Thursday, December 17, 2009

Education in One Lesson

Unjustly neglected, difficult-to-find, and significantly influential on my own work, The Real Academic Community and The Rational Alternative by Thomas L. Johnson is a kind of “education in one lesson.” Like Henry Hazlitt’s gem on economics, Johnson’s begins with the lesson and then illustrates it abundantly throughout the remaining chapters.

The lesson? That schools today (and since antiquity) are institutions not of learning, but of authoritarianism. Force and fear reign supreme. Administrators and instructors “are the authority figures who must be obeyed in every respect, and students, who are the ‘peasants’ in this establishment, must try in every way to please those who rule over them.” In short, students “must please the schools, colleges or universities, instead of these institutions having to please the students.” The power of the book is in its illustrations of the lesson and in the free-market alternative that Johnson proposes.

From the primary and secondary school level:

Discipline. The authoritarian setting, says Johnson, works against the possibility of order in the classroom. Students are forced to be there by law, directly in the lower grades and indirectly in the higher, by the hampering of a free market through regulation. As a result, “almost everything in the classroom is done by means of orders and threats.” The students are ordered to perform certain tasks and threatened with low or failing grades if they don’t comply. Cornered rats—and prisoners—rebel when squeezed too hard. Schools are scholastic prisons and teachers are the guards and wardens paid to keep order.

Drugs. In the authoritarian climate of today’s schools, where the “customers” are not permitted to pursue their own interests, boredom, resentment, confusion, and low self-esteem frequently result. Drugs are seen by some students as a way to relieve their feelings of hopelessness.

Violence. “Force is the hallmark of any authoritarian establishment whether this be a state or an institution. And wherever there is force there will always be acts of violence. They are inevitable companions.”

Cheating. Anyone who has been through today’s school system knows that knowledge is not what is being marketed. “Students, recognizing that good grades and a diploma are what is really valuable to them, will often not hesitate to cheat in order to obtain these primary ‘goods’ which the teachers and schools are really selling.”

At the college level, Johnson has this to say:

Degrees. “It is because institutions of learning give out diplomas or grant degrees that they operate in an authoritarian manner. It is because the students must please the teachers and professors, as well as the institutions, in their attempt to ‘win’ the certificates of graduation that allows the schools, colleges and universities to be the dictatorial institutions that they are. . . . The professor orders the students to perform certain tasks—read certain assignments, write specific papers or reports, give designated oral presentations, etc.—and the students either follow these orders, or else.” Professors hold the degree up for ransom and their red ink pens are their guns.

Student Government. Why does it exist? Because students “realized that matters were often in need of change at the college or university and so they decided to band together in the attempt to see what they could do to bring about the desired changes.” In a free market, dissatisfied customers can stimulate change in a supplying business rather quickly, or else a new one will soon be on the scene to meet the needs of the dissatisfied buyers. But schools are not free enterprises. “All student government could really do was to petition, that is to beg, the administration or Board for favors—like changes in rigid social rules—that would make life at a bit more bearable.”

Academic Freedom and Tenure. Similar to the plight of students in an authoritarian climate, professors organized to protect themselves against administrations. They demanded and got the privilege of lifetime employment and the license to say and write whatever they please (as long as it is consistent with state or administration dogma). In a free market, employees who disagree with their employers simply leave and go elsewhere, and perhaps start their own businesses. Education, however, is not a business; there is nowhere for the professors to go.

Titles and Robes. Johnson discusses other issues, such as honor systems, academic and social probation, dress codes, hazing, and school spirit. His crowning achievement, however, is his comment on titles and robes.

“But what do titles signify?” asks Johnson, titles such as “Doctor” and “Dean.” He answers:

Titles signify power, prestige and authority, and they have always been used to instill fear in others—to con others into thinking that the titled personage is someone special and better than others who must be looked up to and obeyed. . . . Titles . . . are almost always found where there is some degree of tyranny.

How about academic regalia—

all those Medieval robes, caps and hoods? . . . It is true that certain businesses do have their employees dressed in similar outfits, or many businesses have a particular character, like a clown, dressed in a certain way and acting as a representative or symbol of the business. But one does not find, as one does in the academic community, a group of academic “clowns”—the professors, administrators, and board members—dressed in Medieval clerical garb forming and marching in academic processions that look almost identical to religious processions. . . .


Titles and robes are always found wherever one group of people is trying to lord it over another group of people. Kings and dictators get themselves up in fancy costumes and demand that they be called by an array of titles. Military and academic personnel do the same. But not businessmen. They do not, and cannot, lord it over customers. They must win the favor of customers by demonstrating their talent and ability. Talents and robes are of no help in a rational and healthy business environment.

The rational alternative to this forceful, fearful authoritarianism is a free market of educational businesses—”private, profit-making and openly competing enterprises that are only selling instruction, not grades and degrees. . . . There would be no entrance requirements and no prerequisites. . . . There would be no grades and no diplomas or certificates.” The customers would evaluate the sellers much as is done in free-market businesses today. Teachers, the peddlers of knowledge and ideas, would not evaluate the customers.

3 comments :

David said...

We take it for granted that schools should foster good citizenship. Universal education in this country in particular always kept one eye sharply focused on the goal of making good Americans out of us all.

We all know what America stands for. The guiding principles were clearly laid down by our founding fathers, and steadily elaborated ever since.

This country is a democratic republic. No king, no royalty, no nobility, no inherent hierarchy, no dictator. A government of the people, by the people, for the people. In matters political, majority rule. No taxation without representation.

This country is a nation of laws. No arbitrary authority, no capricious government now giving, now taking. Due process.

This country is a people with rights. Inherent rights. Rights so dear to us that our forefathers refused to ratify the constitution without a Bill of Rights added in writing, immediately.

Knowing all this, we would expect - nay, insist (one would think) - that the schools, in training their students to contribute productively to the political stability and growth of America, would

* be democratic and non-autocratic;
* be governed by clear rules and due process;
* be guardians of individual rights of students.

A student growing up in schools having these features would be ready to move right into society at large.

But the schools, in fact, are distinguished by the total absence of each of the three cardinal American values listed.

They are autocratic -- all of them, even "progressive" schools.

They are lacking in clear guidelines and totally innocent of due process as it applies to alleged disrupters.

They do not recognize the rights of minors.

All except Sudbury Valley School, which was founded on these three principles.

I think it is safe to say that the individual liberties so cherished by our ancestors and by each succeeding generation will never be really secure until our youth, throughout the crucial formative years of their minds and spirits, are nurtured in a school environment that embodies these basic American truths.

[excerpt, Back to Basics - Political basics, by Daniel Greenberg, The Sudbury Valley School Experience.]

The Choices We Face:

Schools Fit for a King or for a Citizen ?

Melting-Pot or Multi-Culture ?

Federal or Local Control ?

Today or Tomorrow ?

~ David

David said...

Subtleties of a democratic school

Certain nuances in the operation of Sudbury Valley School emerged during the years it has been in existence, which are essential in defining it:

Political neutrality [1]

The existence of rules of order [1]

The rule of law [1]

Universal suffrage [1]
This is the idea that everybody, every member of the school, student and staff, has a vote. It is really a simple idea, as opposed to the idea of democracy as it is sold in Academia, in the heart of our educational system, where the idea is a Greek one: democracy is for the privileged. Confusing the issue of subject matter with the issue of political power.

Protecting the Rights of individuals [1]

David said...

What's the most pressing need in public education right now?
Alvin Toffler: Shut down the public education system....
Reshaping Learning from the Ground Up (interview with Alvin Toffler)

Alvin Toffler on Education (video 6:39)

~ David