|This is a picture from the Brightworks website. This is not a picture of a dynamic way to present the same old curricula. This is a picture of a different understanding of what education is: a process without a core.|
Next school year, my son is going to a different kind of school called Brightworks. Its tagline — yes, it has a tagline — is: Everything is interesting. We can create anything. They don't teach subject matters such as History, English, Math. They build things. They work together to solve problems that are both conceptual and practical. They analyze and critique. (He hasn't started there yet so I could be wrong about the school and I could be misrepresenting what they do; if so, I apologize. But this is my fantasy about what they offer.)
When I began telling people about it, I always assumed they'd say, Awesome! That's what school should be! And some, no doubt, have said exactly that. But a surprising number of people, usually people in my social periphery or new found acquaintances, say: Oh, that's how they teach the core subjects? They make stuff?
And this is when it occurred to me that many people truly believe that there are fundamentals that we need to teach kids. The problem with schools, they'll admit, is how these things are taught, not that they are taught at all! They never question the idea that there are basic facts that we all need to know. We were taught them as kids; and so, dammit, our kids will learn them, too!
But what, I ask you, is the possible reason my kid has to memorize the capitals of Mississippi, South Carolina, and Florida? I truly cannot imagine anything less interesting, important, or relevant to anyone anywhere for any reason. And this is what my taxes, my son's time, and the energy of the teacher is being used to do. It's downright bizarre.
I say this to a woman I met recently and, boom, just like that she's yelling at me. At first, she thought I was kidding. Because, to her, of course kids learn the state capitals! When I pushed her to understand why that was relevant at all, she said it teaches a sense of place. Now, I love the idea of teaching a sense of place, of honing the sense, exploring what it even means to be a place, how a place comes to be, what defines it and how we know it. But how in the world does memorizing the capital of Mississippi teach a sense of place?
She then began yelling at me — she was passionate on the subject for reasons that elude me — that this is what is wrong with kids in San Francisco (mind you, she is neither a parent nor a teacher): they're entitled. So, somehow, learning state capitals is not about teaching a sense of place but about disciplining children. Needless to say, I ended this conversation and went on my merry way.
But I suddenly understood that this issue of an educational core is a kind of existential tether for people that functions at both the personal and social level. There must be certain things to ground us. And what better to serve that function than a core. A core sits deep and steady. It is what really matters as the world flows relentlessly around it. We need this core, it is imagined, precisely because so much is in flux.
Now, I understand that as a nation and a social body we might want there to be certain things everybody knows and can do. School as state sponsored indoctrination into the ways of government, law, police, and money makes sense to me. (In Discipline and Punish, Foucault helped me understand why schools and prisons look alike: they are panoptic agents.) I personally don't care about any of those things but I understand why they might be taught.
But why are they teaching my kid how to add and subtract negative numbers? Mind you, I can imagine a scenario in which teaching such a thing could be incredible. Adding negative numbers! Talk about exquisite complex logics that teach someone how to think! But that was not what he was taught. He was taught a few tricks so that if he saw this on a page — -47 + 23 — he could write the proper answer in the space provided. What the what? Again, like memorizing state capitals, it's a completely insane exercise with no value for any one for any imaginable reason.
Teaching facts at all seems silly today. Want to know the capital of Mississippi? Look it up on the interweb that's sitting in your pocket. We don't need to teach facts; we don't need to give spelling tests; we don't need to teach tricks so kids can add negative numbers. We need to teach other things such as how to collaborate; how to critique events, media, literature, power; how to put disparate things together to make new senses of the world. That is, we need to teach kids to think, not to know.
There are aspects of what we call Math, Science, English, and History that could involve thinking rather than memorizing or knowing. But does one "know" Math? Or does one learn how to operate with numbers and their diverse relations which entail complex logics of exponents, parts, wholes, trajectories, infinity? What does one learn to do in English? Know who the great authors are? Or, rather, is it to learn how you can go with words and books, how to operate with meter, rhythm, concept, and sequence?
At my kid's new school, they're not trying to teach Math and English in other ways. It is not an alternative delivery system of the same old crap, making vitamins taste like candy. No, this school is trying to teaching thinking, how to operate with the world and all the things it can do and might be able to do if only you came at it from a different angle. They don't teach kids to know; they teach kids to think, to operate with the world.
Thinking and doing are dynamic activities. They are actions. They therefore cannot be a core as a core sits stable at the heart of things. Here, there is no heart of things. There is no there there, no place to reach, no resting place. Education is not about accumulating knowledge until you graduate and are done. It is about fostering a will to assemblage, to take things in and put them back together differently, to critique, to love the world by thinking with it, not master it by knowing it.
So called alternative education should not be about offering a different how for the same old what. Rather, it should offer strange and beautiful new hows to teach strange and beautiful new hows. At his new school, my kid will not be trapped in a chair aimed at the teacher who conveys the word from on high. Nope. He'll be in the mix, not with teachers but with what they call collaborators who work with the kids, not at them.
Education is a process. It's not a thing. There is no core because everything is in flux. The trick is to learn how to go with it, how to operate with the world as part of the world. The logic of a core and its will to knowing is killing us, one student at a time. We should be fostering a love of the world in which everything is indeed interesting.