Say No to Mutant Schools

Much is made in fashionable school-chatter of the saving power of mutation. In particular, this chatter takes pseudo-Darwinism one step further by asserting the power of mutation to adapt not just to the present, as the social ‘Darwinists’ modestly proposed, but also to the future. Of course it isn’t called mutation but rather something upliftingly paradoxical like ‘creative disruption.’

The most appalling educationist mutagen I have read about recently is the ‘Director of Education’ at a San Francisco-based chain of for-profit schools. In a posting a couple of months back I criticized this chain, but there is more to say, though it is hard to know what to say first. Should I mention the deployment of Orwellian cameras in all classrooms? The bureaucratic burdens imposed on teachers? The constructivism?

I think I’ll let the Prime Mutagen begin for herself: ‘We encourage our members of staff to express their pain points…” I am deeply disquieted by a list of staff desiderata that begins with ‘expressing pain’, particularly when it strongly implies that the pain has no treatment. The list goes on to include some action-clichés for teachers and ends with this bizarre and creepy promise: ‘We know we are going to iterate quickly.’ Taken precisely, this statement is meaningless in its context, for (re)iteration is saying something (again and again). She must mean, ‘We will mutate quickly’. Either she is talking baloney or she is promising that whatever we thought her schools were, they would not be that in, say, a year’s time. How reassuring to parents, on top of surveillance and constructivism! By contrast, she asserts, ‘[o]ther schools tend to move in geologic time’. This is evidently meant to be a criticism of schools that retain their identity instead of shedding it like a snake its skin or a mutant its genes.

It may be worth re-iterating some countervailing values to be sought in schools.

1. Teach subjects. That seems obvious, but there is no reason to think that in a constructivist environment that is what will happen. By contrast, since a subject is a constellation of facts and ideas seen in the light of some unifying factors, it implies that the material can be approached both systematically and intuitively. It allows students to absorb the ways in which consecutive, analytical and synthetic thought takes place and to try those ways themselves. If after some years of training in a discipline a student wants to step out of the disciplinary matrix, it can happen in what one hopes will be a thoughtful way.

2. Respect both Continuity and Contiguity. William James thought that attention shifted via these two means of association. Continuity makes associations on the basis of rational connections between things encountered or handled in consecutive ways. Contiguity’s connections are more serendipitous and startling, and the best way of judging them is the pragmatic test: what follows from them? The best ones are fruitful. The danger in emphasizing contiguity is the danger of getting lost in rabbit holes or of developing garbage-heap minds like that of Borges’s Funes the Memorious. One mark of a good teacher is the ability to get these modes of attention to complement each other, and one mark of a good school is the readiness to let him or her do so.

3. Think teleologically. It helps in setting a course to know what place you want to reach, what state you want to attain, or what purposes you want to serve. These include ethical purposes. These should be expressible in language that Orwell would welcome reading rather than Newspeak. There should be some freedom in how to get there, though perhaps how much is a judgment call.

4. Avoid ‘disengagement contracts’. This expression I get from a BBC report on British university education, though the phenomenon it names can be found in the US. The two ‘parties’ tacitly agree to something like this: you will allow me to disengage from my teaching and setting and marking of tasks so I can pursue the kind of ‘research’ that will put me on a tenure track or get me a prestigious chair. I in turn will let you disengage from learning through imbecile ‘assignments’ so you can have fun, find yourselves, and still gain a credential. During my own university career, ‘gut’ courses like Professor D’s at Teachers College were regarded as rarities, and even Professor D eventually stopped letting students set their own grades. How many Professor D’s would we find now? In the lower-school version tenure and research do not loom so large but many other features are the same.

5. Let the education be primarily philanthropic. The profit motive has no business in education because someone will get short shrift if (increases in) earnings are threatened. What is more, there should be a compelling state interest in seeing that education remains cheap. Scotland, a country of about five million people, has twenty universities, which charge no tuition to Scots. What is more, Scottish students who borrow for their non-tuition expenses pay back their loans based on how much they earn, not how much they borrow, with no interest penalty for low earners. Alex Salmond, the former Scottish First Minister, put the philanthropic principle graphically: ‘Rocks would melt in the sun[1]’ before he would consider introducing tuition fees.

[1] And remember that this is Scottish sun.

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