The real world is more unknown than we like to think; from the first day of life we practise precarious inductions, and confound our mental habits with laws of external nature. ~ Bertrand Russel (1926)
As a student and as a teacher I have been puzzled by many aspects of the educational system as I encountered it in Germany – as a student – and in the U.S. – as a teacher. My earliest memory of the system is horrible. When I was five years old, my parents, God bless them, followed local norms and expectations and sent me to kindergarten. In my memory, I lasted one day. This memory may be false. It could have been a few days, but I am certain that my ’tenure’ was brief. The memory is this: Children would bring a sandwich and a piece of fruit for lunch. I recall holding a banana in my right hand and looking at it appreciatively, anticipating the joy of consumption. I knew that this was to be dessert. One of the teachers, who presents herself as a spinsterish dragon in my memory, tore the banana from my hand and told me in a loud and scolding voice that this was dessert and that I was not allowed to have it before the sandwich. I felt doubly hurt: for being reprimanded in front of my friends, and for being falsely accused. I knew the purpose of the banana.
I am going out on a limb here reconstructing a very old memory, but I seem to recall that I was powerfully repulsed by this unfairness and shocked by the realization that the teacher did not know that I knew (the point of the banana). I went home and explained to my mother what I had experienced. I probably cried and perhaps I had a tantrum. I do recall, however, that I was adamant about never going back to that place. My mother relented and I seem to recall that I was amazed at that. My mother seemed to understand my motives and determination very well. Yet, I was at the time growing up in a culture characterized by parental authority and child obedience. There were no other kindergartens in our small town and I spend the year playing in the backyard and the street. I probably missed out on some experiences that might have contributed to my socialization (perhaps this explains other things). At any rate, I had made first contact with an educational system prizing authority, obedience, and conformity.
Educational systems evolve and change, but radical change is rare. Most change is realized by reform and accretion. Educational systems are, like other cultural institutions, inert. If they were people we might say “They don’t want to change.” I became aware of this inertia when moving through 5 years of elementary school and 9 years of college-track middle and high school (now you know that I repeated one year). Every few years, my cohort seemed to be the first to be treated to a new “Reform.” Some of these reforms meant more choice among courses and there was some experimentation with seating arrangements and whether we boys could sit in the same class with girls. But there was inertia. One big source of inertia was that the teaching faculty were not replaced (nor should they have been), which meant that seasoned professionals were asked to embrace new styles and philosophies.
The glacial pace of change allowed me to see the footprint of the Prussian system when I grew up. Discipline was always valued and enforced when deemed necessary. There was no longer corporal punishment (my elder sister was still beaten by an elementary school teacher), but there was a graded system of reprobation. A “Rüge” was assessed for a minor infraction (e.g., talking out of turn), whereas a “Tadel” was reserved for a major offense (cheating on homework, drinking beer from a bottle kept under the desk and getting caught). Both Rüge and Tadel were recorded in the official class ledger. The hard-currency consequences of these notes were negligible but the psychological effects were considerable for those of us who were raised in lower middle-class circumstances. We felt the shame. Some of the working-class toughs couldn’t care less. So the emphasis was on control. The Prussian spirit of education in what was West Germany could not be completed without a measure of submission. I hasten to add that I recall with gratitude those teachers who strove to impart interest in a subject and who delighted in students’ creativity and inquisitiveness. But again, I recall these uplifting moments as coming from specific persons and not as built-in features of the educational enterprise.
As a parent in the U.S. and as a teacher at a college I have had occasion to witness some of the forces that prioritize the functioning and the ‘rationality’ of the system over the development and well-being of the students. The main culprit, in my opinion, is the self-preserving nature of bureaucracy and the desire of its functionaries to demonstrate accountability. In the U.S. this has led to a culture of testing first and foremost, and only to a culture of learning inasmuch as learning delivers high test scores. Behind this deplorable trend may lie realistic fears of losing funding or reputation in a competitive society where schools and colleges are quasi-organisms in a Darwinian survival game. Again, I see many individuals, teachers, and students, who are able to transcend the death grip of the system. The darkest interpretation I can give to these instances is that they occur in spite of the educational system and not because of it.
As a teacher, my saddest moments are when I see how much students have been conditioned to think (and feel) in terms of grades only. Some consider a course in which they harvest a B a waste. The B lowers their GPA, which is their ticket – they believe – to a self-actualized and fulfilling future. When, however, will this self-actualization begin if it has been so repressed and ‘unlearned?’ Social psychology tells us about the perils of the secondary reinforcers (grades). They will crowd out the primary reinforcers (the pleasure of learning). The primary reinforcers will be ‘discounted’ and eventually forgotten inasmuch as the secondary reinforcers usurp control. They usurp control because they are salient and because they appear more objective as they are delivered from the outside. They teach the student that progress in life is a constant struggle to be better than others by ‘objective’ standards. With that, the competitive drive is fueled only to paradoxically create a society of conformists (who all worship the same ideals).
I have learned that giving students this sort of lecture does not accomplish much. There may be some nodding of heads and temporary despair soon to be followed by business as usual. A better approach is to not bring up the topic of grades and syllabi and other bureaucratic nonsense at all, but to go into the subject matter without ado. On a good day, I invite the students to have a receptive mind by letting them in on my own receptive attitude. There are good days and there are not so good days. When all fails, I send them to this blog, because here I tell them what I really think.
Russell, B. (1926). On education. London: Unwin.