ما به مدارس کمتر نیاز داریم، نه بیشتر - بخش دوم

کتاب: مدارسی که ما را کند ذهن میکند / فصل 7

ما به مدارس کمتر نیاز داریم، نه بیشتر - بخش دوم

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As we approach the twenty-first century it is correct to say that the United States has become a nation of institutions, whereas it used to be a nation of communities. Large cities have great difficulty supporting healthy community life, partly because of the coming and going of strangers, partly because of space constrictions, partly because of poisoned environments, but mostly because of the constant competition of institutions and networks for the custody of children and old people, for monopolizing the time of everyone else in between. By isolating young and old from the working life of places and by isolating the working population from the lives of young and old, institutions and networks have brought about a fundamental disconnection of the generations. The griefs that arise from this have no synthetic remedy; no vibrant, satisfying communities can come into being where young and old are locked away.

Here and there mutilated versions of community struggle to survive, as in places where cultural homogeneity has been fiercely protected — such as in Bensonhurst in Brooklyn or Polish Hill in Pittsburgh — but in the main, “community” in cities and suburbs is a thin illusion, confined to simulated events like street festivals. If you have moved from one neighborhood to another or from one suburb to another and have quickly forgotten the friends you left behind, then you will have experienced the phenomenon I refer to. Over ninety percent of the United States’ population now lives inside fifty urban aggregations. Having been concentrated there as the end product of fairly well-understood historical processes, they are denied a reciprocal part in any continuous, well-articulated community. They are profoundly alienated from their own human interests. What else could it mean that only half of our eligible citizens are registered to vote? And that of those a barely fifty percent do vote? In two-party jurisdictions a trifle over one-eighth of the citizenry is thus sufficient to elect public officials, assuming the vote splits fairly evenly. We’ve come a long way down the road to redefining as an option what used to be regarded as a duty, but that is what alienation from community life quickly accomplishes: indifference to almost everything.

When one is offered institutional simulations of community, a steady diet of networks — involuntary like schools, or “voluntary” like isolated workplaces divorced from human variety — basic human needs are placed in the gravest jeopardy, a danger magnified many times in the case of children. Institutional goals, however sane and well-intentioned, are unable to harmonize deeply with the uniqueness of individual human goals. No matter how good the individuals who manage an institution are, institutions lack a conscience because they measure by accounting methods. Institutions are not the sum total of their personnel, or even of their leadership, but are independent of both and will exist after management has been completely replaced. They are ideas come to life, ideas in whose service all employees are but servomechanisms. The deepest purposes of these gigantic networks are to regulate and to make uniform. Since the logic of family and community is to give scope to variety around a central theme, whenever institutions intervene significantly in personal affairs they cause much damage. By redirecting the focus of our lives from families and communities to institutions and networks, we, in effect, anoint a machine our king.

IV

Nearly a century ago a French sociologist wrote that every institution’s unstated first goal is to survive and grow, not to undertake the mission it has nominally staked out for itself. Thus the first goal of a government postal service is not to deliver the mail; it is to provide protection for its employees and perhaps a modest status ladder for the more ambitious ones. The first goal of a permanent military organization is not to defend national security but to secure, in perpetuity, a fraction of the national wealth to distribute to its personnel.

It was this philistine potential — that teaching the young for pay would inevitably expand into an institution for the protection of teachers, not students — that made Socrates condemn the Sophists so strongly long ago in ancient Greece.

If this view of things troubles you, think of the New York City public school system in which I work, one of the largest business organizations on planet Earth. While the education administered by this abstract parent is ill-regarded by everybody, the institution’s right to compel its clientele to accept such dubious service is still guaranteed by the police. And forces are gathering to expand its reach still further — in the face of every evidence that it has been a disaster throughout its history.

What gives the atmosphere of remote country towns and other national backwaters a peculiarly heady quality of fundamental difference is not simply a radical change of scenery from city or suburb, but the promise offered of near freedom from institutional intervention in family life. Big Father doesn’t watch over such places closely. Where his presence is felt most is still in the schools, which even there grind out their relentless message of anger, envy, competition, and caste-verification in the form of grades and “classes.” But a homelife and community exist there as antidotes to the poison.

This business we call “education” — when we mean “schooling” — makes an interesting example of network values in conflict with traditional community values. For one hundred and fifty years institutional education has seen fit to offer as its main purpose the preparation for economic success. Good education = good job, good money, good things. This has become the universal national banner, hoisted by Harvards as well as high schools. This prescription makes both parent and student easier to regulate and intimidate as long as the connection goes unchallenged either for its veracity or in its philosophical truth. Interestingly enough, the American Federation of Teachers identifies one of its missions as persuading the business community to hire and promote on the basis of school grades so that the grades = money formula will obtain, just as it was made to obtain for medicine and law after years of political lobbying. So far, the common sense of businesspeople has kept them hiring and promoting the old-fashioned way, using performance and private judgment as the preferred measures, but they may not resist much longer.

The absurdity of defining education as an economic good becomes clear if we ask ourselves what is gained by perceiving education as a way to enhance even further the runaway consumption that threatens the earth, the air, and the water of our planet? Should we continue to teach people that they can buy happiness in the face of a tidal wave of evidence that they cannot? Shall we ignore the evidence that drug addiction, alcoholism, teenage suicide, divorce, and other despairs are pathologies of the prosperous much more than they are of the poor?

On this question of meanings we’ve hidden from ourselves for so long hangs both an understanding of the illness that is killing us and the cure we are searching for. What, after all this time, is the purpose of mass schooling supposed to be? Reading, writing, and arithmetic can’t be the answer, because properly approached those things take less than a hundred hours to transmit — and we have abundant evidence that each is readily self-taught in the right setting and time.

Why, then, are we locking kids up in an involuntary network with strangers for twelve years? Surely not so a few of them can get rich? Even if it worked that way, and I doubt that it does, why wouldn’t any sane community look on such an education as positively wrong? It divides and classifies people, demanding that they compulsively compete with each other, and publicly labels the losers by literally de-grading them, identifying them as “low-class” material. And the bottom line for the winners is that they can buy more stuff! I don’t believe that anyone who thinks about that feels comfortable with such a silly conclusion. I can’t help feeling that if we could only answer the question of what it is that we want from these kids we lock up, we would suddenly see where we took a wrong turn. I have enough faith in American imagination and resourcefulness to believe that at that point we’d come up with a better way — in fact, a whole supermarket of better ways.

One thing I do know, though: most of us who’ve had a taste of loving families, even a little taste, want our kids to be part of one. One other thing I know is that eventually you have to come to be part of a place — part of its hills and streets and waters and people — or you will live a very, very sorry life as an exile forever. Discovering meaning for yourself as well as discovering satisfying purpose for yourself, is a big part of what education is. How this can be done by locking children away from the world is beyond me.

V

An important difference between communities and institutions is that communities have natural limits; they stop growing or they die. There’s a good reason for this: in the best communities everyone is a special person who sooner or later impinges on everyone else’s consciousness. The effects of this constant attention make all, rich or poor, feel important, because the only way importance is perceived is by having other folks pay attention to you. You can buy attention, of course, but it’s not the same thing. Pseudo community life, where you live around others without noticing them and where you are constantly being menaced in some way by strangers you find offensive, is exactly the opposite. In pseudo community life you are anonymous for the most part, and you want to be because of various dangers other people may present if they notice your existence. Almost the only way you can get attention in a pseudo community is to buy it, because the prevailing atmosphere is one of indifference. A pseudo community is just a different kind of network: its friendships and loyalties are transient; its problems are universally considered to be someone else’s problems (someone else who should be paid to solve them); its young and old are largely regarded as annoyances; and the most commonly shared dream is to get out to a better place, to “trade up” endlessly.

Unlike true communities, pseudo communities and other comprehensive networks like schools expand indefinitely, just as long as they can get away with it. “More” may not be “better,” but “more” is always more profitable for the people who make a living out of networking. That is what is happening today behind the cry to expand schooling even further: a great many people are going to make a great deal of money if growth can be continued.

Unlike the intricate, sometimes unfathomable satisfactions of community and family life, the successes of networks are always measured in mathematical displays of one-upmanship: How many A’s? How much weight lost? How many inquiries generated? Competition is the network’s lifeblood, and the precision suggested by the numerical ranking of performance is its preferred style.

The quality-competition of businesses (when it actually happens) is generally a good thing for customers; it keeps businesses on their toes, doing their best. The competition inside an institution like a school isn’t the same thing at all. What is competed for in a school is the favor of a teacher, and that can be won or lost by too many subjective parameters to count; it is always a little arbitrary and sometimes a lot more pernicious than that. It gives rise to envy, dissatisfaction, and a belief in magic. Teachers, too, must compete for the arbitrarily dispensed favor of administrators, which carries the promise of good or bad classes, good or bad rooms, access to or denial of tools, and other hostages to obedience, deference, and subordination. The culture of schools only coheres in response to a web of material rewards and punishments: A’s, F’s, bathroom passes, gold stars, “good” classes, access to a photocopy machine. Everything we know about why people drive themselves to know things and do their best is contradicted inside these places.

Truth itself is another important dividing line between communities and networks. If you don’t keep your word in a community, everyone finds out, and you have a major problem thereafter. But lying for personal advantage is the operational standard in all large institutions; it is considered part of the game in schools. Parents, for the most part, are lied to or told half-truths, as they are usually considered adversaries. At least that’s been true in every school I ever worked in. Only the most foolish employees don’t have recourse to lying; the penalties for being caught hardly exist — and the rewards for success can be considerable. Whistle-blowing against institutional malpractice is always a good way to get canned or relentlessly persecuted. Whistle-blowers never get promoted in any institution because, having served a public interest once, they may well do it again.

The Cathedral of Rheims is the best evidence I know of what a community can do and what we stand to lose when we don’t know the difference between these human miracles and the social machinery we call “networks.” Rheims was built without power tools by people working day and night for a hundred years. Everybody worked willingly; nobody was slave labor. No school taught cathedral building as a subject.

What possessed people to work together for a hundred years? Whatever it was looks like something worth educating ourselves about. We know the workers were profoundly united as families and as friends, and as friends they knew what they really wanted in the way of a church. Popes and archbishops had nothing to do with it. Gothic architecture itself was invented out of sheer aspiration — the Gothic cathedral stands like a lighthouse illuminating what is possible in the way of uncoerced human union. It provides a benchmark against which our own lives can be measured.

At Rheims, the serfs and farmers and peasants filled gigantic spaces with the most incredible stained-glass windows in the world, but they never bothered to sign even one of them. No one knows who designed or made them, because our modern form of institutional boasting did not yet exist as a corruption of communitarian feeling. After all these centuries they still announce what being human really means.

VI

Communities are collections of families and friends who find major meaning in extending the family association to a band of honorary brothers and sisters. They are complex relationships of commonality and obligation that generalize to others beyond the perimeter of the homestead.

When the integration of life that comes from being part of a family in a community is unattainable, the only alternative, apart from accepting a life in isolation, is to search for an artificial integration into one of the many expressions of network currently available. But it’s a bad trade! Artificial integration within the realm of human association — think of those college dorms or fraternities — appears strong but is actually quite weak; seems close-knit but in reality has only loose bonds; suggests durability but is usually transient. And it is most often badly adjusted to what people need although it masquerades as being exactly what they need.

Welcome to the world of school. We should begin thinking about school reform by stopping these places from functioning like cysts, impenetrable, insular bodies that take our money, our children, and our time and give nothing back. Do we really want more of it?

In recent years I’ve given much thought to the problem of turning the compulsory school network into some kind of emotionally rewarding community, because a move seems to be afoot to do the reverse, to enlarge substantially the bite that schooling takes out of a young person’s family time, community time, and private time. Trial balloons are floated about constantly in the press and on TV, meaning that some important groups are preparing to extend the reach of compulsory schooling in the face of its genuinely ghastly record. My Jewish friends would call that “chutzpah”, but I take it as an index of just how confident these people are that they can pull it off.

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