Monday, July 06, 2015

"School is the advertising agency which makes you believe that you need the society as it is." - Ivan Illich

Warning, deep thinking ahead...

This quote profoundly expresses the way in which institutionalized forces, by having vested interests in things staying the same, don't really want for schooling to create independent thinking in students.

There are all kinds of ways that businesses depend on stable markets and ideas: any changes, no matter how profoundly there might be intellectual or moral arguments for them, will be threatening (consciously or unconsciously) if they look to alter existing patterns, power, or profit.

Illich argued that schools were the model for our institutionalized society, and that as such we needed to "deschool" society. The intriguing nuance is (my words, not his) that this process of protecting interests can actually lead institutions to perpetuating or contributing to the problems that they say they exist to solve.

People get promoted in organizations who are good at keeping the organizations relevant, at doing the things that strengthen the organization and not necessarily that solve the core problem the organization was formed around. It can even be argued that solving the problem would put everyone in the organization out of a job, and therefore is (consciously or unconsciously) disincentivized.

There's a lot of money tied up in prescribing medicines that wouldn't be there if you actually helped people change health habits, for example. There's a lot of money in people taking unnecessary financial risk that would disappear if you helped people become prudent savers. There's a lot more money in food "products" that keeps you wanting to eat more of it, than there is in healthy, unprocessed, food. You get the idea.

Each industry would say they exist to make people's lives better, but in our era of Internet information and dialog, increasingly and appropriately those narratives are being challenged.

Now, given the noble desires of those who have devoted themselves to education, how is it that schools not only work in the same institutionalized way, but actually seem to be the primary means of facilitating our compliant support for the larger institutionalized society model--setting the stage, is it were, and convincing us that we should listen to those who tell us to buy and do that which isn't good for us?

Perhaps it is as simple as the temptations of power. Large numbers of students, all locked into the same general model of institutionalized learning, present an incredibly tempting opportunity for making money or controlling outcomes. (So tempting that even the most progressive education reformers still cling to the core system, not wanting to radically shift the compulsory nature of school, but just to change the ideas that are being propagated to their own.) So of course, the language of education as liberating or empowering sits as a thin veneer over a system of compliance and control, allowing us to believe in the good without upsetting the apple cart--which I think we would if we really thought about the impact of schooling on most children.

There are many great, generous, caring teachers, administrators, and staff. Just as there are good doctors, bankers, and grocery store owners. But somehow we've accepted the larger institutional dynamic, and we even make excuses for it: "this is just how things work."

At some point, people start to get fed up. Especially as institutional illusions are confronted by dramatic realities. Such was the case with tobacco. It's increasingly becoming the case with food and banking. Not far down the road, I believe, are similar realizations about education as student loan debt and limited job prospects push us to really examine what schools do.

Institutions have a way of hanging on, of fighting to maintain their relevance. But the more we are thinking together about what really matters for children, youth, and young adults, the more prepared we'll be if we have to remake education.

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