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Education as an Instance of Life

Critics of the “blame the teachers” mentality seem to agree with several educational principles that we have promoted in our blog, and that continues a tradition initiated in the United States by John Dewey. The most important principle on which they agree is that education is not only not separate from life; it is an instance of the process of living. Therefore, there is more to it for the student than what goes on in classes and in time spent studying. They also agree that the outcome of education is not merely a collection of memorized facts, but a way of learning that involves learning how to learn.

The idea that students ought to learn how to think for themselves is intelligible only if we agree that “thinking by myself” is also and inevitably “thinking with others.” That goes along with respecting dialogue over debate and questions over answers. It also means being able to couple critical thinking with self-criticism.

I believe that all of these values are immanent to the university. They can’t be measured separately, as if they are skills in which students can be trained. These values are also inherent in being a citizen-participant in the great community of strangers we call “society.”

To the extent that we accept even a part of the product-orientation that represents a managerial rather than an educational perspective and that is now largely responsible for what I view as the degradation of education, we are complicit in what we claim to oppose: a lack of respect for the process of education, a failure of students to appreciate what they gain from attending an institution of higher education, and a glibness that is imposed by mechanistic styles of teaching.

A teacher’s self-respect involves recognizing that teaching is also learning and that the student is part of that process. A teacher’s respect for her students involves acknowledging that a certain amount of what appears to be adolescent resistance to teaching and authority can be understood better as a demand for a “dialogical” approach—characteristic of a conversation among equals—rather than as a “monological” approach—characteristic of training.

The monological approach imposes and implants ideas, giving students packaged goods rather than encouraging and contributing to lives already in process. The latter would require dialogue to be a feature of everything that is taught and everything that teaching involves—in the same way that ambiguity is an irreducible feature of everything that is deliberately said, communicated, and acted upon. When ambiguity is suppressed, it is to the detriment of thinking itself.

So what is really involved in the move to blame teachers and adopt incentive plans and other competitive, anti-collegial measures intended to weed out those at fault? Blaming teachers and demanding measurable teaching outcomes are ways of denying the social dimension of education. It is not only anti-intellectualism that is involved in the conservative and managerial attitude toward education. There is a far more fundamental problem that goes to the heart of what is ideological about the attacks. It is the inability of those eager to find fault in the product-oriented system they are in the process of imposing to accept the social aspect of citizenship. That is, they are committed to a position that denies the existence of society, and therefore the social dimension of education as well. This is something Mrs. Thatcher famously took pains to state as part of her justification of her attacks on public institutions in England.

In this respect, blaming the teacher rather than acknowledging that education is part of the process of living in a complex society is a way of denying the significance of the social aspect of life. Once we acknowledge the significance of that aspect, and that it is what is fundamentally under attack, we will be better able to address the real problems of the university, including those that have to do with teaching methods, evaluation, and distinguishing what is “relevant” from what is “irrelevant” in our curricula.

One thing we can be sure of is that a socially conscious perspective will lead to a very different discussion of what is wrong and what is right in postsecondary education. And it will lead to ways of imagining the educational process different from the stultifying ones being imposed—sometimes directly, sometimes covertly—by the mix of conservatism, corporatism, and free-market fanaticism that is coming to operate as the ideological base of the current teacher-blaming approach to education.

Look for our wrap-up later this week.

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