Extreme perspectives in education

Where can we find balance?

Twitter, for me, has been a good source of extremes in education. People involved in the educational debate tend to either show what they think are examples of extreme good practice, such as Sudbury Schools, or particularly bad practice, such as stamping children with messages to their parents. They may share beautiful expressions of what they think education should be or quotations from Henry David Thoreau about how children should just be left to nature and given total freedom to follow their bliss.

In the Communications Age.

What is good education? Or, as many people believe, is education always good by definition – and that all that stuff masquerading as education that they think is bad is not really education at all? Can we take a philosophical stance and claim that, like art, there is no such thing as good education but there is such a thing as bad education? Many people reading this will jump to the conclusion that I’ve never seen good practice or are not aware of all the good alternatives that are out there.

On the contrary. I know that the world is full of excellent alternative educational practices. Many, many people know that standardizing and testing, for example, are harmful and find age-grouping and dressing kids in the same uniform absurd. Yet, it must be pointed out, this is nothing new. You still hear people saying that “learning is natural” as if it’s the latest discovery. There has been widespread understanding of these things and effective practice based on these understandings for over a hundred years.

The issue no longer seems to be that people are not aware. Authorities will continue to direct education in the way that suits them best – as they have always done. But within mainstream institutions the majority of people understand it’s the wrong way to do it. In fact, a new extreme is beginning to appear.

This new extreme is uplifting and I whole-heartedly agree with the spirit of its discourse. But it is overlooking something important. It’s wonderful to talk of how education is about creating beautiful children all pursuing their unique path and interests, but this perspective comes in a context of historically rare security and peace. Survival for well-educated, middle-class, North American pedagogically-enlightened families is all but guaranteed. In such a situation, it is easy to overlook the vital role education plays in survival. And the role education has played in survival throughout human history. Many commentators on the extreme to which I refer talk about raising children as if we are living in the Garden of Eden. Truth is, we live in complex societies and civilizations. Education has an enormous role to play in maintaining the structures we depend on – and one of those things is a degree of homogeneity, whether we like it or not.

The desire to break free is a common human sentiment. Those who see the tyranny of the state naturally want to create their own education service, and education alternatives are always based on the principles of freedom and individuality. I myself homeschool my children. But we should not forget what it really means to be a civilised human being and how fragile that achievement could be. It would be wonderful if education could be simply about achieving one’s personal bliss – but for most of our history it has been about our survival in ever bigger groups. The fact that we can now live and educate and discuss in the ways we now can is built on that survival and this is a fact worth remembering and sharing with our children as we educate them, in whichever way we choose.

gary john ilines copyright 2019

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