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people to do something guarantees that they will do it poorly, with a bad will, or indifferently, unless you are willing, as the Army is, to suspend most human rights and use any degree of intimidation necessary? And if the latter is the only way that compulsion can produce results, what is the human value of using it if it diminishes the quality of human life?

Multiple prohibitions of choice in the matter of education are now enforced by law, enshrining an exclusive bureaucracy of certified teachers and administrators, and literally hundreds of invisible agencies necessary to maintain the institution of government monopoly schooling. Defying the lessons of the market, this psychopathic megalith has grown more and more powerful in spite of colossal failures to educate throughout its history. It succeeds in surviving only because it employs the police power of the State to fill its hollow classrooms. It prohibits local choice and variety and, because of this prohibition, has had a hideous effect on our national moral fabric. The effect the national prohibition of alcohol by legislation has had on social cohesion and common values is an object lesson too recent to forget, I hope. And compared to the prohibitions that compulsory government monopoly schooling imposes on the children and families of a nation, alcohol prohibition is a minor episode. By preventing a free market in education, a handful of social engineers, backed by the industries that profit from compulsory schooling — teacher colleges, textbook publishers, materials suppliers, and others — has ensured that most of our children will not have an education, even though they may be thoroughly schooled.

Divorced from religion, the congregational principle is a psychological force propelling individuals to reach their maximum potential when working in small groups of people with whom they feel in harmony. If you think about this you wonder what purpose is achieved by arranging things any other way. The Congregationalists understood profoundly that good things happen to the human spirit when it is left alone.

The best immediate evidence I have to offer, that leaving people alone to work out their own local destinies is a splendid idea, is the curious sociology of my presence as a speaker in Dedham last year. There, in a community that had whipped half-naked Quaker women, stood I — a Roman Catholic with a Scots Presbyterian wife, accompanied by my good friend Roland, half pagan, half Jewish — in a Unitarian Universalist church that had once been Congregational. No act of the Massachusetts legislature made that possible, no pronouncement of the Supreme Court. People learned to be neighbors in Dedham because for three hundred years they were allowed real choice, including the choice to make their own mistakes. Everyone learned a better way to deal with difference than exclusion because they had time to think about it and to work it through — time measured in generations.

But if they had been ordered to change, ordered, as other immigrants were, to change their behavior and to abandon their culture in compulsory schools set up for that purpose, I think what would have happened is this: some of them would have seemed to change but would have harbored such powerful resentments at being deprived of choice that some way to exact vengeance would have evolved. And most of the group deprived of choice and custom and family and roots would have reacted in a variety of ways to these social pressures, would have gone quietly insane or become simplified people, fit to haul stones to build someone else’s pyramids, perhaps, or to watch television’s simplified fantasies, but fit for little else.

Despite the lip service we have continued to pay to local choice ever since Congregational days, our schools are centrally planned and already have a national curriculum in place mediated by the textbook publishing industry and the standardized training of teachers. That our schools have failed spectacularly to give our children the education we want for them, or the selves we want, or to deliver on the dream of the democratic, classless society we still yearn for is obvious enough; what we miss is the logic of our failure. By allowing the imposition of direction from centers far beyond our control, we have time and again missed the lesson of the Congregational principle: people are less than whole unless they gather themselves voluntarily into groups of souls in harmony. Gathering themselves to pursue individual, family, and community dreams consistent with their private humanity is what makes them whole; only slaves are gathered by others. And these dreams must be written locally because to exercise any larger ambition without such a base is to lose touch with the things which give life meaning: self, family, friends, work, and intimate community.


There seem to me to be two “official” ways to look at the state of education in the United States these days, both of them wrong. First, we conceive it to be an engineering problem that can be made to yield to a pragmatic instrumental approach. From this vantage point there is a simple right and wrong way of schooling, never the thousand private individual possibilities the New England Congregationalists might have believed in. Second, we look upon schooling as if it were a character in a continuous courtroom drama, a drama wherein we search for the villains who have prevented our kids from learning. Bad teachers, poor textbooks, incompetent administrators, evil politicians, ill-trained parents, bad children — whoever the villains may be we shall find them, indict them, arraign them, prosecute them, perhaps even execute them! Then things will be okay.

Out of these two wrong-headed ways of looking at education have grown enormous industries that claim power to cure mass education of its frictions or of its demons in exchange for treasure. Into this carnival of magical thinking has come a parade of profit-seekers: analysts, consultants, researchers, academic houses, writers, advisors, columnists, textbook committees, school boards, testing corporations, journalists, teachers’ colleges, state departments of education, monitors, coordinators, manufacturers, certified teachers and administrators, television programs, and hordes of school-related businesses — all parasitic growths of the government monopoly over the school concept.

To many of us, the greatest attraction of social engineering and antisocial demonologies is that both, at bottom, promise a quick fix. That has always been the dark side of the American dream, the search for an easy way out, a belief in magic. The endless parade of promises that constitutes the heart of American advertising, one of the largest of our national enterprises, testifies to the deep well of superstition in our national foundation, which has been institutionalized in the advertising business. Easy money, easy health, easy beauty, easy education — if only the right incantation can be found. Lurking behind the magic is an image of people as machinery that can be built and repaired. This is our Calvinist legacy calling to us over the centuries, saying that the world and all its living variety is just machinery, not very hard to adjust if we put sentimentality aside and fire the villains, either symbolically or with actual bonfires, depending on the century. School reform to most of us is an engineer reaching for the right wrench or Perry Mason finding the clue he needs to nail the bad guy.


Ultimately, how we think about social problems depends on our philosophy of human nature: what we think people are, what we think they are capable of, what the purposes of human existence may be, if any. If people are machines, then school can only be a way to make these machines more reliable; the logic of machines dictates that parts be uniform and interchangeable, all operations time-constrained, predictable, economical. Does this sound to you like the schools you attended, that your children attend? The Civil War unfortunately demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt both the financial and social utility of regimentation, but while this notion of people as machines has been around for thousands of years, its effective reign has only been operational since the end of World War I.

American education teaches by its methodology that people are machines. Bells ring, circuits open and close, energy flows or is constricted, qualities are reduced to a numbering system, a plan is followed of which the machine parts know nothing. Octavio Paz from Mexico, the 1990 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, has this to say about our schools:

In the North American system men and women are subjected from childhood to an inexorable process. Certain principles contained in brief formulas are endlessly repeated by the press, radio, television, churches, and especially schools. A person imprisoned by these schemes is like a plant in a flowerpot too small for it. He cannot grow or mature. This sort of conspiracy cannot help but provoke violent individual rebellions.

We cannot grow or mature, like plants in too little flowerpots. We are addicted to dependency; in the current national crisis of maturity we seem to be waiting for the teacher to tell us what to do, but the teacher never comes to do that. Bridges collapse, men and women sleep on the streets, bankers cheat, good will decays, families betray each other, the government lies as a matter of policy — corruption, shame, sickness, and sensationalism are everywhere. No school has a curriculum to provide the quick fix.

The old Congregationalists would have been able to put their finger at once on the reason pyramidal societies, such as the one our monopoly form of schooling sustains, must always end in apathy and disorganization. At the root they are based on the lie that there is “one right way” in human affairs and that experts can be awarded the permanent direction of the enterprise of education. It is a lie because the changing dynamics of time and situation and locality render expertise irrelevant and obsolete shortly after it is anointed.

Monopoly schooling has been the chief training institution of the hive society. It certifies permanent experts who enjoy privileges of status unwarranted by the results they produce. Because these privileges, once achieved, will not willingly be given over, whole apparatuses of privilege have been fashioned that are impregnable to change. Even under the severest criticism they grow larger and more dangerous because they nourish important parts of our political and economic system. In the most literal sense they are impossible to reform because they have ceased to be human, having been transformed into abstract structures of superb efficiency, independent of lasting human control survival mechanisms. This is not a devil you can wrestle with as Daniel Webster did with Old Scratch, but one that has to be starved to death by depriving it of victims.

Monopoly schooling is the major cause of our loss of national and individual identity. Having institutionalized the division of social classes and acted as an agent of caste, it is repugnant to our founding myths and to the reality of our founding period. Its strength arises from many quarters, the antichild, antifamily stream of history being one — but it draws it greatest power from being a natural adjunct to the kind of commercial economy we have that requires permanently dissatisfied consumers.


It’s time to stop. This system doesn’t work, and it’s one of the causes of our world coming apart. No amount of tinkering will make the school machine work to produce educated people; education and schooling are, as we all have experienced, mutually exclusive terms. In 1930, sixty long years ago, Thomas Briggs, delivering the Inglis Lecture at Harvard, charged that “the nation’s great investment in secondary education has shown no respectable achievement”; two decades later, in 1951, a survey made of 30,000 Los Angeles school children discovered that seventy-five percent of eighth graders couldn’t find the Atlantic Ocean on a map and most of them couldn’t calculate fifty percent of thirty-six. From my personal experience, I stand witness that the situation is certainly no better today.

What on earth is going on? Any genuine debate would have to grapple with the uniform failure of every type of government monopoly school. With the addition of television, the destructive power of schooling is now awesome and thoroughly out of control. The television institution, very similar to the structure of mass schooling, has expanded so successfully that all the former escape routes are now blocked. We have destroyed the minds and characters of the nation’s children by preempting their youth, removing their choices. We will pay a huge price in lost humanity for this crime for another century, even if a way is found to overturn the pyramid. Getting rid of the monopoly is the beginning of an answer.

What is there to do? Look to Dedham, to Sudbury, to Marblehead, and to Provincetown, all different yet all capable of meeting their community’s needs. Turn your back on national solutions and toward communities of families as successful laboratories. Let us turn inward until we master the first directive of any philosophy worthy of the name: “Know Thyself.” Understand that successful communities know the truth of the maxim “Good fences make good neighbors,” while at the same time being able to recognize, respect, understand, appreciate, and learn from each other’s differences.

Look to the Congregational principle for answers. Encourage and underwrite experimentation; trust children and families to know what’s best for themselves; stop the segregation of children and the aged in walled compounds; involve everyone in every community in the education of the young: businesses, institutions, old people, whole families; look for local solutions and always accept a personal solution in place of a corporate one. You need not fear educational consequences: reading, writing, and arithmetic aren’t very hard to teach if you take pains to see that compulsion and the school agenda don’t short-circuit each individual’s private appointment with themselves to learn these things. There is abundant evidence that less than a hundred hours is sufficient for a person to become totally literate and a self-teacher. Don’t be panicked by scare tactics into surrendering your children to experts.

Teaching must, I think, be decertified as quickly as possible. That certified teaching experts like me are deemed necessary to make learning happen is a fraud and a scam. Look around you: the results of teacher-college licensing are in the schools you see. Let anybody teach who wants to; give families back their tax money to pick and choose — who could possibly be a better shopper if the means for comparison were made available? Restore the Congregational system by encouraging competition after a truly unmanipulated free-market model — in that way the social dialectic can come back to life. Trust in families and neighborhoods and individuals to make sense of the important question, “What is education for?” If some of them answer differently from what you might prefer, that’s really not your business, and it shouldn’t be your problem. Our type of schooling has deliberately concealed the fact that such a question must be framed and not taken for granted if anything beyond a mockery of democracy is to be nurtured. It is illegitimate to have an expert answer that question for you. It was our own trust in our own potential that helped lay down good foundations back in the colonial period. I feel certain that the structure we built then still houses powerful potential. Let’s use it once again, and create a truly American solution to the great school nightmare.

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