Friday, September 21, 2007

So what is education for?

What's education for? Fragano Ledgister, in a recent comment on this blog, says its central purposes are: “(a) the preparing of children and youth for adulthood; (b) their integration into society as active, thoughtful citizens.” Fair enough, but hardly news. He explains, however – and here's the nitty-gritty – that: “the model of education we're using sees 'adulthood' as equivalent to 'employment', and 'citizenship' as identical with 'obedience to constituted authority'.” In other words, as it is presently operated, the primary purpose of education is to ensure that we are employed and law-abiding. Child workers all over the world are both these things. Many women all over the world are both these things as well. Yet of that vast number of working, law-abiding international citizens, one group female, the other not yet of voting age, many, if not most, are illiterate and innumerate, and therefore not educated. So education has to offer us something more than a skill of some sort and the opportunity to cower inside our coffles. (Exaggerating, I know – but cut me some slack here.) It may help to distinguish between process and product, one being the teaching and learning thing that we say goes on in the classroom, and the other being what is achieved by that ongoing process, that is, the gain, the knowledge, the skills, the values and habits – those things reported on in the end-of-term report cards that we dreaded as children. What our conversation on this blog (thanks again, jdid, and Geoff and Fragano, and, indeed, Sir Vidia) highlights is how much these two are related. We seem to be missing the significance of that relatedness. Is school meant to be a pleasure? Geoff says, “Perish the thought!” jdid says he didn’t do History, because he feared that classes at school would lead him to hate a subject he loved. Fragano says he’s glad he met T.S. Eliot elsewhere. My contribution is that if I am a writer – and that’s how I’ve been employed for more than twenty years – it perhaps has less to do with school and more to do with the fact that my father read us a poem every night before we went to bed, and I took part in the All Island Speech and Drama Festival Competitions, and I encountered Louise Bennett’s poetry and her work on stage and on radio very early on in life, and I read lots and lots of story books. So I’m proposing two new purposes for education – in fact, I’m thinking of writing a book about them! Education is to make us happy: whatever we are learning should be a source of pleasure, joy, delight, while we are learning it. Teachers should be certified conjurers of that enjoyment. And education is to help us to become who we were meant to be – simple as that. Some thoughts on how we do these things in posts to come – when I’ll get sex in there, Geoff, I promise.

20 comments:

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

Dear Clarabella,
Maybe not the sex, but just love. And I know you can you do it.

Peace,
Geoffrey

clarabella said...

Geoff:

I'm not sure what it is that you know I can do...

However...

Just some mischief: by 'sex', I intended 'gender", at the time, though addressing sex as just that most certainly has its place in our school curriculum. I'm not sure how one would teach, say, contemporary affairs, and manage to avoid issues like the use of sex as a weapon of war in places like Darfur, or female circumcision, or state policies on child-bearing... Certainly we have an urgent need here, as far as sexual attitudes and behaviours are concerned, given our problems in some schools in Toronto, as also I think, an ongoing need in schools in the Caribbean, and perhaps in those in your part of the world as well? (In my view, the need extends much wider, but these are places I know a bit about, and have at various times in my life called home.)

I am recalling the Song of Solomon, where sex and love wrap up so brilliantly together... I would have that as part of my curriculum in third form. What say you?

pam

FSJL said...

The question, then, Pam would be what is meant by 'happiness'? Saint-Just said of the French Revolution that 'the Age of Happiness has been born in Europe' -- is 'happiness' self-government, or, to cite another Frenchman, is it eating pistachio nuts after cultivating one's own garden?

Is it the same thing for men and women? And, most important, can it be taught?

I think love is essntial, myself, and agree with Auden on that.

BTW, I've had African students (male) who say that female genital mutilation is acceptable if it's part of a people's culture (I wonder if they would say the same thing of anti-black racism).

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

The question of commenting on another culture is always troublesome....remove the rafters from our own eyes first.
That said, every man and woman have a right to decide his/her own destiny.

So if the decision in made by the person without coercion, then I would say okay--again, with some reservations.

My right to the inviolability of my body is the same for everyone one else.

Peace,
Geoffrey

clarabella said...

Fjsl:
The happiness I'm wanting teachers to be "certified conjurers" of is the simple one of students enjoying learning, in and/or out of class. I'd arrive at it by Dr Johnson's "kick the stone" proof. Them as feels it, i.e. teacher and pupils, knows it. You've gone ahead to things – like the gender issue, which has been grounding a lot of my thinking these last ten years – that I was waiting to raise... I admit I was going to begin with a bunch of questions, some like the ones you've raised. Is happiness the same for men and women? I think so. Though men and women may enjoy different things differently, the states of enjoyment, delight, joy, pleasure, ecstasy, are, I think, much the same. Is love important? Absolutely, but do most of us know what it is? Should education assist us with finding out, knowing, for example, whether it and sex are coterminous? (Happiness is easy! Love is a much more boddersome sinting!) Where genital mutilation is concerned, I'm not especially interested in hearing from men: I'd rather hear from the women. I'll stop there for the minute. Waiting in the wings is the much bigger and much more important matter of education enabling persons to be what they were meant to be, by which I mean something rather different from what is usually understood by "achieving their full potential..."

clarabella said...

Geoff:
I agree, it is difficult to comment on another culture. That said, I am prepared to assert that genocide is a bad thing; apartheid is a bad thing; caste systems are bad things; slavery is a bad thing; racism is a bad thing; genital mutilation is a bad thing... If we wait to remove motes from our own eyes, nobody would do anything, for we are never going to achieve a state of motelessness, any of us, individually or culturally. Martin Luther King Jnr. was a great womanizer; he was also a visionary, and a man of wisdom and enormous personal courage. He took on a huge cultural evil, for racism was and IS part of North American CULTURE, but moteless he was not. What I think we need to do is approach each other respectfully, and humbly, as we try to discover what is the best for ALL of us. So far, we don't have a good history of this. When we tread gently, we all aim to carry a big stick. It hasn't worked, and isn't working, and isn't going to work. The thing is, time is running out.

FSJL said...

I wish that it were as simple as conjuring. Sometimes, I can transmit the enthusiasm I feel to students, sometimes I wonder if I'm talking to stones.

I think that as a species that learns, we can learn how to be happy. I also think that each individual has to find out in his or her own way what that means. We want our students to do well in the world -- and that doesn't always mean to rake in the silver -- but to do well as fully realised humans taking joy in who they are and what they do.

I fear, though, that in the routinised, bureaucratised, controlled world we've got that it becomes harder and harder to extract joy from everyday experience.

Unlike you, I want to hear from men on subjects like FGM. Partly, so I can know how far we have to go, partly because change for women requires that men understand what women know and experience and can talk about it. (After all, if, to use a comparable case, 200 years ago people in our position had said we didn't want to hear from white people on the subject of racial slavery, we would have been telling Wilberforce, Clarkson, Macaulay and Stephens to shut up.)

clarabella said...

Fragano:
Conjuring is simple?! As one who used to try to conjure in the classroom, I'd have to say that's not been my experience. At my best I was a pretty good conjurer, but it took everything I had to give, and then some more. I agree with what you say about all of us learning to be happy, and finding our own way to what that means. But then you say, "We want our students to do well in the world -- and that doesn't always mean to rake in the silver -- but to do well as fully realised humans taking joy in who they are and what they do." I think that is precisely the conjurer's task, to arrange his magic day after day so that it accumulates, and ultimately creates that BIG MAGIC, according to which the persons whom we teach arrive at who they are and what they feel 'called' to do, and perceive the raking in of silver (shrub-and his-cronies's idea of happiness?) for the rather empty thing it is... We'll leave the FGM to one side, for the minute. It's not that I don't want to hear from the men, because they have powerful roles in these societies... But I think it's crucial for the women to speak, to say, not just how they feel about the process, but also what they see as possibilities for change in the societies – indeed, whether they see any, whether they desire any...

FSJL said...

Pam: Pulling rabbits out of hats is the easy part. Getting students to want to learn is another matter. This afternoon, I get to explain to a bunch of juniors and seniors that the grades they're getting are the result of their not taking comparative politics seriously, and that they have to study if they're going to learn. The problem is that most of them don't really care for the world outside the US, and don't think it's relevant to them. I'd say they've got another think coming.

Paradoxically, the same students who don't feel like learning how the British and French systems work get excited when I teach about Plato or Confucius. It's a bit of a mystery.

One of the things I did to make them aware of what the world was like was start my comparative politics class by running down some basic stats for the US and for Swaziland. Just the basic info about Swaziland came as a shock to them (except for one student, but he is from Johannesburg). It's how to get the rest of the information to sink in, and how to get them to think about it that I find an uphill struggle.

One of the things that bothers me (and Geoff may chime in here) is that my African-American students can say that they don't feel American but yet don't really want to know about the world outside the US.

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

Fragano, I understand the dilemma of the African-American students and if I knew the answer, we'd be rich men because I'd share it with you.

Peace,
Geoffrey

Jdid said...

not much to add here but I am enjoying this discourse. the previous post got me thinking to the point where I actually spent the whole commute home this afternoon thinking about how i was taught and why i disliked the arts at high school. may share more later

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano, Geoff, jdid:
Drove to a tiny US town a couple days ago to visit the gorgeous Zoey and her parents. It rained like fury, and 8 hours driving is exhausting at the best of times, even when you aren't the driver, hence my being offline for a bit. Fragano, give me a little credit. Good teaching isn't pulling rabbits out of hats, though in certain circumstances, that is not without its place. I knowe you are obliged to tell them, but do you suppose those juniors and seniors don't know that their grades are the result of their not taking comparative politics seriously? Do you think it's news to them that if they don't study, they won't learn? Isn't the key thing the fact that they don't care for the world outside the US, and they don't think it's relevant to them? We're not only dealing with skills and knowledge in education; we're also dealing with attitudes and values. When your students 'don't care', reagerdless of what they don't care about, it seems to me we are in the arena of attitudes and values. For certain, THEY don't pop out of a hat overnight. They emerge out of many things (mass media weigh in heavily here) including the nature of curricula in civics, history, the arts, comparative religion, etc., in high school, indeed, all the subjects that deal with America's connections with the wider world. They might have been introduced to the legal system in Louisiana, for instance... Or to extra-American recourse of theatre companies closed in the civil war, or to the contribution of one free black navigator to the 'discovery' of the Americas. Part of the problem, as I keep saying, is that the plastic and performing arts are not taught in high schools in America - some say, precisely because there is no way they can be taught without the affirmation of the overwhelming contribution of African Americans. If nothing of yours is celebrated in school, affirmed as part of the body of knowledge, how are you supposed to feel American? I'm not talking about black history month, I'm talking about how sugar is made into cane and who invented the vacuum pan method. As for the appeal of Confucius and Plato, why don't you ask the students? I'd love to know... jdid, anytime you care to share, I'm absolutely all ears. Did you like the sciences? Or was school just overall boring?

Jdid said...

clarabella, well let me try to be succinct. I actually didnt find school boring well aside from the foreign languages which I realized from early I had no aptitude for.

my thing with the arts was I realized from early that there was too much of the subjective, for lack of a better word at the moment ,involved. I'll give you my best example; in second form I got good english language grades because in essays i basically catered to what my teacher wanted to read. she liked sappy stories, i wrote sappy stories. third form that didnt work cause my teacher liked action stories so i kind of switched my style but she never liked me so there were issues there as well.

I then realized at that level alot of the grades depended on personality not only of the teacher but of the student. if they liked you you possibly did well, if they didnt you struggled to get good grades. my english grades dropped by a full 2 grades between 2nd and third form and it wasnt because i was slacking off or the work was that much harder. in third form my teacher didnt like me, and there was no transparency to her marking. we handed in assignments, if they were essays we read them aloud in class possibly, she marked them, we never got back the marked papers to see what grades we got or to see any comments regarding how we could improve.

Things werent as pronounced with something like history or religion as it was with english but on the same level you might get a few extra marks if you were in with those teachers as well. so for me i reasoned stick to sciences, they cant tief ya marks cause f=ma is a given, nacl + h2so4 gave you hcl = nahso4, 2+2 was always 4, nothing subjective involved, these were the indisputable facts so once you got that answer and showed appropriately how you came to the answer your marks were given. no favoritism, no personalities involved.

so when it came to cxc and a levels i went with the sciences. figured it gave me the best chance to excel.

FSJL said...

Pam, I give you a lot of credit. You are, for good or ill, one of the people from whom I learned a lot in my student years. And I owe you a huge debt of gratitude.

Learning to pull rabbits out of a hat isn't easy. Doing it, after long practice, is though. When I was in graduate school I was awed by one of my teachers being able, seemingly, to expatiate on a subject without notes and with real insight. 'I could never do that', I thought to myself. Now I find I can.

That's the easy part. The hard part is penetrating the fake cynicism and the blasé attitude of so many of the young people I teach and have taught.

You're right, they're not taught to develop their imaginative powers (as music and theatre and art would do for them), and that means that they grow up with sensibilities that are blunted. That's not, I think, because to do so would require acknowledging the black contributions (and the Native American, and Latin American, and Asian) to American (and Western) culture. Rather, I think it's because the benevolent and wise people currently ruling us think that creativity is something that should be reserved for the upper classes, and certainly not cultivated among the lower orders.

clarabella said...

jdid:
Pologies for late reply. I'm just back, trying to catch up on posts – trying to catch up, basically, and it's increasingly hard each time. What you describe makes me nervous – this is Barbados, after all, the territory in the English-speaking Caribbean celebrated, not just for its stable currency, but for its sterling education system! In an ideal world, your language teachers would have found a way to make you enjoy French, or Spanish, or whatever they were trying to teach you. The truth is if a person speaks one language, he can learn several others, and indeed does, when the need arises. (We had some really 'dumb' students in my school who became fluent speakers of Spanish? Why? Boyfriends from Venezuela!) But it seems your secondary education was taking place in a world far from ideal. Teachers who gave you good marks because they liked you? Who rewarded stories of the kind they preferred? Who never let you see their graded papers or know the basis upon which they judged an essay good or otherwise? Good grief! Is this a state of affairs that generally obtains, or did you just luck out on the school you went to? At any rate, you made an astute call, choosing the sciences. And, clearly, you folded the arts into your world, never mind the system. As I just said to Fragano, commenting on another post, young people do well, despite us! Thank God! Clarabella.

clarabella said...

Fragano:
I can't think when or how I ever taught you anything! At any rate, I give thanks that you think of it as something to be grateful for. We may mean slightly different things by the rabbits out of hats metaphor, have somewhat different notions of what constitutes that "Wow!" moment. It doesn't really matter. I think we are agreed about what's wrong with 'education', though at a loss as to how to put it right, bar tending gardens. What I want to address in this last post of yours is the importance of black people's contributions, to music and the creative arts, and indeed to the history and building of North America, being acknowledged in schools. I'm not discounting the need to include the contributions of Latin American and Asian and Native Americans – by no means! But as Eric Williams has pointed out, what we refer to as the Western World was, much of it, built on the backs of slaves. It's bruising to have done so much – and many black people do not know about some of their signal contributions, I think it's safe to say – and then to be despised and treated with contempt in the very societies that your ancestors put together with their blood and sweat. And tears – gloss that all of the ways, too. I think black people and the Western World are intertwined in a unique way that waits to be acknowledged. I think black people are despised in a special way, that still needs to be confessed. I think this is important for the whole world of us, but it is especially important for black folks, for young black folks in particular, because these young ones are in danger of not knowing who they are, of thinking that a car and prisoner threads and rap are what makes blackness. (I have a story about this in my last book.) Meanwhile Oscar Peterson and B.B. King and the jazz greats are losing audience among black folks, and nobody knows about Norbert Rillieux or Mary Ellen Pleasant or Lois Mailou Jones. The Asian and Latin American and Native American stories are important, but they are different, and different from what we are dealing with here, which is the education of young BLACK folks. And the approach to young people of those heritages would have to be the same: affirm, first, who they are, and their own unique worth. It's like Jesus says, and the thing everyone misses in what he says: "Love your neighbour as yourself." He knew that you have to love yourself FIRST. We need, as black people, to know all the proud reasons why we should love ourselves.

FSJL said...

Pam: You're right about that. There's a persistent unwillingness to deny the black (both African and internal) contribution to Western civilisation, not merely the creation of the infrastructure that permitted industrial capitalism and its children, but the culture that rose with it.

I happened to mention in class yesterday that Alexandre Dumas the elder was the grandson of a Haitian slave, but my students didn't know that since nobody had bothered to tell them that the author of the Three Musketeers was of African descent. I don't know whether I'll be able to fit in a mention of Pushkin when I finish up with Russia.

(There's also a flip side to this: the assumption that there can't be white or South Asian West Indians or Africans, since the Caribbean and Africa are seen as stereotypically black.)

On the other hand, 'black culture' has increasingly become defined as hip-hop consumerism, and, as you say, fewer black people pay attention to jazz, blues, or the visual art work created by black people on either side of the Atlantic.

clarabella said...

Fragano:
I know the flip side. When I tell folks here that I am Jamaican, they insist that I can't be. I am one of two light-coloured siblings in my parents' lot of five. And it doesn't help to have "taken house colour" in the cold North! Is there a handy text you know of that discusses the contributions of black folks to Western Culture?

Jdid said...

clarabella I wouldnt say that was the general state of affairs and in fact the school I went to was an excellent institution. Some actually most of the teachers were excellentat imparting us with knowledge certainly alot better than some of the ones I had at University. At high school I had one great foreign language teacher early on who was able to make learning fun but after that I got saddled with ones that just never honestly tried with us. Some children are better with languages than others but the ones that needed more help didnt get it in my opinion. I still managed to get a 2 in CXC general french so i must have learned something.

Same with the English teachers, For the most part I had good ones except one year which really upset my applecart. Like I said wont pretend my education was perfect, there were biases, i've had friends victimized but it was what it was. I ended up not the worse for it I believe due to my parents vigilance.

looking back at my experiences now though I realize the true importance of good teachers and parents who were vigilant in making sure their children stay the course with school.

clarabella said...

Hi jdid:
Just getting back to this. I guess this second set of comments rounds out the first, and makes it clear that things weren't all that bad at your school. Still, if the weaker students in language didn't get the help they needed and some of your friends were victimized, things clearly could have been better. Was your school single sex, or co-educational? I'm working up to tackling the issue of gender in education, so I thought I'd ask. As ever, thanks for the continued interest.