Wise Hat News
2nd November 2003, #5
The task of the educator lies in seeing that the child does not confound good with immobility and evil with activity.
It feel like an eternity since the last issue. But the questions that plagued me before are even more omnipresent in my mind now. Just what is genuine democracy and how does it relate to genuine learning? What is genuine freedom and to what extent is genuine learning dependent upon it? And just what do I mean by genuine anyway?
Take for example the idea of Halloween. What is it and how happy should it and can it be? When I was a child living in England Trick or Treat was unknown.We played apple-bobbing. I can't remember when I learnt that this was symbolic for drowning women by tying them up and throwing them into water. And even now I'm uncertain whether a woman who floated was seen as a witch and instead burnt at the stake, or whether floating was a sign of innocence and divine intervention. Neither sound particularly 'happy', although perhaps those who gained at the demise of the women concerned could raise a smile.
Thinking further, one can also wonder what apple-bobbing has to do with Halloween, which as I understand it was an ancient Celtic festival to mark the end of the old year. Except that the Celts called their festival Samhein.The word Halloween came with Christians. The Celts did carve scary faces (from root vegetables like rutabagas) and they did dress up but trick or treat was probably a medieval tradition. I read recently that it is something to do with 'role reversal' where the positions of the powerful and the unpowerful are reversed, all be it temporarily. Role reversal holidays are supposed to help maintain the existing social orders of the societies that hold them. To me that sounds like a good reason for not observing them.
I've never liked trick-or-trick. It seems like an exercise in extortion which I've always thought wrong. Hand over the goods or else! I find it difficult to understand why we would want to encourage this kind of behaviour even in play. But then, perhaps, it is simply mirroring the way the World really works. The powerful push the weak around to get what they want. Big companies use their size (read economies of scale) to gain advantages over smaller companies. Very big companies influence regions and even whole states to get terms (legal and economic) that maintain and increase their power. Then states create laws which limit and shape the freedom of people both inside and outside their borders. And of course the more powerful a state becomes the more likely it is to use violence to achieve its objectives. Perhaps there is nothing wrong with extortion?
But of course there is, otherwise there would be no need to hide it. When the United States, aided by the British decides that it wants to increase it's influence in the Middle East by invading Iraq (not to mention the profits to be made from reconstruction and oil) it cannot simply use the argument 'might is right'. Instead we get stories about weapons of mass destruction, fighting terror and the removal of a tyrant. We get the creation of a myth. Of course the myth doesn't involve the simplest of questions. There's no need to examine who supported the tyrant or where he got his weapons from. The myth is enough. Similarly there is no need to consider international law, or international relations or even human rights because the myth makes this unnecessary. The myth says, "we are good and that makes what we do right". Accordingly it is perfectly possible to see the occupation of a country as the establishment of democracy and to conduct policies that kill civilians as a war on terrorism. It is also perfectly possible for an American three star general to claim that George Bush is in the White House because "God put him there." See here!
I wonder if this is how the Christians adopted and adapted Halloween. Heaven and Hell were not Celtic concepts. The Celts believed in faeries and considered that the faeries were hostile to humans because humans were taking over their land. The association of Halloween with evil came later. Possibly this had something to do with the Church's increasing dislike of witchcraft.
I am not suggesting that regarding Iraq either the United States and British Governments or regarding Halloween the early Christian Church lied. I'm also not suggesting that they didn't. But what I think is that the creation of a myth works on a different level than notions of veracity or falsehood. Something else is involved. Something to do with action and inaction and belief systems. Something to do with democracy and education. I hope this issue I can reveal a little of what I mean. Here goes!
P.S. As far as I know there is no evidence that bobbing apples represent drowning witches. So how did I learn it? More on that later.
The teacher must derive not only the capacity, but the desire, to observe natural phenomena. The teacher must understand and feel her position of observer: the activity must lie in the phenomenon.
Shortly writing the last newsletter I found myself attending a Taiko demonstration at a nearby Junior High School. The event was put on especially for pupils and their relatives. This was to cause a problem. One of my own adult students had a daughter at the school and was entitled to go, but she thought I and her own classmates might like to attend. But unknown to us, the invitation leaflet made it pretty clear that outsiders were not permitted to attend. Accordingly we arrived and it was pretty obvious that our group contained non-relatives. I don't know if my student had intended that we 'snuck' in, but I was uncomfortable doing so. So my student disappeared into the principal's room. It took around ten minutes but she managed to get permission for us to go in. We signed the event attendance books and walked into the main hall.
Inside pupils were sitting down in exact rows. Non-pupils had an area off to one side. Pupils had to sit on the floor. Non-pupils had the option to use cushions. I sat on the floor. I focused on the students. They were all dressed exactly the same, even down to their socks. Only their indoor shoes were different. They were all white and were exactingly the same, but they were made different by numbering. Each pair of shoes had its own number. It was like a prison. I began to wonder how many of the students really wanted to be there. I could guess that for many a Taiko demonstration would make a welcome break from ordinary lessons. That would certainly have been the case with my own schooling. As I write now, I remember one Friday afternoon when we all trooped in to the assembly hall to hear a talk by a man from the army. It was mildly more diverting than Friday afternoon lessons but not by much. We all knew we were a captive audience. I wonder if the man from the army recognised this. I remember him struggling to get us to ask him questions, he'd have had a better chance of shooting someone and not getting blood on a stone.
Of course a Taiko demonstration is much more interesting than listening to a propaganda talk for the military, and I think universally so. It is so much more alive and the group that performed were good. They interspersed riveting performance with information about the drums being used and personal reflections. Follow your dreams they said, and played with passion. One would have had a very hard time not becoming energised, though I guess some pupils managed this.
School is practise in becoming dead. Even schools that allow pupils to wear their own socks are in the business of teaching conformity and subservience to authority. School is not about learning to follow one's own whims and desires. School is not about developing one's intuition and sense of life. School is about time-tables and discipline. Not self-discipline, but acceptance of external authority. School is training in passivity.
I wonder just how many of those young teenagers would have chosen to stay and listen to the Taiko drummers if they were given a real choice. Certainly the ones who were eager volunteers to participate in the finale would have done so. But I wonder about the ones who sat rather glumly, withdrawn in on themselves. I wonder about the ones who were tolerating the event rather than participating in it.
There's an old Japanese saying that goes something like, "The nail that stands up shall be hammered down". I'm not thinking now about the nails that stand up. They've got the metal to look to themselves. I'm thinking about all the nails that sit in place, the nails that never seek to resist the hammer at all. Even when the hammer is nailing them down in their own coffins.
Since the war on Iraq began there have been over 1,700 US soldiers injured and over 200 killed. (I wonder why I couldn't find figures for the UK). Some of the figures I did find are here.
Do the poor (and it's almost exclusively the poor) who enlist in the United States Army do so because they see the army as the only way out of poverty? Or do they enlist because they want to participate in their country's myth - the story of the American Dream? Perhaps there is a connection?
At the Peace as a Global Language Conference (see below) I came across an interesting book, You Don't Know War (Kamogawa Shuppan Publishing Company, 2003). The author, Allen Nelson served in Vietnam, survived and now visits schools to tell his story. Tellingly he writes of his mother's reaction to his decision to enlist:
I remember going home to tell my mother that I had joined the Marine Corps. I thought she would be happy and proud. But my mother was very angry, very disappointed, and she even started to cry.
His mother was all too aware of the myth. She could see through it. Despite living in terrible poverty (she spent her days working and her nights guarding her sleeping children against rats), she could see through to the truth. In war the poor suffer. Her son had to go to Vietnam to discover this.
(You can read more about Allen Nelson here.)
But how does this connect to schooling? How does this connect to the Taiko drummers? In my mind it connects to the extent that there is a gap between what we say we believe in and what we actually do. This is where and how the myth is sustained. And the greater the myth becomes the more destructive it is.
When the Taiko Drummers spoke to their audience of teenagers about the importance of following their own dreams, they were adding to the myth. What sense does it make to talk like that to children in uniform with numbered shoes? Follow their own dreams - they weren't even allowed to decide whether to attend the performance or not. If the Taiko group were true to the meaning of those words then they would refuse to perform to a captive audience. They would be aware of linking their actions and their words together into a whole flow of existence. Not that I mean to blame or shame the group. I'm not even naming them. And I am no better. I write and I talk but how far do my actions really harmonise with my words. I believe in democracy and choice but how much do I really give that to my own students? And can I really give it, anyway? Perhaps it's the other way around. Perhaps it's more about not taking it away. Perhaps it's more about not supporting systems that do so. Perhaps it's more about challenging myths.
We tell children at school that we have democracy but give them no chance to experience it. We say we value individual choices but we seldom allow children to have any. We say we value peace and freedom but we pay for weapons to be made and we pay people to use them. We say we respect and care for the environment but then we live in a way that destroys it. We feed the myth.
We are good and that makes what we do right.
Discipline must come through liberty. Here is a great principle which is difficult for the followers of common-school methods to understand. How shall one obtain discipline in a class of free children? Certainly in our system, we have a concept of discipline very different from that commonly accepted. If discipline is founded upon liberty, the discipline itself must necessarily be active. We do not consider an individual disciplined only when he has been rendered as artificially silent as a mute and as immovable as a paralytic. He is an individual annihilated, not disciplined.
The Second Peace as Global Language Conference took place at Seisen University, Gotanda, Tokyo over the weekend of September 27th and 28th. A conference proceedings CD will be put together. Click here for more information
There were some very interesting presentations, though for me the greatest attraction of the conference is meeting so many people interested in peace and acting on that interest.
One of the things I have been thinking about since the conference is the relationship between individual actions and global change. Possibly this is because recently arguments about individualism versus collectivism have been invading my inbox. I may return to this theme in another newsletter but not now. If you want to see an example of what I'm talking about try here.
I think the distinction between the individual and the group is false. This is not to say that individual action is unimportant. For example Karma Yoga Press is the work of one teacher, John Small
John, who also goes by the name of Michael Spiri is self producing text books and readers that promote peace and global understanding. He gives the profits away.
This is an example of direct action by an individual. Another famous individual who involves himself in Global Issues is Sting. He is known for championing the Rain Forests. he appears in the video Spaceship Earth.
The video is aimed at interesting American teenagers in Global Issues. It's fast paced and very visual. It attempts to show how we are all connected and why caring for the environment is important.
I like the fact that the program is youthful (for example it is presented by a teenage girl) even thought the format is conventional. And I like the way it uses puzzles to engage the audience:
Kids eating burgers in Los Angeles. Surfers in Australia. Indians in the Amazon. What in the world do they have in common?
But there is a problem. There is a lack of 'critical analysis'. After demonstrating how the World is connected the program suggests that we should take action. There then follows a montage of images showing people taking action such as car pooling and recycling paper and glass. The program suggests that by taking individual action of this nature we can 'make a difference'. The underlying causes of the problems are largely ignored. For example, take car pooling. According to the book Cradle to the Grave (John Whitelegg, 1993, Umweltund Prognose-Institut Heidelberg) a car causes more pollution before it's ever driven than in it's entire lifetime of driving. (More statistics about cars are here)
The problems facing the World are at a deeper level than the program examines. Examining and changing individual consumption patterns is useful, especially where this brings people together and gets them communicating, but unless we change the structures we use to create and operate society it's like lighting a candle in a whirlwind or more appropriately perhaps, using an eyedropper to put out a raging inferno.
One can argue that critical analysis of political and economic processes is controversial but to leave it out of a such a program completely simply furthers the myth:
We are good and that makes what we do right.
Having said this it is important for me to state that I haven't seen all the video. The presentation I attended went through the first half of the video only. It could have ended with the kind of analysis I'm thinking of in which case my opinion would be different. But I really doubt it. I feel if the makers of the video were aware of and wanted to look at and include the structure of society they would have made their video differently. They would have been more explicit. And this brings me to the dilemma I am still working on. The dilemma is this:
How can one have a curriculum and be democratic?
This may not confound some people but it confounds me. At the conference I brought this up as a theme where I could. In general it seemed a non issue. In general it was accepted that the teacher teaches and the students learn. The teacher can give choice and reflect upon the needs, wants and views of the students but ultimately the teacher has the responsibility to make the decisions. In other words enlightened despotism.
It could be argued that at tertiary level (and I guess a majority of the conference goers were from Universities), this isn't a problem. Presumably students have freely chosen to enrol. For pupils at primary and secondary schools such choice hardly exists and the situation is more critical. But even in Universities I think there is a problem, at least if the aim is to get students to think.
The concern I have about the enlightened despot approach is that it is conditioning people to think within limits imposed by external authority. The teacher sidesteps problems that democracy might bring up by not dealing with them. But by not embracing democracy teachers tacitly accept hierarchy and lead the students to do likewise.
What am I going on about! Well, recently I've been attempting to run some of my lessons at the English language school where I earn money democratically. It's hard! One class of 7-9 year olds imploded. The students asked that I make them learn English. It seems that they wanted to learn but distracted themselves too easily with activities such as throwing balls and drawing. Likewise older children had the tendency to want to play board games regardless of whether the game was helping English skills. It seemed the guiding hand of authority was required. But this attitude is precisely what needs countering. It's the attitude of the manager to the worker. It's the attitude of the professional politician to the general population and it's the attitude of the general to the foot soldier: You are ignorant of what is required and so must be lead.
We are good and that makes what we do right.
Power is power. Sometimes it makes no sense to resist, but to ask this question at all is to have a certain level of awareness. And unless the question is asked, unless the structure of power is made visible and critically examined we add to the myth.
One professor who is getting his students to ask questions is David Hough. He works at a college which requires grading on a curve (the number of good grades he can give is limited). Rather than meekly accepting this David Hough is using this to challenge his students. At the beginning of the school year he goes through a process in which the students create the curriculum, decide how they will be taught and how they will be graded. Dave gives the students a questionnaire that helps students decide how he should teach. As for content he has a simple rule. Any content is acceptable as long as a critical social analysis is included. So if the students are interested in fashion he'll create some material about fashion that includes a critical perspective. Looking at sweat shops for example. Dave has kindly provided a copy of the current orientation handout he uses. And I'll be putting it up soon.
Of course hierarchy remains. A university is a hierarchical place. But by the way he teaches Dave is taking steps to create democracy where he can. He is giving his students experience of making real choices that relate to the external World. This is something to emulate.
We teachers can only help the work going on, as servants wait upon a master.
I think I mentioned that the drumming was great. Towards the end of the demonstration the group asked for volunteers. Over twenty students came forward and took a drum. They then played a copy cat game where one of the group members would play a pattern and the volunteers had to copy it. This began simply but built up until the pattern became long and complex. It was just too complicated for beginners, or so it seemed.
I appreciated that the group didn't run this as a knockout competition which they could easily have done. Nobody was knocked out for missing a pattern and was free to join in each time. But what happened next was even more impressive. The lead drummer turned to the audience, played a pattern and then challenged the audience to come up with a 'food' word the rhythm of which matched the pattern. The first pattern could be played to the word koh-hee gyuh-nyuh (milk coffee). There followed aisu kuriemu, poteto chippusu and chokoreito (ice cream, potato chips, chocolate). The volunteers were easily able to play each word. Then the lead drummer got them to play all the words in sequence and suddenly the volunteers were playing the long complex pattern that had eluded and playing it easily. It was wonderful.
By introducing the volunteers to a new way of looking at what they doing the lead drummer got the volunteers to succeed at a challenge that had seemed impossible. from a Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) Perspective the lead drummer did this by chunking and reformulating. The larger problem was divided into smaller steps and each step became an exercise in finding and playing a word. It was very impressive. Though I thought it could have been taken one step further by anchoring the achievement to problem solving in general. The lead drummer could have made the process explicit by describing it. This is more than saying "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again". It's more like saying, "You've just experienced success. You changed the way you looked at the problem and you succeeded. Remember this. The way you look at a problem is the solution itself."
So now all I need to do is heed my own words and change the way I look at the problems I have. How can a curriculum be democratic and what is genuine democracy and what is genuine learning and what am I doing. Thought for food.
End of Part One.
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Truly our social life is too often only the darkening and the death of the natural life that is in us.
(Quotes this issue by Maria Montessori)