Monday, June 15, 2015

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat." - Lily Tomlin

I'm pretty sure this very funny Lily Tomlin quote was referring to the "rat race" of the work world, where "still [being] a rat" meant being a bad person (or a gross animal).  But for a minute, let's shift to thinking about education.

If we re-frame this quote for education, the rat race could mean "rats in a lab" and being a "rat" is being a thing experimented on and controlled.

I gave a talk at a conference being held at the main Google campus a couple of years ago, and in it I said that I though most students leave high school having learned one primary lesson--that they are not good learners. I mentioned the top, small percentage of students who are very successful in high school (good grades, good test scores, good college opportunities) as being the minority exception. After the talk some college-aged students, interns at Google at the time, came up to talk with me. They told me that even though they were in that top group that I was calling successful, they didn't leave high school believing that they were good learners. They had learned, they said, how to get good grades, but they didn't consider themselves good learners. They won the race, but they still saw themselves as rats.

Let's leave aside the obvious, which is that if I'd really spent time with them, I could have convinced them that learning how to game the system meant they actually were very good learners; but their point was made and well-taken. A "lab rat" system doesn't produce tiger- and lion-like behavior, it produces rat-like behavior. Those who have learned to be really good rats still see themselves, and through themselves a whole system of life, based on being rats.

There is no way I could have used the following quote as the post title (a little too shocking!), but it's worth considering:
The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda - a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas ready-made. The aim is to make 'good' citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens. - H. L. Mencken
Who benefits from "good citizens" or "lab rat" graduates? That fascinating question, my friends, is at the heart of understanding (I believe) why years and years of education reform generally don't really change things. If it's beneficial to the profit, power, and privilege of certain groups to have an education system which doesn't truly liberate learners, those groups are not likely to want to see it change. Many reform groups are more interested in having the system work toward their own ends, than to see changes which would diminish its effects.

There's a very tangible thread, from the progressive era almost a hundred years ago, through behaviorism and propaganda, to worries in the 1960s and 70s about the impact of too much independent thinking; there are many who believe that an excess of democracy makes it difficult to govern a modern nation. Perhaps, if we look into our own hearts, we might find that we believe the same. Control, most of us parents have learned, is a wicked shortcut, but one we often knowingly take because the alternative is so time-consuming.

And so, while we use the language of freedom, democracy, and empowerment in talking about education, that may not be what we actually expect our school system to produce. In fact, it may be that we want and need it to produce the opposite. Rats are much more manageable than tigers and lions.

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