Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Mythical Beings that Inhabit the Matrix, Part 5: Teachers

     School, we are told, prepares young minds for life in the world of adults—commonly called real life. Oh? What kind of life is that? To answer that question, we have to take a look at what happens in a typical classroom in most countries that we call “advanced.”
     There is a saying, “He who wills the means wills the end.” If you want to know to what end “education” has in mind, just take a look at the means by which this end is reached.
     First of all, students are arranged in a rectangular group facing an authority figure called a teacher. For twelve years or longer, these pliable young minds are supposed to look to the authority figure to shape their beliefs concerning nearly everything.
     Taking notes is vital. No questions are to be asked except for clarification or further detail. Questioning the accuracy of the authority figure’s assertions risks such labels as “disciplinary problem” or an acronym-style label that can be punished with psychotropic drugs.
     This regimen is reinforced by progressive steps that are continuously repeated in cycles.
     Let’s say, for example, that the subject is geography. Let me lead you through the routine.
     Most students would be delighted to learn about people in other parts of the world, their cultures, and their concerns; but, like most other subjects, geography isn’t about gaining understanding. It’s about learning to look to authority figures for what you’re told to believe. It’s about making this mind-numbing experience an ingrained part of your existence.
     Each day, the child is told things to write down and memorize. Each day, he is issued a task called homework, in which he reads and memorizes but is never supposed to question. It doesn’t matter what he memorizes. What matters is that he learns not to question what he is told.
     For example, the child is told that Easter Island’s highest point is 507 meters above sea level. He’s not told that, due to gravitational pull of the moon and the sun, and due to the turning of the earth, sea level near the equator is higher than sea level at the poles. What we call sea level is an entirely arbitrary number based on what is considered sea level at Cornwall, England. Why is the sea level of Easter Island measured according to where the sea is in Cornwall rather than the actual level of the sea at Easter Island?
     For that matter, the concept of meters is as arbitrary as the agreed-upon concept of sea level. As for Easter Island itself, the locals call it Rapa Nui. Why is the child taught to call it by a name that the locals don’t use?
     Even when the information they’re taught isn’t entirely arbitrary, it’s often entirely useless.
     What does it matter that the capital of Alaska is Juneau? From 1901 to 1906, the capital city was Sitka. I don't know or care what it was before that.  What does it matter that the capital of Brazil is Brasilia? Until 1960, it was Rio de Janeiro. If the location of the capital isn’t sacrosanct to the people of Alaska and Brazil, why should it be all that important to the students? If we care to know those things, don’t we have the Internet?
     It isn’t important. What is important is that the students memorize and be able to repeat, without question, anything the authority figure tells them. By doing this, they develop a credulous nature and avoid learning to think for themselves.
     Once they’ve memorized all this, the drill is reinforced by taking quizzes. The quizzes almost invariably take the form of multiple choice questions or filling in blank spaces. The authority figure refrains from asking discussion questions or any other questions that require higher order thinking skills. After all, while the students are learning the 4R’s (reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmatic—never mind spelling), they’re absorbing the 3D’s: deliberate dumbing down.
     The mind-numbing exercises of quizzes are reinforced by tests, which, in turn, are reinforced by exams. Children who unquestioningly memorize what they’ve been told are rewarded with higher grades. Children who give answers contrary to what the authority figure has told them—even when the authority figure is mistaken—are punished with lower grades. Children who make a habit of questioning the authority figure are remanded to a charlatan who has them medicated with mind-altering drugs that may lead to such violent behavior as school shootings.
     Isn’t all this supposed to prepare children for life as adults? To whose benefit is all this?
     If real life is a multiple choice test, it’s a test in which each question has dozens of right answers and hundreds of wrong answers rather than one right answer and four wrong ones. In real life, wrong answers rarely receive lifelong punishment. In real life, we learn from mistakes; and, often, failure is the mother of success. In school, children are punished for asking others for answers. In real life, we benefit from asking others.
     As such, real life is student centered, cooperative learning, and project based learning with emphasis on authenticity. As schooling should be preparation for real life and not real life itself, project lessons should be scaffolded—that is, guided in increments. If school really were intended as preparation for real life, that’s the way it would be structured. That’s the way I try to structure my classes.
     On the other hand, the late George Carlin had a serious point: “The real owners of this country don’t want people with critical thinking skills. They want people who are just smart enough to run the machines but too dumb to ask questions.”
     I want my students to question what I tell them. I want them to think for themselves. I want to prepare them for a real life in which they have control over their lives instead of having to look uncritically to such bogus authority figures as news reporters, politicians, government bureaucrats, materialistic pastors, and—yes—school teachers.
     I am grateful to teachers who taught me the value of thinking, and who guided me in the process—teachers such as George Reeves, Ted Peters, Jack Montgomery, Pat Rydz, and others. Looking back, I can scarcely believe how credulous I once was. I suspect that I still have far to go.
     In the video below, you'll see ESL (English as a Second Language) students of whom five teachers and an administration official said to me, "Don't expect too much of them.  Their level is very low, and they're not very motivated."  For their mid-term exam in English Conversation, I assigned them to teach the class in English for at least ten minutes.  

     Since then, I have assigned students to create documentary videos for first semester final exams.  Here's one:
     That's not bad, especially considering that I had to ignore the advice, "Don't expect too much of these students.  Their level is very low, and they're not motivated."

     There’s a big world of options outside Plato’s Cave. I’ve caught a glimpse of that world and want to see more of it. I’m still searching. I want to show it to others.


  1. Great article. The students did a terrific job.

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