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Back To Skool? A Case for Alternative Education

jasmine rezaee

Today marks the first day of school. Millions of children in Ontario and Canada are going back to class, back to their teachers and subjects, back to their school routine. This is the first fall, ever, that I haven’t gone back to skool. Reflecting on the whole experience I feel a big nostalgic, even a bit rueful. I try to make sense of it all but cannot. I guess I’m a bit angry. The story of education, as it is commonly understood, has two versions, and perhaps even more. According to the better known version, education is a privilege, an opportunity bestowed on the children and young adults of privileged areas of the world. We mustn’t take education for granted; according to this version, education is the panacea of many social ills. Literacy is next to godliness.

Then of course is the more disgruntled, dark, critical version — the unsavoury underbelly of education and academia. Let me elaborate on a few points:

1. I went to a Montessori elementary school (not in Canada but in Europe). My fondest memories are Friday-afternoon games (we played cards and Monopoly like it was nobody’s business) and our weekly news reports (our only homework). We received no grades and we didn’t fear our teachers. On my feedback reports my teachers consistently noted that I was weak in math and that I liked to talk. They also complained that I was easily distracted. I was always peering out the window—onto the playground it seems.

2. But near the end of my glorious-and-laid-back elementary education I had to complete a standardized test that essentially determined the rest of my future, in great detail.

3. Here in Canada, high school took a while to get used to. I went to a public school, in Richmond, B.C. Everything was pretty standard; if you wanted to go to university you had to enrol in certain courses and of course you had a limited choice of electives. You’d listen as the teacher taught the material in class and complete the assigned homework. Of course, there were weekly tests, pop quizzes, final exams, etc., all designed to “measure” how much you knew and how well. Most people I knew took summer school to get ahead; I was once forced to take long-distance summer school because I failed math.
What is the point of this seeming digression, you may ask. Well, according to the second version, though education may be a privilege, and should perhaps not be taken for granted, it is still deeply problematic. The form and shape of one’s educational experience is truly important, not the fact that educational opportunities exist (we all agree — it’s a good thing they exist). I’m of the firm opinion that mainstream education is quite limiting and stifling. Everything seems to be geared towards creating well-disciplined, obedient workers and consumers. Education has fallen far from the utopian goals of a more empowered, free and genuinely better society.

My biggest beef is probably the university and academia. I find universities to be giant loboto-mobiles. Universities want your money and are designed to equip you with the skills to become a good worker, consumer, and sometimes a good citizen (go out and vote, folks). All those other departments that aren’t vocational schools (philosophy, history, English, you name it) have seen drastic budget cuts. Most of the social sciences have been infiltrated by conservative jibber-jabber — the quest for quasi-scientific and quantitative measurement (but that’s a different story).

Nowhere in this whole process of hierarchies, levels, classes and rules are people taught the thinking skills that enable them to critically examine social processes, norms, institutions, and ideas that we take for granted. What we are taught instead, from the moment of our entrance into the educational arena, is to obey, conform, kowtow, follow directions, submit. Rather than mindlessly celebrating education we should really ask, what does our educational system aspire to achieve and is there, perhaps, something fundamentally problematic about it?

One of our underlying educational goals ought to be the cultivation of students’ ability to confidently and articulately question, interrogate and challenge norms, rules, and authorities deemed normal. Of course, the existing educational system doesn’t want this because it might potentially lead to a questioning of current teacher-student power dynamics and the grading system. But perhaps a wholesale review of these accepted phenomena is necessary for genuine progress to be achieved.

It is in this conflict-contradictory-dual-Manichean spirit that I enjoyed reading Lawrence Martin’s article in the Metro about Einstein’s ass-kicking, non-conformist, disobedient ways. If Marx and everyone who preceded him were right, that our purpose in life is to create and to be creative, then I must say that the classroom, the rules, the hierarchies, the power-dynamics are not conducive to creativity, to “thinking outside the box.” Even thinking outside the box has become a marketing, corporate tool. Creativity has an evil side too, I suppose.

Pedagogy, then, is of utmost importance. I agree: education is a privilege that should not be taken for granted, but why should I agree to mainstream pedagogical practices that stifle creativity and turn students into mindless automatons. Think about how good it felt to get that A (assuming you ever received one); now think about Pavlov’s dog. How is this real happiness?

What I’m asking is: what is, or should be, the purpose of receiving an education? What kind of life do we wish for the next generation, for the children that will grow up in this society, for the future? We know what mainstream education has produced. Obviously, intelligence doesn’t equate with humanity (sorry Plato, those forms are just not all that harmonious after all). “Alternative” education, which hopefully will become mainstream so that mainstream forms become the alternative, (the outdated alternative) I believe is a progressive move, a step towards the right direction. People are sceptical about these alternative schools. Think about the hubbub surrounding Africentric schools. It’s hard for people to accept any kind of change (but add race to the matter and watch sparks fly).

I suppose that societies’ fundamental problems, of how to socialize an entire generation, will ultimately take on problematic power-dynamics. We, perhaps, cannot change the problematic student-teacher relations and problems of the grading system because of the sheer number of students. However, I do believe that we can make the classroom more egalitarian, that classes can be smaller, that testing, if necessary, can take a variety of forms. Most importantly, students must be encouraged to think for themselves, to be opinionated, fearless. Pleasing the teacher or feeling afraid of what he/she might do if one expresses dissent should NEVER enter the equation. In critical theory conformity was next to Nazism. Perhaps that sounds extreme, but considering the economic breakdown, environmental destruction, and mindless banter about security and terrorism currently plague us, a little more critical thinking would be welcome.

4. Last point: I myself, as a student of political science for six years often had to censor myself out of fear that a professor might punish me for challenging him or her. I had to shut up, follow paper directions, then get creative about writing what I knew instructors wanted to hear while somehow simultaneously trying to compromise it all with my own beliefs. Yes, I perfected the art of political acuity, of rhetoric and subtleness and arguing political points without really saying anything socially relevant. Luckily for me, political philosophy provided the breathing room I needed to question society a bit more, to feel a bit more comfortable challenging hegemonic ideas. Even so, I will never forget an interaction that occurred this past year at the University of Toronto between an ethics professor and a Masters student. The ethics professor had remarked how disgusting she felt about a Toronto union leader’s statement regarding boycotting Israeli academics. When the student challenged her, she literally turned into a raving lunatic, abusing every aspect of her power by engaging in a direct and heated confrontation with the student, chastising him for what he believed in front of everyone. She didn’t resort to using profanity or verbal threats but I still lost all respect for her. She used her power as an instructor to force the student to justify his beliefs when she never felt the need to justify her own. I wanted to join the discussion but felt too afraid.

I was a coward—unlike that other student. But I know that he ended up with a bad mark and I didn’t. If I had spoken up I would have said “it is the duty of every academic, every public intellectual, every human being to speak out against injustice when they see it. It is the duty of every Israeli academic, regardless of their field, to speak out against the occupation of Palestine. You can’t discount this by saying ‘but what about that Israeli prof that teaches fine arts…why should he criticize anything.’ Every human being has a responsibility towards other human beings. Using your logic, the actions of the literary professor in Nazi Germany who did not speak out against the atrocities of his regime is somehow acceptable. Obviously no one would agree to this. So why the hypocrisy?”

I guess I have said it now. But I still feel angry. I am aware of the problems surrounding the educational institution having been in that “system” all my life. I know it enough to commend pedagogical experiments offering a real alternative when I see it.

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