Wise Hat News
20th February 2005, #10
What a splendid head, yet no brain.
The sky is falling and the sea is rising. The sea has also struck deadly. The Boxing Day Tsunami shocked and horrified the world. The TV could hardly get enough. Governments played leapfrog with promises of aid - but only after a massive out pouring of aid from the great beast (Alexander Hamilton's term for the people) put them to shame.
The response by ordinary people shows that compassion and empathy have not been totally numbed by me first consumerism. All around the world people responded in huge numbers. We still have the capacity to be more than cannibals consuming the planet. But will we use it, or lose it?
This time around I'd like to look at information. I may be even more introspective than usual.
Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.
One of my near monthly tasks is writing for Think Tank. The topic for January was bringing tragedy into the classroom. I found it unsettling and difficult. I'm still exploring why.
To accept the question one must first accept the classroom. For a very young child the notion makes no sense at all. The world is confined to the realm of the senses, or perhaps the senses and the imagination. I think the imagination aids development and empowers the spirit. Compulsory education chains the spirit and suffocates the imagination. Too often the teacher becomes torturer.
Just the other day I witnessed some results of this. Two second grade elementary school girls came with their mothers to observe a class. Before the class started I talked with them and introduced myself. One of the girls hid behind her mother like a toddler. I had some flashcards and I began going through them giving enough information that by using initiative they could name the cards. The second girl was intensely eager, so eager that this had some effect upon her friend. But still, she was suspicious. Later I heard that she had had a bad experience with a piano teacher. At least she was able to quit.
Who knows what damage petty tyrant teachers can inflict upon their charges?
I'm wandering from my point. Of course, many teachers in compulsory situations are wonderful and warm. They can and do act as catalysts of body and mind. Is a cage really a cage if we enter it freely? Many children enjoy going to school, though how much this has to do with interacting with their peers, as opposed to school itself is another question.
The idea of not going to school is simply not there for most children. It's just something that is done, like eating breakfast. But school isn't as natural as eating breakfast. It's a structure, and the more children become aware of it the more stifling it becomes.
Should classrooms exist? My difficulty with the tragedy question is that by accepting it one accepts the notion that the classroom is divorced from reality, a self contained bubble-reality all of its own.
What I'm getting at, in part, is how can an event as large and terrible as the tsunami not enter the classroom once one is aware of it? Young children may only be dimly aware but surely for everyone else it cannot be excluded? Those who enter the classroom bring it with them. To exclude it must be artificial?
I think that to the extent a class is democratic the less problems with artificiality arise. In such circumstances the teacher is more likely to serve as a facilitator for learning than as an unelected leader. The whole group would become actively involved in planning.
One practical problem that does create difficulties is the process of communication between teacher and learners. Where both share a reasonable proficiency in the same language democracy can flourish. Where such is lacking, gaining genuine consensus becomes more difficult. But in no way is it impossible. At the very least a teacher can always present students with choices.
A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.
But what does the teacher do when confronted with something outside the students' existing frame of reference, especially when that something is monstrous?
I believe there are monsters. Many of the games I play with children are about escaping from or confronting monsters. I think it is important to be positive and caring. I think it is important to celebrate diversity and realise that differences can be a source of joy and creation. I think it is important to be compassionate and gentle to be warm and loving. It is wonderful to embrace life. But monsters do exist. There are forces that are anti-life and we ignore them at our peril.
Oh monster, thy name is Monsanto.
Two days ago I learnt that terminator seeds are back. These are seeds that have been engineered to go sterile after a single planting. The concept is sickening. The concept is frightening. The concept is monstrous. It springs from the pursuit of profit and power in its most unconscionable form.
Terminator seeds first raised their ugly little heads in 1999. There was a worldwide outcry and Monsanto decided to withdraw the technology. Greenpeace tried to buy the patent for one pound sterling claiming that they would be better guardians of the technology than Monsanto. Now the Canadian government is backing it and aiming to get agreement from the United Nations. It's clear that Monsanto were simply biding their time and now feel the time is ripe to try again. Savage and bitter fruit.
As soon as I read the news I found myself writing a song. There's a link to a page featuring it below (click here). But right now I want to focus on how this effected my lessons. In several classes I put what we were doing to one side and focused on the news. I took executive and undemocratic action.
Legitimate disruption or dubious meddling?
Who can ask such questions?
There's a poem by Bertolt Brecht entitled The Buddha's Parable of the Burning House. If one was in a burning building would one seriously start asking questions about the weather outside? And if you offered help to someone in such a situation and they did likewise what would you do or say?
How does the proverb go? Action speaks louder than...
When facing something monstrous how can one not take action? But even in less intense circumstances I think it can be reasonable for the teacher to take action without consultation. Actually I think one of the responsibilities of those who would call themselves teachers is to stretch and extend the perceptions and expectations of students. If the teacher does not do this isn't the teacher putting learning in a box and in the process creating the separation from reality I've mentioned above? Does a teacher not have a duty and a responsibility to prepare lessons based upon any knowledge and experience?
Perhaps everyone does.
I feel that hijacking a lesson in the way I did was in no way wrong. What would be wrong, however, is if I claimed the right for myself alone. I think any student should have the power to do likewise. But is this an Orwellian case of some being more equal than others? Is it not easier for the teacher to dominate and manipulate? I think this can be true, but it is not as difficult for students to have their day as might be thought. For example, this week I intended to continue a theme of hospitals with one group of children and one of them simply said, "No!" That one word was enough for me to stop and do something else.
If we practise reaching consensus, if we give choice and establish trust and above all listen. then we can avoid the tyranny of the teacher yet also use initiative and make choices. We can refuse to see the classroom as separate from reality and act accordingly.
Any excuse will serve a tyrant.
The whole business of separating the classroom from reality is a racket. Who gains by such a divorce? Undoubtedly, those with power. The more one takes a holistic approach the more one is likely to be asking questions, questions that are likely to be critical of the status quo. This is especially the case when the status quo benefits certain groups over others.
Piecemealing information is an effective way of legitimising control. Compulsory schooling is an effective tool to channel thinking and create a mentality of subservience. For example, as John Taylor Gatto has observed, what breaking up the school day into lessons really teaches is indifference to learning. Passion is unimportant. The school bell enforces the notion that it is more important to follow authority than show an interest in anything.
It all ties in with the banking method of education (to use a term from Paulo Friere). Information becomes a commodity. The role of the teacher is control the flow of information and ensure that the students learn what needs to be taught. The teacher deposits information into the student. The volition and interest of the student is essentially insignificant compared with maintaining the top-down structure.
Those who accept the model are labelled successful and may go on to take dominant positions in the structure. Those who cannot deal with the model are labelled failures and become legitimate targets for control and oppression.
Not only is the process undemocratic but what chance does genuine democracy have of developing while this paradigm is dominant? Is it any wonder that fascism and totalitarianism flourish so easily? Is it any wonder that governments can get away with murder (and call it championing democracy)? Is it any wonder that business schemes like terminator seeds can at all be considered viable? Is it any wonder that the occasional vote for occupational politicians can actually considered democracy?
As it stands now democracy is a sick joke. Foxy Loxy has it locked up in a cave and is feeding on the carcass. Even if the sky is falling it's time to get out of the cave. We can do it.
The gods help them that help themselves.
The site continues to evolve. The sidebar is becoming more useful with more links. More pages from the past have re-appeared including all the previous editions of Wise Hat News. (the former Now's Co-operative Newsletter has yet to follow).
There are several completely new pages. Here's a table of the new additions:
|Death By Numbers||A pairwork sheet featuring big numbers|
|Death By Television||A Think Tank Article focusing on tragedy|
|Forest Escape||An addition to the Snow Escape page|
|Onara!||A list song about farting (requested!)|
|Preschool Travels 3||A splog about teaching at schools for the young|
|Phonics Bed||A splog about phonics with a graphic for download|
|Seeds of Death||A song about Monsanto's terminator seeds|
|Sorry!||A song about saying sorry (requested!)|
|Whose Shoe?||A silly activity using shoes|
Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.
Those of you who are familiar with the old site or have met me may well be aware of the torn cloth. This is simply a piece of cloth of any colour torn on all four sides and worn in a prominent place. The idea is to arouse curiosity and provoke conversation about war and boycotting war. The aim is to get people thinking about how their economic activity relates to war and countries that make war.
The United States and Britain attacked Iraq after years of crippling sanctions. The invasion and occupation have shredded the notion of International Law. The invasion of Afghanistan should not be forgotten either. Surely we should be doing what we can to resist such aggression? A boycott seems the least we can do.
Actually the original torn cloth pages specifically questioned the term boycott. Here is part of the FAQ that I wrote over a year ago:
Why don't you call this a Boycott?
This sounds negative to me. It sounds like a reaction against something. I am calling for positive action to change the war system. Also I think it is imperative that people decide what kind of economic action to take. I say think carefully about your spending. Notice I'm not saying don't buy British and American goods. Many people in these countries are against war. Don't cut your nose to spit your face. Be practical, be conscious, be active.
Now I wonder if this is just so much flannel. Especially as I feel that in some respects I have thrown in the towel.
I've acquiesced to the buying of a trailer house. Several million yen will end up going to the United States and into it's economy. When I wrote the words above I was thinking about books and software, not houses.
It is true that the house is being built by Amish builders and it is true that we refused kitchen appliances supplied by General Electric. It's also true that I have not spent any money myself. Yet I wonder, especially when groups like Boycott Bush are contemplating a dollar boycott.
From a philosophical point of view there is no difference between purchasing a book and purchasing a house. From a practical point of view the difference is huge. I half feel that while I haven't torn the letter of the Torn Cloth I've shredded the spirit.
The trailer house won't arrive until August. Time will tell how I will feel about it when it does. I also wonder whether I will have the temerity to put the Torn Cloth pages back up on Wise Hat. I guess time will tell that as well.
We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.
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Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.
(Quotes this issue by Aesop)