Education as a process of alienation

When we are small our progress towards maturity is something we understand and take pride in. We get taller, we run faster, we learn to do our own buttons, we can go to the toilet without help. As we start school that sense of progress continues for a while: we learn to read, write, count, reason mathematically etc.

But about age ten our sense of progress begins to change. We stop learning so that we can do new things and start learning because the teacher tells us to. The teacher has a whole heap of theories about what they are trying to get us to learn ( reasoning, communication etc) but they don’t tell us what they are. All we know is that we have to do a bunch of things (book reports, science reports, etc) in order to meet the teacher’s expectations. We are no longer learning, but being taught.

In traditional educational settings that never happened. Once a child had learned how to manage themselves the adults didn’t have time to piss around with arcane educational concepts. They needed help. So children learned how to manage responsibilities, make things, take risks and sort out their mistakes not in a simulator but in real life. The adults provided guidance about real things, not theoretical ones.

We like to imagine that the world is too complicated for this kind of education, but frankly I rather doubt that. Take, for example, coding. Children deal with web pages every day. Code is to modern children what cows were to traditional children. It’s all around them. But how much javascript do you see taught in the average primary school? Not one helluva lot.

If javascript is too obtuse for you then how about cooking. Everyone has to eat. Some schools teach cooking but usually in the sense of following a recipe. Cooking is a forerunner to chemistry but you’d never know that from looking at the way either of them are taught. How about making stuff? Once again schools teach this as a kind of craft, not as part of a continuum that progresses into building and construction or engineering.

OK, you may say, but what about art, civics and understanding other cultures? Well, I don’t think we actually teach that very well either. Politics is a perfect example. Children know about politics. There is politics in the playground. What we don’t do is talk about it. We don’t provide children with a vocabulary of politics. We don’t relate playground behaviour to political behaviour and study the practicalities of politics. Politics is not about the content (which could be anything), it’s about the behaviours, but we don’t arm our children with the ability to analyse that effectively.

And what about economics? Economics is simply the study of making choices in the face of scarcity (of resources, information or time). But most economic textbooks start with supply and demand curves. Once again this is alienating. Schools have scarcity. Homes have scarcity. Managing resources, information and time for optimal outcomes is a dimension of doing almost any other task.

The way we manage education at the moment is not about adding value to the lives of young people, it is about subjecting them to a form of institutionalised ritual so that some may be selected for reward and others not. Post secondary unemployment is typically high all over the world largely because kids haven’t been taught anything particularly useful about manipulating their environment.

A child-centric education system is about integrating the child into the means of production not only for others, but for themselves as well. Instead of alienating kids we should be empowering them with all the useful skills we learned after we left school.