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The Present Moment in Education

1. Incidental Education and Pedagogy

To be educated well or badly, to learn by a long process how to cope with the physical environment and the culture of one’s society, is part of the human condition. In every society the education of the children is of the first importance. But in all societies, both primitive and highly civilized, until quite recently most education of most children has occurred incidentally. Adults do their work and other social tasks; children are not excluded, are paid attention to, and learn to be included. The children are not “taught.” In many adult institutions, incidental education is taken for granted as part of the function: families and age-statuses, community labor, master-apprentice arrangements, games and plays, prostitution and other sexual initiation, religious rites and churches. In Greek paideia, the entire network of institutions, the polis, was thought of as importantly an educator.

Generally speaking, this incidental process suits the nature of learning better than direct teaching. The young see real causes and effects, rather than pedagogic exercises. Reality is often complex, but the young can take it by their own handle, at their own times, according to their own interest and initiative. Most important, they can imitate, identify, be approved or disapproved, cooperate and compete, without the anxiety of being the center of attention; there is socialization with less resentment, fear, or submission. The archetype of successful education is infants learning to speak, a formidable intellectual achievement that is universally accomplished. We do not know how it is done, but the main conditions seem to be what we have been describing: adult activity is going on, involving speaking; the infants are only incidental yet they participate, are attended to and spoken to; they play freely with their speech sounds; it is advantageous to them to make themselves understood. Finally, according to Jespersen, children pick up their accent and style from the gang of other children; it is their uniform, the way they appoint themselves.

Along with incidental education, however, most societies also have institutions specifically devoted to teaching the young. Such are identity rites, catechism, nurses and pedagogues, youth houses, formal schooling. I think there is a peculiar aspect to what is learned by such means rather than picked up incidentally. But let me emphasize strongly and repeatedly that it is only in the last century in industrialized countries that the majority of children have gotten much direct teaching at all, and it is only in the past few decades that formal schooling has been extended into adolescence and further. E.g., in the United States in 1900 only 6 percent went through high school and 1/4 percent through college. Yet now formal schooling has taken over, well or badly, very much of the more natural incidental education of most other institutions.

This may or may not be necessary, but it has consequences: these institutions, and the adults in them, have correspondingly lost touch with the young, and the young do not know the adults in their chief activities. Like the jails and insane asylums, schools isolate society from its problems, whether preventing crime, curing mental disease, or bringing up the young. And to a remarkable degree vital functions of growing up have become hermetically re-defined in school terms: community service means doing homework, apprenticeship is passing tests for jobs in the distant future, sexual initiation is high school dating, and rites of passage are getting diplomas. Crime is breaking school windows, and rebellion is sitting-in on the Dean. In the absence of adult culture, there develops a youth sub-culture.

Usually there has been a rough distinction in content, in what is learned, between incidental education and direct pedagogy. Ordinary social activities that do not exclude children tend to be matter-of-fact, and children taking part without anxiety can be objective, if not critical. But pedagogy, whether directed by elders, priests, or academics, deals with what is not evident in ordinary affairs; it aims to teach what is more abstract, intangible, or mysterious, and the learner, as the center of attention, is under personal pressure. All social activity socializes its participants, but pedagogy socializes deliberately, according to principles, instilling the morals and habits which are the social bonds.

There are, of course, two opposite interpretations of why pedagogy wants to indoctrinate, and in my opinion both are correct. On the one hand, the elders, priests, and schoolteachers are instilling an ideology to support their system of exploitation, including the domination of the old over the young, and they have to make a special effort to confuse and mystify because the system does not recommend itself to common sense. At present, when formal education swallows up so much time of life and pretends to be practical preparation for every activity, ideological processing is especially deadly. Those who succumb to it have no wits of their own left and are robots.

On the other hand, there perhaps are vague but important wisdom and abstractions that must be passed on, which do not appear on the surface in ordinary occasions and which require personal attention, special pointing, repetition, and cloistered reflection. Thus, champions of liberal arts colleges say that, one way or other, the young will pick up contemporary know-how and mores, but the greatness of Mankind—Hippocrates and Beethoven, Enlightenment, Civil Liberties, the Sense of the Tragic—will lapse without a trace unless the scholars work at it. I sympathize with the problem as they state it and I will return to it; but in fact I have not heard of any method whatever, scholastic or otherwise, to teach the humanities without killing them. Myself, I remember how at age twelve, browsing in the library, I read Macbeth with excitement, but in class I could not understand a word of Julius Caesar and hated it; and I think this was the usual experience of people who read and write well. The survival of the humanities has seemed to depend on random miracles, which are becoming less frequent.

Finally, unlike incidental learning, which is natural and inevitable, formal schooling is a deliberate intervention and must justify itself. We must ask not only is it well done, but is it worth doing and can it be well done? Is teaching possible at all? There is a line of critics from Lao-tse and Socrates to Carl Rogers who assert that there is no such thing as teaching, of either science or virtue; and there is strong empirical evidence that schooling has little effect on either vocational ability or citizenship—e.g., Donald Hoyt, for American College Testing, 1965, found that college grades have no correlation with life achievement in any profession. At the other extreme, Dr. Skinner and the operant-conditioners claim that they can “instruct” for every kind of performance, they can control and shape human behavior, as they can do with animals sealed off from the ordinary environment; but they are careful to say they do not “educate” in the sense of developing persons (whatever that might mean). It is disputable whether human children are good subjects for this kind of instruction in any society we like to envisage.

In the middle, the main line of educators, from Confucius and Aristotle to John Dewey, held that, starting from the natural motives of the young, one can teach them good habits of morals, arts, and sciences by practice; the learners take on a “second nature” which they can then use by themselves, they are not simply programmed. And on various theories, Froebel, Herbart, Steiner, or Piaget have held that such teaching is possible if it addresses the child’s powers in the right order at the right moments. But sociologists like Comte or Marx seem to say that the background social institutions and their vicissitudes overwhelmingly determine what is learned, so it is not worthwhile to think about pedagogy, at least as yet. I will not pursue this discussion here—my bias is that “teaching” is largely a delusion—but we must bear in mind that such fundamental disagreements exist.

2. The Scholastic

Turn now to actual formal schooling in the United States, the country most technologically advanced (but the story is not very different in other developed and developing countries, including China and Cuba). The school system, expanding and increasingly tightly integrated, has taken over a vast part of the educational functions of society, designing school-preparatory toys from age two and training for every occupation as well as citizenship, sexuality, and the humanities. Yet with trivial exceptions, what we mean by School—namely, curriculum generalized from the activities of life, and divided into departments, texts, lessons, scheduled periods marked by bells, specialist teachers, examinations, and graded promotion to the next step—is a sociological invention of some Irish monks in the seventh century to bring a bit of Rome to wild shepherds. It is an amazing success-story, probably more important than the Industrial Revolution.

At first, no doubt it was a good thing for wild shepherds to have to sit still for a couple of hours and pay strict attention to penmanship and spelling. And mostly it was only aspiring clerics who were schooled. By an historical accident, the same academic method later became the way of teaching the bookish part of a couple of learned professions. There is no essential reason why law and medicine are not better learned by apprenticeship, but the bookish was clerical and therefore scholastic, and (perhaps) any special education containing abstract principles was part of the system of mysteries, therefore clerical, and therefore scholastic.

This monkish rule of scheduled hours, texts, and lessons is also not an implausible method for giving a quick background briefing to large numbers, who then embark on their real business. Thus Jefferson insisted on universal compulsory schooling, for short terms in predominately rural communities, so children could read the newspapers and be catechized in libertarian political history, in order to be citizens in a democracy. Later, in compulsory urban schools, the children of polyglot immigrants were socialized and taught standard English, a peculiar dialect, so they could then try to make good in an economy which indeed proved to be fairly open to them in the long run. The curriculum was the penmanship, spelling, and arithmetic needed for the business world. Naturally, forced socialization involved drastic cultural disruption and family fragmentation, but perhaps it was a good solution—we have yet to see how it works out.

The context of schooling at present, however, is entirely different. The monkish invention is now used as universal social engineering. Society is conceived as a controlled system of personnel and transactions—with various national goals, depending on the nation—and the schools are the teaching machine for all personnel. There is no other way of entry for the young. And teaching tries to give psychological preparation in depth. Schooling for one’s role, in graded steps, takes up to twenty years and more and is the chief activity of growing up; any other interest may be interrupted. The real motivation for a five-year-old’s behavior, thus, is geared fifteen years in the future.

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