Is there something wrong with me? Is there some reason why every time I see a “good news” story about education in the MSM, my eyes immediately jump to the part of the story where capitalism shows up and hikes its leg all over what started out as a noble thing? Seconds later, that “Debbie Downer” horn goes off in my ear.
I really wanted to like this article on Wired. It is about a teacher that threw convention out the window and creatively engaged with a group of marginalized students in Matamoros, Mexico. There are some great things to love and appreciate in this story:
A young teacher refusing to teach standardized curriculum
Students from a border town overcoming difficult circumstances
Education practices that wildly encourage free-thinking and creativity
Outside of the framing by this particular Wired author, this IS a really GREAT happening.
However, for me, the unstated fundamental assumptions of the author poison nearly every word. They mirror the unseen dynamics that shape nearly every interaction between humans in our culture.
Here is what I infer about this author’s fundamental views::
The most important attributes in life are public and economic, not personal
The purpose of learning is to compete in the economy more effectively
The effectiveness of learning can be measured via standardized tests
“Exceptionalism” is awesome!
Assumption 1: The most important dimension in life is public and economic, not personal
Why does the young girl featured in the article have to grow up to be “the next Steve Jobs”? Is it not good enough that she is “awesome at Math” or “loves to think about Science”? The author glosses over Paloma’s internal and personal success in the present and instead flips the axis to how she would create and demonstrate value for others in the future. This narrative shapes our reality. What if Paloma does not want to be the next Steve Jobs? What if her creativity and intelligence tells her that maybe escaping the rat race of capitalism and working with animals is the smartest option for her? According to that narrative would she be a failure for not achieving someone else’s goal of becoming a “captain of industry”?
Assumption 2: The purpose of learning is to engage in the economy more effectively
The author definitely understands that the skills required for jobs today are different than the skills required in the past:
“Innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are increasingly crucial to the global economy….. And yet the dominant model of public education is still fundamentally rooted in the industrial revolution that spawned it, when workplaces valued punctuality, regularity, attention, and silence above all else. “
However, the author does not mention that maybe innovation, creativity, and independent thinking are also critical for just being a happy, thoughtful person and relating well to others.
Assumption 3: The effectiveness of learning can be measured via standardized tests
This is a trap that many alternative educators fall into — railing against standardized tests on one hand, and then using them to prove their own effectiveness on the other. Schools feel compelled to prove their effectiveness via measurements that ‘appear’ to be objective because it is impossible to gain credibility in our current culture without doing so. The obvious fallacy is that most of these measurements, even in the world of “business”, are based on smoke and mirrors and are easily manipulated to prove whatever point those in power want to prove.
Assumption 4: “Exceptionalism” is Awesome
As a parent in Seattle, I swear that I will freak out completely the next time that a fellow parent tells me about how their child is in the 99.999999% of their class, or is “nationally ranked” in whatever sport or artistic endeavor that they are exceptionalizing the hell out of. The author obsessively builds a hero narrative around Paloma, and largely ignores the rest of the class. Our culture puts increasingly unreasonable and unhealthy pressure on children to be “exceptional”. In addition to the mathematical impossibility of everyone being in the 99th percentile, what about education for ALL? What about the 37% of Paloma’s class that did NOT rank as ‘excellent’?
Alternative Schools Beware
My children have grown up attending public “Alternative” schools in Seattle. These schools are far from perfect, but have generally been less soul-crushing than the hyper-competition and hyper-behavioralism practiced at many other local public schools. They have been grossly under-resourced and openly attacked by the school district administration.
However, I fear that as the pendulum swings back from a more conservative educational agenda, wealthy benefactors with the same mindset as the author of this article will swoop in and “turbo-charge” alternative education with an infusion of capital. Given that they have the same underlying intellectual framework that views students as workers in training, they will be vigorously screening to find some “diamond in the rough” that can help create more capital for the economy.
Unless alternative school educators start having conversations about the underlying principles of these ‘saviors’ and identifying what principles THEY stand for, alternative schools will simply be used as more effective tools of oppression. Future students like Paloma might turn out to be just like Steve Jobs, and never consider the weight on others of the economic pyramid that they stand on top of.