Another Beastly Story

Though Æsop’s fables speak across 2,500 years with wisdom still pertinent to education and the wide world, I want to invoke a modern fabulist today: Orwell. Even before writing Animal Farm, he had been known as an opponent of humbug[1]. He detected it in the political world[2], but he was just as able at detecting it in education[3], which takes place not just at school but also in public life. Learning to think like Orwell means learning to recognise humbug / bunk / baloney / BS and to reject it.

There are two chief opponents of recognizing humbug on Animal Farm. The first is Squealer the pig, who speaks not to produce truth and procure the public good but to subvert truth and procure the advantage of the pigs. He does this by lying and producing half-truths. He even writes over the principles that undergird life on the Farm and appear on the wall of the barn. But the second opponent of learning is the chorus of sheep, who do not say “Bah!” to humbug but repeat and echo the latest lies or nonsense with an acquiescent “ba-a-a.”

Some public discourse on education seems to be taken, in type if not in words, directly from the pigs, the sheep and the edited barn wall. The latest examples accompany the depredations made on good education by the corona virus epidemic. Among them is the replacement of a good thing, live schooling, by a rather less good thing, online schooling, as an emergency measure, much as one takes out the biscuit tire in the trunk to get to the shop where the good tire can be repaired or replaced.

It has been a field day for the Squealers of the Ed Biz to promote their “products”, as The New York Times reports. The Times leaves almost unmentioned three problems with this state of things: the “products” don’t work particularly well, they are very expensive, and students & teachers alike hate online learning. Do we hear about the problems? No, we hear sheep-like choruses of “Online learning is here to stay. Online learning is here to stay.” Where have we heard that before?

New Math is here to stay.

Open classrooms are here to stay.

Whole language is here to stay. 

Process writing is here to stay.

“Value”-“added” “metrics” are here to stay.

“Agency” is here to stay. (My readers of a certain age can easily add to this half-dozen.)

One academic notes rather dimly that ‘we will never in our lifetimes see a more powerful demonstration of the conservatism of educational systems.’ Actually, we see such demonstrations daily. The academic appears to regret that people in education don’t embrace the methods of high-tech business disruptionists. The reluctance is because they remember, much of the time, that children are not a means to a commercial end but ends in themselves, and that changing how we teach them should be done carefully and always with an eye to the public good.

[1] Americans would call it ‘bunk’, a word that has an interesting history. Felix Walker, the Congressman from Buncombe County, N.C. (fl. 1820), gave a speech fuller than usual of that quality. He gave it a name when answering people who asked him what he was talking about: ‘I was speaking to Buncombe.’ The word eventually shrank to ‘bunk’.

[2] In, for example, his essay ‘Politics and the English Language’

[3] In his autobiographical essay ‘Such, Such Were the Joys

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.