Re-imagining the Wheel of Education

~Erwin Raphael McManus

~Erwin Raphael McManus

(Part 1) As debatable as the term "freedom" is (especially true freedom), I still love the quote from the picture above. It neatly encapsulates the ideas of both agency - the ability to exercise one's will - and one's ability to act on what they will; to be free. But it is the caveat of discipline that really ties it all together.

Similar to the ideas of Smooth and Striated spaces - as conceptualised by Deleuze and Guattari - the themes of chaos and control accompany the terms freedom and discipline: freedom and chaos go hand-in-hand in the classroom. "Free time" to some students means it is time to terrorise and disrupt, while others will use this time for sleeping, eating, or picking their nose. Yet other students will use this time to prepare themselves for their next class, drink water, socialise and play quietly, or even spend it in study. This last group of students are those who are exercising self-control, or self-discipline.

To illustrate this point to others, I often cite artists who restrict themselves to a limited palette to achieve a greater focus or vision. Compare the portrait of Washington by Gilbert Stuart, who limited himself to mainly using shades from black to white, with any Jackson Pollock, and you will see what I mean*.

George Washington_Gilbert Stuart.JPG

Music composers do the same. In fact, musical notes and scales are exactly this. They are an artificial restriction placed over the range of human hearing in order to produce something pleasing to our ears. Scales are the way the musical notes fit together in sequence and/or tandem to create melody and harmony. Some musicians take this further: given the massive range of all possible combinations of scales, rhythms, timbres, instruments and emotion, composers often create a restricted musical palette from which to work from, and they must exercise discipline within that framework in order to produce work that is focused, accessible and purposeful.

These artists are exercising a self-imposed set of boundaries in order to achieve great things. I believe the best students, and the highest achievers - in whichever discipline you might care to mention - do this, too. However, the current prevalent school system not only sets boundaries, but imposes it's will upon the students: it removes their agency. If I were to illustrate this, I would draw an array, or net, and have each disparate box as one subject, removed and self-contained, and it cannot interact with the other subjects. It would start to look like the seating plan for a classroom, don't you think?

The prevalent school model, from Kindergarten to High School, is fundamentally flawed. It was created to train students in a standard way to fit into standard industrial jobs, with standardised times and standardised expectations. The reaction to the current model (especially in the United States of America) is Deschooling, or Unschooling. Just as a pendulum swings from the furthest point of its arc to the equally distant opposing side, we can see these movements are knee-jerk hyper-reactions filled with wishy washy, feel-good statements about self-actualisation, which tends to look a lot like undisciplined lassitude to most dedicated educators.

While the students involved in these movements eventually achieve well, we can easily argue that these are not the most effective methods of producing results. Don't get me wrong, I have a deep respect for John Holt and the Unschooling movement, I just don't see evidence of it being applied effectively by its modern day proponents, and it cannot be implemented on a large scale. Thankfully, we have already created the system which can be successfully scaled to meet widespread demand, and it is widely accepted as the gold standard of academic achievement, and has been for nearly a thousand years.

(Part 2 soon)

*One could also argue that Pollock's choice of colors, canvas size, brush, and painting style are all artistic restrictions which allow his paintings to be seen as art, and not just a hot mess.