On Education (Redux)

I’ve been pondering what it is schools do and what it is I can imagine they might do instead.  So you might gather from that statement that I do not agree with our current educational systems.  But, I might as easily say that this position is easily transferred to ANY institution that has been used to govern humanity.  With this being said, it might be fair to ask if institutions can be useful at all.  Can we reform what seems to have come into existence to serve as a kind of controlling mechanism for social thought and being?  Can we make something different with it?

First, what I consider to be a fairly apt description of calcified brutal systems that are honored and accepted as cultural institutions: Monty Python put it best in “The Life of Brian,” possibly one of the most brilliant pieces of cultural deconstruction ever performed.

The State, arbiter of life and death, condemns dissident minds.  The brilliance of this is NOT that the guard would have let the man go (decisions within bureaucracies) BUT that the man then condemns himself–accepts the judgement of the State as right and just and normative.  Also, it’s funny as hell every step of the way!

So, I suppose I need to work though the proposition that the world is organized badly, or rather, organized to the detriment of all living beings.  Even those of immense wealth are harmed by this organization.

Schools cannot escape this organizational principle; in fact, most of us would agree they serve this organizational principle as a way of promoting those cultural norms.  Schools serve social norms; social norms are hierarchical; social norms privilege the dominant economic class.  We might all agree with that; but why do we settle for it?

A friend recently reminded me that complacence is a cultural tendency as well as a tendency of physical bodies.  Complacence is simply inertia.  Our first thinker, Emerson, offered this in “Circles,” perhaps my favorite of his essays:

…let me remind the reader that I am only an experimenter. Do not set the least value on what I do, or the least discredit on what I do not, as if I pretended to settle any thing as true or false. I unsettle all things. No facts are to me sacred; none are profane; I simply experiment, an endless seeker, with no Past at my back.

This might be a first tenet of learning.  It would be my first tenet in creating a “counter-school.”

We tend to see the role of education as a transferring of public knowledge, or approved knowledge, and we forget, or perhaps it never enters our minds, that this is a limitation of being.  This is, in a sense, a cultural cage.

Also, we might consider what Schopenhauer has said in the essay “On Thinking for Yourself”:

It may sometimes happen that a truth, an insight, which you have slowly and laboriously puzzled out by thinking for yourself could easily have been found already written in a book; but it is a hundred times more valuable if you have arrived at it by thinking for yourself. For only then will it enter your thought-system as an integral part and living member, be perfectly and firmly consistent with it and in accord with all its other consequences and conclusions, bear the hue, colour and stamp of your whole manner of thinking, and have arrived at just the moment it was needed; thus it will stay firmly and for ever lodged on your mind.’

This imagines a being in time coming to a particular insight in a particular time and in a particular mind–in other words, at the right time.  As I think best in “motion”–I tend to need to talk and talk and talk in order to discover what I mean, but likewise I set book after book against each other (if partially) to find a resonance–I can see that ideas, like feelings, tend to “happen” outside of my conscious control.

And since Arty can’t really be against reading (having read many philosophers himself) we might set Waldo against this in order to show a way of privileging the USE of books as containers of “thinking” (in action).  From “The American Scholar”:

I would not be hurried by any love of system, by any exaggeration of instincts, to underrate the Book. We all know, that, as the human body can be nourished on any food, though it were boiled grass and the broth of shoes, so the human mind can be fed by any knowledge. And great and heroic men have existed, who had almost no other information than by the printed page. I only would say, that it needs a strong head to bear that diet. One must be an inventor to read well. As the proverb says, “He that would bring home the wealth of the Indies, must carry out the wealth of the Indies.” There is then creative reading as well as creative writing. When the mind is braced by labor and invention, the page of whatever book we read becomes luminous with manifold allusion. [my emphasis]

The reader, the student, is not, should not be, an “empty vessel” awaiting culturally approved ways of thinking and curricular artifacts that augment that way of thinking.

We must promote the rebellious reader and thinker first and foremost.  We must promote the “testing” nature of childhood in all aspects and throughout our whole lives.  We must offer gymnasiums to fill with experiment.

Unsettled minds are ALIVE (Emerson’s “active soul”).


Therefore I praise New England because it is the country in the world where is the freest expenditure for education. We have already taken, at the planting of the Colonies (for aught I know for the first time in the world), the initial step, which for its importance might have been resisted as the most radical of revolutions, thus deciding at the start the destiny of this country–this, namely, that the poor man, whom the law does not allow to take an ear of corn when starving, nor a pair of shoes for his freezing feet, is allowed to put his hand into the pocket of the rich, and say, You shall educate me, not as you will, but as I will: not alone in the elements, but, by further provision, in the languages, in sciences, in the useful and in elegant arts. The child shall be taken up by the State, and taught, at the public cost, the rudiments of knowledge, and, at last, the ripest results of art and science.  (RWE “On Education”)

Emerson has actually framed the problem yet called it a good: denied basic provisions, a man becomes a criminal by trespassing accidental property holders; a natural dissent against a system of economic injustice is then condemned and then publicly institutionalizes the condemnation.  A poor man may not eat, but he may be educated…to follow the rules against stealing the food he needs to survive and instead hire himself away to achieve bare subsistence.

Sometimes a mentor goes astray, right?

But perhaps he readies the field for the next mind’s seed: the pupil sees and hears the error where the master is blind and deaf to it.  Or perhaps it is simply a difference in the angle of vision or the tonal ranges to which one is attuned.

Thoreau is Emersonian in many ways, but his work often speaks out in reproach against the “social” fetters that seem to bind Waldo to systems of power made by man.  Man is exalted in Emerson as highest Maker and ever-striving Master of elemental nature–a “user” of all things; Man is almost effaced in Thoreau and the best of us serve as humble scriveners of the majestic mystery that surrounds us without end.  Emerson would have us “dare all” while Thoreau would have us leave the world in peace.

What does education do? It makes a straight-cut ditch out of a free, meandering brook. [Journal, 1850 ]

We boast that we belong to the nineteenth century and are making the most rapid strides of any nation. But consider how little this village does for its own culture. I do not wish to flatter my townsmen, nor to be flattered by them, for that will not advance either of us. We need to be provoked, — goaded like oxen, as we are, into a trot. We have a comparatively decent system of common schools, schools for infants only; but excepting the half-starved Lyceum in the winter, and latterly the puny beginning of a library suggested by the state, no school for ourselves. We spend more on almost any article of bodily aliment or ailment than on our mental aliment. It is time that we had uncommon schools, that we did not leave off our education when we begin to be men and women. It is time that villages were universities, and their elder inhabitants the fellows of universities, with leisure — if they are indeed so well off — to pursue liberal studies the rest of their lives. Shall the world be confined to one Paris or one Oxford forever? Cannot students be boarded here and get a liberal education under the skies of Concord? Can we not hire some Abelard to lecture to us? Alas! what with foddering the cattle and tending the store, we are kept from school too long, and our education is sadly neglected. [Walden “Reading”]

Those things for which the most money is demanded are never the things which the student most wants. Tuition, for instance, is an important item in the term bill, while for the far more valuable education which he gets by associating with the most cultivated of his contemporaries no charge is made. [Walden]

Thank you Henry, and Tammie and Paul…

We have any number of folks who know that our inmost soul has not want of institutional learning…we don’t want to “learn institutions”.

But this is what institutions teach: How to be an institutional being.


The poet May Swenson, in her preface to a selection of Tomas Transtromer poems she had translated into English, offers what might be the perfect vision for public education:

Signals and responses radiating from our senses (visual, tactile, acoustic, kinetic) give rise to various arts, for instance, painting, sculpture, music, and dance.  Poetry, we like to think, combines them all within its matrix of language, while producing an intellectual blossom specifically its own.  Fortunate are those arts not dependent on words–able to stand free, therefore, in the field of perception anywhere in the world..  To be widely “seen,” poetry must submit to alteration of its very body with the process of translation–an essentially clumsy and disfiguring act.

There is something in the phrase “submit to alteration” that reminds me of the Shakespeare sonnet that folks like to quote at weddings, #116:

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove…

We are always translated by the other.  And the other always translates us.  Swenson goes on to wonder why we haven’t come up with some kind of common tongue as most languages come out of a common root language.  There once was Latin of course, and Sanskrit…and cuneiform was a kind of common writing shared by cultures with different languages so many millenia past.  These were languages of learning and in that way were languages of privilege, of caste, of courts and accountants.

In some ways we are always struggling against that official version of life (of love, of poetry)–we want to translate back into our personal vernacular if we can.  Of course, we learn soon enough that the language of power is such for a reason and that we’d better pay heed if we are to score passing grades in life.

My continuing attention here to education, to schools and to thinking in schools has much to do with trying to re-translate the languages in which we live our lives.

What I am trying to stress is that it may be that school is the only opportunity we have to tell our children something else about the world; to offer another way to understand our cradle to grave period that doesn’t entail words like “career” and “money” and “global competition” or “resource scarcity” or “labor markets.”

The 100-years war in America of business interests against individual interest is, at least, being broadly and openly debated now via the “Occupy Movement.”

But, Power, as we must be aware, always tells the official story.  It is so often repeated as truth that we lose our ability to even question it.

In this respect offering to create schools with missions that are commitments to “learning”; to inspiring learning, developing learning, preparing for learning will not be sufficient.  We must interrogate the X of learning.  Our students will be inspired to learn…but what?  Class hierarchies?  Debt-reliance?  Freedom is what the biggest Military budget says it is?

Learning is always about an X. We can say we promote learning or the passion for learning or the process of learning I suppose. But there will always be a “what did you learn” lurking in there!  And that is indeed the culture of testing we are being forced to implement.

What we choose to teach and how we choose to teach it (the X) is what is value-laden. Even the particular choice or exclusion of content is value-laden (see the recent rewriting of textbooks for Texas children). It is chosen to meet a social preconception. “We are this.” My goal here is to promote a discussion about that very thing–If “we are this” what of it is good, what is questionable, what of it is harmful? We are “this” often simply by not paying attention to what we have become through external pressures.

So, I want to define our best possible human world. Mine is based on empathy and doesn’t value given hierarchies–I don’t value money outside of needing it for survival, I don’t value “ladder-climbing”, I don’t value “professions”, I don’t value rules and regulations that privilege a ruling class, and I don’t value trying to “work within the given.” I value re-writing these rules to better fit the whole.

To be blunt, I think our greatest failure as a species is what most likely value as the greatest strength, the drive to make and remake the world around us.  These “discoveries” tend to lead to greater and greater capacities for inflicting pain and suffering on others.

I am a proponent of doing nothing and of making nothing of any permanence (or rather, reducing the drive to permanence). I believe the artist who understands the ephemeral nature of being creates in the face of that very ephemeral nature, creates in the face of impermanence, a thing to be momentary and momentarily of beauty

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. The wind will blow it away and the river will erode it. We are this too.

Stones that we have thrown I hear
falling, glass-clear through the years.  In the valley
fly the moment’s chaotic
acts shrieking from
treetop to treetop.  Made mute
in thinner air than that of the present, they glide
like swallows over mountain
and mountain, until they
reach the farthest plains
at the edges of existence.  There fall
all our achievements
to no bottom
except within ourselves

(“Stones,” Transtromer/Swenson)

We create, we share, for the moment, for ourselves and our neighbors–we are to share the joy of the great gift of language and art. We are in no need of greater discoveries in the sciences. Unless of course they can determine how to stop our destroying ourselves.

So, all that said, to great groaning and eye-rolling, here is what I would hope for in a school:

No more than 10-1 student-teacher ratio
Vast rooms filled with musical instruments
Vast rooms filled with arts supplies
Vast rooms for performance
Immediate access to natural environments
Vast rooms and fields for play

Every child an artist, every child a musician, every child a poet, every child a thinker, every child a philosopher, every child a neighbor to every other child. Every child a reader. Every child a singer. And on and on.

Sadly, we spend the majority of our time creating ORDER. Imposition of order on a natural flow normally leads to disaster (cf. the Mississippi River).

“A building, a philosophy, an institution, a school devoted to disparate definitions of what it means to be human. A place promoting the critical consciousness of humans. A place promoting the Arts as the highest calling. Inquiry!, our motto. Artistic practice, our method.”






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