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.

Hello world!

Hello everyone, molweni nonke, groetes almal

Welcome to my blog about all things schooling. I’m a high school mathematics teacher who now works at the University of Cape Town to train and support other teachers as they enter schools of all sorts across South Africa. I’ve worked in mostly poorly-resourced schools in the Western Cape, but also have experience working in a local ‘comp’ (comprehensive) school in the UK. Some of my research took me out to the rural Eastern Cape, and I’ve done a bit of this and that with various NGOs in and around Cape Town.

I’m starting this blog because I keep encountering so many conversations and ideas in discussion about education that are fundamentally misinformed. It’s a hot topic, to be sure. Everyone has some experience of our education system(s), positive and/or negative, but many have not had the opportunity to be re-immersed in those systems post their own schooling. There are a lot of dominant ideas about how to ‘fix’ our schools that are premised on misinformation at best, or are at times—I’m sorry to say it—downright harmful.

I come from a ‘school of thought’ (pun intended) that rejects the idea that we can have a universal, objective handle on the world, or ‘know’ anything neutrally. We all bring our own biases, values, experiences, dare I say it ideologies and these inform what we hear, what we see, what we think is right and wrong. I’m not going to pretend that anything I write here is neutral, a mistake many of my peers make.

I’m also not going to hide behind numbers as if those are neutral, when it is all too clear to anyone who has been subject to the tyranny of numbers that they can be used to justify almost anything you want. Most things that actually count can’t be counted. And I’m a mathematician (my degree is in mathematics), so I’m not saying this from a perspective of having lost the battle of quantitative mastery.

But I have come to realise that my formulae, models and ‘ordering’ of the world through the lens of numbers is inadequate and incomplete. And that I can do quite a lot of harm when I deploy my arsenal of logic without having all the facts.

In the spirit of being transparent about my own values: I’ll add to my healthy scepticism of numbers that I fundamentally believe in the capacity of each human being to grow and learn. Having started my career in Special Education Needs, I learned quickly that most of my SEN students were only ‘special’ because they didn’t fit a particular type of system, a system that was grossly unjust towards them. When given the opportunity to flourish in their own way, they were more than capable. This has bred my perspective that most of the things people do that are ‘problematic’ are learned, not innate; that students, teachers, and everyone else in society (for our education system is our social photocopier) have reasons why they do what they do, good and bad. I think if we want to enact change, we need to understand those reasons first. Also, I think ,we must remember that ‘problematic’ is not without a subject: something is ‘problematic’ to someone. Someone gets to define what constitutes a ‘problem’ and what does not.

It’s worth stating that this blog will make a point of using the active and passive carefully. There’s nothing worse than the way academia likes to write in the passive and erase the person-doing. We read “children are being failed”… who is failing them? We say “the education system needs to be fixed”… who shall do the fixing? Even subtle statements like “the name ___ was chosen because…” who did the choosing? So I’ll try, reader, to be clear about who is doing what, as far as I can tell. And, moreover, why they are doing it.

I chose the name “Schooled” for many reasons. The formal definition is boring: “educated or trained in a specified activity or in a particular way.” Duh. The word “schooled” means so much more. It means to have your previous ideas debunked, to be ‘shown up’ or ‘exposed’. As in “I got seriously schooled when I thought I knew about the Cape Flats… I didn’t know jack”, or “I thought I could dance well, but when Jimmy hit the floor, I got schooled”. Personally, I got seriously schooled when I went to teach mathematics in a township school (to see how badly I got schooled, check out my old school-time blog). When you admit you’ve been schooled in the colloquial sense of it, you’ve got to ‘fess up. You’ve got to be humble.

So thus was born this blog “Schooled”, out of a desire to provide an alternative narrative to those I keep bumping into. I’m constantly encountering as I work with teachers (and do my own research) how little I still know about the inner workings of a system I’ve been in for years, how much I still have to learn from people at the coalface who show determination and resilience and resourcefulness far beyond my own. I’m also distressed at how little many South African citizens seem to know about the reality of our schools and our education system. Most critically, I’m struggling on a daily basis with how many of them purport to know a lot. So read us all, my thoughts and others’. Then make up your own mind.

Let’s get schooled.