The Pandemic Is Dark — But Throws Light on a Shady Side of School

When COVID-19 announced its arrival, on-site schooling ceased. Learning stalled alongside it and revealed just how essential school really is. But if the whole apparatus of school is indispensable, it is the result of an underhand operation perpetrated by the institution itself.

‘Schools Must Remain Open’

Political leaders of all stripes were adamant that schools must remain open throughout the pandemic. The children’s commissioner for England said that schools must be the last to close and the first to reopen. Their central concerns are learning loss and a widening attainment gap.

It took an overwhelming new wave of the virus to close classrooms once more.

A glance at the data confirms poor educational outcomes for pupils out of school. Two-thirds had not accessed online lessons during the initial lockdown, and a quarter of teachers reported more than three-quarters of their pupils had not done the work set. This trend will be starker amongst disadvantaged children whose home environments do not promote learning[i].

School Must Be Brilliant, Then?

Kids work more at school than they do at home. Hats off to school. But the tortoise is not lightning fast because it pulls away from the sloth.

It is, of course, difficult to acquire knowledge of the human endocrine system or the French conditional tense in a house of giddy siblings all sharing a single laptop, with parents who can’t help. But this is more an indictment of a disadvantaged home than a positive endorsement of school. And, frankly, teenagers struggle to care about these things in any setting.

In fact, it turns out that school itself has a serious hand in the lack of educational achievement outside its walls. It creates the demand for a service only it provides.

There is no dispute that school is essential. It is the essential muscle that bends pupils to complete absurd and alienating exercises. Exercises set by the school itself, remember.

It is essential, also, because if the pupil has learned anything from attending school, it is that she cannot learn by herself. The pupil has come to believe that learning depends on explanation and instruction, which are gifts given by the institution. The free use of her intelligence has become subordinate to those who tell her what to do, how and when. She cannot act alone.

The Absurdity of Schoolwork

The teacher teaches, and the pupil is taught, by power point presentation and worksheet to boot. A video chucked in, maybe. National curriculum dictates what is taught, and management mandates how it is taught. The pupil affects no impact on the world.

Henry VIII had six wives, and other flat facts fill the gaps of fill-the-gap tasks. She learns the fact to fill the gap. And fills the gap to learn the fact. It’s an inconsequential business.

The work is unfulfilling, but the worksheet must still be fully filled. Define the term. Label the diagram. And don’t wonder what might be the point.

‘We might as well set the pupil to observing carefully cracks on the wall and memorizing meaningless lists in an unknown tongue,’ wrote Dewey[ii]. After all, the activity is in service of nothing meaningful. In fact, it is in service of nothing at all.

The farm labourer may not vibrate for digging veg. But she at least provides nutrients for the people, and is anyway paid for the trouble. This guarantees some sense to her efforts. The greatest slice of schoolwork, however, is a means to no end — a worksheet for the sake of worksheets.

Clever children complete their tasks to demonstrate they are clever children. But exams are cancelled. So, they join the others, who disengaged from pointless and petty exercises all along — because they are pointless and petty. They slack off and prove they are not dead behind the eyes[iii].

The old guard fall flat on their face when they explain to resistant pupils that it is all for their own good. The point of the exercise, they say, is to learn. And they limit learning to curriculum knowledge. Young Gabriella will recall this knowledge in adult life and employ it in a manner altogether different from which it was learned, so the delusion goes[iv].

That general purpose of school makes only the teacher’s action meaningful, not the pupil’s. The teacher will see a change (a pupil with knowledge) that she has influenced for a cause she believes in… So long as she ignores the post-examination exodus of information from the pupil’s memory.

The pupil who sees no product of her work remains unmoved. I agree with Paulo Freire[v], and John Dewey would too. Education must be a praxis. That is, posing a real-life problem and setting about solving it through action.

Yet, subject-matter is often isolated from actual life experience. It has nothing to do with the price of fish. Making it hard to understand and difficult to care.

Lithium is presented from the beginning by its mass and abstract atomic structure. There is no practical acquaintance or physical dealing with a pinkish silvery metal in a social context where it is put to use. Across all subjects, content rarely contributes to a meaningful project.

Now, people often do pointless things simply because they enjoy them. Except, power point presentations and worksheets are not enjoyable. And they would not be entirely pointless if they were.

When it comes to worksheets, pupils are workshy. There is no natural inclination to do absurd things. But the institutional machinery is there to make them do it anyway. And this machinery is absent from the home.

‘What are you finding hard about working at home?’

‘I find it hard to just do my work and not go and do something else. Whereas at school you can’t just do whatever you want… you have to actually have your head in the lesson.’

‘What is the most important thing for you about getting back to school?’

‘Probably education. I’m not getting much of that. Sometimes I’m really not bothered to do work. But when you’re in school, you’re kind of forced to do it.’[vi]

Schools issue work that is not intrinsically motivating, then. Work that requires enforcement, therefore. This original move is overlooked — since it is the only game in town. And we sing in praise of school when it strong-arms pupils to carry out its absurd business, and quashes rational responses of alienation.

A Dependence on Explanation

The pupil knows nothing because the teacher knows it all. So, in a place where knowing is all there is to do, the pupil is unable to do anything whatsoever. She is incapacitated.

Drop by drop, the teacher administers knowledge and understanding the pupil does not yet have. The teacher explains everything, and she does so with the best intentions. But philosopher Jacques Rancière[vii] takes issue.

To explain right from the beginning is to communicate to the pupil that she cannot understand by herself. The act of explanation assumes ignorance and inability on the part of the pupil, and the pupil comes to believe it. She believes that her own intelligence is not up to the job and the explicator must ‘lift the vail off the obscurity of things.’

School inaugurates this obscurity when it says, ‘this is what you need to know, and only I can tell you about it.’

Education by explanation amounts to what Rancière calls ‘stultification’ — a process that keeps the pupil ‘in her place.’ It keeps her stupid because her intelligence is tied to those who name the world for her. The pupil becomes dependent on the school to reveal what the school itself had obscured in the first place.

Rancière recounts the case of Joseph Jacotot, who was invited to teach French in Brussels. It was not de rigueur to be laissez-faire but Jacatot was not au-fait with the Flemish tongue. He quite literally could not explain anything to his students who spoke no French. Jacatot gave each student a bilingual novel, they figured things out and learned to read and write French.

Rancière’s mission is not to prove that teacher and pupil are equally intelligent. It is to see what happens if the pupil is empowered, emancipated, and treated as capable. According to Rancière, the teacher should be an ‘ignorant interrogator’ who will simply help the pupil get clear about what they wish to learn and how they might go about it.

When learning went remote, the pupil was not emancipated. School stuck to the same old model of explanation. Only, the explanations got worse with distance (and poor internet).

The tight guiding grip of school had crushed all sense of self-efficacy. When the grip slipped to contain COVID, the pupil fell and failed to land on her feet. School reopened in September, scooped her up and set her back to work.

Everyone thanks goodness for school, unaware of its racket. You see, school itself created the demand for a service only it provides… like a cunning plumber who blocked pipes in the night, turned up the next day with a reasonable quote, and now comes highly recommended to family and friends.

— — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — — —

To summarise:

School’s first move was to define learning by curriculum knowledge. This becomes the sole and standard measure of learning. It then issues absurd and alienating work in order for the pupil to gain the knowledge, superficially. Moreover, this knowledge is often irrelevant and never employed with purpose. The rational response of the pupil is, therefore, to disengage. In school, the institution has the power to make pupils do it nevertheless. At home, pupils can slack off at will.

In addition, school sends the message to the pupil that only the school itself can give them this ‘essential’ knowledge. And that it can only do so by explanation. In the end, the pupil depends on explanation from authority, and cannot act for herself.

People fail to see the initial moves. See schoolwork and methods as neutral, doing no damage. And see school to be solving a problem rather than creating a problem.

[i] Summer holidays already account for as much as two thirds of the attainment gap between rich and poor children at age 14.

[ii] Dewey, J., 1982. Democracy Education. Free Press (page 67)

[iii] ‘Slacking off’ would be the plain English for what sociologist Erving Goffman called ‘the failure to exhibit “presence”.’ He wrote that it ‘is a normal, understandable expression of alienation from, and hostility to, the gathering itself and the officials in it’. — Goffman, E., 1963. Behavior in public places : notes on the social organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press. (page 25)

[iv] “Only in education, never in the life of a farmer, sailor, merchant, physician, or laboratory experimenter, does knowledge mean primarily a store of information aloof from doing,” wrote Dewey.

[v] Freire, P., Bergman, M. [trans.], 2010. Pedagogy of the oppressed 30th anniversary ed.. New York: Continuum

[vi] BBC Newsnight interview with pupils studying at home.

[vii] Rancière, J., Ross, K. [trans.], 1991. The ignorant schoolmaster : five lessons in intellectual emancipation. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

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