About a week ago I grabbed Zen and Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig off my bookshelf and cracked it open for the first time since I first read it probably 30 years ago. I didn’t remember much of the story, but I did remember thinking it was an important read the first time around. And I’m finding that again. For the uninitiated, it’s the true story of the author, his son and two friends on a motorcycle trip through the high plains and Rockies, and the search for a deeper understanding of life and existence. It is, for me at least, a pretty deep and challenging text that I’m enjoying struggling through.
Anyway, last night I read this one passage that when I read it made me go “yeah…that’s what I’ve been trying to say but haven’t been able to.” Pirisg is writing about Phaedrus, who, it turns out, is actually a younger, darker version of himself. He writes:
“He felt that institutions such as schools, churches, governments, and political organizations of every sort all tended to direct thought for ends other than truth, for the perpetuation of their own functions, and for control of individuals in the service of those functions.”
I love passages like this one that literally (and I mean literally) give me goosebumps of resonance, if you know what I mean.
So let me try to break that down a bit more in terms of my sense of the schools part of that quote.
Do schools “direct thought for ends other than the truth?” This is what I’ve been trying to suss out in my never ending homilies around beliefs and common sense in schools. I think, too, this is what Frank Smith argues so well in The Book of Learning and Forgetting. There are just truths about learning and schooling that we deny. Truths like we don’t remember what we don’t want to learn or what doesn’t have relevance in our life. That we don’t learn when we are oppressed. That standardizing an education pushes against the inherent uniqueness of children. That learning in schools doesn’t reflect learning in real life, and so on. This is the Russell Ackoff quote, again, where we do things right at the expense of doing the right thing. It’s why so many people go “aw, crap” when I show that side by side slide of conditions that we know kids (and we) need for deep and powerful learning and the conditions we actually create.
And the idea that schools (meaning the people in them) do this for “the perpetuation of their own functions” is absolutely true. If we truly were to move agency over learning to the learner and hew to the truths about learning, our functions would radically, fundamentally change. Teacher wouldn’t be teacher. The architectures of schooling would be seen as barriers to learning, not as paths to efficiency. The narrative would have to be completely rewritten. But the reality is we’d rather be “better” than “different” because the former doesn’t require huge change.
Finally, do we avoid the truth and instead focus on the “control of individuals in the service of those functions” that are already well established? No question. This is what Seymour Sarason writes so passionately about in terms of the power relationships that have existed and currently exist in schools. I’ve written before the literally hundreds (if not thousands) of times where I’ve talked to teachers who have told me they are “powerless” to change. They are, in other words, controlled by the system, by the standards, by the narrative. And no one doubts that kids are controlled; they have little voice in what happens to them, and classroom management is still high on the list of things that teaches are evaluated on.
So, yeah, we ignore what we know is true because if we didn’t, we would have to seriously change what we do. It’s just easier to work within the well established norms of learning and teaching, the efficiency model, and to impose power over those who may want to challenge those norms in a quest for truth and effectiveness in learning. In other words, as much as we as individuals may want to change, the institution we’re stuck with is built not to. It works to “perpetuate its own functions,” which is why real, high-bar change in schools is so hard to effect.
(Image credit: Alan Levine)
Tim McClung says
Ditto, 33 years ago for me, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, how to do the right thing right was the message I took away. The deliberations and conversations, like riding a motorcycle with Socrates
Robert Schuetz says
I tweeted about this post tagged with the word, epiphany. This logic about organizational control can be applied to so many situations. It is especially applicable to the camouflaged truths of schools and education. This is a brilliant, thought-provoking piece!
Will Richardson says
Thanks, Robert…I like that phrase…the “camouflaged truths.” Interesting image.
Sue King says
Thanks, as always, for pushing my thinking. Interestingly, I ended my day yesterday listening to a teacher explain why the former principal had put certain things in place (all pretty much aimed at controlling children). Silence in hallways & classrooms, “natural consequences” like being denied recess if homework wasn’t completed, not being allowed to return to room if something had been forgotten, etc. The teacher summed this up by saying, “She believed kids had to be disciplined; they needed to have & complete homework; that they had to display a certain posture in the classroom in order to learn – it was how she was raised.” I drove home thinking about that – the power OVER others that is given to educators that is so often based on individual beliefs. To be honest, I was a bit taken aback by the conversation – in part because I was imagining if I had ‘run’ a school like I had been raised – and also because I had not considered before that aspect of how a school culture emerges from one adult’s beliefs or perhaps from a collection over time of like-minded adults and how absent consideration of children and what is known about how children – and all of us – learn. Lots of early morning rumination now!
Will Richardson says
Thanks for the comment, Sue.
I wonder the extent to which that thinking still prevails in schools. My guess is that a good number of school leaders are about command and control. That’s certainly the case at my son’s school.
Interestingly, however, those schools seem to be less and less in the news these days. Another molecule of movement in the right direction are all the articles around innovation and reimagination that I’m seeing. Not a tidal wave by any means, but maybe the bullseye is shifting a bit.
Don Balcombe says
This post resonated with me. Schools are good at command and control. In fact, the distinction of being a ‘good’ school is often attributed to higher degrees of compliance and more efficient structures and routines. The better the system, the more resistant to change, as school systems have evolved to include mechanisms that resist change and perpetuate the norm.
And yet much of what we know about learning is at odds with the very systems we have put in place and cling to (the power, control, irrelevance, etc you and others have written about). Today, innovation and creativity are being trumpeted as critical elements of a successful schooling. Well then, just how the heck does one promote, nurture, and embrace innovation and creativity in our students when we’ve spent years and years grinding it out of them through compliance and rote memorization of factoids unconnected to anything of interest? So much needs to be undone and replaced with authentic experiences that better align with all we know about learning.
Good rant, Will…I think the way you feel.
Susan d'Heursel says
Will, you reminded me of an 11-year-old pupil who once came to me with a math problem he had been working on at home. It took me some time to understand what he was trying to figure out but he had considered many different mathematical concepts while doing so. I spent some time with him and congratulated him on his effort. Later on, I discovered this same pupil had been put in detention because he had not done his math ‘homework’ – a sheet of boring exercises similar to the ones the class had done the previous day. I tried to explain to his teacher what he had done instead but to no avail – he got the detention! So frustrating!
Līhau G. says
Thank you for this thought provoking post Will. What really stuck with me were these two lines: “That we don’t learn when we are oppressed. That standardizing an education pushes against the inherent uniqueness of children.” It made me think about the current push for culturally relative teaching – and how that movement is a push towards “better”, not “different”. We are trying to be more inclusive, while staying within the norm. Itʻs the same standards, same classroom setup, same assessments, but with some cultural relevancy woven in.
I work at a Hawaiian language immersion school, and I am constantly trying to break free from the confines of traditional Western constructs, but I am often faced with an internal conflict. I was taught and raised in a Western education setting. Thatʻs the only model Iʻve seen. Even when I think that Iʻm doing something “different” I find that it really isnʻt, Iʻm still stuck in that traditional model. I feel as if my students and I are all oppressed, but to my own fault as much as to the fault of the system.