Thursday, August 25, 2005

On the Argument for Schooling

There has been a tantalising exchange of views between Chris O'Donnell at his US Home School Blog and Expat Teacher.

Expat started it off by providing an argument supposedly for schooling, declaring that:

There are three options for the goals of education: Democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility.

To start with, if one is to take this particular hypothesis seriously, it is not immediately clear why it is supposedly an argument in favour of schooling. What we do have here is a theory about the goals of education and since schooling is not synonymous with education, the argument does not seem to answer the problem it purports to solve, ie: to provide the argument for schooling. It is not at all clear either whether schools can actually achieve these goals, or whether schools can uniquely achieve these goals. Expat also doesn't want to address the issue of why HE fails in this regard, so we cannot even infer a clear argument from this source either.

In point of fact, if one were to take these goals seriously, it is very questionable whether schools are the best place to achieve them. Schools, routinely being authoritarian institutions, do not offer a genuine model of democratic equality, nor when children are coerced, as they frequently are in schools, does it offer the chance to learn in a genuinely efficient manner in a way that would underpin genuine social efficiency. Finally, for good measure, by keeping children firmly in their place, schooling does not offer the chance of genuine, freely initiated social mobility.

By way of a contrast, rational criticism and creative thinking, which are the very tools that do underpin democratic equality, genuine social efficiency and the possibility of social advancement are much more possible outside of school, where the constraints of authoritarian schooling do not present a problem and where a parent can offer theories tentatively and help a child enact their autonomy.

For more explanation on what I mean here: the statement "There are three options for the goals of education: Democratic equality, social efficiency, and social mobility" can be used to demonstrate certain epistemological problems very nicely.

Firstly, it makes manifest the problems of authoritarian pedagogy. There is seems to be an assumption here that teacher knows best. Indeed it rather seems that the teacher believes themselves to know things for certain, that these ideas are irredeemably, infallibly right. Even if this is not the case, and teacher is holding these theories tentatively, there would, in a school situation, be very little opportunity to question these assertions deeply, which to all intents and purposes means that these assertions seem infallible.

This is, of course, very poor epistemology and one very good reason not to send kids to school, since it is a commonplace problem there. Knowledge is, of course, always tentative and up for improvement, and though we may dismiss bad ideas through falsification and criticism, we cannot know that even our best ideas are the very best. I only remember a couple of examples of this epistemology being modeled throughout my whole time at school. (University was significantly better in this regard, incidentally.) Most of the time we were led to believe that we should believe what we were told, since it was unquestionably right.

This declaration also seems to demonstrate the epistemological error of assuming that you can pour knowledge into the head of someone else as you would water into a bucket, since it is seemingly predicated upon the idea that the declaration of goals is sufficient to their realisation. This is not the case. Learning takes place in the mind of the learner when theories are active within the mind. The learner is responsible for this. Imposition of ideas into a mind that is not addressing the ideas results in coercion, ie: being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind. This in turn results in an inability to apply reason and creativity to the theory.

It seems to me that any goal of education should be constructed upon the basis of what actually happens in the learning process. To deny the basics of how the mind works in the setting of educational goals, is equivalent to deciding to walk round the world without addressing the fact that humans are not constructed in such a way as to make this possible. Given that learning takes place in the mind of the learner and that you cannot simply imprint an idea upon his mind, this being a physical impossibility, the goal of education should be to facilitate the theories that are actually active in the mind of the learner. Therefore, far better to respond to questions that the learner asks. This way one will have a much better hit rate with regard to providing information which will receive active criticism and creative thought.

Schools do not easily have a chance to do this. At the very least, they are frustrated in achieving this goal since they cannot address the active theories in the minds of a class of some 30 odd children. More often than not, though, this aim wouldn't even be adopted by the staff, since traditional pedagogy is the unquestioned ethos of most schools.

HE is frequently superior to schooling, since there is a much greater chance that an adult can be on hand to answer a child's questions, to address the theories that are active in the mind of the child. Plus, HE adults very frequently hold this as their stated intent.

So in answer to the question, "why do you teach your child?", I would say that education should, given that it takes place solely in the mind of the learner, be about giving children the opportunity to address the theories that are active in their minds. Given that theories are always up for improvement, I would not dream of setting a curriculum of pre-prescribed ideas, but will offer my theories tentatively. In addition, given the fact that a child will need to enact their autonomy within the context of society, it is almost inevitable that a discussion of issues such as civic responsibility (or the other goals that Expat mentions) will emerge. Indeed the learner may choose to adopt these goals, but this process does not involve an coercive imposition of any of these goals. What would be the point? Coercion limits rational criticism and creativity and therefore does not optimally or genuinely contribute to any of Expat's stated goals of education.


COD said...

That was a brilliant retort.

Expat Teacher said...


I wish I had time to respond to this post point by point, but unfortunately my hours on the computer is limited.

Let me just make two observations...the first is that you seem to be arguing methodology and not philosophy. The discussion of setting goals dependant "upon the basis of what actually happens in the learning process" seems to hint at the HOW rather than the WHY.

My second point regards your final statement "So in answer to the question, 'why do you teach your child?', I would say that education should, given that it takes place solely in the mind of the learner, be about giving children the opportunity to address the theories that are active in their minds."

Can I ask Mr. O'Donnell's original question of me...when do you teach reading, math, the ability to form complete sentences and the ability to reason if a child doesn't show any interest in those topics?

Carlotta said...

Dear Expat,

Thank you for your points. I enjoyed thinking about your questions.

"The discussion of setting goals dependant upon the basis of what actually happens in the learning process" seems to hint at the HOW rather than the WHY."

Of course, if we divorce the two aspects entirely, we are clearly in for trouble, since we will never achieve our goals; but it is clearly the case that schools have persisted so long in their current form at least in part because the goals to which you refer are potentially attainable through the method. However, when this does occur, it is, to a huge degree, a matter of a mixture of coercion and luck, the first of which is unquestionably sub-optimal in terms of learning, and the second of which is mostly a matter of serendipity, rather than rationally held free choice. Again this last is suboptimal, since underpinning all conceivable worthy goals of life would be the idea that one had truly freely chosen to realise those goals.

One of the reasons why I believe that saying that the goal of education is anything other than assisting a learner to enact the theories that are active in his mind, is that knowledge is an open-ended thing. We can never, in advance, predict what new knowledge will be generated. To predict the purpose of knowledge before we know exactly what it is, would therefore clearly be spurious. We can hope that new knowledge would contribute to at least one of the three categories to which you refer, but we cannot know that this will be the case. To delineate the goals too prescriptively, is potentially to limit the growth of knowledge and would be a poor theory of knowledge to offer to our children.

I also believe that the goal of education really should be about realising the possibility of enacting rational autonomy, since this is the way that a human works in optimal fashion. The fact that humans work best when they are enacting the theory that is active in their minds is therefore both the method and the goal, since this would seem to be an optimal foundation of the human condition.

"Can I ask Mr. O'Donnell's original question of me...when do you teach reading, math, the ability to form complete sentences and the ability to reason if a child doesn't show any interest in those topics?"

I am trying to imagine a situation in which this could be the case. As yet, I haven't, (over the long term) come across such a situation in autonomously educated children, since they come to realise that in order to enact their autonomy as they would wish, both in the world outside and within their family, they will need the skills to which you refer. They want to learn maths because, for example, they want to use money to realise their goals. They want to read so that they can gather information about their interests. They relish the ability to form complete sentences because clear expression helps them get what they want.

These skills typically do not happen in the predictable way that is prescribed in schools. We often find, for example, (this is a very broad categorisation), that girls learn to read at 3, and boys at 8, which in the HE community is no problem at all. Boys may, for example, develop impressive auditory and logical memory as a means of coping.

If it were indeed the case that a child really did not want to learn a particular subject that would seem vital to the realisation of his autonomy, a parent can spend some time offering tentative theories about why the skill is valuable. The parent can also ask themselves whether, given that the child is clearly able to enact his autonomy without this particular skill, this skill is a genuine prerequisite for the autonomous life. The parent can also try to find methods that will make the acquisition of these skills a genuine interest for the child. Most of this would be virtually impossible in a classroom full of children.

Becky said...

Carlotta, thanks so much for the heads-up on this. And when I'm done with that, it's on to science and faith. How on earth am I ever supposed to catch up with the housework lol? Cheers!

Carlotta said...


Lol...the things is, your blog has precisely the same effect on my household!

Ron said...

Great post.

May I give my answer to the last question in your comment, I come from a large family and I have spent my whole life around children. And with the exception of an autistic child, every other child has or had shown a desire to do those things before they ever set foot in a public school.

Since I am now in the process of assisting my 4th child in pursuing that interest, my gut tells me that the lack of interest which often exists in the public school classroom can in most cases be directly attributed to the disconnection which Carlotta so eloquently described in this post.