One of the most stimulating recent ‘think pieces,’ Houman Harouni’s “What should a School be?‘ has set the cat among the pigeons in the North American education world. Originally published in The American Reader (Vol. 8, 2013), the Harvard researcher’s article essentially challenges educationists to think more broadly and seek fresh insights from outside their intellectual cocoons. While many education observers claim that “the school system is broken,” few actually stop to do what is known as a “deeper dive.” In our post-modern era of globalization and connectivity, fewer still pause to ask whether the purpose of education should be completely subsumed by“dancing with robots.”
Education does matter but that is difficult to discern surveying the public debate over the current state and future of schooling. Harouni, the agent provocateur, captures the current dialectic in magical prose: “Whether test scores do or don’t measure learning; whether schools should be privatized; whether Wikipedia will replace the teacher; whether we will ever escape Algebra; whether we can measure the ways which kids of color ‘fail’ or ‘succeed’ on exams; whether to teach like a ‘champion,’ a ‘guide.’ or a ‘pirate’; whether the arts are a right or a privilege; all these questions owe their importance to the system of schooling that turned them into questions in the first place.”
The entire North American education debate, Houman Harouni contends, “keeps folding back into itself” because it accepts established parameters and is almost entirely based upon “self-referential questions” that perpetuate “a system that has stagnated for seven generations.” The promise of grace and salvation, in his view, is not enough to “justify the existence of the modern educational system.” Leading philosophers of education from John Dewey to today’s ‘pedagodfathers’ , with few exceptions, “do a bang-up job of hiding their complacency behind idealistic cants on the potential of schooling.'” While it endears them to educators, it is offered up to justify “the existence of schools as distinct spaces” amid “the absolute dissolution of communities in urban areas.”
What is the purpose of schooling? Contemporary platitudes are usually served up to answer this question expressing some variation on the theme of ‘preparing students for success in the competitive 21st century global world.’ Such statements are accepted at face value and anyone raising a question about its primacy is invariably ignored or dismissed as a ‘turn-back-the-clocker.’ This state of affairs alone demonstrates why the world needs more education thinkers and fewer technocrats.
Schools are vital civic and social institutions but schooling is never openly discussed unless it’s said to be “in crisis.” Education matters because five hours a day, five days a week, from September to June, children and youth are its captives, up to the age of 16 or 18 years. At their best, public schools can inspire student curiosity and instil civic responsibility; at their worst they become what John Taylor Gatto termed “weapons of mass instruction.” For many education theorists, like Louis Althusser, they essentially serve to “reproduce social relations” and slot young people into jobs suited to their own social class. While schools play a vital societal role, Althusser correctly observed that “hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent!”
Since the mid-1970s, Harouni claims that serious discourse about education was abandoned to ‘the educationists.‘ Cultural critics, sociologists, and outside scholars simply “washed their hands of education.” Progressive educators came to dominate the field, free to conduct research in pursuit of resources, and seemingly “not bothered by their seclusion.” Today teachers, faculty of education students, and young researchers learn to show “open disdain for any opinion on education that doesn’t come from inside the field.” Pointed questions are deflected with a wave of the hand and the dismissive statement, “but has she ever taught?” Any economist or “crossover” academic is listened to politely, then safely ignored.
Today’s educationists thrive on their own isolationism. Political or sociological critiques that challenge the prevailing “liberal social order” or “progressive pedagogy” are not welcome inside the modern schoolhouse. This does allow educationists to merely shrug-off the core contradictions of their practice. Student-centred learning and promoting student happiness, we are assured, can coexist with raising standards and expecting more from today’s students. Classes would be so much more creative if only we could rid them of student performance testing. It’s tempting to agree with Harouni that schooling has to be “built up as much as it needs to be torn down brick by brick.”
Progressive education as promoted by John Dewey’s later day disciples has always tended to see mass education as the cure for social inequities and underestimated the impact of the class division of labour. Now progressive education is essentially ignoring what social critics term “the end of labour” and best represented by the slow disappearance of the eight hour work day. Promoters of “21st century learning” see technology as the salvation and many now parrot “the rhetoric of international competition.”
Progressivism has spawned a new 21st century mutation. Today’s children must be schooled to survive and perhaps thrive “dancing with robots.” The future success of North American “middle class children,” Frank Levy and Richard Murnane insist in Dancing with Robots (2013), will be determined by their preparedness for the changing “human labor market.”
Schooling, we are told, must adapt to the changing 21st century workplace. Does this sound familiar? Menial, unskilled job functions will be computerized and labour provided more cheaply in developing countries. Tomorrow’s economy will require three kinds of work: solving unstructured problems, working with new information, and carrying-out non routine tasks. Our educational future now rests upon our collective capacity to “sharply increase” the proportion of North American children with “the foundational skills needed to develop job-relevant knowledge and to learn efficiently over a lifetime.”
Educational futurists appropriating the rhetoric of progressivism and acting at the behest of “big data” and “big technology” are, somehow, preying on our weaknesses. ‘Fresh thinking’ from “Third Way” researchers like Levy and Murnane, based at MIT and Harvard, seems to be trying to fill “the silence” in contemporary educational discourse. Critical perspectives informed by Paul Goodman’s Compulsory Mis-Education and Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1968) are simply being ignored or marginalized in the public domain. Where critical, independent thinking perishes, schools do not normally thrive.
Preparing our kids for success is being reduced to “dancing with robots.” And, for those who see a more noble calling for schooling, it is somehow disconcerting. It’s time to ask “is that all?”