Lanterns and Ignes Fatui

Too much fun is of all things most loathsome.—Blake

I am back after a long absence because more needs saying about lanterns (see my last posting) and other lights. I realized the need last March at an education conference I was attending. Now, one reason to go to education conferences is, like an epidemiologist, to detect menacing strains of pedagogy as they begin to establish footholds in the educational world.

My vigilance was rewarded with the sighting of a theory called “Agency.” I had no idea what to expect when I entered the crowded presentation room, so it took a few minutes of enthusiastic chirping for the presenter’s ideas to become “clear.” In this program each pupil is the “Agent” of his or her education. The opposing “idea” seems to be a desire for some kind of old-fashioned prison regime in which pupils do nothing but suffer arbitrary impositions by their teachers that destroy their autonomy and kill the joy of learning, etc. It was an example of the kind of cartoon dialectics often favored by education reformers, in which grotesque caricatures of antithetical ideas fight each other before the New Synthesis sweeps the field.

The accompanying slide show began with children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It progressed through other children on the floor putting pieces of cardboard together. It continued with pictures of selfless teachers scavenging pieces of cardboard for their children to put together. It compared what each classroom’s children put together with the others—but not invidiously, of course. The culmination was a series of pictures of a Parents’ Day in which the parents ‘got down’ (the presenter’s word) and helped their children put pieces of cardboard together. There was of course no coercive hickory stick in sight, either literal or figurative. The problem was that there did not seem to be any reading, writing or ‘rithmetic either. This lack did not bother the presenter, who said that since children do their best learning when they are playing, they should play all the time.

We also learned how the presenter did SWOT audits. My British readers do not need to worry that the purity of Agency was compromised by swotting, or hard study before tests: this acronym refers to assessing strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats presenting themselves to a school. (In my experience, schools rarely summon the fortitude needed to do a truly honest and helpful SWOT audit.) One striking result of the audit was that teachers who objected to the Agency program were identified as “threats” to the school. You can guess what kind of backward subversives they must have been and what a menace they must have posed by objecting to content-free lessons and subject-free curricula.

Though much writing and research may have gone into justifying the “agentic” approach to “study,” the book that for me comes closest to the heart of the program, as it was presented at the conference, is my copy of the Calvin & Hobbes Tenth Anniversary Book. Do you remember Calvin’s “agentic” presentation on bats? Funny bit, but imagine him after completing an entire ‘agentic’ education conducting a magnetic resonance cholangiopancreatography of your sphincter of oddi.

Unfair? Not at all. Let’s look again at the lights of my title. In my last posting I gave as examples of lantern-bearers the students and graduates of my school who studied and performed music, particularly choral music. I have been present at a number of final concerts in the Hong Kong Music Festival to hear my school’s choir take the prize. Their gathering afterwards on the grounds of the Tsuen Mun Town Hall is a taste of “the glory of existence” like that felt by the lantern-bearers. Well, getting Stevenson’s ‘fine light’ requires work: fueling the lanterns; trimming their wicks; carrying and tending them; affixing their beams; and working in concert with the other lantern-bearers at the links. The same is true of the choir’s victory at the World Choir Games in South Africa and the standing ovation they received at the Royal Albert Hall. And of course it is true of the less spectacular glory of singing in the quads and the staircases.

And since it also requires direction, something must be said about the old choirmaster, who is now the headmaster of the school. There is a wonderful photograph floating around of the choirboys tossing him into the air after one of their performances. How many hours did he plan and teach the boys? How many hours did they rehearse under his baton? How was their joy in that photo made possible by his work and theirs? If they had spent two years cutting cardboard instead, what would the picture look like–if there had been one? Just how happy were they? At a school assembly after the old headmaster had resigned, a representative of the school’s management committee announced to the students that the choirmaster had been selected to succeed him. A fine moment: the minority who had been paying attention to the speaker started cheering and applauding; as the news spread through the hall, the applause spread as well, led by students whom he had spent years training and rehearsing. At about that time he was coincidentally short-listed for the Varkey Foundation Global Teacher Award.  According to the tenets of ‘Agency’, though, he would be seen as interfering with his pupils’ self-direction.

For the emblematic light of Agency and our presenter is the ignis fatuus: insubstantial, ephemeral, indistinct, amorphous, unheated swamp gas. The reason I call it by its Latin name instead of the more familiar name “will o’ the wisp” is that it is not a “fine light” but a “foolish fire.”

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