Panjandrums and their Playground

Let’s pretend for a moment that the formal education system has been designed and established to produce independent thinkers, people who, at the end of 10 or 12 or 15 or 18 years of formal education, can recognize and cut through bullshit when they see it or hear it. I can hear the laughter already, because all people of sound mind and any political sophistication whatsoever know that this is the last outcome that the education system as we know it has been designed for. Independent thought and the formal institutions of education just do not belong in the same equation (unless there’s a ‘?’ in there somewhere).

This is not to say, of course, that individual teachers and lecturers do not work very effectively against the underlying and fundamentally coercive nature of the system — all the best teachers, in all times past and present, have always been willing to disrupt, to fly in the face of the systematic pressure to conform.

[A short aside here: I am not here talking about those teachers who seek to be ‘different’ for reasons that have little to do with any coherent educational philosophy or genuine thoughtfulness — they are often easy to distinguish because they will want everyone to know they are ‘mavericks’ and they make a point of playing the ‘enfant terrible’ at every opportunity. As I have written previously: If you ever have to tell us you are a maverick.…you ain’t.]

The system does not like such people, never has and never will, and, unless they are themselves especially agile, it usually works very effectively either to silence such free spirits and dissenters or to push them into a corner where their voices are muted. This it achieves through a combination of structural and social means, including professional repudiation, even ridicule, from those who run with the wolves of orthodoxy, diminution of career opportunities, and plain and simple coercion from above to conform. And, of course, the status quo is mandated to a greater or lesser extent anyway by decree, by the pressures of formalised inspection and ‘evaluation’, by the power relations that typically exist within schools, colleges and universities, by the relentlessly reactionary output of the tabloid press and right-wing media generally, and by intolerable levels of government intervention supposedly aimed at ‘improving’ education.

So, those independent thinkers who do manage to emerge from the school/college/university processing plants get there despite the best efforts of the formal institutions of education, and not because of them.

But that laughter we heard earlier is also the reason why those sundry politicians, bureaucrats, religionists, gradgrinds and overblown panjandrums who seem to think the schools, colleges and universities are a playground in which to indulge their factional, sectarian, class and authoritarian interests should take heed and step aside. If they do not, the generations coming through now will simply sweep them away anyway.

The young people currently trudging their way through the mess of curricular frameworks, pre-determined content, ticky-box assessment schemes, regimentation and social engineering initiatives, often wrapped up in an absurd technophobia, no longer need the schools they are still stuck with. They just don’t realise it yet. But they will soon, because the gap between the learning that happens inside school and the learning that happens outside school is already a yawning one, and getting wider by the day, and it is the latter that is fast becoming the paramount learning for most connected individuals. The learning done outside of school will, very shortly, and for all learners older than the very youngest, become more critical and more essential to individual growth and future expectations than anything that happens within the walls of a school. If schools (and colleges and universities) can’t change, and if and when that point is reached, schools, as we know them, will simply start to wither on the vine.

But schools do not have to remain the institutions that we have known for so long. The people with, arguably, the most critical role in turning these institutions around are the teachers, lecturers and professors themselves. But how can teachers produce independent thinkers when they themselves are simply not allowed to think independently, constrained as they are by a stifling and repressive hierarchy, an oppressive chain of command that enables those who control education to impose the kind of nonsense on our schools described above.

It is a simple logical truth that only truly independent teachers will ever be able to work with learners to help them become truly independent thinkers. If teachers remain shackled by the ticky-box brigade, weighed down by the tower of trivialities that comprise the crumbling edifice of formal schooling, then learners will find their own way towards independent thinking, with or without the teachers.