issue 180 - February 1988
Wisdom and wealth.
The great education hoax
Everyone has a marvellous intellect which could develop if education
were not a political weapon. Judy Gahagan tells the story.
And on the first day they pile in through the door: noisy, shy, neat, untidy, polite, cheeky, dreamy, practical. The door is the school door, they the world's intellectuals. Who are the world's intellectuals? They are all people everywhere - but only on that first day. For humans have minds with power beyond the scope of any imaginable computer... to start with.
It's hard to stop them at the beginning. They will experiment and theorize, take things to pieces and reassemble them. They will invent, dream, tell jokes and stories, sing and cook and dance. They will help manage the classroom. They will help each other and look after the little ones. In short, they will use all of their brains. For these are still whole people.
And what will school do for them? If they are lucky, school will expand all that mind power in special ways. It will fill the gaps in their community's knowledge as snugly as a piece in a jigsaw. People can learn anywhere, but school will develop and focus their intelligence, will nurture all their talents. If they are lucky. But most of them won't be lucky. Whether they apparently succeed, or obviously fail, most of them will emerge more damaged than when they went in. The greater part of the world's brain power is unused, paralyzed or distorted.
But it's not the fault of schools or teachers. They, together with the potential they are supposed to nurture, are casualties in that monstrous power struggle we call civilization. School is used as a filter to identify and train the future holders of power. As for the rest it is obvious that if they used all their minds and talents, they would be even harder to subjugate and exploit than they are at the moment. So school is a place that ensures that such a thing never happens. And even the teachers don't seem to know what's going on.
Do you remember those long-ago days of beans growing in jars? Of wall-charts about everything from earthworms to Aztecs? Do you remember the reading corners and spelling bees; the quiet hour for sums and writing, the songs and games? That was the beginning. You took your whole mind to school and brought it home again, intact. But as time went on, some things you could do began to be much more important than other things you could do. You and your mind seemed to be being squeezed through a funnel that got narrower and narrower.
Maybe you'd been good at making complicated models of little cars. But later it was only geometry that was important. You liked geometry, but you liked making things as well. Or you'd loved making up fabulous stories. But later they only wanted you to compare and contrast other people's stories. You'd been especially good at helping the little ones, and stopping people bullying, and getting unpopular ones included. 'Quite a knack,' they'd always said. But later that didn't seem to be important at all.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot
And gradually it became clear that only a few people were really good at the things the teachers thought were important. Most people were not up to much. And some were hopeless. Yet at the beginning nobody had ever noticed whether people were better than each other at all. Because it hadn't seemed of any importance.
And then, one day, you noticed a huge gate just by the school exit. It was labelled Public Examination System. It was a special gate because, however hard you all pushed. it only opened wide enough to let a few through it. A notice on the gate said that if you did get through it you would have an important position and a lovely life. You noticed that teachers seemed to prefer people who looked like they'd get through the gate.
And one thing was very clear it was impossible to get through the gate with all your skills and knowledge. They were far too bulky and couldn't be wrapped up tightly or neatly enough. So you had to get some pieces of paper on which you'd written the answers to some questions. The answers were supposed to represent all your skills and knowledge. And the questions were things like: what are the principles of x? or X-a+b(x-yk)=? or compare and contrast X with Y, or translate A into B. You had to write them very fast or they didn't count. Nor did the questions you would have liked to ask. Or the answers you would have liked to have given.
By this time you always studied on your own. You couldn't let anyone see your work in case they copied it and managed to squeeze through the gate ahead of you. You knew the fewer the people pushing at the gate, the better your chances of getting through. But by this time lots of people had stopped bothering about the gate altogether.
Many of them spent their time doing things that, at the beginning, had been important - like Childcare, or Drama, or Carpentry. But now they didn't seem to enjoy doing them much any more. Because there was a rumour going round that people who spent their time doing those things were thick. And some of them, annoyed by this rumour, spent their time fighting and smashing up the equipment and being rude to the teachers.
Nevertheless, everyone knew the system was fair. It was obvious. After all, the ones who were going to get through the gate were called Very Able Children. The ones who went on trying were called Average Ability. And the rest were called either Below Average, or Below Average With Behaviour Disorders, depending on whether they smashed the place up or not.
And, at last, school (and usually any other kind of study) was over and WORK began. The ones who'd managed to get through the gate were a mixed bunch. One or two of them were still as talented as they had been on that first day. And now they had multi-faceted trained minds. They still noticed the countryside and other people; they were always curious and never stopped learning.
But some of the others were weird. There were brilliant scientists who spent their lives working on germs and nerve gases to exterminate everybody. There were lots who worked 18 hours a day trying to keep ahead of each other. They never noticed the sunshine and they feared sudden death. There were others who worked in tiny labyrinths where nobody else ever went. They looked as if their bodies were full of sawdust and they never talked to you.
And the rest? Well they slotted in more or less where they could. A few of them, mostly women, even went on tending their minds, for their lives were filled with multidimensional and creative problems to be solved (though no-one called what they were doing 'work'). Nevertheless for most, something had changed. They knew now that there were lots of things they were No Good At. So they left lots of questions and problems to Those In Charge (who had been Very Able Children), even though Those In Charge often seemed to be making a terrible cock-up of it.
But in fact it didn't really matter whether they used their minds or not - because they were living in a Modern Civilization, and they could never get bored. At the press of a button they got instant Fun. And if they felt creative they could go Shopping and choose things.
In the poor world (which was still Uncivilized) things were a bit different. A few people, hidden away in remote spots, had been rather like the children on the first day. Only they had no schools and they hadn't needed to invent the alphabet. But they were very inventive in other ways.
There were ocean dwellers who could navigate across thousands of miles of featureless water with no instruments beyond their own senses. There were forest dwellers who had observed minutely the medicinal properties of plants. There were islanders who could actually solve the biggest conundrum of all how to resolve human conflict without destroying the earth while you resolve it. They were no fools! The funny thing about these people was that everybody in the community knew about and was able to do just about everything. There were no Great Men, or Geniuses, or Professional Experts. But when Civilization came pounding in, many of these people and their skills were obliterated.
The people who brought Civilization thought the poor could make their resources much more profitable. So they decided to help them. Because these civilized people were educated, they only noticed the things the poor couldn't do, and not the things they could do. They thought that education could help. They remembered their own schools back home, especially The Big Gate; how it let just enough people through to organize things (for they didn't want to have to stand over the poor while they made themselves more profitable); and how school made the rest employable (for the most part); and, best of all, how everyone knew The Big Gate was fair, for the experts who had invented it had proved that people do not have equal brain power, so naturally The Big Gate only let the clever ones through.
So into forest and veldt and mountain and plain came a curious rash of schools. At the start many of them were not much more than a corrugated iron roof, in which children learned reading, how to cover their private parts, and the Bible. But as things got off the ground, many poor countries began to reap the benefits of advanced school systems: Latin mottos, school hymns, uniforms, sports day and esprit de corps. And the ones who had been selected to stand around making sure everything got more profitable could incarcerate their children in boarding schools (at huge expense) to be tormented and bullied and turned into rulers in their turn.
But unfortunately there were small pockets of discontent. In the rich world some teachers were getting fed up with being blamed for producing dead-eyed children who smashed the place up, and with having to compete with Fun and Shopping for their pupils' attention. They began thinking up ways of changing things. Some of them even suggested that pupils should do whatever they liked, or even recommended the abolition of schools altogether. But whatever they did, they never managed to get rid of The Big Gate, although sometimes they tried painting it different colours or covering it with camouflage. It was all very confusing.
Photo: Claude Sauvageot
But in the poor world it was clear as crystal most people there lived in the countryside where, money being short, there were very few schools. So they had to walk miles to the nearest ones. And often they weren't very healthy, for they were nearly always hungry (because now, being profitable, they had no land on which to grow food, nor money with which to buy it). And, not having much Fun or Shopping to divert their attention, they saw clearly that hardly anyone was getting through The Big Gate - even those who lived in towns - and hardly anyone knew how to do the things that their forebears had known. And although they were no longer part of The Empires Where The Sun Never Set, it was clear that everything was being controlled from elsewhere. And the skills of the first day, the ones that their forebears had had, were the only ones which could make things any better. Not only that, it was clear that The Very Able Children could not be trusted to use their knowledge for everyone's benefit.
So just a few of them began to set up their own schools. And in those schools they learned everything they needed to get some purchase on their lives: from Fish Farming to Small Arms Handling, from Marxism to Childcare. Their Reading and Writing was not about Little Red Engine, but about How Things Work - and about Who's Really In Charge Around Here.
And a few teachers in the rich world saw this and realized how they and their pupils had been hoodwinked. And they wanted to bring back all the knowledge and skills of the first day. And make people see that Knowledge Is Power. And to realize that all the Fun and Shopping in the world cannot compensate for the atrophy of their marvellous brains, and their helplessness in the hands of the moguls. But they could only get a few people to listen.
Worth reading on... EDUCATION
It is unusual to find passionate books about education. So James Hemmina's The Betrayal of Youth (Marion Boyars, 1980) is a classic. It is an eloquent plea for the whole mind wedged between narrow curricula on the one hand, and the massed trivia of twentieth century media on the other.
Creativity, Genius and Other Myths by Robert Weissberg (Freeman & Co. 1986) is not ostensibly about education at all. It is an examination of one central concept in Western culture: the genius. From experimental and biographical evidence, he reveals a delightful continuity between the thought processes of everyday life and those of scientific and artistic discovery. In that sense it is about education.
I'd lay a bet that the most dramatic revolution in the next 50 years is going to be the so-called 'feminization' of science education. Science for Girls edited by Alison Kelly (Open University Press 1987)is a small book but its 15 contributors give us some fascinating glimpses of how science has been constructed as a male domain.
John Head's The Personal Response to Science homes in on the kind of mind that specialization in science has nourished. Unsettling. Straight on is Innovation In Education (Macmillan 1986) by G Bishop.
The textbook writing style is compensated for by the extraordinary material. It describes education improvised for and by the poor all over the world. These are experiments which have by-passed all the hypocrisies and sacred cows in the West. Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman (Heinemann 1986) has to be the funniest book about brain-death from television. Not that the subject is funny. Orwell's vision of the future was of Big Brother watching us by his choice. Huxley's was of us watching Big Brother from our choice. Postman considers Huxley to have been right.
This special report appeared in the wisdom & wealth - the great education hoax issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.