Tuesday, April 21, 2015

"I suppose it is because nearly all children go to school nowadays, and have things arranged for them, that they seem so forlornly unable to produce their own ideas." - Agatha Christie

This quote is echoed in the writings of lots of accomplished people--often in the form of how they needed to overcome schooling to accomplish their life's work. I think it reflects the cognitive dissonance we have about the school experience--believing that we are trying to draw out the unique best in each child, but also believing that the path to do so is through memorization and compliance. The Yin and the Yang of learning, growth and structure, often get reduced in the practice of institutionalized behavior as caricatures of their fuller selves.

The huge inherent dilemma with institutionalization is that codified practices ultimately bend toward that which benefits those with power and privilege, and not necessarily (or usually?) to the individual that the institution claims it is serving. I don't think many of us are under the illusion that food companies are there to help us make healthy eating choices; rather, they are for-profit companies that reward profitable (and usually not healthy) behavior. The same is true of the financial industry; do we really think that banks want our financial independence? Education as an institution faces the same dynamic: no matter the nobility of the individuals working inside the system, that most students leave school that system believing they are not good learners is an output that helps maintain the benefits of those who depend on people eating unhealthy food, or their making bad financial choices.

At some deeper level we understand this. Most of us have memories of those who really helped us think better, or find something we really cared about, or become good at something hard. Those who care enough about others to help them grow and change and develop are usually outliers to the institutionalized system. We develop systems because we want to systematize good practice, but don't realize how much those systems then develop their own agenda, and to paraphrase Ivan Illich, in order to maintain their existence, perpetuate the very problems they were designed to solve.

If we want children to be able to produce their own ideas, to help build a healthy next generation, we have to be willing to question institutional practices and those who benefit from those practices. This isn't radical behavior, it's just a recognition of the dangers of how institutions end up becoming protections for powerful, one-sided behavior. There is a lot more money to be made in education when things are standardized, commodified, and centrally-controlled... but that's not really why we are here, is it?

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