Keep democracy in education

I liken our dominant educational structure as the offspring of a shotgun wedding between industrialists who needed literate workers to operate their machinery, and progressives who wanted to lift up the common person from poverty and drudgery. It wasn’t an easy marriage, and the children are a tad dysfunctional now. The union was never able to clearly identify the guiding principle of education. One book that has influenced many of my opinions on public education is Kieran Egan’s, The Educated Mind: How Cognitive Tools Shape our Understanding. Egan says that Western education is based on three incompatible principles, where all three can never be achieved in a single system.

  1. Education as Socialization (age cohorts, class groupings, team sports)
  2. Education as learning about Truth & Reality, based on Plato (varied subjects, academic material, connection to culture)
  3. Education as discovery of our nature, based on Rousseau (personal sense-making, teacher as facilitator)

If you put emphasis on one of these principles, the others get ignored. The industrialists would have preferred education as socialization and the progressives would have leaned toward education as learning about truth. We have seen some attempts, like Waldorf schools, to develop systems that promote education as discovery of our nature, but that does not go well with a standardized curriculum, whether it has a corporatist agenda or a progressive one.

I think we may soon get invited to another shotgun wedding, this time between techno-utopians, with financial speculators as bridesmaids, and libertarians, who feel the state and teachers have screwed-up education. It’s education as socialization, but socialization to the dominant business paradigm. But any problems with the education system are a result of the governance and economic environment in which it resides. It is through democracy, all of us, that we can improve education. Public education does not need a VC-backed Silicon Valley start-up to be saved. It needs more of us to participate in it. It needs democracy.

deweyIf social business is merely a hollow shell without democracy then the same goes for the new social education, currently manifested as xMOOC’sthose backed by large institutions or private interests. Audrey Watters provides a good overview of the flaws around the notion that our new education couple will be any better than the last arranged marriage:

Hacking Your Education advances the notion that education is a personal (financial) investment rather than a public good. The School in the Cloud project posits that education is a corporate (financial) investment rather than a public good. Why fund public schools when we can put a kiosk in a tech company’s annex? Why fund public schools when you can learn anything online?

The future that TED Talks paint doesn’t want us to think too deeply as we ask these questions. But what happens,when we “hack education” in such a way that our public institutions are dismantled? What happens to that public good? What happens to community? What happens to local economies? What happens to social justice?

As such, the vision for the future of education offered in Stephens’ new book is an individualist and incredibly elitist one. It contains a grossly unexamined exceptionalism, much like the Hole in the Wall which, at the end of the day, worked best for the strongest boys on the streets.

So despite their claims to be liberatory — with the focus on “the learner” and “the child” — this hacking of education by Mitra and Stephens is politically regressive. It is however likely to be good business for the legions of tech entrepreneurs in the audience.

We have not yet been able to effectively integrate democracy and business. Our current education systems, while flawed, still have some democratic oversight. In a networked world, our society needs to be more democratic, not less. Just as some business leaders are beginning to realize the potential of democracy in the enterprise, now is not the time to remove democracy from education. If work is learning, and learning is the work, there is little hope for democratic business if education becomes a business. For our future to remain democratic, both education and business need to be based on its fundamental principles. We are at a crossroads. Let’s cancel this wedding.


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