Education in a Post-Modern World

I was struck recently by an article by Terri Seddon (2015) from Australian Catholic University in which she presents a description of a shift in contemporary in education, from an emphasis of teaching to a whole population to one of learning as individuals. I would characterize this as a shift toward a post-modern paradigm, deconstructing the old world. Seddon certainly details a framework of deconstruction of traditional education in Australia, which largely parallels American education.

Seddon uses the following quotation in her summary:

“… teachers are neither ‘gamekeepers’ that protect the balance of nature in a national territory, nor ‘gardeners’ who intervene to redesign a natural order. Rather, the 21st century space of education locates worlds where ‘hunters’ aim to fill their own hunting bag with kill irrespective of others. The hunt, the project-by-project achievement of success, becomes the end in view.” (Bauman, 2005)

This quotation aptly summarizes Seddon’s deconstructed educational institution, and aptly casts a doubt across teachers’ influence over empowering students as independent, free-ranging, life-long learners. There are outriders on this trajectory that cloud the underlying philosophy of contemporary education, in Seddon’s writing and in our observations of the quotation above.

First, learning is becoming a largely outside-in process. While successfully accessing sources of content is vital to learning, the process and purpose of learning itself are at least equally important as simple acquisition. Education is not just loading learners up with tools, techniques and the assumption that they should be used. Determining what content Bauman’s “hunter” should seek and how to use it effectively and appropriately, even civilly, seem critical understandings for learners to acquire, and here Seddon concurs.

We are well aware of the enormous amount of material available to anyone via the Web, a relatively small amount of which is useful or even accurate, and much of which is purely subjective. What is more, we have seen the sour consequences of gathering large quantities of data and then determining what to do with them—occasionally inventing uses well after the gathering. Marketers seem particularly good at framing gleanings from random data into essential everyday consumer “needs.” The shift in learning is a reality to which educators must adapt or become irrelevant. Education could perhaps provide a framework for thinking about a better world in which students learn to become well adapted personally and socially, valuing themselves and others while functionally independent.

Teaching as coaching is an insufficient model. As such, pointing out good grounds to hunters encourages the food hunter, the trophy hunter and the ivory hunter equally. Such a model on its own does not limit the decimating harvest of whales or the choking consumption of gasoline. Reasonable choices in what and where to hunt, and how much to leave for other hunters or other generations are survival decisions beyond the individual. Even fully autonomous individuals must share the planet in some way. And while the individual constructs a world of his own experience and conditions, others are constructing walls and bridges that shape those experiences and conditions. Who creates the choices of hunting grounds, who stocks the game, and who sets the limits? Will not production competitors shape the hunting landscape to their own purposes? Who plants the lures in the Apple orchard or the oil field? How is the hunter to judge? How to respond?

Who coaches the coaches? If educators are not developing a sense of prudent choices and reasonable limits, are they abdicating their role as mediators of the renewal of a culture? Such a question also asks what culture we wish to conserve. On a scale beyond education, we might need to assess and revise what we call culture, perhaps or perhaps not a culture rooted in religiously founded nationhood. Seddon seems to say educators are facilitating access to a landscape that is as much outside teachers themselves as it is outside the students, and because this globalized landscape dismisses a moral common core, it contributes to the deconstruction of a moral common culture, a civil community, resulting in an ever more fractious and contentious set of sects.

We know that learning is not just an outside-in process, an acquisition process. It is also a personal development process. And it is inside that the moral world exists. What growth occurs inside is critical to how the tools and techniques can be used, abused or just set aside. Additionally, learning is, or has been, a social development process. How we develop in a world with others as a part of a greater whole has been at the very heart of acculturation, the Titanic mother of education. The resulting atomization of our society is evidence of a partial failure of our binding social fabric, at least. Without question, we are becoming an increasingly global, our boundaries erased by monetary transactions, trade routes, and satellite signals. Even educational institutions serve local and international student bodies. How will we socialize students for such a global society?

The 19th century not only gave us broad public education fit to its times and places; it gave us the Romantic sense of unity, loyalty to the greater good and a belief that that greater good binds us with a self-correcting power. The natural order would always prevail. The more realistic Modernists response half a century later could see that this binding moral center was not holding us together. Greedy exploitation, brutal colonization and a Great War made that clear, but the notion that there was a universal center that morally binds us to one another and our world remained a real if abandoned thing. Now the Post-Modern world simply denies even that belief. It finds no evidence to support a unified universe, which is simply random and without purpose, a universe in which we must wend through a here and now as painlessly and perhaps enjoyably as possible, a world in which the only constant is self. “Cogito ergo sum.” Period. If each of us defines “the” world as we encounter it, then I must construct my teachers. They don’t construct my world; they don’t construct me.

Seddon begins her paper with a quotation that raises a fundamental questions:

What is the point today of the institutions and systems built in the 19th century to provide various forms of education: the schools, the working man’s colleges, the universities? In the world of the information society is education better left as an unfettered relationship between a consenting individual and their smart phone? (Yates, 2012)

What is the purpose of education, and what the role of teachers? Are we adapting knowingly into a world that has no center, or are we simply being drawn blindly into a vortex of post-modern deconstruction of anything outside our microcosmic selves? The only thing that remains the same is change; anything else that remains the same becomes history.

References:

Bauman, Z. (2005). Liquid Life. Cambridge, Polity Press.

Seddon, Terri. Learning, politics and globalisation: Why have education? [Das Argument_Submission draft_June 2015.docx, Complied: 20/6/15} academia.edu, viewed 30 July 2015.

Yates, L. (2012). “My School, My University, My Country, My World, My Google, Myself…: What is education for now?” Australian Educational Researcher 39: 259–274.

I Learned Everything I Know from Wily Coyote

We may not like it, and we may not understand where it is leading us as human beings, but this is what is happening.
I sit here at a computer screen and I feel nothing for it, for it is a soulless and uncaring thing. I had teachers I loved and teachers I hated. With more maturity, of the thousands of students who passed through my classrooms, I had hundreds I truly loved as if they were my children–and some I was glad were someone else’s children, and I made a personal effort to do something good for even those. I never wanted to be rich or famous, but I wanted to be appreciated, and even loved a little. And I think maybe I was loved, a little. I am a human being, after all.

 

What is this brave new world we live in? And how is it that, in creating this new world, those I once cherished, now sitting on the other side of a computer screen, will blindly abandon their own children to the sterility and isolation of such an education? I at least lament their loss.
I retired with tears. And society may leave me beside the road to die at some point. Still, I am so thankful to have gotten out when I did. I did my teaching with passion and dignity. And I am rich beyond the wildest dreams of any plutocrat or their science and technology minions.

Indian Winter

Indian winter

A week of warmth

Then cold and snow

Wet and heavy

Bending branches

It’s only March

This can go on for weeks

Then wind and rain

Spring

The season of mud and broken limbs

Summer

The immutable promise

That it will happen

But what will it bring?

Promises

Like what we wish for

Must be accepted with care

Especially when they’re mutable.

March 2015

Where are the Unions Going?

                As I was going through my email this morning, I saw an announcement for a speaker from the Food Chain Workers Alliance. I have been thinking, off and on, for some time about alternatives to the traditional labor union structure that we are currently saddled with, and which is being driven into the ground by the relentless forces of greed. I see the FCWA as a model for organized labor to examine as a possible alternative to the across the table model in which we are bemired.

                It is a labor counterpart to the “wellhead to gas pump,” production chain control. AFT/NEA and others could evolve into parts of a Human Development Professionals Alliance, dealing with all those involved with the development of every child from prenatal medicine to college graduation. Think how this would align the development of citizens by democratically and largely locally organized engagement.

                It would of course take a much smarter and more knowledgeable mind than mine, but the overall concept seems positive, and unifies the development of American children into true American citizens. Of course, such a design works counter to corporate efforts to atomize society allowing them to more easily fleece their sheep. It shifts its emphasis from workers’ rights and wages to the tasks and quality of work; it negotiates how to get the job done for the benefit of all. Such an alliance would set its performance goals based on the needs of the employers and the desires of the people to become a society of their own making. And, oh, it would be tough to implement. The rich and powerful will not want to give up control of the peasant masses to use as cannon fodder in their global “econowars.” Many workers would not want to give up the petty monetary or seeming autonomy benefits of their patronized niche. There would be sacrifice and discomfort, maybe even real pain along the way, but then people have died in the labor movement of the past. And sycophants should have no immunity.

                Additionally, those who do the work, functioning as a whole, help to restore our corroded democracy. It has the potential of monitoring and developing its members into a cadre of the most desirable and qualified "workers," rather than the cheapest. Workers of the past negotiated for their muscle and bone. HDPA members would negotiate for skills and competencies, brains and commitment. Incumbent upon the alliance then would be the capacity development and quality warrantee of its members. Consumers, employers and institutions could have the best or the cheapest, but if they could have the best at a fair wage, these work providers would come to the Alliance. There they would get the performance skills necessary to maximize their job needs.

                This guild model combined with the end-to-end industry model is but one alternative unions must consider. We need only look at the numbers to see that the unions and the middle class that they generated is deeply eroded. In twenty or thirty years without real change, unions will be the “Jamestown Settlements” objects of the future, historically significant and quaint. We will, by then, be beyond class warfare; we will have become an economically occupied nation.

Fall, Calm

Fall, calm,
A solstice solemn,
But not sad–
Preparation for gravity
Grounding in the present
Freeing from the moment
A test of hope,
Looking beyond today.
 

Autumn, poignant,
A time reflective,
But not terminal—
Inhalation awaiting uncertainty
Appraising the past
Becalming ambitions
A test of faith,

Looking beyond ourselves.

October 2014

Why they are called the humanities

Well, the study of humans seems fairly hopeless. Doesn’t it? I mean first of all, knowing what humans are is the domain of physiology. Isn’t it? Humans are giant amoebas. Vast colonies of smaller organisms and microbes collaborating to achieve one thing—to continue. You know—to survive, to beat off competitors and to reproduce, hence to survive, etc. The current collective is only of value if it procreates; it’s the simplest of evolutionary principles. This iteration is insignificant; only replication counts.

So, what’s to study? If all we are, are self-replicating biomechanical devices, engendered by the quadrillionth roll of the carbon-based slime dice, the only thing to pin down are the genomic odds of any one of us happening. Of course we might want to study ways to make humans better at surviving the odds, sacrificing ourselves in the interest of assuring that there are children and children’s children. Logically, we should have as many children as we can produce, preferably of superior quality. Our off-spring will have to compete against all competitors for our available resources after all. Then we should bury our own future in the economic compost to contribute to the resources for our children, who must be competitive in an arena with neighbor children, so they can do the same for their more competitive children. – Oh, wait…we do that now!

Anyone who sees this existence as other than a seriously grim reality would, I believe, be someone who would neatly fit this definition, which is not humanity at all. This reality would be ours with all of our humanity stripped away, and that is not who we are. But it is all too much who we are becoming.

The study of the humanities is the study of who we have been able to become, well beyond the biomechanics of evolution. Yet, there is a close tie in the humanities to the physical human as well. The humanities appeal through our senses beyond food, fighting and sex. Free-marketeers, however, have certainly seen the economic advantage of mimicking the humanities to tap into these basic impulses, and this has not been lost on the purveyors of the humanities themselves. The arts use the visual and auditory to catch our attention and stimulate responses unnecessary for and not contributing to our continued existence, yet we come back to them over and over—Mona Lisa—Beethoven’s 5th—Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Ballet. Literature pulls us out of our reproductive cycling by using our sensory imaginations not just as a preparation for the hunt, but being transported into an alternative existence—Morrison’s Beloved—Homer’s Ulysses. And for what? None of these assure our great-grandchildren’s fecund existence.

The humanities help us build a context for who we are, as a species, as a people, as an individual. Among the humanities, history seems to hold a unique place. All that we have been is who we have become, and this story is what history tells us. Even how our history is presented—Euripides or Doris Kearns Goodwin—informs our minds eye, human voices sounding human voices from the past.

With a foot in two boats, philosophy has, for millennia, achieved something that the sciences have not yet satisfactorily achieved—seeing outside the solidity of the mundane. It is in this contested frontera between the lands of theoretical physics (a form of math) and religious exegesis, in this transcendent reality that philosophy carries us into an existence beyond all else, genuinely room into which to move as only humans can.

The arts, literature, history and philosophy are only unimportant if our world has not humanity, if humans are competitive rather than compassionate animals, if we are self-serving rather than self-aware beings. Who we are as humans cannot be gleaned from gathering food, fighting off raiders and producing children. An amoeba does that. We must see a much broader horizon, glimpse distant, misty peaks, be stirred by the striving songs of others, and to care and wonder why. The sciences may seek the answers, while the humanities will ask the questions for which there may be no answers.

If the humanities are allowed to dim into obscurity, how will we even know what we have lost? If that which lets us be human is gone, what will it mean to be human? Yet the sad truth is that we are not choosing to shed our humanity; we are offered new clothes which will let us appear as emperors of our domains, and we are allowing that, even inviting it. In whose interest is it that we discredit the humanities and embrace the sciences? Who benefits if we don’t ask why? How will we be served by diluting the uniqueness of ourselves in the engineered seas of progress? How will we know how best to move forward? And what is the price of our wealth, after all?

Little Red Riding Hood, 2014

Little Red may seem pretty small.
She’s better off red than just dead.
Poor Red isn’t riding at all.
And her hood fully covers the head.

Along comes a wolf in the story.
He’s hungry, and vicious and grey.
He develops a plan very gory.
He’s devoured some kids in his day.

Disguised as a granny he’ll wait.
Ol’ granny’s are cozy and snug.
So Red should consider her fate,
And look closely at Granny’s old mug.

False comfort is comfort enough.
The truth is hard, sharp and a pain.
Little Red really isn’t too tough.
And that’s why she’s gonna’ get slain.

A wolf in disguise is a lie.
But the lie isn’t quite the real crime.
A wolf in sleep clothing is real.
Little Red will get eaten this time.

Thank you Rick Perry and

Thank you Rick Perry

Art in the Age of Narcissism

   She had flown to Paris in the high season with three friends. They were staying in a typical European economy hotel; a double room meant a double bed and a small sink in the room, shared showers and toilets, a three-story walk up. The four women’s two rooms up different staircases. The rooms not big enough for the four to visit and talk about the creepy people on the plane, in the airports and those French customs people. And drink a little wine. This was France after all. The shot: two twenty-something faces mugging, backed by a bit of dormered window on the left and a quarter of a pillow, some of a metal headboard and a dingy wall on the right.

   Getting to the Louvre had been a nightmare. A taxi driver they approached just stared blankly at them. Using a smart phone they mapped themselves and the Louvre, started off in the wrong direction for a couple of  blocks before checking again, not finding streets names on sign posts, corrected direction and trudged on anew. Then it took twenty more minutes to get there – walking! “My God, we’re only here for a couple of days.” And once, at the Champs they found lines a block long. The shot: four grimacing faces squeezed together against a backdrop of one of humanities favorite activities: waiting in lines and crowds.

   Once inside, the density and intensity of crowds increased. Some of Europe’s masterworks in linseed oil and pulverized stone framing a shuffling mass of pained expectation. The goal is the Mona Lisa, undoubtedly the most famous and certainly the most viewed, albeit in reproduced forms and photos, painting in the West. A remarkable accomplishment for an industrial and military engineer, and meticulous researcher and draftsman, especially appreciable in this time when engineering is the great hope of the middle classes, much as prize fighting was held to be the great hope of the poor Irish a century ago.

   Finally our traveler manages to reach the cordon, forcibly held in place by a substantial matron in a grey guard’s uniform. Pushed and jostled, our traveler turns to face the murmuring crowds, her back to Leonardo’s enigmatic smile. The shot: a young American woman, carefully made up, hair long and flowing, perfectly crafted smile looking directly into the lens, over her left shoulder, an eye, forehead and hair, slightly out of focus, possibly the Mona Lisa.

   On the streets of Paris again, they search out a sidewalk café, where they will sit and noticeably watch people passing, as they nurse their coffees and discuss their plans for conquering Amsterdam. But what now? Window shopping, maybe? “How much money do we have left?”

 

There is no yesterday and no tomorrow.

There’s only now, and that’s the sorrow.

Cold Comes in January

Crows on our snow pile,

Crows in the back yard,

Our frozen crows in January

Put us on our guard. Sleek and black,

Blacker than the snow filled night,

Like the squirrels, they point north.

 

The rooster on the garage roof points north too.

You’d think there was something good coming that way.

There’s snow and wind and cold,

And it’s been coming that way all night and day.

 

It’s a January day.

The bird feeder swings back and forth

And round and round.

Sparrows jump on and off, up and down

Like children on and off

A playground merry-go-round,

Laughing, arguing, screaming with delight.

 

The wind whips and whistles,

Blowing and bending as it goes.

The temperature is sinking, and it’s early still,

But it’s not still. It’s biting.

 

The wind fills its breath with snow,

Greying the air, filling the lately shoveled walk,

Clouding the car windows,

Merging the leaf pile with the piled snow.

 

And now they’re gone,

The crows on our snow pile,

The crows in the back yard.

They soared into the tall trees,

Waiting, watching, cawing,

Waiting for January to take its toll.

January 2014

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