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Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act and 2 challenges

When I was first exposed to the idea that formal schooling is a machine for producing failure (via the MCA article for discussion) I recoiled in disbelief, but have come to accept it as an obvious truth, despite the efforts of almost everyone involved in the system to make it otherwise.

Still, could I throw another question at this idea? During the 70s and 80s in Britain, there was a folk belief that the school system did everything it could to ensure that a kid *never* failed. If a child, for example, was doing poorly in maths, they would be moved into a "stream" where the bar was set so low that no-one could fail. When kids come out the other end of the system (and according to legend) their parents believed from school reports which have shown "pass" all the way through, that their child has successfully "graduated" only to discover that they can't read or do basic arithmetic, and cannot get any job they would want.

I think my interpretation of this story is that this does go on, and it is just another way of producing failure, proving that it happens despite teachers' efforts. Is that right?

And Greg, I think I agree with what I took to be Jay's vision of the kind of education we need: training in the ability to critique one's own culture. And this is what is absolutely ruled out.

And Bourdieu shows how the dominant social classes deftly move the goal posts every generation so that no amount of educational efforts at upward mobility are widely successful.


Gregory Allan Thompson wrote:
I was intrigued by Jay's post. It seems to cut to the core in
a very straightforward manner.

In response, I wanted to pose two challenges:

First, I wonder if there might be ways to present the
alternative to thinking of education merely in terms of
testable knowledge/skills? It seems that there are circulating
discourses that could be picked up on (troped upon?) and which
would help to shed some light on an alternative to this. For
example, the common cynicism of people of all political
persuasions about testable knowledge.

It would seem like an important part of this project will be
to couch it in terms that aren't so left-ist and exclusionary.
I know this may seem like "selling-out" to some, but in the
world of policy pragmatism, it is hard to see any other way to
make this change happen (short of revolution - and since I
haven't heard this word spoken on this listserve (except with
regard to ontogenetic development) I will assume a deep
pragmatism resides here).
To give an example, I recall a story that one of my mentors,
Frank Margonis, used to tell about Dewey's way of
characterizing testing. It went something like this: (actually
this is taken from the only place I could find it, a 1959
School Review article - anyone have a better description?).

"Dewey once remarked to a younger colleague in the department
of philosophy at Columbia University that the techniques of
"intelligence" tests reminded him of the methods used in
Vermont during his boyhood to weigh pigs. A thick plank was
laid across a stone wall and then stones of a predetermined
weight were piled on one end until the pig at the other end
was brought to balance."

Here is a rhetorically powerful way of criticizing
intelligence testing - but, of course, it is one that wouldn't
carry much weight today because it is far from most folks'
experience. So, what kinds of pithy stories can we tell today
that would point out the problems with the testable
knowledge/skills paradigm?

I don't know if this listserve is the place to share such
stories, but I just wanted to put it on people's minds. But if
anyone has a brief narrative to share, I'd be interested in
helping to make it "go viral" (as they say today - or maybe
someone could make a 2 minute Youtube video?).

Oh, and I promised two challenges at the outset but I've
already mentioned the second: how do we make this agenda not
simply a "leftist" agenda? I would think that Dewey's notion
of "democratic education" might be useful (if only it could be
purged of its apparent political affiliations). Or maybe
"citizenship education" (although i suspect those on the left
would feel that this is not sufficiently pluralistic). Would
there be a way to dovetail this with some type of Ethics
education that would appeal to those on the right who get all
excited about "character education"?

Dewey is said to have learned from Jane Addams (in what must
have been a somewhat "antagonistic" moment of debate) that
antagonisms are "unreal". Addams believed that antagonism was
always unnecessary and never arose from real objective
differences. Rather it was simply due to the injection of the
personal attitude and reaction, thus delaying and distorting
the recognition of meaning. Dewey says that he realized that
he had been interpreting the [Hegelian] dialectic "wrong end
up" - he had seen the unity as the reconciliation of
opposites, instead of the opposites as the unity in its growth. I wonder if there might be some truth to this in all this
political bickering about what is best, educationally
speaking, for our children? (and btw, kudos to the folks on
this listserve for avoiding simple politicizations of the
problem, as we often see around us: "we're
right/good/intelligent and they're wrong/bad/stupid").

Whether with this administration or others, it seems like
there might be hope (!?) to move beyond the testable knowledge
view of things, and, more importantly, beyond a view of
antagonisms between people as inherent to human nature (wasn't
this at the heart of Marx's vision of communism?). But my
analysis thus far is simply interpreting the world in various
ways, as someone once said, the point is to change it.


p.s. Having read Marx in some detail this quarter, I wanted to
add a critique of "pscyhologism" ("individualism" in the
translation of Marx that we read) to Jay's critique of the
dominant view of education, but I fear that it will take
nothing short of a Revolution to allow us to see ourselves as
anything but self-determining psychological individuals (or
rather, psychological realizations of our genetic
individuality). But in the event that anyone has any pithy
narratives that capture the absurdity of this rather hegemonic
belief, please do share. I've got a career ahead of me in
which I hope to develop this critique, but there is no time
like the present for developing such a database of narratives.

Message: 7
Date: Wed, 16 Dec 2009 17:37:58 -0800
From: Jay Lemke <jaylemke@umich.edu>
Subject: Re: [xmca] Obama's Learn Act
To: lchcmike@gmail.com,	"eXtended Mind, Culture, Activity"
Message-ID: <C1BF12E2-5893-4BB5-AE8C-3D721BF8D958@umich.edu>
Content-Type: text/plain; charset=US-ASCII; format=flowed;

Let me sound a slightly skeptical note, though with the
admiration for the efforts of Kris and other sophisticated
to influence policy in Washington. Maybe some of these points
may also
be informative for the non-US xmca-ers.

I don't really think that US educational policy is about
learning. It
is a branch of SOCIAL policy. It is, for politicians and many
about equity, justice, moral values, quality of the labor
Conservatives by and large won the battle from the 1970s-90s
over the
definition of educational quality: it means knowledge and
skills, as
assessed by simple, mass-administered tests. They succeeded
what they proposed was very close to common folk-wisdom about schooling. They proposed what they did to prevent education
becoming about learning how to critique and change the status
Within the framework they established, the liberal left
looked to see
how they (we?) could still use education as an tool for social justice. The answer basically, from Head Start to NCLB (the
policy) was to try to insure that children from poor families
enough extra programs to help them compete with middle-class
kids in
the world of testable knowledge/skills. I think that is the
that Obama is still on. It seems likely to me that his personal experience would be telling him that kids in under-resourced communities go to school relatively unprepared for its
demands, and so
pre-school programs should be targeted to diagnostically
needs relative to predictable school demands. That how the
language of
the proposed bill sounds to me.

Politicians, senators, and even higher level staff people
don't know much about learning theory and don't have the time
learn. If it is theory or models that use unfamiliar ideas,
all the
less likely to be able to persuade or communicate. Neuroscience evidence for early social learning or artifact-hybridity in development may as well be discourse from Mars in their world. National political policy I think cannot be realistically
expected to
embody advanced learning theories. That discourse should have
practical effects far more locally, in terms of what teachers
taught about good practice in schools, and maybe what others
who are
trying to innovate new approaches to education that go beyond
classroom-only paradigm take into account.

Apart from trying to avoid overly narrow language (and more importantly, administrative interpretation of language) about
kinds of programs can get federal funding, I think the core
issues at
the national policy level ought to be more about goals. Equal
opportunity in practice is a widely shared goal; the means to
it are
much debated. What is less addressed, I think, is whether
and skills acquisition should be in itself the primary
goal. So long as that conservative principle is maintained,
equity goals will lead to bad educational practice for all, and especially for those most in need.

Reading, for example, is NOT "fundamental". It is a diversion
serious educational thinking. (R.I.F. was a slogan long
supported by
the right, though not only by them.) Reading is a tool, to be
and used as part of larger inquiries and activities with
goals that
mean something to the learners. Those could be play goals, or
empowerment goals, or altruistic goals. So long as what
schools will
demand of kids on arrival is that they be prepared to learn decontextualized de-coding skills (i.e. "reading"), and do
well on
tests of these that are even more isolated from anything with
meaning, then all pre-school preparation programs will be
targeted at
preparing students for mindlessness. And social equity and
justice agendas in social policy will support this.

It's not about the means. It's about the goals.


Jay Lemke
Professor (Adjunct, 2009-2010)
Educational Studies
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

Visiting Scholar
Laboratory for Comparative Human Communication
University of California -- San Diego
La Jolla, CA
USA 92093

Greg Thompson
Ph.D. Candidate
The Department of Comparative Human Development
The University of Chicago
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