Why school? Is its primary purpose to benefit the individual or the collective society? — Steve Hargadon
Steve Hargadon is the founder of the Learning Revolution conference series and the Classroom 2.0 social network for educators. He also runs the Future of Education podcast series (which has been on a short hiatus) and did a long-running series of weekly shows with Audrey Watters of Hack Education.
While much of Steve’s work focuses on edTech and education reform, classical philosophy is at the heart of his thinking. To him, the problems in modern pedagogy reflect a largely unrecognized philosophical opposition between the idea that education should build up of the capacity of the individual and the belief that it should train the individual to meet societal goals. To frame this distinction, he contrasts the Socratic method of education based on questioning with that of the Platonic vision in the Republic where the state has responsibility for raising and educating children. The Socratic method of education, he says, uses questions to draw out (Latin educare, to draw forth) the inherent intellectual capability of individuals, and challenges them not only to think deeply and with more clarity, but also to question the status quo. Steve sees the ideas of Socrates later echoed in the educational philosophies of the Transcendentalists, who thought that helping individuals become self-reliant and independent led to a higher form of community, which was at one time much more of an influence on our educational thinking than it is now.
In contrast, much of current thinking about education in the Western world since the advent of psychology and the belief in scientific management of the mind, reflects a belief in the use of education to achieve social purposes, with individual capacity subsumed by the needs of society. For Steve, the slippery slope is that even what we think of as progressive educational ideas are still presented within the context of broader social control. What we think of as being “progressive” ideas differ from existing ones only in that the progressives want the power of enforced education to further the specific ideas or programs which they see as being “right.”
Steve started off with lots to say about Acclaim’s recent post with Jordan Shapiro, “Using the education system to create the world we want.” We’ve broken the interview into two parts. In the first, using the framework above, Steve addresses our article with Jordan, and its vision for creating a better world through the education system. In the second Steve answers our questions about creating his ideal, the support of learning cultures with individuals at the heart of them.
Steve: I really liked the interview with Jordan! I think I would really like him, in the same way I like Audrey Watters. And I would call Audrey a friend. But in reading the interview with him, I find myself discovering the differences between what I believe is the educational thinking that’s taking place with dedicated thinkers like Jordan and Audrey, and a deeper, more critical, philosophical question which I am worried we are ignoring: who is education supposed to serve?
Jordan says: “We first have to ask what kind of world we want, then ask what kind of education system will create that world.” So what Jordan has just done is he’s put education into a Platonic framework. We have a Republic, and we need to have certain outcomes. We can have a school system, and that creates the outcome which we envision. Plato’s portrayal, in contrast, of how his teacher Socrates thought and acted represents something very different. Socrates thought that the ability for individuals to strengthen their own thinking is the most important part of education. My take is that when you strengthen individuals, they become more capable of working to create their own solutions.
When you strengthen individuals, they become more capable of working to create their own solutions.
Many important, progressive, educational thinkers feel to me like they’ve taken it as a given that one group of society should determine what society should look like, and then use schooling as a way to accomplish it. These individuals don’t agree about everything, and they have differences in pedagogical practices. One or group or another will win the day based on who or what is in favor, politically. But if you question the system as a whole, for example, the way that someone does when they decide to homeschool their child, the often-emotional and often-not-logical responses to homeschooling by educators make it clear that there is a shared core belief that there should be a system of control.
I think I really agree with Jordan on a lot of things and I don’t want to speak for him. But I want to question an idea from your interview with him: “We envision the world, and then we create it.” And to do so, I want to go back historically. In the late 1800’s, we started to think about the brain the same way we were thinking about other sciences. Our idea was that we could measure the brain and the brain’s activities the same way we were measuring other natural phenomena. And as a result, we moved away from philosophy and toward psychology. And what that did was produce behaviorism, or ways of thinking about interacting with other people where we seek to stimulate others in specific way, and get a certain responses back. So we moved from seeing other people as being independent agents to being things that we would stimulate and from which we would get a response.
From that time, this scientific way of thinking about human behavior started to become an explicit part of our larger political and social movements. We developed the belief in a new form of democracy — one which no longer depended on the checks and balances of independent individuals who rose to better thinking through challenging each other. It depended instead on the use of propaganda to create consensus among the larger population for decisions made at the top. It was called Progressivism because it was believed that we had progressed beyond individuality and checks and balances.
During the early twentieth century, the George Creel Committee was established to convince the public to enter WWI. This committee included Edward Bernays, who then went on to use his talents for commercial purposes. His book Propaganda, is reputed to have been a key influence on Hitler and Goebbels. The point of the book was, those in power should use symbols and emotions to get others to do what they believe needs to be done. Bernays was the double nephew of Sigmund Freud (Freud and his sister married siblings), and this idea of manipulating subconscious decision-making is at the heart of many current marketing techniques. What is scary is that these techniques work. What’s redeeming is that their efficacy decreases the more we are aware of them. This is then a great argument for teaching both logic and propaganda techniques to learners.
At that same time, in the 1920s, American society was faced with an influx of immigrant populations and with the need to provide workers for the burgeoning manufacturing industry. Rockefeller funds a great portion of the teachers’ colleges with the explicit idea that we need to create a group of people in our society who are willing to forgo the benefits of a higher education, and who are willing to become workers. The school system is designed to create people who will fit into this vision of an industrialized economy, which again reflects this idea of managing the populace for the benefit of the system. This is a big shift that I think the progressive educational thinkers miss. Which is, in their desire to make things better for students, they’re still operating under the assumption that one group of people in society should determine what another group of people should do in order to accomplish a larger vision of society.
In their desire to make things better for students, [progressive educational thinkers are] still operating under the assumption that one group of people in society should determine what another group of people should do in order to accomplish a larger vision of society.
For me, the education conversation exists on three levels. The first is administrative — how do we schedule classes, how do we block time, etc.? The second level is pedagogical. Should students be self-directed, should there be project-based learning, should there be outdoor education? These are important conversations. But the deeper, third level question is “why school?” Is its primary purpose to benefit the individual or the collective society?
The creation of the American school system, as we know it, came from a hodgepodge of influences in the 19th century, including significantly from Prussia and India. In Colonial India, the British needed to train managers, and also to train the rest of the people to be obedient. They didn’t want people feeling that they were capable. The Prussian school system was designed to train soldiers to go out on the battlefield and obey orders. The Prussians recognized that a feeling of individual capability does not allow to top-down control or provide the needed compliance. It’s not entirely fair to history or the complexity of educational thinking to simplify to these two examples, but we can ask ourselves a simple question: what is the outcome of our current system of learning? Do most students leave our public education system believing they are good learners? That they are capable of being independent and self-sufficient? Or that they are good at math? How is it that our system of learning leaves most who go through it feeling that they are not good learners?
How is it that our system of learning leaves most who go through it feeling that they are not good learners?
Back to Jordan. His words are, “The only reason why we teach reading, writing, arithmetic, etc., is because they are common languages that enable us to create a better lived experience for humanity.” I’m not sure I’ve sussed out his meaning on this entirely, but I’m interested in that process of creating a better lived experience. If he’s saying, “we’re going to empower the individual to become smarter, more capable of thinking clearly, and to have the tools of industry, and then they will create their own lived experiences,” then I agree. But if he’s saying that we need citizens with a certain set of skills so that when we tell them what we think they should do, they are able to do it, then I don’t agree.
Education is not really primarily about community needs in my view. It’s about how individuals become more intellectually capable, and then are able to work together with other people and build community. This is the philosophy of the Transcendentalists, which were at one time influential in our thinking about education, but now are really not. The priority of education for me would be to respect the agency of the individual. Any education system which allows for, or encourages controlling individuals is in fact making use of propaganda tactics.
So I know this is sort of deep and controversial, but I’m going to keep on… In another place Jordan says, “What kind of civilization do we want to create?” Again, I want to be careful not to presume I fully understand his thinking, but I believe this is different than saying, “We’re going to create some basic structures within which freedom operates, and a healthy culture depends on that kind of freedom to innovate and disagree.” This is why its so important to protect privacy — people need to be able to think independently and to question predominant ideas for us to be a healthy society.
Acclaim: I do think that Jordan would agree with you that industry and the government should not impose a specific set of values on the individual. However, he might argue that this is the way that we live, and we need these structures in order to motivate the kind of changes and provide an impetus to the kind of individual growth that you’re talking about. He didn’t say as much in the interview about the ability for the individual to strengthen their own thinking without a set of values defined by a school system or by the government.
Steve: Let me push back on on the idea of the need for these structures. Many progressive thinkers that I like say that they believe that the government or industry should maintain involvement or control over what and how students learn, but that their current (or their opponents’) values are wrong. They say that if we could keep the system, but just teach the right set of values, then everything would be OK. I call this the “progressive temptation” — to still keep the system of power, but just to use it for “better means” and a “better end”. Because the system of power exists, I hear the progressives saying, it might as well be them who run it rather than someone else; rather than the corporations, and the politicians. But I think it’s still the same thing. It’s old wine in new bottles. It’s a way of not questioning ourselves. It’s a way to not allow ourselves to be challenged, or to engage in better thinking through civil dialog.
Predominant progressive thinking conflicts with the idea that education is for the purpose of empowering the individual. Our 16-year-old took AP World History last year, and so consequently I took AP World History last year as well. While reading her textbook, it occurred to me that the story of every civilization is the story of those who have power and control, how they got it, and how they maintained it. The bold experiments in freedom that start with the Magna Carta, that broke so substantially with historical political systems, are not reflected in how we think about education right now, I don’t believe. How many of us know about the democratic school initiatives, or the kind of homeschooling, freeschooling, unschooling kind of work John Holt promoted in the mid-20th century? If we really believed that we were preparing all our students to be vibrant actors in our democratic society, wouldn’t we actually have many more real opportunities for students to practice that democratic governance and decision-making in our schools? I hate to say it, and I’m not the first one, but the school experience for most students is more like being in prison than being in a democracy. I don’t think anyone has consciously intended this, but it’s something important to think about.
If we really believed that we were preparing all our students to be vibrant actors in our democratic society, wouldn’t we actually have many more real opportunities for students to practice that democratic governance and decision-making in our schools?
What we may actually be teaching students through neglecting to involve them in determining their own education is how to be dependent, because that’s not a bad outcome for those that benefit from our system of dependency capitalism. In this system, manufacturers, government, and influential people depend on citizens to be compliant and dependent, buying the same things, watching the same TV shows, and not questioning things. So rather than helping citizens become independent, all of our major institutions work to create dependency. Students leave college with so much debt, the kind of debt that should be their first house debt. This means that they can’t do unique, independent things. They have to take jobs that can pay in order to manage that debt. This means that they’re not going to push back intellectually, and that they’re not going to think independently because they’re just trying desperately to just make loan payments.
If you go into any fast food chain, or restaurant chain, or any store where there’s a clerk, and you ask the person what their high school experience was like, they’ll say, “Well, I wasn’t one of the smart ones.” Again, what is our system of learning doing that it’s producing a huge percentage of people that believe they’re not smart? Who does that serve?
Again, what is our system of learning doing that it’s producing a huge percentage of people that believe they’re not smart? Who does that serve?
This is sort of a hidden conversation, but I believe this is what Ivan Illich was talking about in Deschooling Society, and what John Holt was talking about when he shifted gears from being a traditional education writer to essentially starting the homeschool movement. I think this is what John Taylor Gatto, the New York City teacher of the year for three years, and the New York State teacher of the year two years in a row, was saying when he announced that he was quitting teaching on the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal and said, “I can’t train children to wait to be told what to do… If you hear of a job where I don’t have to hurt kids to make a living, let me know.”
I know that this is radical. I’ve taken a hiatus from my Future of Education interview series for over a year to really think about this. Part of the reason why we don’t see this is because the power tempts us. We have a system, and all of us go through it. The progressives might say, “the world should be a greener, healthier place, we should eat good food, these are things that we believe in and so we should teach students to do this, too,” instead of thinking that if we help people become smarter, they’ll make smarter choices. I have to be clear here: I believe the world should be greener, healthier, and that we should eat better food (I personally eat a largely plant-based, vegan diet). I think that having agency and choice as a student is essential not only because every person is inherently and uniquely valuable, but also because I believe democratic systems of governance depend on voluntary participation by thoughtful people.
At core, I don’t think it is consistent with our ideas of freedom and of a generative and just society that one group of people determines what another group of people does. But this is how we currently think about schooling.
Read part 2 here.