Landing : Athabascau University

What is education for?

Dave Cormier, in typically excellent form, reflects on the differences between education and learning in his latest post. I very much agree with pretty much everything he writes here. This extract condenses the central point that, I think, matters more than any other:

"Learning is a constant. It is what humans do. They don’t, ever, learn exactly what you want them to learn in your education system. They may learn to remember that 7+5=12 as my children are currently being taught to do by rote, but they also ‘learn’ that math is really boring. We drive them to memorise so their tests will be higher, but is it worth the tradeoff? Is a high score on addition worth “math is boring?”"

This is crucial: it is impossible to live and not to learn. Failure to learn is not an option. What matters is what we learn and how we learn it. The thing is, as Dave puts it:

"Education is a totally different beast than learning. Learning is a thing a person does. Education is something a society does to its citizens. When we think about what we want to do with ‘education’ suddenly we need to start thinking about what we as a society think is important for our citizens to know. There was a time, in an previous democracy, where learning how to interact in your democracy was the most important part of an education system. When i look through my twitter account now I start to think that learning to live and thrive with difference without hate and fear might be a nice thing for an education system to be for."

My take on this

I have written here and there about the deep intertwingled relationship between education and indoctrination (e.g, most recently, here). Most of its early formal incarnations were, and a majority of them still are, concerned with passing on doctrine, often of a religious, quasi-religious, or political nature. To do that also requires the inculcation of values, and the acquisition of literacies (by my definition, the set of hard, human-enacted technologies needed to engage with a given culture, be that culture big or small). The balance between indoctrination, inculcation and literacy acquisition has shifted over the years and varies according to culture, context, and level, but education remains, at its heart, a process for helping learners learn to be in a given society or subset of it. This remains true even at the highest levels of terminal degrees: PhDs are almost never about the research topic so much as they are about learning to be an academic, a researcher, someone that understands and lives the norms, values and beliefs of the academic research community in which their discipline resides. To speak the language of a discipline. It is best to speak multiple languages, of course. One of the reasons I am a huge fan of crossing disciplinary boundaries is that it slightly disrupts that process by letting us compare, contrast, and pick between the values of different cultures, but such blurring is usually relatively minor. Hard core physicists share much in common with the softest literary theorists. Much has been written about the quality of 'graduateness', typically with some further intent in mind (eg. employability) but what the term really refers to is a gestalt of ways of thinking, behaving, and believing that have what Wittgenstein thought of as family likenesses. No single thing or cluster of things typifies a graduate, but there are common features spread between them. We are all part of the same family.

Education has a lot to do with replication and stability but it is, and must always have been, at least as much about being able to adapt and change that society. While, in days gone by, it might have been enough to use education as a means to produce submissive workers, soldiers, and priests, and to leave it to higher echelons to manage change (and manage their underlings), it would be nice to think that we have gone beyond that now. In fact, we must go beyond that now, if we are to survive as a species and as a planet. Our world is too complex for hierarchical management alone.

I believe that education must be both replicative and generative. It must valorize challenge to beliefs and diversity as much as it preserves wisdom and uniformity. It must support both individual needs and social needs, the needs of people and the needs of the planet, the needs of all the societies within and intersecting with its society. This balance between order and chaos is about sustaining evolution. Evolution happens on the edge of chaos, not in chaos itself (the Red Queen Regime), and not in order (the Stalinist Regime). This is not about design so much as it is about the rules of change in a diverse complex adaptive system. The ever burgeoning adjacent possible means that our societies, as much as ecosystems, can do nothing but evolve to ever greater complexity, ever greater interdependence but, equally, ever greater independence, ever greater diversity. We are not just one global society, we are billions of them, overlapping, cross-cutting, independent, interdependent. And there is not just one educational system that needs to change. There are millions of them, millions of pieces of them, and more of them arriving all the time. We don't need to change Education: that's too simplistic and would, inevitably, just replace one set of mistakes with another. We need to change educations.


  • Excellent post!  thoughtful and thought-provoking. Thanks

    Paraphrasing James, you can't step in the same river twice.  I think that becomes truer as the complexity of the "river" increases.  Stepping towards this discussion then, I believe that meaningful and practical distinctions can be made between education and learning but I also think the process of information exposure and results of that need to be included.  For examples, product placement in what we watch, modeling of both behaviors and attitudes almost from the time of birth, news that is filtered by what sells ads or views, courses that are labeled "under performing", biases that are not conscious but still powerful. 

    I don't mean to suggest that we should not distinguish the terms education and learning but rather that we need to view learning as something that is inherent to the human conditon and formal education will be an important aspect but is only one aspect of that.  As an important piece of the picture that surrounds and embraces each of us we should be as deliberate, thoughtful and compassionate as possible in stating our preferences and goals for the formal educational part.  But we need to be mindful that whatever the nature of that piece that we want to call the person's education, it is only a small segment of what they are learning. 

    If we assume there is some correlation between what is learned and how (and why) one lives/behaves then I think that might be important to look at the totality of the environment(s) there for the learning.  We, as educators, should keep this in mind and point out to both ourselves and those we "teach" that they should try to be as conscious as possible in recognizing that they have no choice but to learn but do have a choice as to whether to evaluate what they learn and how, if they choose to do so, to set up criteria for making decisions about what they have learned.

    Mark D.

    Mark Dimirsky October 26, 2016 - 3:21pm

  • John: this position is far from new—the primary role of education is reproducing the existing social, not challenging it. To go against this agenda is to confront significant political and economic forces; this is not simply a cultural issue, something we are free to change our minds about. As Althusser remarked some 4 decades ago, in his essay, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses”: “As Marx said, every child knows that a social formation which did not reproduce the conditions ofproduction at the same time as it produced would not last a year.”

    In this piece, Althusser goes into significant detail on the different roles the state and education play in  reproducing the existing social order through the propagation of ideology—false thinking.

    In sum, the state relies on Repressive State Apparatuses (RSAs) and education (which has assumed the social reproductive role once held by religion) is the primary Ideological State Apparatus (ISA).

    Althusser identifies a number of ISAs, religion, family, legal, trade unions, media and arts, and education, but the major role falls to education:

    one Ideological State Apparatus certainly has the dominant role, although hardly anyone lends an ear to its music: it is so silent! This is the School.

    It takes children from every class at infant-school age, and then for years, the years in which the child is most ‘vulnerable’, squeezed between the Family State Apparatus and the Educational State Apparatus, it drums into them, whether it uses new or old methods, a certain amount of ‘know-how’ wrapped in the ruling ideology (French, arithmetic, natural history, the sciences, literature) or simply the ruling ideology in its pure state (ethics, civic instruction, philosophy). Somewhere around the age of sixteen, a huge mass of children are ejected ‘into production’: these are the workers or small peasants. Another portion of scholastically adapted youth carries on: and, for better or worse, it goes somewhat further, until it falls by the wayside and fills the posts of small and middle technicians, white-collar workers, small and middle executives, petty bourgeois of all kinds. A last portion reaches the summit, either to fall into intellectual semi-employment, or to provide, as well as the ‘intellectuals of the collective labourer’, the agents of exploitation (capitalists, managers), the agents of repression (soldiers, policemen, politicians, administrators, etc.) and the professional ideologists (priests of all sorts, most of whom are convinced ‘laymen’).

    Each mass ejected en route is practically provided with the ideology which suits the role it has to fulfil in class society: the role of the exploited (with a ‘highly-developed’ ‘professional’, ‘ethical’, ‘civic’, ‘national’ and a-political consciousness); the role of the agent of exploitation (ability to give the workers orders and speak to them: ‘human relations’), of the agent of repression (ability to give orders and enforce obedience ‘without discussion’, or ability to manipulate the demagogy of a political leader’s rhetoric), or of the professional ideologist (ability to treat consciousnesses with the respect, i.e. with the contempt, blackmail, and demagogy they deserve, adapted to the accents of Morality, of Virtue, of ‘Transcendence’, of the Nation, of France’s World Role, etc.).

    Of course, many of these contrasting Virtues (modesty, resignation, submissiveness on the one hand, cynicism, contempt, arrogance, confidence, self-importance, even smooth talk and cunning on the other) are also taught in the Family, in the Church, in the Army, in Good Books, in films and even in the football stadium. But no other Ideological State Apparatus has the obligatory (and not least, free) audience of the totality of the children in the capitalist social formation, eight hours a day for five or six days out of seven.

    But it is by an apprenticeship in a variety of know-how wrapped up in the massive inculcation of the ideology of the ruling class that the relations of production in a capitalist social formation, i.e. the relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited, are largely reproduced. The mechanisms which produce this vital result for the capitalist regime are naturally covered up and concealed by a universally reigning ideology of the School, universally reigning because it is one of the essential forms of the ruling bourgeois ideology: an ideology which represents the School as a neutral environment purged of ideology (because it is ...lay), where teachers respectful of the ‘conscience’ and ‘freedom’ of the children who are entrusted to them (in complete confidence) by their ‘parents’ (who are free, too, i.e. the owners of their children) open up for them the path to the freedom, morality and responsibility of adults by their own example, by knowledge, literature and their ‘liberating’ virtues.

    Althusser concludes:

    I ask the pardon of those teachers who, in dreadful conditions, attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped. They are a kind of hero. But they are rare and how many (the majority) do not even begin to suspect the ‘work’ the system (which is bigger than they are and crushes them) forces them to do, or worse, put all their heart and ingenuity into performing it with the most advanced awareness (the famous new methods!). So little do they suspect it that their own devotion contributes to the maintenance and nourishment of this ideological representation of the School, which makes the School today as ‘natural’, indispensable-useful and even beneficial for our contemporaries as the Church was ‘natural’, indispensable and generous for our ancestors a few centuries ago.

    Unfortunately, there are too few of us who “attempt to turn the few weapons they can find in the history and learning they ‘teach’ against the ideology, the system and the practices in which they are trapped.” We might be tempted to frame the issue as pedagogical and/or ethical, but it’s far more deep-seated than many are willing to consider. It's been about jobs, jobs, jobs a lot longer than many realize.


    Derek Briton October 26, 2016 - 3:30pm

  • @Mark - amen to that.  I am quite taken by the concept of 'lifewide learning', propounded by Normal Jackson, as a useful adjunct to 'lifelong learning'. The site at that propounds it is a bit dreadful, and Jackson's book (linked from the site) is not exactly a model of rigorous thinking (it's a trade book, not an academic work), but the concept is helpful and the general principles are very reasonable. If we are to be helpful in supporting that, we need to recognize the diversity and richness of the learning ecosystem that we are all not just a part of but to which we are very active contributors ('we' being learners, all of us being learners). I think that needs a bit of a rethink as to how we do education or, at least, greater acceptance of greater diversity. It's happening anyway - from homeschooling to bootcamps to maker spaces to MOOCs to Wikipedia to the Khan Academy, along with more and more big companies deliberately rejecting qualifications as filters on employment - and the monopoly institutions have held on education is disintegrating. We can stick our heads in the sand or we can roll with it and play to our strengths. AU could take a much bigger lead here because we are already largely set up for it: I very much like our PLAR processes, I quite like our challenge processes, and our self-paced courses are a step in the right direction. However, we find it hard to let go of a controlling attitude, the cart of accreditation still pulls the horse, we are still only very patchily good at nurturing a sense of belongingness, and we still collectively behave too much like a course-teaching machine, not a compassionate community of scholars and fellow learners. 

    @Derek - very interesting - I'd not made the Althusser connection. Reminds me quite strongly of points made in Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed and Illich's Deschooling Society, from which I draw much inspiration and, of course, such ideas can be traced back through Dewey (implicitly) and Vygotsky (explicitly) and perhaps as far as Marx or maybe even Plato.

    And yes, the issue is far more deeply embedded than in pedagogy or ethics, with tendrils creeping into every corner of society, from social status to jobs and wealth. In our own small ways, and in our own overlapping cultures, we can make a difference, though, and from small differences large phase transitions can occur. I think one big key lies in celebration of diversity - the enemy is a one size fits all philosophy or a belief that we are engaged in an ideological struggle against some thing like a particular model of Institutional Education. If history has told us nothing else, it is that ideologies are dangerous, dumb, and prone to breaking at least as much as they fix. It's a big, complex, adaptive system, not a struggle between a few easily defined entities that can be fixed by changing one of them.  Of course, my vaguely and fuzzily libertarian-socialist-pragmatic-complex-adaptive-systems perspective on such things is as much an ideology as any other, better (perhaps) only in its valorization of multiple other ideologies and its acceptance of contradiction and unpredicability. We might do worse than to look at other complex adaptive systems - natural ecologies for instance - for guidance, rather than trying to engineer solutions. You can engineer a field of wheat, but you can't engineer a prairie. However, there has been some interesting work from the emerging restoration ecology discipline that suggests ways of approaching such a problem - a lot of tinkering, playing, observing, and reacting involved, with few big patterns but lots of small ones.

    Jon Dron October 27, 2016 - 1:12pm

These comments are moderated. Your comment will not be visible unless accepted by the content owner.

Only simple HTML formatting is allowed and any hyperlinks will be stripped away. If you need to include a URL then please simply type it so that users can copy and paste it if needed.