The Problems With Traditional Education.

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Traditional education is problematic. If it was perfect then there would be no cogent arguments against it. As Dewey made clear, what he termed as progressive education was a reaction due to “discontent with traditional education.”  This discontent is based on important ideas. Dewey described traditional education being, “…in essence, one of imposition from above and from outside.” Even though: “…good teachers will use devices of art to cover up the imposition so as to relieve it of obviously brutal features.”

Crucially:

the very situation [of traditional education] forbids much active participation by pupils in the development of what is taught. Theirs is to do—and learn… Learning here means acquisition of what already is incorporated in books and in the heads of the elders. Moreover, that which is taught… is taught as a finished product, with little regard either to the ways in which it was originally built up or to changes that will surely occur in the future. It is to a large extent the cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, and yet it is used as educational food in a society where change is the rule, not the exception.

Instead he posits a progressive education that, instead of imposing an education from above, develops

expression and cultivation of individuality;

He sets up his progressive education in opposition to traditional modes:

to external discipline is opposed free activity; to learning from texts and teachers, learning through experience; to acquisition of isolated skills and techniques by drill, is opposed acquisition of them as means of attaining ends which make direct vital appeal; to preparation for a more or less remote future is opposed making the most of the opportunities of present life; to static aims and materials is opposed acquaintance with a changing world.

Experiential, ‘free’ learning, in the here and now, with texts and teachers taking on a different role, to support the pupil in what is vitally appealing through an acquaintance with our current world and how it is changing.

This is all very exciting. Traditional teaching and texts are set up in opposition to our current, changing times.

Freire considered Dewey to be a key philosopher of education and they have ideas in common but Freire goes further than Dewey. Instead of a ‘democratic’ education Freire’s vision is revolutionary. He saw traditional education as brutal, he used the term ‘ideology of oppression’ to clarify the relationship between the traditional teacher and the pupil:

Narration (with the teacher as narrator) leads the students to memorize mechanically the narrated account. Worse yet, it turns them into “containers,” into “receptacles” to be “filled” by the teachers. The more completely she fills the receptacles, the better a teacher she is. The more meekly the receptacles permit themselves to be filled, the better students they are.

Education thus becomes an act of depositing, in which the students are the depositories and the teacher is the depositor. Instead of communicating, the teacher issues communiques and makes deposits which the students patiently receive, memorize, and repeat. This is the “banking’ concept of education, in which the scope of action allowed to the students extends only as far as receiving, filing, and storing the deposits… in the last analysis, it is the people themselves who are filed away through the lack of creativity, transformation, and knowledge in this (at best) misguided system. For apart from inquiry, apart from the praxis, individuals cannot be truly human. Knowledge emerges only through invention and re-invention, through the restless, impatient continuing, hopeful inquiry human beings pursue in the world, with the world, and with each other.

In the banking concept of education, knowledge is a gift bestowed by those who consider themselves knowledgeable upon those whom they consider to know nothing. Projecting an absolute ignorance onto others, a characteristic of the ideology of oppression, negates education and knowledge as processes of inquiry…

one does not liberate people by alienating them. Authentic liberation-the process of humanization-is not another deposit to be made in men. Liberation is a praxis: the action and reflection of men and women upon their world in order to transform it.

Here we have two of the greatest ‘progressive’ thinkers in education theory making important points about the limitations of traditional education.

These progressive arguments show great concern for the child, they argue that harm is being done to children, that they are being oppressed and they are not being introduced into our ever changing world.

The opposite of this would be unpalatable. Harming children by oppressing them is not a way to make them ‘truly human’. If that is the best the ‘at best, misguided’ approach of ‘oppressive’ education can do, then who wants to have any part in it?

Praxis is ‘active’ rather than passive and, for a Marxist like Freire, praxis has a revolutionary intent. It demands creative action in the present to remake and obtain the future. It requires children to be aware of the realities of life, to be critical of these realities and then go about changing them. This can only happen by freeing people. By freeing children. Not by oppressing them.

The argument is that children should not be passive receptors of handed down discriminatory, artificial, arbitrary knowledge. They should be the makers of their future. In order for this to occur they need to be impatient and restless and want to invent and reinvent the world. This means that education is a creative and political act. Whether it is democratic or revolutionary the progressive challenge to traditional education is one of power. From teacher to pupil.

Whether through revolution or democracy, power and status is firmly established as being an important part of education, texts of the past and teachers as all-knowing ‘depositors’ of static knowledge are to be resisted. Tradition is stasis, progress is movement. Authority is challenged: ‘Why are you teaching me this? Whose knowledge? Whose history? Whose science? In order to make the future we have to be critical of the present. ‘My interests are the following… this is what I want to know about’. ‘I need to get by in today’s world, and I need to build a future for myself and my comrades.’

Who wants to stand in the way of democratic rights?

GK Chesterton articulated tradition’s refusal to give up in the face of the forces of the present taking democratic control of the future:

Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.

The fact that this is heavily ‘masculinised’ language might make it easy to scoff at, but let us look beyond that and at what is being said. Tradition, the voices of the past, should not be neglected just because they are dead. Do we forget our father’s words as soon as he takes his last breath? Do we celebrate when we are rid of our grandmothers and their stifling oppression of us? Do we rejoice when the modern crushes the historical?

I think we sometimes do and sometimes we don’t, it depends very much on the quality of the relationships and the way that their wisdom and their foolishness is passed onto us.

I think Dewey and Freire have important things to say about education, I would be wrong to reject them because they are dead men. They are part of the history of education and as an educator I should make sense of the past and the present in order to critique it. As Freire would have wanted.

It is political. The left wing voice of Freire, the more liberal voice of Dewey, represent a challenge to the conserving voices of tradition. The challenge is to an idea of sanctity, of the need for authority, and a loyalty to our forbears; three ideas that the progressive mindset doesn’t tend to hold dear. But the conservative voice is important. In a truly democratic arrangement no voices should be extinguished. The great ‘conservative’ philosopher, Edmund Burke talked of society being a contract:

It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue, and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.

This idea is an essential one in education. Dewey neglects the importance of this by dismissing it:  cultural product of societies that assumed the future would be much like the past, but should the past be an irrelevance for the political progressive?

The old laws of England—they
Whose reverend heads with age are grey,
Children of a wiser day;
And whose solemn voice must be
Thine own echo—Liberty!
Rise, like lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you:
Ye are many—they are few! 

The voices of the past far from being inactive are anything but. These voices are not extolling an ideology of oppression but are, instead, as human as our present and our future. It is these voices that become authoritative through time and are, indeed, sometimes idiotic and oppressive. But we need the traditional voice:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing.

And even if we see everything as ultimately futile, we are comforted or challenged, but ultimately made wiser and better by these voices.

By teaching Dewey, Freire, Shelley and Shakespeare we have an inheritance to pass on. And if the children in front of us see no purpose, are bored by this, do not want to learn it, we have a duty to the voices of the past to ensure that their voices are still heard and also to the children of the children in front of us, for they should bear the imprint of the past too.

In the past we have voices of oppression and voices of revolution. If, in the future, anyone is going to rise up, it is the voices of the past that will inspire them.

The problem with traditional education occurs when it forgets that it has a contract with the present and the future. The problem with progressive education is when it forgets the loyalty to the authority and sanctity of the voices of the past.

I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

As we admire the ruins of the past, we learn about our present and begin to make our futures.

A liberal arts education has this relationship at its core. A true education tradition that stretches back over the centuries, has the often contradictory tension between past, present and future to contend with. And this is what truly liberates the child. The liberal arts teacher doesn’t see this as problematic, they are not ‘oppressing’ children or ‘banking’ deposits of knowledge nor are they teaching ‘finished’ products of a fixed world. The liberal arts tradition is an ongoing dialogue throughout all time; a continuing conversation of humankind.

This is truly democratic. Indeed, revolutionary.

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8 thoughts on “The Problems With Traditional Education.

  1. David F

    Hi Martin—thanks for this….I think the issues are in how this takes place…my school had a PD session yesterday that was presented pretty well, but it was also the usual stuff–give students choice, let them develop the questions, etc. However, as I have written on many a paper where the student said the film/reading/material was “boring” and “hard to understand” that not everything worth knowing is going to be entertaining or easy. If I don’t lead students to it, then they won’t exprience it at all.

    I posted to Twitter yesterday a shoddy picture I took of Bertrand Russell’s History of Philosophy, where in the last para of his section on Schopnhauer (which I was teaching to my AP Euro students) Russell points out that Schopenhauer was the first philosopher to really articulate the concept of the will, and placed it—as Dewey, Rousseau et al. did—over knowledge. I would argue that this line of thinking puts us on the road to the materialistic hyper-individualism that we see in muh of today’s society–as Hannah Arendt writes of Nietzsche, that when we are bored we get nihilism. Arendt also argues in her excellent “The Crisis of Education” that this also keeps the child in the realm of the being a child and holds him/her back from being an active member of adulthood. She ends her essay with this:

    “What concerns us all and cannot therefore be turned over to the special science of pedagogy is the relation between grown-ups and children in general or, putting it in even more general and exact terms, our attitude toward the fact of natality: the fact that we have all come into the world by being born and that this world is constantly renewed through birth. Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it and by the same token save it from that ruin which, except for renewal, except for the coming of the new and young, would be inevitable. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices, nor to strike from their hands their chance of undertaking something new, something unforeseen by us, but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”

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  2. Pingback: Is traditional teaching oppressive? | Teaching Newbie

  3. Kevin Light

    Newton and Leibniz developed Calculus in the 17th century. It took humanity a few thousand years to get to that point.

    Thanks to “traditional” education, my son managed to learn calculus in 17 years.

    I think I’m pretty satisfied with the “discriminatory, artificial, arbitrary” knowledge that is being forced upon my oppressed child. He certainly wasn’t going to discover calculus on his own, and at least I know he’ll be capable of directing his own life to because he’s learned to accept that sometimes people know more than he does and it might be a good idea to listen to those people instead of wasting time reinventing the wheel. He also knows that ideas like, “children should be the makers of their own future,” sound very nice, but really have no meaning.

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  4. teachwell

    I think part of the problem we have now with Dewey and Freire is that they have been elevated to deity status among modern day progressives, who champion questioning everything except their own ideology and beliefs. In this way, they are killing off the very thing they claim to hold dear.

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  5. Chester Draws

    The traditional education Dewey was writing about bears very little similarity with a modern “Traditional” classroom. The man’s experience of a classroom was formed circa 1870-1880 for goodness’ sake! Most of his writing is now over 100 years old.

    Gone are the sticks used to beat recalcitrant kids. Gone is the teacher being the only one to express an opinion. Gone are textbooks that were just a mass of one exercise after another. Gone is the “one approved method” for everything. Gone is rote learning — if that ever was really much of a thing. Gone mostly, and this was a particular issue for him, is schooling seen largely as a way to prepare directly for work.

    If Dewey walked into my classroom, he would see it as heartily Progressive, because compared to his time it is. Yet I am firmly in the Traditional camp in the modern world.

    Citing Dewey as if he is relevant today without taking into account how much things have changed is like citing Marx and forgetting that social structures are no longer those of 1880.

    And on that topic, Freire should be placed in the dustbin of educational theory. A Marxist revolutionary writing about adult education in poverty-stricken Brazil, with specific emphasis on teaching for the overthrow of capitalism, is not a guide to how modern western teachers should conduct their classrooms teaching children. I would not pay any attention to what Mao Tse-Tung had to say about education — and I bet it was a fair bit — for the same reason.

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