Tuesday, March 29, 2005

McChoakumchild redux

Pyrrhus, sir? Pyrrhus, a pier.

I work at a quasi-rural high school as a non-salaried aide in Special Education. Viewed one way, my job is to defend cognitively and emotionally disabled students, who are—surprise—mostly poor, from mainstream teachers who don’t care, and whose main didactic function is to punish kids who are insufficiently middle-class in their manners, tastes, projects, etc. Today I am reeling from one teacher’s display of exceptional indifference and cruelty, so Alphonse van Worden’s response to my Mumford post has struck a nerve.

It should be clear from what follows that I haven’t begun to frame coherent thoughts on questions concerning education. (And certainly my work doesn’t require that I know what form of life I’m helping to shape; as Charlotte Street has recently suggested, ideology works best when it teaches underidentification with corporate aims. For a related argument that concerns the ideological function of irony in Jacksonian America and Concord transcendentalism, read this.) Anyone who isn’t up for some incoherent, unexamined raving is encouraged to return to Fort Kant another day.

In the passage from The Pentagon of Power that AvW shares, Mumford is discussing theories of the mind and its education, and how they feed into the mode of production that students are being prepared for. He quotes John Amos Comenius, a philosopher/pedagogue who framed views on education that linked a modern, mechanical picture of the mind to the factory system of production.

What, we may ask, is the present philosophical model for American public education?

I’m not asking about what the education professors say, or the writers of inspiring quotes for teachers—and it is clear that nothing we read in our afternoon workshops makes it into the classroom. Pedagogical theory is something to plagiarize a paper about between drinking binges at the state teachers’ college; it is material for a photocopied handout to be distributed by the principal for discussion at the staff meeting, which handout is promptly ridiculed and thrown out.

Professional development, further education, etc.—this is a formality to meet the demands of the state, and not intrinsically related to the practice of teaching. Teachers go after their graduate degrees to get bumped up into the next union-sanctioned pay class, and so they can insist on their “professionalism” with a greater feeling of satisfaction. Whether they are crushing young minds, closing off whole neural landscapes, etc., or the reverse—this doesn’t concern them.

Here’s what to do: hang on until you’re eligible for retirement, muddle through your canned units, pass out the worksheets (I ought to assemble an archive of mid-80s typefaces, transformed through years of Xeroxing!), show a few videos, insist that learning is the student’s responsibility, think up grades to match your professionally-derived gestalt of each student, complain about the kids in the teachers’ room to cover over your own lack of care, and speed off in your Cherokee, Explorer, or Yukon before the buses clog the roads.

So if official theory is irrelevant, incapable of changing entrenched habit, we ought to ask then, what philosophical model do our schools embody? What pentagons of power do we reinscribe daily, whether we intend to or not? What forms of life are we reproducing?

Maybe Rortian liberal irony is the philosophical mode best suited to public education. Something suitably fragmented and nihilistic. It doesn’t matter what you believe, or whether you believe, so long as you do your job; your mind is your own, so long as your body is here. Dream a private dream, but do what your peers’ “we-intentions” prescribe. Kids who demonstrate inadequate grasp of middle-class cultural norms will be punished; middle-class kids will get a pass because they show a spark of managerial talent, grasp the basics of workplace humor, and adhere to basic consumer norms.

Maybe the thing to say is this: while some students are trained to be managers, most aren’t trained to be producers at all, but consumers, and in particular, debtors—this is the big growth market. (The savvier members of ownership class are no longer interested in collecting the surplus product you produce. Or rather, they aren’t interested in collecting immediately the surplus product you produce at your work site. If you are in debt, you work for your creditor no matter where you work. The creditor-debtor relation isn’t mediated by production the same way the industrialist-worker relation is. Consider this one more way a corporation can externalize its costs; it no longer has to provide work for you in order to benefit from your productive activity.)

The poor kids get it—the official world isn’t for them, so why fake it? The stuff they do at home—hunting, fixing snowmobiles, patching rust spots on old Buicks, shingling roofs—has more to do with what their life will be like after high school than any cut-and-paste assignment they might be required to complete. And it should be obvious that what they do at home is way better geared to the development of cognitive skills—seeing commonalities, drawing inferences, framing, testing, and revising hypotheses, etc.

What’s important about “experiential” learning is not “having experiences.” It’s this: only when your will is engaged in a problem can you think scientifically about it—and I’m speaking of natural, unofficial science, performative science, the only real kind, the kind necessary for the uncoerced, spontaneous, consciously-guided production that represents what’s neat and special about humans qua humans. (I think that basic necessary structures of desire and productive capacity follow transcendentally from the idea of knowledge—only an agent who cares about her world and is able to act in it can be said to know anything about it—but that’s a subject for another time, when we’re in the mood for demonstrating the unity of practical and theoretical philosophy.)

Back to the rural poor kids. They’re way better off than their suburban and urban counterparts; the stuff they do on the weekends instead of homework—the stuff that actually gets their minds going—is at least suited to recognized, legal economies with a sort of future. But middle-class anxieties about performing well before authority don’t get a grip on their will; abstract, contentless success doesn’t motivate them. Why should it? The narrative in which such success figures—one leading to college, and then to a salaried job with health insurance, etc.—is clearly the story of someone else’s life. It is bizarre that public institutions should punish such students for not fitting into this narrative.


Blogger Tom Matrullo said...

This is one of the best things I've ever read.

3/30/2005 7:46 AM  
Blogger Alphonse van Worden said...

Me too.

Punished... then medicated (forced-consumption-debt racket)... then incarcerated or militarized.

3/30/2005 9:06 AM  
Anonymous The Happy Tutor said...

Excellent piece, but sad too. The model of education is increasingly that of corporate training and human resource development.

3/31/2005 5:33 PM  

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