Tuesday, February 16, 2021

"Actual Life"

Alfred North Whitehead spent the 1890's writing his Treatise on Universal Algebra, and the next decade collaborating with this former student Bertrand Russell writing Principia Mathematica, generally considered to be one of the most important works on mathematics, or any topic for that matter, of the 20th century. I share this only to point out that this guy was no slouch. A supremely well-educated man, who taught at places like Harvard, and who aged into the sort of old, white man upon whom the entire idea of Western Society has been built. Putting mathematics largely behind him, in his later years he turned increasingly to philosophy. In 1929, in an essay entitled, The Aims of Education, this dusty academic, from deep within the established order, wrote:

There is only one subject-matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations. Instead of this single unity, we offer children -- Algebra, from which nothing follows; Geometry, from which nothing follows; Science, from which nothing follows; History, from which nothing follows; a Couple of Languages, never mastered; and lastly, most dreary of all, Literature, represented by plays of Shakespeare, with philological notes and short analyses of plot and character to be in substance committed to memory. Can such a list be said to represent Life, as it is known in the midst of the living of it? The best that can be said of it is, that it is a rapid table of contents which a deity might run over in his mind while he was thinking of creating a world, and has not yet determined how to put it together. 

This could be written today by any one of us who have spent their careers as teachers in schools and found them lacking. We are still making the same arguments that Whitehead did nearly 100 years ago. In this short essay Whitehead condemned standardization and testing:

Every school is bound on pain of extinction to train its boys for a small set of definite examinations. No headmaster has a free hand to develop his general education or his specialist studies in accordance with the opportunities of his school, which are created by its staff, its environment, its class of boys, and its endowments. I suggest that no system of external tests which aims primarily at examining individual scholars can result in anything but educational waste . . . It kills the best part of culture.

But mostly, this essay is a dignified rant against what he called "inert ideas," by which he means the disconnected trivia children are so often expected to learn by rote, the material that generation after generation of students have labelled "irrelevant" and generation after generation of educators have vainly struggled to make relevant. His alternative:

Let the main ideas which are introduced into a child's education be few and important, and let them to thrown into every combination possible. The child should make them his own, and should understand their applicant here and now in the circumstances of his actual life . . . (T)he understanding which we want is an understanding of an insistent present. The only use of a knowledge of the past is to equip us for the present. No more ready harm can be done to young minds than by depreciation of the present. The present contains all that there is. It is holy ground; for it is the past, and it is the future.

He calls for educators and students to work together toward what should be the true aim of education, which is not to simply impart knowledge, but rather "the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge," and the only way to do that is to allow children to practice using it.

Whatever interest attaches to your subject-matter must be evoked here and now; whatever powers you are strengthening in the pupil, must be exercised here and now; whatever possibilities of mental life your teaching should impart, must be exhibited here and now. That is the golden rule of education . . . The solution which I am urging, is to eradicate the fatal disconnection of subjects which kills the vitality of our modern curriculum.

If you would like to read the essay for yourself, you can find it here, but my main point is that our "radical" ideas of what true education could and should be have been with us for a long time. The errors of our schools are so entrenched that they have withstood critiques from both within and without for as long as we've had schools. We have no excuse, really, for what we do to children in the name of education. I'm beginning to believe that our schools (and by that I mean the habit of schools, not individual teachers) exist to merely perpetuate themselves as the machinery by which we oppress and control our weakest citizens. The mistake those of us who seek transformation make is in assuming that if we simply construct our case with reason and science, society, out of love for our children if nothing else, will rush to reform our schools along the lines of reason and science. Sadly, however, although we might occasionally affect change around the edges, the modern schools of today are essentially no different that the modern schools of a century ago, which are little changed from the schools of a century before that. We are still engaged in the mind-numbing project of marching our children through inert ideas, detaching them entirely from relevancy, and making learning into labor. 

Whitehead ends his essay with a kind of suggestion for how we can change our schools, one that I find to be a non-starter, but his analysis of the problem seems so contemporary that it is both inspiring and depressing. When will we finally see that what we are doing to children, to all of us, in the name of education is "one of the most fatal, erroneous, and dangerous conceptions ever introduced into the theory of education?" We are not sharpening minds, we are dulling them, turning the genius of the next generation into grist for the mill. I'm beginning to see that reforming our schools might well be an impossibility. Perhaps the best thing we can do is to simply shutter them all and start over, but until the revolution comes, we're each left as parents and educators to find any way possible, both large and small, to trust each child with the freedom to live their "actual life" and dream that they will be the ones who finally free the rest.


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