationships were customary, not compulsory. They were part of the unique cultural life of each place. Children who were not victims of fatal accidents or diseases grew up to take their places in adult society. They learned from experience, from the example of adults, from participation in rituals and from stories. Learning was embedded in the diurnal activities of the community in which one lived and suffered and died.

Young men of leisure began studying in schools in ancient Greece. (It is from the Greek word for “leisure” that our word “school” derives.) But this was not because they were deficient. They had time to kill and certain arts, rhetoric for example, were best taught and practiced in groups.

It was not until the 17th century that John Amos Comenius described schools as a means to “teach everybody everything.” (Omnibus, omnia omnino docendi.) Something happened. Suddenly, “education” became a noun, a “something” that children were born without and needed to get.

“Today, there are several gangs of thugs and thieves struggling to gain control over schooling, so that “education” can be doled out on their terms. I would like to subvert their holy war by exposing two of the lies upon which the religion of schooling rests.”
A system of schooling was designed to process children, to ensure that they received the treatments necessary for their maturation. Within two centuries of Comenius, his wish for compulsory schooling was realized in some of the countries of Europe and in the United States. Today, it continues to spread over the entire planet like plague.

What exactly this schooling is supposed to accomplish has been debated since its inception. It can be assumed that many of the self-certified experts of the thing that became known as “education” would agree in principle with that well-known progeny of the Father of Lies quoted above. The trick, it seems, is to persuade people to endure “education” even if its purpose cannot clearly be defined.

Today, there are several gangs of thugs and thieves struggling to gain control over schooling, so that “education” can be doled out on their terms. I would like to subvert their holy war by exposing two of the lies upon which the religion of schooling rests. The “education” establishment and its critics from both ends of the political spectrum accept these lies. Proposals for “education reform” – from lowering class sizes to vouchers – are predicated on them.

To expose the lies, I will have to take a large risk. Against the advice of several wise friends, I will attempt to define “education” in a way that would be consistent with people reclaiming their lives from the purveyors of treatments and panaceas. This is risky because there may be no way of disassociating “education” from its grimier connotations. Still, I will take the chance in the hope that uncovering the lies will free us to focus our attention on much more crucial concerns.

“Education” should be thought of as a community activity, not as an individual accomplishment. Just as Cicero’s wet nurse nourishes an infant (literally “one without language”) so that it may be healthy and its natural abilities flower, so each community guides the learning of the young so that the community may remain healthy and so that its conception of “the good” may be realized. “Education” is not some “thing” that one either possesses or does not, but rather is an activity in which one is inevitably engaged.

When a community educates, it influences the direction of the learning of its members toward the good. I think it is important to note that I am not suggesting that education is an influencing of a person’s learning for his or her own good. That would put us back in the box Comenius built. It is the community’s good, the understanding of which will change over time, which is the goal of the educative process. (If it is really the concept of the community’s good about which “education” reformers are fighting, I wish they would have the courage to stop using children as shields and hostages.)

The First Big Lie

With this definition in mind, I think the fallacy of the first lie should be obvious. The first Big Lie is that schools educate children. As modern society evolved with its emphasis on the division of labor, we somehow swallowed the idea that it was the “job” of schools to educate children. But for this idea to be plausible, we would have to believe the most ridiculous notion: that learning is something that children can switch on and off. For the first lie to be even barely credible, we would have to accept something like the following description:

A child rises in the morning in her home with her learning function switched off. She is at home, after all. Her relationship to her family around the breakfast table has no learning in it. She passes through her family life on her way to school where her learning function will be activated if the school is adequately provisioned, if there are enough computers, if the teachers are well paid, appropriately licensed and therefore “highly qualified,” if the class size is small enough, if the building is modern enough and in good repair. A good school will keep the student’s learning switch on all day and may even persuade her to turn it on herself for a couple hours of “homework.”

In the playground at recess, the learning switch is off. Recess is only recess. There’s no learning in play. What the student observes on the bus to and from school, the images on billboards, her interactions with her family and her neighbors, the programs she watches on television (unless it happens to be “educational television,”) the movies she sees, the music she listens to, the way she obtains the food she eats, the clothes she wears, the way her room is decorated (whether she even has a room of her own,) whether she has pets or contact with other animals, the stars in the night sky, the wind through her curtains: all of these have some effect on this child, but the effect is not educative. When she’s not in school, her learning function is switched off.

I hope stating the lie this way will reveal its absurdity. Yet, I am continually surprised to find this first Big Lie behind the wars that rage over schooling. When parents complain that schools are failing, when business people insist that their performance improve, when Charles Sykes lampoons the use of “whole language” instruction, when William Bennett rails against the bureaucratic “Blob,” when Jonathan Kozol exposes “Savage Inequalities,” when Henry Giroux calls for “critical pedagogy,” they are all reinforcing the lie that schools educate children. They do not.

“We cannot buy our way to a better, healthier, saner world. Nor can we school our way to it.”

Children (and all of us) are learning all the time. A one-word description of the cessation of learning would be “death.” If our children are not learning what we say we want them to learn, it is because what we say we want them to learn is not what we (the entire community) are teaching them.

Giving credence to the first Big Lie damages our communities and our children. Natural relationships between the old and young are replaced with artificial distortions. Children’s appetites for certain types of learning atrophy because compulsory schooling serves up rancid meals in Styrofoam packages leaving a bad taste in their mouths. Legions of quacks claiming to know what is best for every child and reaching their conclusions on the flimsiest evidence peddle snake oil solutions to gullible parents. Greedy corporate and political salespersons play Pontius Pilate before the multitudes, pointing fingers and throwing up freshly washed hands. No wonder a growing number of families are refusing to send their children to school!

So pernicious and pervasive are the effects of the first Big Lie’s domination of our consciousness that closing all schools, at least temporarily, might be the only way to awaken us from our dogmatic slumbers. Without the crutch of the schools to lean on, everyone in a community would have to reclaim his or her own responsibility for educating the young. That, I think, would be salubrious. Something to think about.

The Second Big Lie

As harmful as this first lie is, it is innocuous compared to the second. The second Big Lie is that we can escape the necessities of life on this earth and the obligations of living well by “getting an education.”

Somehow, we have persuaded ourselves that if we just stay in school long enough to earn a credential of some kind (or a series of them), we will be able to transcend the human condition of suffering and mortality. We tell young people over and over that without such an “education” they will have no “future.” All of this is, of course, foolish nonsense. Believing in it, we get trapped in what the young Bob Dylan referred to as “mixed up confusion.”

For example, consider what might be dubbed “The Lake Wobegon Folly.” Since performance in school is the criterion used to justify the distribution of all the “good jobs,” every parent wants his or her child to score “above average” on standardized tests. But it is only possible for all children to be “above average” on Saturday evening radio shows. Suppose all the poor children in Milwaukee, for example, who tend to score well “below average” miraculously began to do better. Since the tests are “norm referenced,” this would mean that someone else comparatively would be doing worse. The sigh of relief coming from the advocates for Milwaukee’s children would not be audible above the screams of the newly “disadvantaged” who would be demanding “improved schools” in their districts.

“The Lake Wobegon Folly” pales next to “The Educator’s Dilemma.” To explain what I mean by this phrase, I will focus on people working in schools in the United States. However, “The Educator’s Dilemma” has international implications that I think will become apparent.

“Somehow, we have persuaded ourselves that if we just stay in school long enough to earn a credential of some kind (or a series of them,) we will be able to transcend the human condition of suffering and mortality.”
Most educators would say without embarrassment that their vocation is to “help” their students. However, compulsory schooling – the context of their work – is designed to plug young people into modern, industrial society and to inculcate in them a desire for the endless consumption of goods and services. There is growing evidence that this way of living damages both natural and human communities. Do educators really help their students by increasing their chances “to make it” in such a society?

Let’s imagine the schools working perfectly, whatever your definition of that may be. If it means that teachers are intellectuals fostering critical consciousness, you have got it. If you imagine schools of choice competing in a free market in which paragons of virtue transmit the eternal verities, you’ve got it. The battle is over and your side has won.

The schools are working perfectly and every child is going to make it. But what would that mean in our society? What will these perfectly “educated” students do? Will they all become doctors or lawyers or insurance executives pursuing their careers and performing their civic duties, but always keeping an eye on their investment portfolios? Or will they all become university professors deconstructing the canon and driving their Jaguars around campus or flying to conferences? In other words, will they all become what Robert Reich has called “symbolic analysts”?

Who will sweep the floors once the “education” system finally has the bugs out of it? Who will grow the food? Who will hang the doors, build the cabinets? Who will take care of the young children? Is this the point where we would bring the rest of the world, particularly the Third World, back into the picture? Once our system of schooling is flawless and all of its graduates are wealthy, will we need the people of the Third World to do our “dirty work” for us? But what if “enlightened” citizens in these countries want the same “education” system and the same prestigious careers for their children?

Simone Weil wrote in The Need for Roots: “There is something woefully wrong with the health of a social system, when a peasant tills the soil with the feeling that, if he is a peasant, it is because he wasn’t intelligent enough to become a school teacher...” Or a doctor, or a lawyer, or an insurance executive, or a university professor.

What is wrong with this social system is that it is both unjust, socially and economically, and unhealthy ecologically. Believing in the second Big Lie is part of a long tradition of trying to rise above the human condition, an attempt that only increases human misery and environmental degradation.

Aldous Huxley once said that 25 percent of human suffering is unavoidable, an inescapable part of our lives on this earth. There are natural catastrophes – floods and earthquakes, tornadoes and tsunamis. We get sick. As we get older and our bodies grow feeble, we can no longer do what we were once able to do. (Even Wayne Gretzky and Michael Jordan had to retire one day.) Our friends and loved ones experience pain and disappointment. We all will die. However, 75 percent of the suffering in the world is unnecessary and avoidable, or so Huxley thought. It is the result of human vice.

We produce much of this unnecessary pain in a futile attempt to avoid the pain that is unavoidable. (This was one of the major themes of the work of Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death, Simon & Schuster, 1973 and has been further developed by David Loy in Lack and Transcendence, Humanity Books, 1996.) The greedy use sophisticated advertising techniques to seduce the slothful and the envious into a mad quest for “easy street.” (Think of how lust is exploited to sell almost everything!) We vainly attempt to insulate ourselves from the negative consequences of our way of living.

This is the “economy” that we prepare our children to enter. However, the economy and the various systems upon which it depends cannot absolve us from the obligations that come with living on this earth. This includes the “system” of schooling over which everyone fusses. Going to school and earning degrees cannot free us from the human condition and from the responsibility each of us has for living a good life. We cannot buy our way to a better, healthier, saner world. Nor can we school our way to it.

I think we would all be better off if we tabled our debates about education and schooling and asked ourselves some more difficult, but also more fundamental questions: How can we live on this earth in ways that are both economically just and ecologically healthy? How can education help us discover and preserve these ways?

This is the true purpose of education. And contrary to Joseph Goebbels, the great art would be to make this explicit and open to every community’s scrutiny. The only way that I can see to solve “The Educator’s Dilemma” is to find answers to these fundamental questions. The sooner we get to it, the better.

Daniel Grego is the Executive Director of TransCenter for Youth, Inc. in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of his major interests is exploring the confluence of the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi, Ivan Illich, and Wendell Berry. He lives with his wife Debra Loewen, the Artistic Director of Wild Space Dance Company and their daughter Caitlin Grego on a small farm in the Rock River watershed in Dodge County, Wisconsin. This essay also appears in the book Life Learning: Lessons from the Educational Frontier.

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