On institutionalized power, the responsibilities of the teacher and the future of education.
In previous posts On Education, I spoke of Emerson’s desire to “respect the child. [To] wait and see the new product of Nature” and how “Nature loves analogies, but not repetitions,” denoting that the importance of education is in the promotion of student autonomy. Dewey through his democratic ideal suggests that “In order to have a large number of values in common, all the members of the group must have an equable opportunity to receive and to take from others.” It is through the process of educating our students that this sharing of common values between and amongst students can emerge. While Emerson finds that a child should develop a certain sense of autonomy and Dewey sees schools as spaces for the emergence of inclusive and participatory dialogue, the reality is that our schools have institutionalized learning and rationalized its outcomes as an objective driven exercise.
This system needs to be questioned. In his is work Dare the school build a new social order? written in 1932, George Counts provides a very critical outlook on our current educational systems. What is highly interesting about Counts is that he brings into the philosophical discussion of schools a yet seemingly missing (or perhaps not oft spoken about) component to the educational endeavour: power. Education is about power. What you teach and how you teach, and who determines these two, is entrenched in power.
The points Counts makes, the questions he raises, and the implications of both for teachers, come together to form a text that provides educators with a very powerful message. Counts is a proponent of, what I would call, an emancipation of teachers within schools. He believes that it rests upon the shoulders of educators to shape the direction of education. As he says: “I would merely contend that as educators we must make many choices involving the development of attitudes in boys and girls and that we should not be afraid to acknowledge the faith that is in us or mayhap the forces that compel us.”
While liberating to a large degree, his position is also problematic. First, it places a large burden of responsibility on individual teachers to “develop” certain attitudes, especially, as Counts goes on to precise, around social justice. Second, in placing this responsibility, it fundamentally raises questions around the role of the teacher. If the teacher is solely the broker of knowledge between the State and its citizens, then the teacher over steps her or his bounds in promoting a particular belief that is not part of a mandated curriculum. Counts strongly believes that “any defensible educational program must be adjusted to a particular time and place, and the degree and nature of the imposition must vary within the social situation.” But if the state in controlling this program doesn’t respond or adjust to particular situations within a given context, it falls upon the teachers, those at the front lines, most connected not only to students, but also social realties, to take up the reigns of this reform. My understanding from my reading is that while those who control educational policy perform their tasks from ivory towers, their distance from common society deludes their understanding of social realities. Moreover, those who are in positions of power in the discourse on education have a vested interest in promoting a particular educational agenda that perpetuates capitalistic and industrially based systems which our schools help to serve in their current format.
It’s not hard to tell that Counts is very socialist and indeed Marxist in his position. Whether we agree or disagree as educators, parents, or concerned citizens with his desired role for teacher is in my belief moot. What Counts does is bring to the forefront an important understanding and analysis of our educational systems. Education is dictated by power. Like other institutions, those who desire to maintain the status quo determine the role of these institutions, including education. (Refer to Foucault for more on institutions and power).
There is one section of his book that strikes me, especially given my area of interest around social change, pluralism, diversity and education. Counts states:
The world is changing with great rapidity; the rate of change is being accelerated constantly; the future is full of uncertainty. Consequently the individual who is to live and thrive in this world must possess an agile mind, be bound by no deep loyalties, hold all conclusions and values tentatively, and be ready on a moment’s notice to make even fundamental shifts in outlook and philosophy.
It seems to me that what Counts desires is that students think critically and engage socially. Now, let me articulate my position. If entrenched top-down discourses in education promote this criticality and a rationality that allows students to grapple with the changing world around them, then my job as a teacher is facilitated. However, if power structures, whether intentionally or unintentionally, neglect to promote this as a necessary component of a holistic education, than as an educator, I will step in and fill that void, not just for the sake of my students, but for the sake of my society. In order to remain authentic, I cannot blindly serve without questioning institutions that do not foster social change and critical thought. However, I recognize this to be a double edged sword. How our roles are negotiated between ourselves as educators, our students, our employers and our society is a deeply complex quagmire, but one that needs communal negotiation between various entrecnched stakeholders.
As I think further about it, this idea of teachers teaching to their own convictions becomes even more problematic in certain subject areas. Let’s set aside the teaching of religion and humanities (the area I’m most interested in) and look at science ed. In my mind, not to believe in evolution is ludicrous. I couldn’t begin to understand how this would be a point of contention yet there are teachers who object to the teaching of evolutionary theory in the classroom. So again, this raises some deep questions. But perhaps it’s the questions themselves, and being open to them, that should count. The answers, as I suggests, will have to be negotiated.