Sunday, October 4, 2015

Enslavement and Freedom — a Worker's Personal Perspective

Enslavement and Freedom—a Worker's Personal Perspective

Formal education, much like the broader and surely even more important informal education on which it stands, is a means by which humans transmit their cultures across the generations. Just as sexual reproduction transmits genetic information, gathered over eons of biological evolution, so also do teaching and learning transmit the cultural information that has been gathered over the ages.  

This is by no means a passive process.  Teachers and learners continually shift roles.  We learn from one another, albeit different things. Indeed, we often find that adults learn almost as much from children as children do from adults.  And what is learned is a river in flow. Each generation bends it this way and that, adding tributaries and branches, while floating upon its waters the little boats of their own devising, which the generation after marvels at or discards.

Teaching and learning are, for humans as for many other animals, instinctive activities.  Parents do not need formal training to teach their young, nor do children need to be taught how to learn.

That said, one cannot teach what one does not know. And one has to be willing and able to spend the time needed to teach something. Nor can we truly learn something well, unless we are also willing and able to spend the time needed to learn it.

One might be forced to learn, and one might also be forced to teach.  S
adly, this is what prevails in much of compulsory education and even elsewhere, where learning, or at least its semblance or certification, is sought only for very limited ends.  
Although teaching and learning of a sort can appear to proceed under such circumstances, they then become part of the process of human enslavement, rather than of liberation. And just as slave labor cannot usually match the labor that is free, so also is learning through compulsion a poor substitute indeed for learning from volition. 

Between a teacher and a learner, there is an interaction that has in it an all-important component that (for lack of a better term that is not species-centric) we might call "human".  It is good if this human interaction is based on mutual respect.  Again, it is possible for students and teachers to learn and to teach while disliking one another, even intensely. But this is a sorry state of affairs, that is difficult to sustain.

Just as sexual relations between those who lack respect and affection for each other cannot endure for long without much psychological detriment, so also will students who disrespect their teacher fail to get the best of what that teacher could offer them, and so also will a teacher who disrespects his/her students fail to get the best from them.

Human cultures have devised means to propagate themselves, just as biological entities have. This holds for our crafts, languages, religions, social mores, arts, music and more.
In particular, our formal cultures, such as the formalized counterparts of all of the things previously mentioned, as well as the academic disciplines, especially those of mathematics and the sciences, have developed formal means of education for initiates.  These serve to propagate and further develop the formal structures.  The means by which our human disciplines do this might be called, collectively, "formal education".

Although there may be some common features that these specific systems of formal education share with one another and with informal education, one should beware of making generalizations here, especially prescriptive ones.
Given our ignorance of  the nature and workings of sentience, to try to capture the richness of its manifestations and the diversity and specificity of their means of transmission in a set of generalized, prescriptive rules for formal education is a futile endeavor.  To try to enforce such rules is to kill the life that is being transmitted.

This is is as much a sin as it is to prescribe and enforce rigid rules for sexual procreation, including "how to's" for sex that we must follow.  It takes all the fun, all the joy, out of a natural, largely instinctive activity, debasing it and changing it into a thing of dullness and dread.

One should also always remember that formal education, however lauded, is but the thin, sweet icing on the cake of learning. That cake is largely baked, not in our schools or other places of formal education, but rather in our homes and communities.  It is this informal education that is the basis of all else that comes after it.

This includes the miraculous acquisition of the first language, which is probably the greatest intellectual achievement of a human's lifetime, and yet is something that is shared almost equally among all members of our species.

This first language, with all the abstractions that it embodies, contains, within itself, most, if not all, of the concepts and tools needed to master the most formal abstract constructions of our species.

Unlike logic, which is probably inborn ("hard-wired" in computer-analogy), language has to be acquired, although the templates for it are surely also inborn.  It does not have to be a spoken tongue, as the languages used by the deaf demonstrate.  But it does have to have a structure that parallels those of other human languages, which, despite their surface differences, share much in common.

But informal education also includes the basic tactile and other physical skills that most children have acquired by the time they come to first grade.  And it also includes the ethical framework of the child's family and community.  Again, although the templates for morality are probably just as inborn as those for language, the specifics of the moral scheme and outlook depend, in large part, on the child's own background exposure.

All of this assumes that the child who comes to school has had a stable, functioning family and a wider local community to sustain and nurture him/her physically, emotionally and mentally.  But this assumption may be false. This is especially true in our times.

It is still, however, a great mistake to think that formal education in the schools can substitute for the far more essential informal education traditionally provided by the family and community.
In particular, removing a child from that familiar environment, severing the ties that have developed or were developing, and substituting for this whatever may be supplied by a (boarding) school and its attendant (often alien) culture does at least two harmful things:  it creates an emotional trauma, and it constitutes a violent break in the continuity of the child's ancestral human culture.

If this cleavage affects not only a few children but most children in the community, and if it lasts--if the wound is deep and broad enough and does not heal
--it can succeed in killing that culture.

The death of a human culture is almost as much of a loss as that of the human tribe itself that had developed and was sustained by that culture. Indeed, without the culture, there is no tribe.
A cultural annihilation is as real and as tragic as a biological one.  This is true for all social species, including our own.

With all of that said, it would be a mistake to blame the schools alone for the cultural extinctions that are proceeding, much like the biological ones, all around us. The forces of commerce, of empires, of nationalisms and more are the main drivers of the extinctions. Schools may abet this in places. But they can also serve to slow this or at least to ameliorate the effects of these onslaughts.

I got the clip at the link below from my niece, Malini, who has also taught, like me, in the schools--but in India rather than here in the U.S.A..  I encourage you to view it, while keeping in mind that the makers of the piece are projecting a particular point of view—an important one, too often overlooked, but one that cannot, like any point of view, encompass the whole reality.

Schooling the World -- Part 1/7 

In the clip, the principal of the Moravian missionary school in Ladakh (Indian Tibet) tries to explain his own perspective, which is by no means a simplistic one.

But as he is speaking, the clip shows Ladakhi children reciting Christian prayers and doing drills (in what appears to be a morning assembly at the school) as if to belie what the principal is saying.

I myself attended Jesuit missionary schools in India.  I do not think I was unduly harmed or brainwashed by that experience--leave alone converted to Christianity.

However, I had other formative experiences  in my childhood, living with my extended family in a city in India, and being in contact also with village folk and so with traditions and cultures other than that to which I was mainly exposed in the schools.

If I had been deprived of those other experiences, that would have been a great loss for me personally. If the same had occurred to the majority of the local populace, there would have been a break in the continuity of those traditions and in those cultures--and what then emerged might not have been better.  This would be true--perhaps even more so--if the schools had been purely secular ones.

Of course, the schools are just one part of the "remaking" process by which state or corporate powers refashion human beings to serve their interests.  "Successful" empires have been in this business for a long time.
This is a complex issue. As in all things human and cultural-political-economic, the simpleminded answers to questions that arise are often insufficient.

I have been teaching students in the U.S.A for four decades--first, from 1975 to 1983, at the universities and then, from 1987 to now (2015) at the public high schools here in New York City.  That's most of four decades, spent teaching for a living.

Particularly while teaching in the schools, the job has consumed my life, including evenings, weekends and holidays. I have put most of my life energy into it. I have had little time (except for the six years when I was on unpaid leave, being mainly with my ailing parents in California) for anything else, including vital personal things.

However, looking back over the decades, while I do not regret the hard, honest work I put in for my students in the schools, I do believe that I was doing it in the wrong place, under the wrong circumstances.

I also learned from my students over the decades, perhaps more than a typical student might have learned from me, in the daily forty or so minutes, usually for just a term or a year, that he or she spent in my classes (with more daily time, usually at home after school hours, studying and doing the homework I assigned). 

But in somewhat better circumstances, my students and I could have learned from, and been of help to one another, far more than was possible in the factory-schools in the past century--and even more so in the current one.

The schools of men, like their temples, can be doors to liberation or to greater servitude. Just as religion can be used as an arm of the power structure that reinforces its might, so also can the schools be used.

The feeding chains that operated in our feudal villages have been superseded or complemented by even more hierarchical and enslaving power structures in our factories, mines, offices and other workplaces, and also in our schools, churches and of course police and military forces.

Schools can help students learn the skills they need to survive in a world where formal education has become a necessity.  Schools can also help to widen and deepen students' perspectives, reinforcing and broadening the respect, tolerance and understanding they should have learned at home and from their communities.

Beyond the literacy and numeracy that have become essential, and not discounting the technical skills (in both traditional crafts and new technologies) that schools might also provide, schools can serve as windows to the broad, yet detailed, views of history, politics, economics, the sciences and more that generations past have labored to discover and elaborate.

Many of the public and the private schools in this country and elsewhere have, to their credit, been all of this and more.  Whether or not this was by design or the through the efforts of dedicated teachers and students, these achievements should be recognized and celebrated.
The public schools, in particular, have opened the doors to some of the best offerings of our human cultures to (almost) all, including those who, from lack of means or from longstanding discrimination, had previously been denied this access.  This fact is often obscured or forgotten.  

Over the course of the last century, public schools have been pathways to higher education and to the professions for hundreds of millions in this country and elsewhere. This is an achievement that is perhaps without parallel in human history.

But schools have also served the purposes of empire, of state power and of corporate power. They are used to indoctrinate our young in the ideologies that the ones who fund the schools think fit -- be these theologies, including rabid, intolerant ones, or secular creeds, including those of narrow nationalisms or all-devouring capitalism.

Yet, in our present circumstances, in too many places where the powerful forces of commercialization, industrialization, urbanization, deculturization, homogenization, alienation and atomization have done their jobs, the schools (along with, to some extent the churches or their equivalents) are all that are left of the larger human community. They are all that remain to substitute for the villages in which we used to live.

This is particularly true for migrants--be these to faraway cities in "one's own country" or across national borders, often even to places across the planet, where one might feel as if one has severed all of one's human connections and cultural roots forever.

But those like me who view the schools in this light must do so without voicing this view, and also, to a large degree, without being able to act in accordance with that view.

Like soldiers in the armies, like workers in the factories, like priests in the church hierarchies, they must do as they are told, at least on the surface, or else be punished. Each of us has to earn a living to survive. So we are economic slaves.

I should say that I have never succumbed to this in toto, and indeed perhaps not at all. This was because, by force of will and labor, I was able to make room for what I felt I needed to do--which was often very far indeed from what I was expected to do.

As a high school physics teacher, I tried to focus on what the students needed to learn the subject, one that I had studied and worked in myself for many years before turning to teaching in the high schools. This meant filling in and clearing up many logical gaps and fuzzy areas in the curriculum, while also compensating for the deficiencies the students had in their academic backgrounds.

All of this took years of labor and much ingenuity to figure out. But the population of students, and so also their needs, kept changing, often dramatically, so one had a constantly shifting target audience.

There were many years, especially in this century, when I taught only subjects other than physics. It took quite some time to get the overview on these that I had acquired in physics, as well as to understand the deficiencies in the curricula and in the students' backgrounds (including very limited or no knowledge of spoken English) and how to remedy these.

Indeed, I found that, among other things, I had, perforce, entered the authoring and publishing business, steadily having to render complex material in simplified English as well as in translations to other languages.  This had to be done on the run, under the daily pressures of the job, adding to the time spent in reading and correcting student work on evenings, weekends and holidays.

These were just some of the nuts and bolts of teaching that I had to constantly attend to.  I will not go in detail into the practical circumstances that made this difficult--including the lack, too often, of suitable books, and the teaching of several subjects out of license, with my five daily classes being in a number of classrooms and on a number of floors. 

Then there were the pressures from above to conform to what teachers were expected to be doing in the classroom--the constant "how to teach" focus that never seemed to let up and could be a great distraction. 

And there were the human issues in dealing with the children and their needs and behaviors, which would need a separate essay.  Suffice it to say that the factories that the schools have long operated as allow little time and leisure for the kind of personal mentoring many students clearly need.

And then, especially in this century, there was the overemphasis on standardized testing, with teachers not only told "how to teach", but also pressed to cut out any content that a sincere teacher might deem as essential background or breadth, but which was deemed "non-testable" and so not fit to be taught any more.

Finally, there was the extreme time-pressure that increased as budgets were cut and the periods-per-week accordingly shortened, until this became so unbearable that those who tried to teach sincerely, according to conscience, taking due time for review and practice, so students could digest what they had learned, found themselves in deeper and deeper trouble.

Teaching and learning are natural, spontaneous human activities that are meant to be done at leisure, with attention and care.  The same can be said about eating, lovemaking and, surely even more so, the care of children, elders and the ailing. 

Factory workers have long been forced to work at unnaturally high speeds in assembly lines, so as to maximize production and profits. When this view of "efficiency" is extended into teaching and learning, 
a life-and-soul destroying situation is created.  The same might surely be said of high speed, "efficient", factory-style health care.
Humans, like other animals, function in several modes or gears. In the survival mode that we go into when we are fighting or racing to survive, we cannot properly attend as we should to the other things, including nurture, that are best carried out in more tranquil, peaceful modes, in slower gears.
I had to do to deal with all of this, while shielding my students from the pressures and the "fast-food", smartly-packaged yet junk education that would have resulted if I had given in to these pressures.

One should note also that most of what I felt inwardly compelled to do was done "under the radar", so to speak, as it did not conform to what I was expected to do.
On too many occasions, especially of late, when a supervisor discovered what I was doing, I would get in trouble.  This added an increasing element of fear to what may perhaps be termed as "guerrilla teaching" -- the truly hard, unacknowledged,  subsurface work I felt I had to do, and which I should have been able to do openly, without fear of punishment.

Although I might perhaps have been at an extreme end of the teacher spectrum, I am sure 
many other teachers have found themselves in somewhat similar circumstances, where hard work is not only not rewarded, nor even just ignored, but punished.

But all that quiet work I had to do was more feasible during the times when the schools here were not as regimented and oppressive as they have become in this century, under pressure from both the political parties here (even more, from the federal level, under Barack Obama than under his predecessor, George W. Bush).

That old "marching to one's own drummer", that following of conscience (with all the labor of love that it entailed) is no longer possible. This is why, along with health problems, no doubt caused in part by years of sustained stress, shortage of sleep and overexertion, I am finally almost at the point of giving up this long, but now clearly lost, personal battle in the schools. I will soon be either forced to retire or else be kicked out more violently.

One should remember that humans, throughout the world, taught their children how to speak their ancestral languages (perfectly) as well as to survive and to be humans in the full sense of the word, without help from the formal schools of the state or other organizations.

In this, we were no different from other animals. So also, wolves teach their young, mainly by example, how to communicate, survive and show respect and compassion--to be wolves in the full sense of that word.

I might be considered insane or reactionary, but I think we we were probably far better off when we were, especially in this regard, as the few surviving wolves still hopefully are.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

On Ed Reform—The False Hypothesis

On Ed Reform—The False Hypothesis

—a conversation on Facebook between my friend (DR)and myself (AJ).  He teaches in a college and I teach in a high school.  I have edited and added to my comments in places, for the sake of language and clarity.

AJ (preface to post):  We're caught between the Republicans and the "corporate Democrats", such as this specimen below—Rahm Emanuel, once Obama's right-hand man in DC, now back in Chicago as its mayor.  Here in New State, we have Governor Andrew Cuomo—a politician whose views differ markedly from those of his late father, Mario.  Both are into their second terms in office, with electoral campaigns and  ongoing positive publicity funded by powerful backers with deep pockets.

DR: Think of the alternatives...

AJ:  The alternative in Chicago was not a Republican (Chicago long having been a Democratic stronghold) but Karen Lewis, the unusual leader of the CTU (Chicago Teacher's Union). The teachers in Chicago had been radicalized by the damage Arne Duncan had wrought there, and they finally had thrown out the old, compliant union leadership in union elections and brought Lewis' CORE caucus into power in the union.

After he was elected for his first term, Emanuel went after the teachers’ union. So Karen Lewis found that her only chance of effectively pushing back lay in running in the primary for mayor when he came up for his second term. She was quite popular. But she had been under extreme stress for several years and finally could not run in the primary, because she was stricken with brain cancer. She supported Chuy Garcia, a relatively unknown entity, who did well at first, thanks to the increasing realization that Rahm Emanuel was a "corporate Democrat" who had aligned himself with the affluent elite and worked to further their interests

However, big money and the Democratic machine came to Emanuel's aid, and he defeated Garcia. Typically, Emanuel then went after the teachers even more, firing 2000 of them as his opening salvo.

It is open war now in this country against teachers and their remnant unions and against public workers and their tattered unions in general. The charge is led by Republicans, but many Democrats are not far behind. With Bloomberg gone, our Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo (who fell rather far from his father Mario's tree) has been the attack dog at the New York State executive level, with Rupert Murdoch and others egging him on.

After 28 years in the profession, I am more than ready to call it quits before I drop dead on the job, but I might have to struggle on (an understatement) for another term.

DR:  You have a point. But I expect that even a Karen Lewis or Chuy Garcia wouldn't have a feasible answer for real educational reform which I think needs to be done through something like the Finnish model...

AJ: In my time, I solved what appeared to be intractable problems in physics, not because I was "smart", but because I had gone through my years of study, and went about my work systematically, diligently and with quite a bit of thought and care. But after having worked most of the last 28 years in a school system, I think that the problems here haven't even begun to be acknowledged, let alone addressed. Instead, there has been one distraction after another, each contributing to the problems and tending to create chaos. The latest reform movement, involving highly aggressive and powerful political and financial forces, might end up giving the death blow, in the cities, to education at the K-12 level.  This might then also happen in suburban and rural places in this country.  In short order, this will also affect the universities.

DR: As mentioned before, the lack of preparation is apparent in my introductory economics classes. Many students cannot understand simple graphs or do simple calculations like a percentage change in a variable from one year to the next. Colleges spend a large amount of money on remedial programs, especially in math. It's a huge waste of resources; doing the same thing twice or more. The U.S. spends a huge amount of money on education at all levels. That alone isn't the problem.

AJ: It's exactly the same story at the high school level, and probably in junior high and elementary as well. At each level in the sequence, the teachers tend to blame the teachers before them as not having done the job—and in the schools they also blame the parents.

Meanwhile, the school teachers as a whole have been targeted as incompetents who should either improve or be fired. Many teachers are being forced out. As the word gets out about the impossible pressures on teachers in the schools, I predict there will be a teacher shortage—unless the economy tanks and no other jobs are available.

The hypothesis behind most past educational reforms in this country, especially the current one, is that the causes of the alleged or real problems in K-12 education lie mainly in our weak curricula, our outdated methods of teaching and in the poor quality of our teachers.  Increasingly, there has been a focus on teacher incompetence, although things like Common Core try to address the curricula, while the obsession with “teaching methods” continues on its perennial, unproductive course.

I could say a lot about the curricula and about the teaching methods. But let me say that the traditional curricula in NY State and city, thirty years ago, were hardly "weak" by any standards, or at least in comparison to what I experienced during my fairly rigorous (though still of course flawed) education in India.  I should also say that the teaching methods in use then and earlier, while surely not perfect, were effective then—and still are.
Subsequent misguided efforts to strengthen curricula and to improve teaching methods have greatly hurt whatever strengths there were in K-12 education in this country.  On the curriculum front, these efforts include, especially, the ill-thought-through Gates-Feds-Common Core (which the leaderships of the teachers’ unions—the AFT and the NEA—embraced) and its hurried and awful implementation.  On the pedagogical front, one should point to such things as the “Workshop Model” that was made into a diktat for quite a few years in the NY City schools, and the “Danielson Framework” that has more recently been adapted to straight-jacket and punitively assess teachers in NY State and also in other places.

The main reason for this harm was that there has been little or no provision for input, feedback and correction to educational policies forced down the throats of teachers and students.

When one takes what might possibly (in certain circumstances) be a good idea and makes this into a rule to be followed no matter what, then one kills whatever good there was in that idea. One also gives birth to a great number of evils.

But more and more (and indeed throughout our history, but never so viciously and wrong-headedly as in this century), the working hypothesis for educational reform has been based on the assumption that the root of the problems in K-12 education lies in the incompetence of teachers and the recalcitrance of their unions. This is what has been broadcast daily through all the media, and what has been embraced by politicians and even by a considerable segment of the public.

Once one accepts this hypothesis, then the solutions being applied follow:

(a) identify the "incompetents" and fire these;

(b) try to "improve" the “marginal ones” and also the others, via on-the-job training—what is called, in the schools, "professional development".

This is, imho, a classic case of a mistaken hypothesis (as to the cause of an ailment) that is reapplied, time and time again, to affect a "cure", although experience has shown us that the past cures based on this hypothesis failed to work. This should have led, in a logical and sane world, to some suspicion regarding the validity of the hypothesis.  But we don't live in such a world.

So what are the real problems in K-12 education? And how can they be resolved?

I have, in the past, categorized and listed the major problems and then suggested how to go about resolving them. But no one pays attention to teachers--including, sadly, teachers themselves.

All of society has to be involved in this, and that has to start with teachers educating the public (something that by training they should be good at) as to the reality in the schools—and the origins of that reality.

By the way, there are many bright spots in that reality, along with the shadows.

Unless the basic respect and the feedback-and-correction mechanisms are restored, there will be no progress in K-12 education in this country. One need not go running to look at other countries' models,  no matter how successful these might appear. One can of course try to learn from them. The basic genius, experience, wisdom and knowledge within each country—indeed, within each community—can be utilized.  But this cannot be done in an atmosphere of fear and coercion.

Criminal insanity seems to be the hallmark of much of what we hail as "progress".  It's only when we actually come, with open hearts and minds,  to live, work and compassionately observe what goes on  in the killing fields of the wars, or in the farms, factories, schools and offices, that we begin to see the full horror of the situation, along with the idiocy that led to it.  We will then also surely notice the things that are to be admired, which yet get little or no attention.

We might then also begin to see, in all humility, what needs to be done to end the idiocy and the horror and to further what there is of good.  This cannot truly be done by others than those who are in the midst of it themselves.  However difficult that might appear, anything else is at best a patch-over, a temporary fix that will not hold for long.  More often, it is something that will worsen the situation.

DR:  I don't blame the teachers. It's varsity sports!

DR:  I got into serious trouble for failing an athlete...

AJ:  I think that big-time, high-pressure sports are more of a problem at the college level than in the schools.  I have had no big issues with most of the kids on the teams—except for some of the football players.  I had a few cases where the boys went home so tired after long hours of grueling after-school practice, plus a long commute by train and bus, that they could do no homework. I also had some football players in my lower-level classes who spoke English fine, like high school teenagers, but when I looked at their written work, it was at 2nd grade level at best.