Educating the Borg

I remember way way back into the depths of time when I was a wee primary school lad. I remember that these were not happy times. I remember that I pathologically hated school. Or more precisely, the noxious, scathing, appalling horror of a teacher with whom we had been afflicted. Ms Fielding was her name. The School was St.Ives Primary. A nice school, except for that teacher.

I remember it all started when, for some reason or another, this terrible woman singled out a girl classmate for some misdemeanour or another. She was told to stand in the corner and not say a word. She stood there for at least an hour. She was very upset. She was also a ‘special needs’ kid, labelled, then, as being mildly mentally retarded. She wanted, she said, to go to the toilet. The teacher refused. The girl wet the floor. The class giggled, the teacher screamed abuse. The poor girl was told to go get a mop…

It was approximately from that point on that I decided I would no longer agree to learn anything at all from this dreadful woman. I went on a learning strike. I remember a meeting set up between that teacher, her Principal, the ‘School Councillor’ and my parents. I remember the Councillor telling my parents that I had a ‘learning difficulty’. I remember then being put into a ‘remedial maths’ programme wherein I had to sit up the back of Ms Fielding’s class and do my ‘special maths for stupid people’ while everyone else attended to their more usual routine. I remember a second ‘counselling’ session convened to suggest to my parents that I should consider careers in sheltered workshops and the like…

Then I remember that this teacher left the school. I recall a brand new teacher who I immediately liked (Mrs Cameron, as I recall). I recall that all the remedial programmes were dropped for me. I recall going on to excel in the School Certificate, the Higher School Certificate and then heading my year in mathematics in my undergraduate economics degree than then, ultimately, doing pretty well with a Phd and becoming a professor of economics…

All this sticks in my mind as I cringe and fume a fury of exasperation at the recent attempts of the education bureaucracy machine to assault our schools with quantitative school quality scores based on measured ‘performance in literacy and numeracy’. You can study the background story here. For current purposes, the basic idea is that the State Government is proposing to measure and rank all schools to allow parents to check the scores of prospective schools and underpin ‘informed choices’ with regard to where they place their kids.

Our polyester-suited education bureaucrat machine is telling us that parents will appreciate the ‘transparency’ that this ‘quantitative branding’ will provide. To my mind, this is a story that captures the very essence of all that’s wrong with the world these days…

There’s a disease going on here. To be technical, it’s all about the curse of an ‘objectivist epistemology’. To be less technical, it’s all about the plague of reductionism. I’ve mentioned this disease in its various forms in just about every post to this blog to date. It’s the chronic debilitation of managerialism. When the world gets all nice and richly complex, bureaucrats of this demeanour go all simple-minded by way of response. Like ostriches hiding their heads in the sand, those who would tame complexity with statistics start playing trains. They put on their engineering caps and build more rails of rules; and higher walls. They build ever more elaborate fortifications to keep all that unruly complexity out; to keep the war of chaos out of sight and (blinkered) mind. Reductionism is the key. When confronted with complexity, build a bigger wall, grab a pair of shears. Cut away all the detail and leave just the bits you want; especially those bits you can measure, and cast into improved bricks for the wall. When the world is full of so many nasty hard-to-measure things, there’s ever more fortification and cutting to do. Cut, cut, cut away until all that’s left are the bits for which the statistics look best. That’s the mantra of the bureaucratic machine. That’s the mantra of Instrumental Rationalism. Management becomes a task for the implementation of tools that fit only those cogs that can fit the tools at hand. If the cogs don’t fit, why, change the cogs! If reality does not fit the perspective we would seek to apply, the task for management becomes the task of changing reality to suit. Soon enough the world will be filled with a universal one-size-fits-all set of nuts.

To return to my childhood traumas. How, exactly, would measurement of literacy and numeracy have helped my cause? Actually, that would have simply made matters worse. The problem was a psychopathic teacher who, incidentally, was pretty good at teaching spelling and numbers. The problem was a nut beyond the reach of any tool then being applied. The problem was within the chaos of all those ‘soft unruly bits’ that are beyond the reach of any instrumental rationalist’s tools. Soft unruly bits like a teacher with a personality unmatched to the psycho-social requirements that good teaching requires.

Which leads me into a domain very close to my heart. I have a passion for the Steiner education system. Or for Waldorf schools if you prefer. I sent both my kids to such a school. This school left a mark on my soul. It left an even greater mark on the souls of my kids. It was absolutely everything that my old school was not. There was a passion, here, for all the components of learning that engage kids for life. There was joy in learning there. This is an educational system beyond the comprehension of education bureaucrats who would rather be playing with trains. Here is a school system with no walls. The chaos of all those things that merge, intertwine and spark journeys into a life to be well-lived are cherished as in a garden fertilised by all that’s good if not great about mankind. These are schools that would defy any attempt by the instrumental rationalists to measure and rank. Because all those things which make such a school truly great are outside the dimensions with a capacity to be measured.

In my view, all that we can get from the misguided efforts of our education bureaucracy to calibrate our schools, like cattle marked with fat-test-scores, is a best-fit pathway to the education of the Borg. Resistance (to the psychotic compulsions of Instrumental Rationalism) will then truly be … futile.