Should our primary and secondary schools instruct our children to think what we want them to think or teach them how to think for themselves?
It’s not a new question; but it is at the center of the gnawing, now half century long, divide within the baby boom generation over—well—just about everything.
Lacking resolution, it has left a sorry legacy and is responsible in large part for the muddled and conflicted education system we have now.
Consider the recent contradictory response to politically charged student artwork.
Local school administrators simultaneously resolutely defended free speech rights, apologized for its portrayal and then caused it to be taken down.
This perceived need to serve clashing beliefs has directly led to a new difficulty we have as a society — separating truth from fiction — by shackling the central role of education in helping us to do so.
“A Subversive Activity”
In 1969, educators Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner published “Teaching as a Subversive Activity”, a landmark book that challenged methods they argued had become outdated, impractical, irrelevant and counterproductive in what was becoming a more rapidly changing, interdependent and information accessible world.
Postman later co-authored a 1985 book, “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, that presciently detected how the media already was developing trust issues with the public that would eventually damage its ability to serve as an effective arbiter of fact.
Postman and Weingartner observed that pupils who have an omnipresent interest in the process of inquiry more readily develop sound reasoning skills and become good learners.
Their approach to schooling encouraged students to question and discouraged teachers from directly answering those questions whenever possible.
The objective was to prompt students to inquire further.
This “inquiry method” organizes instructors, resources and technology to both stimulate and support the initiatives of the learner, arguing that making the latter more responsible for his or her own education maintains commitment by encouraging each to explore what interests them with appropriate but minimal guidance.
For Postman and Weingartner, the act of educating is a cooperative social process best “achieved” through open collective discussion, as opposed to being “delivered” individually through lecture or instruction in a competitive environment.
Through the self-generation of continuous inquiry, education also becomes a dynamic lifelong process rather than an end game designed to produce fixed and indisputable conclusions that in reality are rare in an ever-changing world.
Fortunately, aspects of the inquiry method have filtered into our primary and secondary schools mostly as a result of individual teachers implementing them in their classrooms.
In this way, our schools and education system could be said to be “subversive” by teaching our young how to consistently question the status quo, responsibly challenge authority when it only reinforces the stultifying effects of establishment thinking, and intelligently alter their perceptions in response to new discoveries arrived at through application of their own sound reasoning skills.
Apprehensive that it challenges long held beliefs and values, some seek either to insulate themselves and their children from it or discourage it in the community at large, in part as a means of having the schools foster social conformity.
Frankly, if those beliefs and values truly have lasting merit they should not only survive such inquiry, they should thrive in it.
Instead, it is ironically the same Boomers that decried the situational ethics of the ‘60s as “self-serving” that seem to be embracing the self-serving ersatz “alternate facts” of today.
Conflicted and Hamstrung
These contradictory tugs are evident in those administrative responses to provocative student art and the (fortunately) more muted criticism of Shenendehowa’s provision of Ramadan prayer space for Muslim students.
They also are resident in the test obsessed No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top federal policies that inspired the state-based Core Curriculum numbers-driven accountability for teachers and schools that have run roughshod over the learner-centered methods suggested by Postman and Weingartner.
High school students especially are always keen to challenge and provoke along the lines conceived by the inquiry method.
Too much of education policy today suppresses that spirit, mostly in response to those who are wary of it.
A healthy self-governing society will always be in dire need of it. One need only look around us to witness how great that need is today.
Maybe we can finally get there once the Baby Boomers depart from the scene. It’s hard to conceive how we’ll get there otherwise.
John Figliozzi is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.