Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:
- “The Many Benefits, for Kids, of Playing Video Games”
- “Video Game Addiction: Does It Occur? If So, Why?“
Peter Gray, my favorite education blogger, has recently written two posts I can highly recommend:
For the BA degree in linguistics, me and my classmates are required to choose some courses from outside of the core linguistics curriculum. This is, in theory, a good thing – it gives undergraduate students a chance to see what’s going on in other departments, and particularly gets us acquainted with some fields related to our own. However, these semi-electives are simply the introductory modules that students in other programs take in their first semesters; this can cause a lot of frustration.
Over the past days, I spent several frustrating hours doing homework in such a course. I remember seeing what must have been the same frustration in students from outside of linguistics in the introductory courses I’ve taken and the one in which I tutored. I think this frustration is an indirect result of the Bologna Process, which creates a basis on which courses from different departments, universities, and countries, across Europe, are evaluated for accreditation. The problem, I think, is that it’s very hard to evaluate a course and the effort that goes into it outside of context. Continue reading Semi-electives: a university paradox
Bjarne argues that while we don’t need a planned economy, we do need an economy that takes people into account and acts fairly and morally. I tend to agree, but I am not sure how this is supposed to look. I would argue that global fair trade must come along with a strong domestic safety net, or not at all, and that financial exploitation is only one aspect of a bigger problem.
What were to happen if every developed country in the world simultaneously passed good labor laws that applied not only to workers in the country, but also to workers employed directly or indirectly by companies in that country? In other words, what if the first world would suddenly apply the same standards when it came to those it employs in the third world as it does to those employed domestically?
Like any change in a complex system, this would have all kinds of different consequences, some of them unintended. For one, this would, with 100% certainty, mean that almost all goods and services sold in the first world would become a lot more expensive to produce, and somewhat more expensive to consume. This would hurt the middle and lower class hard: they would no longer be able to afford to consume nearly as much as before, at least in the short term. In the long term, this would give companies in the first world less of a reason to employ people in the third world, meaning more people in the first world would have jobs. This would, in turn, also mean that the first world would produce more goods and services, increasing exports. So I imagine it might actually balance out eventually. (I’m trying to think like an economist here – tell me if it’s working.)
So in the short term, making world trade fair would harm everyone in the first world but the rich – massively. This is, of course, a bad thing. Should this be our conclusion then, that fair trade is a luxury and forcing it upon society would punish “our own” poor? No, of course not, that would be near-sighted. Rather, I think fair trade is a good argument for social solidarity and a strong safety net in the first world.
After all, there is an enormous amount of wealth in the first world. The existence of poverty is not a force of nature but an aspect of our economic system. With tools as simple as progressive taxation and a basic income guarantee, we could tweak our system to protect all individuals in society from the chaos of post-industrial life. And if we can make sure that even a large, across-the-board spike in the price of goods would not harm anybody too much, we can afford to trade fairly with the developing world.
In other words, global solidarity and domestic solidarity are interconnected. Only enforcing fair trade would harm the first-world poor in the short run. Only guaranteeing economic security in the first world would come at the continued cost of the third-world poor. In fact, presenting the two as separate could be seen as a subtle factor in why neither is terribly popular – if you really care about the basic rights and conditions of all people, why should you want to improve conditions for the poor at home but not elsewhere, or vice versa? But if we consider the two to be one package, one thing, inseparable, suddenly the parts all make sense.
But fair trade is not enough for the third world, either. The western corporate colonization runs much deeper than that.
This summer, at IDEC@EUDEC in England, I had the opportunity to watch a very difficult film, Schooling the World. What I learned is that what we know as conventional schooling in the west is being forced upon communities in the developing world which have no need for this form of education, nor for the content taught in it – essentially the same content as taught in the first world. Young people there are being trained for western jobs and academic careers where there are none, in communities which have their own way of life, requiring neither. The young people subsequently have no real choice but to move to big cities, where there is at least some chance of finding a job they are qualified for – but there there are still not enough modern jobs for everyone. Imagine being a young adult faced with the choice between poverty in the big city, where you have a chance of finding a job you are somewhat prepared for, and moving back to the countryside, where you might not even speak the language (as many schools forbid native languages and enforce the use of English and/or the state language) and would have to learn traditional crafts from scratch in order to be useful.1
Bringing “modern”, “high-quality” education to the developing world – often motivated by the best of intentions – is destroying cultures and forcing young people to either work for first-world companies or actually move to the first world. And if this is not stopped, universal fair trade could be a disaster for the third world as well, at least until developing economies are able to offer the jobs domestically that “modern” education requires for its graduates.
Exploitation of low or non-existant standards in the developing world is in the end only one facet of what western colonialism has become in the “post-colonial” era. Although the colonies are gone and the developed world’s mindset has shifted, it has not changed completely. In our arrogance, we help the developing world mainly in ways that help us more, and there are many, many fronts to fight on for a more just world, with freedom for all. The past is never gone, no matter how much we wish it so, and we have to be curious, brave, and determined if we are to find and root out its poisonous remnants wherever they may be.
In his guest post, Mattan Mamane argued that any form of central planning of the economy should be avoided, and only turned to when necessary. I have to say, I tend to agree with this approach. But first of all, I think there’s a case to be made for placing severe limitations on freedom when it comes to economics, because such limitations are already – actually, always – necessary. And second of all, there is planning and there is planning – not all planning is the same.
Now, I feel I lack some of the historical background knowledge that Mattan brings along. I can be ignorant sometimes, as I form my opinion in discussions more often than in deep reading. But if I’m not mistaken, the important insight of socialism is that there are certain dynamics in an unrestricted market which severely, systemically, and systematically limit the freedom of vast swathes of the population.
The idea of basing the economy on central planning is not a good one, that’s for sure. It depends on the planners being very smart, very well-informed, very quick, and very moral. With any of those missing, people will suffer. But obviously there are many economies, most economies really, which are based on many individuals making individual decisions without central planning, but within a set of rules and systems designed to protect societies from some of the ills of unlimited capitalism. I said “most economies” but it’s really all modern states, as modern states have laws and modern governments manipulate the economy in all kinds of ways. It’s really a question of how.
Mattan brought up a good example: privatization. Privatization of public institutions can be good, but the calls in the #J14 movement to end privatization in Israel are justified: the kind of privatization pushed there by Netanyahu and others is not the right kind; calls for tenders are tailored towards single corporations or individuals with large sums of money. As a result, privatization is used to drive more economic centralization and harms the competition needed for a free market; instead of a single government carrier for public services, we get a single private carrier, without the checks and balances of public oversight nor those of multiple private shareholders.
So it’s not privatization itself that is good/bad, it’s how you privatize that can be a great thing or a really bad thing. In the same way, combatting economic centralization or poverty can be done in good ways and in bad ways, and I think Mattan’s suggestion of focussing on freedom is a very good one.
However, I would caution Mattan and others from believing the oft-repeated claim that everyone is better off in a USA-style capitalistic society. Perhaps they are when compared to economies based on central planning, but the modern state is a very new thing as far as history is concerned, and we probably have all kinds of economies to try out. I think it is key to recognize systemic problems with existing systems, and try to figure out how these can be overcome.
One systemic problem of capitalistic societies is poverty. Here I mean relative poverty: being poor compared to the people in your society – not some absolute idea of poverty compared to the whole planet. We are all encouraged implicitly or explicitly to be innovative, take charge of our future, and be the very best we can be. Poverty, as I understand it, is a feature of the system of modern society: the existence of a category of person who, from birth, is not so likely to achieve those things which we should all aspire to. Perhaps some people are poor because they somehow have less potential, by nature, but this is not what I mean.There are many brilliant people born into poverty, who simply have the odds stacked starkly against them from the start. ((I believe that people’s ability is affected very much by their schooling and upbringing; specifically, I think that a traumatic childhood – such as that experience by most of us in unjust factory-like child-correction institutions mockingly called “schools” – is key to limiting people’s ability in most areas. But that’s a topic to be tackled separately.))
The measures taken against poverty are many and varied, and some are better than others. Welfare, at least as I know it in Germany, is not a very good one, in my opinion. Under this system, people have access to a living stipend if they meet certain criteria, the main type of welfare being available to people who are unemployed. Even assuming the stipend is enough to keep them from being poor, this system still limits their freedom: they have to go through embarrassing, even humiliating bureaucratic procedures on a regular basis and are forced to take a job, any job, even one they would hate. Such a system makes poverty slightly less awful without making it go away, and diminishes people’s freedom in the process.
Does this mean that welfare as a whole is a bad idea? I don’t think so. The German system just isn’t a good way of doing it. Perhaps all welfare systems ever tried aren’t good, but that doesn’t mean a good one can’t be created.
What I beg you to realize is that systemic problems in an economic system are never “somebody else’s problem”. They belong to everyone in that system, whether you happen to mainly benefit from it or mainly suffer. Like me, you probably have that image in your mind of a self-made man insisting that he made every single cent by his own hard work and wits, insisting that nobody ever helped him, outright raging that he doesn’t owe anybody anything. I’m sure many wealthy and successful people feel this way; if they didn’t personally make the fortune but rather inherited, they might feel this way on behalf of whatever ancestor did. But those who feel this way are deluding themselves. We live within complex social systems which can empower us to do great things or condemn us to lives of hardship. Sure, some measure of luck and some measure of ability are involved – but they do not exist in a vacuum. If you benefit from a system and that same system makes others suffer, their suffering is your problem, and you are benefitting from it whether you like it or not. I don’t mean to say the wealthy or successful are evil or something – just that no matter what they think, they bear a responsibility for the poor and the failures.
I think we have to take responsibility over the systems we live in and be brutally honest with ourselves about what they do right and what they do wrong. And when we recognize a wrong, we have to be creative and find a way to fix it while doing as little wrong as possible. It’s not easy, but it seems to me like an interesting challenge, and I believe it is the right thing to do.
I have one or two more guest posts lined up to continue this discussion. In the meantime, comments are open. What do you think about all of this? Are there good ways to improve capitalism? If so, what are they?
When trying to understand why most schools work the way they do, it can be useful to understand schools as the result of what people think education is. In other words, the reality of schools is a function of beliefs people have about education.
The reason so many Sudbury schools fail to grow or even to survive is that they do not fit the beliefs people currently hold.
The reason any Sudbury school does succeed is, then, that some people in some places are capable of conceiving of education quite differently from almost everyone else; this in turn probably has some history behind it, as I don’t believe that beliefs undergo massive shifts spontaneously.
People who understand un-schools like Sudbury schools must have had some previous contact with some unconventional understanding of education.
The same probably holds within schools: the way most classrooms are in most traditional schools is a function of how people, in particular education professionals, understand education.
Most people I’ve met in some stage or another of teacher training want to change/improve the school system from within. I assume this is not some special feature of my generation, but has always been this way. So how have most schools managed to stay fundamentally the same as 100 years ago with so many people trying to change them from within all of the time?
Again, it might be useful to understand this as a result of people’s beliefs about education. In most cases the revolutionary young teacher will come into a school where the majority of staff is old, tired, old-fashioned, and so used to its way of doing things that they’re almost automatic. Almost any change the newbie tries to make will be met with resistance and criticism. There is almost no way one or two young teachers could change the minds of all of their colleagues. They can rebel, live through hell, then likely get fired; they can just quit; or they can conform.
I’d guess very few young teachers have ever rebelled and made it into their second decade of teaching. We are thus left with a system of schools staffed by those whose will has been broken, whether or not this happened before, during or after teacher training. All this because of persistent beliefs on education.
Turning this around, how does a non-traditional school achieve persistence and coherence? By creating an environment in which prevailing beliefs on education dictate a different line of action. I’ve met people from a democratic school in which the traditional beliefs about education maintained enough of a foothold that the structures eventually came to closely resemble those of traditional schools. I hear the mentality and atmosphere may slowly be following.
As a social structure, the reality of a school depends entirely on the beliefs of people.
Another attempt at applying this principle: (self-)selection of those attending democratic schools may be driven more by the expectations of those who choose not to apply than by those who choose to be part of them.
Many accuse non-traditional schools of being an elitist escape of the well-to-do – a way to separate themselves from “the dirty masses”. The reality is that while most democratic schools are not intentionally exclusive, they tend to, indeed, primarily include well-to-do families (i.e. middle and upper classes).
Why? Perhaps because of the tremendous power of popular beliefs: those who have a financially stable background can afford to go against popular beliefs and get an education that people don’t think is an education; those who must struggle to survive get an education everyone can understand because this is safer.1
Sudbury schools’ internal workings are nothing like those of a traditional school. Yet as an institution, they do conform to popular beliefs about education in that they are places young people go to during working hours with the long-term expectation of them being prepared for adult life.
This might be a kind of memetic bridge – matching some practical beliefs people have about education while defying most theoretical beliefs. This may help abolish or amend the belief structures that create schooling as we know it, eventually making even Sudbury schools unnecessary when society understands that what children need is not an “educational” environment, but simply an environment that protects and empowers them – something we could ultimately have in many different contexts, not just specialized “schools”.
On the other hand, this conformist aspect also attracts a lot of problems. Many people come to Sudbury schools expecting, well, a school, and have a very hard time understanding that while it may look like a school and fulfill a similar social function, it is formed by very different beliefs. These problems are worth the bother, because without appearing to be a school, Sudbury schools would likely attract few students, and have a very hard time growing/surviving.
NOTE: The above is reflection resulting from an online/Copenhagen discussion of John Moravec’s Horizon Forum, which I took part in yesterday (although unfortunately I couldn’t stay until the end).
EUDEC is a pretty unusual kind of organization. After three years, we are still completely volunteer-driven, our funding is independent and based almost exclusively in our membership, and we are growing every day.
As one of the active volunteers on Council I’ve been part of working on all of the different things EUDEC wants to be — a network of school, individuals and organizations; a source of information; an advocacy group; an engine for change in the European education world.
Visible achievements are pretty small and far between when everyone involved is only as involved as their job, personal life and education allows. The biggest benefits so far, I think, are the invisible benefits of networking: schools find teachers, parents find schools, people find other people to start schools with, and more and more people slowly hear from mouth to ear about democratic education.
Right now, we’re starting to work on pooling our resources to hire a full-time coordinator. I believe this will change everything, since we will finally have someone dedicating their time to maintaining the network, coordinating all of the volunteers to make sure our individual projects can fit together and people can find others who can help them. There are already so many people in our network that this is basically impossible to manage with a small Council of volunteers that also has to work on day-to-day EUDEC stuff and develop different projects at the same time.
To continue being independent and able to work on our vision without time-intensive projects and reports serving solely to fit into some funding application, we are working to raise funds by increasing our membership and asking for personal donations. That’s where you come in. :P
If you have any questions about EUDEC or the donation first, feel free to leave a comment below.
If you’re already convinced, become a member now or donate as much or as little as you like via PayPal (10€ would be nice):
Thanks for any support you can give us!!
(Note: This is my personal post and should not be seen as an official appeal by EUDEC.)
This excellent TED talk goes along the lines of what I’ve been thinking lately regarding Israeli politics and Israel/Palestine politics. Talking to the other sides is crucial in all conflicts, on whatever scale, internal or external — in a school, in a town, in a state, or between states. “Otherizing”, as Lesser calls it, is the seed of continued conflict and violence.
Here’s a great piece from the Huffington Post by Steven G. Brant: “Waiting For “Superman” and How Design Thinking Can Make Us the Superheroes We’ve Been Waiting for”. (via Mike Sadofsky)
It’s a bit long, and apparently it had been in my inbox since October until I finally read it last night. Still, it’s worth reading, and once I started on it I couldn’t stop until I was done.
Brant points out that the thinking behind “Waiting for ‘Superman'” and most attempts at “fixing” education is based on the assumption that the system is designed right, just not working right at the moment because of some part of it being out of order. Instead, he suggests looking at the basic design and fixing that first. Best of all, he points to Sudbury Valley School as the model for how education should be designed for the current age.
It’s great to see this in such a well-known, mainstream liberal place as HuffPo.
The piece also has a bunch of videos, mostly about SVS, which I haven’t had a chance to watch yet.
Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle has made a nice little video about Den Demokratiske Skole in Roskilde, Denmark:
I’ve had the pleasure to know the founders/staff and the fortune of spending some time in the school (it was pretty funny seeing Christina and Niels with an English voice-over rather than just talking English!)
I could quibble about some details of how the school was presented but it was mainly just nice to see positive media coverage of a Sudbury school.
For a while now I have been very conflicted about what I want to do after my BA. The two main options on my mind have been on the one hand to (somehow) become a full-time activist for democratic education (or perhaps for human rights), possibly along with some translation and writing to make ends meet; on the other hand, I could continue with my studies and move towards an academic career in linguistics.
For a very long time I’ve wanted to be an academic, but when I decided to start studying it was important for me not to think too far ahead and take things one at a time. I wanted to stay open to other options, some of which, I knew, could not have even occurred to me at the time. As the degree gets closer and closer I know I have to at least decide what the next step will be. There have been times when it was clear to me that a BA was not enough, that I’d need at least an MA to satisfy my curiosity. At other times (in particular when I get annoyed at the university’s structure) I’ve wished to just be done with it as soon as possible and go do something else.
What makes the whole thing more difficult is that I find both fields absolutely fascinating, and both engage me in a way that makes use of my skills. Activism stands out to me as a particularly worthy way of spending one’s time, because activism means working for the greater good (or one’s vision thereof) and would have a clear goal. The goal in linguistics is less clear to me, and I know that the best one can do is create, or help improve, a model that is useful for understanding the phenomena of language — hoping to achieve total understanding would only be a recipe for disappointment. On the other hand, I’ve been thinking and speaking about democratic education since I was thirteen, and I don’t think it’s much good to advocate it as a graduate who hasn’t spent much of their adult life outside the movement.
In the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one way of seeing things, a way that had occurred to me when I started to study but I somehow forgot about in the meantime. The idea is essentially to make a hobby into a career, and work on something you believe in in your free time. In my case, the hobby-career would be linguistics — a pursuit that is valuable to me simply because it’s fascinating and fun. I could be an activist on my free time, as time allows.
I’m far from done figuring this out, but this approach seems like a good one. Going into a career without any lofty expectations would allow me to spend time on something challenging and enjoyable, while pursuing more lofty goals on my free time would let me continue being part of something I consider really important, something that seems to make a real difference in people’s lives (which, outside of academia, linguistics rarely does).
I’m writing this just because it is on my mind and I feel like writing. I should actually be doing my computer science homework. I’d appreciate thoughts on all this, especially if they come quickly enough to distract me from my homework!