the learning revolution (loooong, rant-ish)

Eric Crump (wleric@SHOWME.MISSOURI.EDU)
Fri, 6 Sep 1996 13:36:36 -0500

On Fri, 6 Sep 1996, Greg Sturgeon wrote:
> What about institutional constraints?

They are the root of the problem, if not the cause!

The battle against grades is never about grades alone (sorry about that
'about', steve! :) but grades as emblematic of a parental rather than
collegial school system. A cornerstone emblem, I would add. Poke at
grading and the whole structure starts to wobble & teeter.

Before you popped in, Greg (glad ya did, btw, welcome!), Darlene & the
Steves (F & K) have proposed similar stances to yours (but we're glad to
hear your voice in the mix; it's not a duplication but an additive to the
conversation). Darlene, especially, makes explicit connections between
teaching and parenting.

that's ok with me, but only because my approach to parenting is informed
by my approach to teaching, and neither are particularly oriented toward
authoritarian control. And that's not to say I let my kids run wild. Nor
that I propose leaving college students to their own devices. The tendency
of some to *portray* collegiality as the removal of all constraints is
entirely misleading. We're taught to believe that our guiding hands are
necessary to the proper formation of children and young adults. Taught by
a the institution that provides the framework for that shaping. Hmmm...

Re: traditional parental role as a model for teaching role, lemme share a
little Ivan Illich with ya. He asserts that "childhood" is a fairly
recently social construct that happens to be necessary to enable the
control and shaping of young humans in an industrial society (Desmond
Morris has interesting things to say, too, about the emergence of
'childhood' as an extended stage in human development. See _The Human
Zoo_). Illich:

"Institutional wisdom tells us that children need school.
Institutional wisdom tells us that children learn in school.
But this institutional wisdom is itself the product of schools
because sound common sense tells us that only children can be
tauught in school. Only by segregating human beings in the
category of childhood could we ever get them to submit to
the authority of a schoolteacher." (_Deschooling Society_ 28)

Now, it may sound like Illich is saying that *school* creates childhood
for its own evil purposes. The situation, as usual, is more complex than
that. It's good to keep in mind the political and economic contexts in
which the school system as we find it today developed: the mass-production
industrial society. Our school system comes from that era and its shape
fits it glovelike.

But I wouldn't dismiss Illich's claim as post hoc fallacy too quickly,
either. You might detect a hint of anthropomorphism. I do. I'd like to
take that hint and make a billboard out of it. We're not used to thinking
of it in these terms, but an institution like education is an organic

I don't mean that metaphorically.

It has living cells (individual humans), it eats (admissions), shits
(graduation), sleeps (lights out at 5 p.m. every day), thinks (after a
fashion: communication between administrative and committee units are its
synapses firing) and it has self-protective responses hard-wired into it.

Bureaucratic systems *do not want to die*.

The quick defense of grades & other such stuff *are part of its
self-defense mechanisms!* Creating the category of 'childhood' may not
have happened solely to serve schools (more likely the two co-evolved),
but the *maintenance* of 'childhood' is part of 'school's' defense against
change. Childhood, as an educational stage, now continues until college
graduation (non-traditional return students complicate that scenario, of
course). As long as the assumption that school is necessary to educate
children remains doxic, reshaping schools to meet the needs of a changing
society remains a practice too much like swimming in molasses, upstream,
wearing concrete shoes.

This may seem to be getting off the point, but...

> but what kind of service are we doing to our students if we let them drink
> what and when they like, and neglect the fact that they drink the wrong
> stuff, or not enough of the right stuff?

School is the site where we teach students not math and english and
history (content is really almost incidental), but hierarchy and authority and
compartmental social structure. The whole notion that we know better than
students what they need is predicated on hierarchies of authority and
knowledge. We know more so we must know better?

What I keep asserting (and will keep asserting, sorry) is that it's the
hierarchical, authoritarian structure *itself* that creates conditions
in which students can't be trusted with their own learning. That's why
folks like Jeff Galin are so insistent about warning against the open
system teaching I blather on about. In the current institutional
environment, failure (of a kind) is ensured-- *by* the current
institutional environment, *not* by some innate human quality.

Desmond Morris (and, I think, Alfie Kohn) make the point that people do not
want to be bored. Humans, in fact, *abhor* boredom. They will not be
intellectual sloths if given the freedom to choose their own course.
Humans are animals that are practically defined by their intelligence and
curiosity. School is designed specifically to manage those characteristics,
to keep them under *institutional* control, which is a necessary dampening
operation if you need to shape people into industrial and corporate
lackeys. Free & inquisitive people, as Illich notes, will not tolerate the
regimentations of school. We have to support mechanisms for enforcing

School. Grades. Teachers.

Remove those mechanisms and we're assured that bad things will result. No
learning will take place. Anarchy will ensue. Ever wonder if those mantras
were really true or whether they are the mechanisms for keeping *us* in

Jeff wisely (though I disagree with his stance, I don't disagree with his
reasons) says we should exercise caution before unshackling those volatile
human spirits, students.

My answer is that the shackles are locked down pretty tight
& radical action is required to even knock them loose a bit. Chaos is not
the immediate result of radical grading policies or open classes. I wish
it was! Chaos is the necessary condition of really productive and creative
change, of new orders! (see Katherine Hayles intro to _Chaos and Order:
Complex Dynamics in Literature and Science_. She summarizes Prigogine's
theories: "disorder in this view does not interfere with self-organizing
processes. Instead disorder stimulates self-organization and, ina certain
sense, enables it to take place" (13).) But the social shackles are
strong. Classes that openly challenge and complicate the grading process
(as suggested by Bob earlier today) are, I'm afraid, rather weak blows
against this seemingly immovable cultural structure.

> When I let my students have
> more choice as to what and when to write, I got several who took it as
> license to sit around and do nothing. They didn't drink because drinking
> would have been too much effort, or would have meant that they couldn't
> study for that chemistry exam, or whatever.

Yeah. I've seen the same thing. I've also seen students catch FIRE when the
constraints of teacher-generated assignments and criteria were removed. The
students who divert their energies from the (apparently) easy open writing
class to student for the (oppressive) chemistry class are demonstrating the
power of the system, the power of its reward&punish tools for enforcing
behavior. That's why Jeff's right when he points out that refiguring
authority in one class is problematic if it happens in an environment
otherwise pervaded by centralized authority.

Problematic, but not wrong.

But how do we proceed? How do we operate against such a pervasive and
powerful structure? Well, John Holt has a simple answer. Engage students
*where they are at* and let them seize control of their own learning.

"The reason this poor child has learned hardly anything in six years of
school is that no one ever began where she *was*; just as the reason she
able to make such extraordinary [progress] in efficiency and understanding
during this session is that beginning where she was, she was learning
genuinely and on her own" (_How Children Fail_ 123).

If they make to the epiphany that their own interests and learning are much
much much more exciting and rewarding than complying with rigid, cranky old
authorities, *they* will make things happen. They will not sit on their
butts. They will pursue knowledge with the energy and insatiability of
toddlers (probably the best learners in the world). We best serve as
catalysts, instigators, resources.

Teachers, as agents of the institution, seem rarely to have the luxury of
meeting students where they are, of finding out what they want, what they
like, what they expect, what really sparks their interest and commands
their attention. We go in with institutionally approved syllabi and attempt
to coerce a fairly random group of people to comply with it, as if it
should be obvious that they'll benefit from going along with our plan. It's
no wonder we waste so much energy cajoling students to act and get from
that the mistaken impression that without our cajolery (and grades)
students wouldn't do anything.

Without our cajolery, they will do *everything*.

Thanks, Greg, for giving me a(nother) chance to ramble on and on.

--Eric Crump