What is School For? / by Jack Viere

Seth Godin's message in his Tedx talk is to re-conceptualize education as something more than be complicit in some preordained social role. His solution to this cog-in-the-machine dilemma sounds like problem-based learning in which students are tasked with initiating projects of their own and then reaching out to educators when they need help. An easy critique of this "alternative," more open-ended type of education is that it's too theoretical. Having students choose their own projects simply won't work because their sense of creativity and innovation is continuously and systematically curbed as they "progress" through school. But one counterpoint to this critique is the Montessori style of teaching. And at this point, when I think of how there are "alternative" styles to education that don't make students comply to a larger, social ordering, I realize that the problem at hand might be boiled down to the larger debate over public vs. private schools. 

Funding is an immediate hurdle that public schools would face in implementing Godin's plan. Funding is based on accreditation. Accreditation could arguably be the point when compliance is most apparent in the institution of education. (And that's not necessarily exclusive to public schools). Accreditation pressures both teachers and students to meet arbitrarily and superficially established standards. I agree with Godin's problematizing of both Horace Mann's "normal school" and standardized tests. Both forms of standardization fit nicely into the narrative that industrialization led to a compliant, disciplined workforce. Yet when contrasting the (caricatured) images of public school to private schools (Montessori being only one example among many), there seems to be more possibilities for art-driven curricula and problem-based learning in private school settings. Maybe I am wrong in this assumption and perhaps I am making a false dichotomy.

If not, though, I think the concept of paying for your ability to be creative in a private school or collegiate atmosphere is the larger, overarching problem here. If teachers encountered the pressure of standardization as equally as students do in the public school setting, that tips in favor of the students in the private school and college/university settings. In other words, students as consumers have some sort of "right" (contract) that they feel that must be met. I think this is the essence of what we always hear about in class when primarily dealing with undergraduate students in engineering, science, and math. These students have bought a degree to be more or less certified in their area of study. (Perhaps these students are more aware of the social pressures of getting a job than their humanities and art students counterparts). I think this falls into Godin's imagery of industrialized learning; make cookie-cutter students to fit preordained roles in society.

So what's the big deal, then? :) From a teaching perspective, why take an art-drive, problem-based pedagogy and apply it to fields that encourage students to be fixated on earning their money's worth of a degree? I think that this is like fitting a square peg into a round hole. Students aren't paying for an "alternative" (and hence, that's why these non-traditional forms of education get labelled "alternative"). To say that "education is the starting point of social change" is great. But some people see education as a means to an end. Getting people to see beyond that perception requires some changes on the industry side of the problem...or not. But you'd have to pay to learn that.