I took, and still take, education very seriously.
I knew when I enrolled in the 2-year post-degree Education program at U of W back in 2014 that I was being pragmatic but that I would find it a struggle to deal with the structure of the program. Actually, I work quite well with certain structures, but I anticipated that the program would move too quickly for critical thinking. Boy was I right.
See, I concluded when I quit the program five weeks in that I took education too seriously to be in a 2-year professional program. I wanted to study education as its own subject, to be exposed to a wide range of educational theories, to not only read from authors within the mainstream profession as currently practiced in North America, but to hear also from Steiner, the founder of Waldorf education (big in Europe but just scratching the surface here) or from Maria Montessori. These successful alternative models may offer our mainstream public systems some advice as to where to go in a society where children’s imagination is being filtered through first TV sets and now computers, and whose connections to nature have diminished steadily over the past 60 years.
Considering the bigger picture of education
I just wanted us to take education seriously, to step back from the dogmas of our system and get into the root philosophy of education. To question the values and virtues we are trying to transmit in education, and to gain a deeper understanding of the field’s evolution as a whole.
Years earlier, during my undergraduate days at U of W, I was fortunate to hear John Taylor Gatto give a talk up in Theatre A in Manitoba Hall. He had been a model teacher in the New York State education system before resigning and writing critical books about the system. He spoke in those days about how the modern (North) American school was designed to teach the discipline and repetitiveness of being an industrial worker, sitting children in rows not dissimilar to those in which that sewing machine operators would align. The Carnegies were big funders of schools in the early days, and for good reason.
The summer before entering Education I started to read Summehill, describing the famous rural English school-community where children learned when they were good and ready, attending classes voluntarily, and where everyone met as a community – students and teachers alike – once a week to hold meetings, propose motions, and vote on issues pertaining to the running of the community. This radical libertarian-democratic model was decades old, and while in general I can only take pieces of each theory or model I read, I was impressed with the mature treatment of children by adults in the community, and the egalitarian spirit of the meetings. A refreshing change from the hierarchical arrangement of our late capitalist society. Giving children the choice when to choose to attend classes may have worked in a confined rural community, where there was much learning to be had at every turn (fixing bikes, working with animals), but would be a greater challenge in a city.
What really rubbed me the wrong way…
So around the week I decided the Education program – windowless basement classes with PowerPoints that taught at us and all – was too much to endure, two things really got under my skin and convinced me to quit. Keep in mind these factors did not all operate singularly upon my deciding mind, but that there is always a personal context too of what is going on in one’s life that gives them different capacities to tolerate and push through difficult situations at times, to walk away at others…
1. The influence of an industrial sector’s lobbying board on physical education. The week I quit I never did get to attend the presentation of the Dairy Farmers of Manitoba in our physical education class. That’s right, a corporate lobby board, with a particular agenda to promote their farmers’ making profit in their sector, was delivering a piece of the curriculum they had developed for the otherwise public school system. I think that while their presentation may have had some merit (I am not judging it per se), the very idea of corporate and lobby money being presented to our students is a nefarious and (not so?) subtle form of propaganda that not only as a university student did I not feel I should have to be exposed to, but that I am categorically against for our students. And if you take a look at some of the money behind Agriculture in the Classroom, one may think it would be more apt to name it ‘Agri-business in the Classroom.’ Rather than going cap in hand to large multinational corporations for programming in our schools, we should be fighting for adequate funding for our schools, and creatively and resourcefully making up the differences when something important is lacking.
2. The uncritical mono-culture of literacy at the expense of orality. I was in the early-middle years stream of Education, in the core Language Arts class. We had just spent two weeks doing a group project presenting children’s books to the class. I learned a lot from the books presented and enjoy reading and promoting reading a lot. The professsor – more likely a sessional instructor – then proceeded to flip through some more books insisting books are a great marvel for teaching (which we’d already established by then). I raised my hand and asked, “Is our society’s extreme emphasis on literacy taking away children’s capacity for expressing themselves orally, or are the two developmentally complementary?” I had noticed the curriculum includes teaching children to express themselves orally as well as through literacy. The instructor’s response was dismissive. “That question is way beyond the scope of this class,” she answered, the end of her sentence a learning-ending thud. I have noticed that quite often we are a voiceless society, passive, apathetic and scared to speak publicly. I think our weakness in orality is matched maybe only by our poor mathematical abilities.
Voicelessness permeates our society. Could more oral recitation perhaps help?
I was once riding the #18 bus northbound on North Main when two men got on with a watering can that had gasoline. They sat near the back. All the windows were closed. I immediately smelled the gasoline, and spoke up to the men, incredulous. I started opening the windows and announced that these men had gasoline on the bus in an open container, getting the driver’s attention. Many windows remained closed. I just watched as the bus riders all sat in their seats passively, waiting for someone else to fix the collective problem. I am sure the problem of lack of agency runs way deeper than an emphasis on literacy over orality, but it’s the voicelessness and passivity I am getting at. But moreover, there I was in a university, asking what I thought was a meaningful question at the heart of education and civilization, and I was shut down.
More conversation, and action, needed…
We need to open up many meaningful conversations about education. As a Winnipeg School Division, I intend to ask the questions others either are not asking or are asking in too timid a voice. You know, the ones about how we as a society accept child poverty as a fact of life, or think we can help children learn at school when they have inadequate or precarious housing or a lack of nutrition, not to mention at times domestic instability.
We can use our collective resources to create cooperatives or at least space for them to emerge among parents and neighbouring communities. Farm-to-School programs are big in many places and deal directly with local farmers instead of thinking corporate agribusiness is going to teach our children and their families about food. If there’s one issue that rivals education at the heart of our society’s politics, it’s probably food and food security. It’s a big enough topic that I’ll write another post about it specifically.
By the way, I do not regret for a moment freeing myself from the B.Ed after-degree program. I do regret the university’s policy of going from a 100% tuition refund on the 2nd Friday one is in classes on campus to 0% on the Monday after that weekend. But oh well, many others have larger student loans than I do to pay off, so I’m not really complaining.