Education as taxidermy

“Auntie, I’m tired of being stuffed.“

These words, uttered by a young boy at a poor school in India to the school’s benefactor, formed bubbles in my throat. I felt nauseous. “Auntie, I’m tired of being stuffed. They are just stuffing me. I want an education.”

I heard this most accurate and heartfelt account of what ‘education’ does to the vast majority of the world’s children (rich and poor alike) at a rousing talk given by Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak at the university where I work on a drizzling winter’s Friday evening. Spivak is a rock-star of academia: author of “Can the subaltern speak?”, a major text in post-colonial theory, as well as the translator into English of Derrida’s On Grammatology, she falls into that sparsely populated group one can call genuine polymaths: author, translator, philosopher, literary critic, teacher, activist, sociologist… at 74 she still exudes an uncanny energy and incisiveness of mind. Spivak was relating some anecdotes about the poor schools she funds (from her salary: she refuses corporate funding) in rural India. And these words were what one of the students at a school said to her when she came to teach for a short while.

I will share more about what Spivak said in her talk another time. What warrants a bit more focus here is the mind-blowing acuity of her student’s words. Freire described the same phenomenon 50 years ago. He called it the ‘banking method’ of education: students are treated as empty vessels into which we, society, using teachers as our proxies, pour in that-which-they-need-to-know in order to be upstanding, “useful” members of society.

[Ironically, as I typed that prior paragraph, the verb ‘pour’ was accidentally misspelled as “poor”. Freudian slip! For it is indeed a pathetically impoverished type of education.]

I really want to emphasise that it’s not the teachers actively choosing to teach in this particular way and not another way, independent of the rest of us. To do so is to ignore the types of knowledge we value when we ‘evaluate’ each other, when we size each other up, the types of learning we actually hold dear, as opposed to that which we say we value. It ignores the entire structure of our curriculum and our assessment processes. We say we want creative thinkers, but we dismiss those who think differently from ourselves; we say we don’t want parrots of facts (after all, this is the age of Google), but we become derisive if a student/colleague/employee/neighbour doesn’t know factoids we consider salient to the mind of any functioning adult; we say we want active citizens, but we get upset when someone challenges allegedly legitimate authority.

Our examinations and curricula in all our schools—public and independent alike—are stuffed to the gunnels with content: facts, figures, algorithms, timelines, names and dates. The student who can absorb as much of it as possible and then regurgitate it at the right time, in the right language and format, is the one who succeeds at the game of education we have set them. We are deluding ourselves if we think that we value the things we say we do: it is a self-deception.

Our child in India pierces that deception. And does it in such a visceral manner. To be stuffed. The word has so many layers… where to begin? It’s passive: someone else is doing the stuffing. And it certainly does not sound like a pleasant experience! After all, ‘go get stuffed!’ is euphemistic for being on the receiving end of violence (sexual violence one might add).

And what other objects get ‘stuffed’? (Always objects, mind. Objects.) Teddy bears? Pillows? Dead animals?

The latter struck me the hardest while listening to Spivak: the metaphor is so strong. Dead animals. We ‘kill’ our children’s free spirit, their creativity, their imaginations, and then we stuff them like a taxidermist, put in the glass eyes with no light behind them. The end product looks almost exactly like the living being, but the life-force is gone.

Moreover, unlike the teddy bear, or the pillow, which began as empty, taxidermy involves removing the original substance and replacing it with inanimate material. The animal does not start empty. Or dead, for that matter.

Then when the process is done, we mount them on our walls (their certificates-of-achievement at any rate) and bask in our triumph of what a good job we’ve done.

Freire called the ‘banking method’ of education necrophilious—a love of death. Not a love of life. There is no ignition of the soul in this type of learning, no libido sciendi, no lust for knowledge, no will to understanding. The only drive that comes forth is our children’s hope that if they acquiesce to being stuffed they will somehow be better off for it (after all, we have told them as much). Many come to realize, sooner or later (often too late!), that it is an empty promise, and the price tag for the opportunity was way too high.

And the children who resist being stuffed? They are the one’s we call delinquent, deviant. In my own experience of teaching, my students who struggle with ‘behaviour problems’ are often those who do not want to be stuffed with someone else’s idea of education: who are too independent in their thinking to allow being passively emptied of themselves and filled with something else. I don’t think there’s a coincidence that many of the world’s most successful ‘entrepreneurs’ (a term whose most recent co-option into education discourse I deeply, deeply resent, but that’s for another post) performed dismally at school and dropped out. They were too sure of their own selves and their own way of doing things to allow themselves to be stuffed with someone else’s choice of facts and figures.

This is not to say that having information and ‘content knowledge’ is useless… far from it. But it’s the mechanism by which it is acquired (or, for many children, not acquired) and then mistaken for something it is not, namely real learning. We force our children to go to school and then we stuff them. And then we bemoan these ‘young people of today who can’t think for themselves’ when that is not what we encouraged or taught in the first place. We wonder why the mounted head on the wall no longer sings or prowls or flies.