“But where there is danger, there grows also what saves.” Friedrich Hölderlin Attention is our most limited resource. William James proposed…
Zan Boag: Your research has focused on education over the course of many years. Why have you concentrated your efforts in this area?
Has the system changed much since that time?
The system hasn’t changed, but I changed. I found it was really important to try to write so people could understand and talk so that your students could understand. I think it was a great help that I taught at UMass Boston, which was not Harvard, and students were first generation college-goers and they really wanted to learn something. You really had to try to teach – you couldn’t just read them the notes for the book you were writing in the hope that they would seep it all up.
And was time teaching at UMass Boston the inspiration for your book Educational Metamorphoses? You must have seen such metamorphoses happen frequently over the course of the years.
Yes, this student came to me, he said, “I’m leaving.” He was in one of my more advanced classes, I think it was ‘theory of action’ – if you want anything abstract then it’s theory of action. We were having a great time in class, it was fascinating, although totally irrelevant, and he came to me one morning and he said, “I can’t stay because last night I was drinking beer with my buddies and I realised that I practically couldn’t talk to them any more. I love my friends, I love my family, and I don’t want to lose them. And if I stay here I’m going to lose them.” I was both horrified and I knew he was right. He was second generation Irish-American and he was about to lose his family and friends – and he didn’t want to. I have no idea what happened to him, I don’t know if he ever went back. What I also discovered was that nobody else at UMass Boston seemed to be the least bit concerned about this. The only other person I ever discovered who was the least bit concerned was George Bernard Shaw, writing Pygmalion – in a way that’s exactly what he was talking about. There are all sorts of essays written by people from working class families who become professors and they all tell the same kind of story: some can go back, they switch on and off their personalities, and others have a very hard time doing it.
In discussing the transformative power of education you mention the importance that cultural influences play in the educational experience. How significant is the influence of culture on what is taught, how, and to whom?
What’s going on in schools today is exactly, only perhaps worse than, what John Dewey and all these people were railing against when I was a child in a progressive school in Greenwich Viage – what they were talking about that was so bad is now what’s standard. People who you would think would favour basic changes in schooling think that all they have to do is get rid of the tests and the accountability and everything will be fine. They don’t look behind and see that it’s the same old curriculum, it’s the same structure of the classroom, it’s the same things that Dewey was arguing against 100 years ago. The curriculum, the whole structure, was imported from the old schools, from the old format, and it was an education for heads, not hands, not hearts, not feelings, not emotions, not anything but heads – and a very narrow definition of ‘heads’. So that’s what exists now. When I wrote The Schoolhome in 1992, I had become horrified at what seemed to me to be a huge increase of violence in American society and particularly violence toward children – domestic violence. It just was horrifying to me. I was wondering, ‘What’s going on? What’s going on in the culture?’ And that’s when I started to think about home having changed and I remembered Dewey’s phrase that when home changes, school needs to change. And I read Montessori and she was saying the same thing. They emphasised different things, but both – one in Chicago and one in Rome – said that when home changes radically, school has to change.
What I was saying in The Schoolhome is that there’s a domestic vacuum because home has changed and there’s no one there literally, and so school has to step into the breach and supply the domestic affections that are missing from home, or we’re in trouble.
With the Internet and the texting and all the technology, although it takes people figuratively out of home, there are some advantages, in that there can be a connectedness with others – but it’s with disembodied people.
The bedrock of the education system, if only in number of hours of ‘study’, is now the media – which is teaching people how to behave, who to be, what is important in life. Has the media taken over as our moral authority?
If you look at political parties in this country [the US] with the election, the political parties are spewing hatred, and the media picks it up. It doesn’t have to, but that’s what they latch on to and kids are learning from it. I realised that my whole theory about education has been proven correct: I said if school doesn’t step into the breach then we’re going to lose the three Cs of ‘Care, Concern, and Connection’ because it’s not being taught at home anymore. And if you look around, this is a generation ago, a generation has passed who has had that domestic vacuum, and there’s nothing filling the breach except the technology that connects us to disembodied people – and we’re reaping the products.
In Alice in Wonderland the Mock Turtle talks about “ambition, distraction, uglification, and derision”. And that’s what’s going on now. Young people are being taught ambition. I saw this recently, it was in The New York Times, believe it or not, the ranking of higher education institutions according to average earnings of the graduates. That’s how we’re ranked: ambition. Distraction, when you think of the important things we should be thinking about like the fate of the planet, instead we’re thinking of what some movie star just said, some athlete just did wrong – that’s distraction. And then there’s the uglification and derision of the three Cs.
What is to be done to influence, in a positive way, the educational experience for people over the course of their lives?
On one level, I realise the answer to your question is very simple. On another level it’s almost impossible to answer. On a simple level, what we have to do is proliferate the educational encounters with the three Cs of Care, Concern, and Connection. And expand our definition of ‘we’ – this is big in my mind in connection with the planet. The progressive school I went to expanded our definition of ‘we’ to include all people. You never heard anyone say anything racist at our school. And when people left and went to other schools they reported that they were shocked by what they were hearing. But now we have to expand our definition of ‘we’ to include all species on the whole planet. What we need to do is a huge proliferation of the encounters for all people with the philosophy that planet Earth does not belong just to us humans. It belongs to all species. And at the same time, try to reduce the encounters with the opposite – with all the hatred and all the greed. Now how we go about doing that is another issue. Another function for the school should be to teach children how to mediate, or deconstruct, all of these messages they’re getting that are false, that may be racist, or sexist, or whatever. That’s possible.
John Stuart Mill claimed that, “A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another.” Napoleon agreed, saying that, “Of all our institutions public education is the most important… we must be able to cast a whole generation in the same mould.” They were thinking of what we know of as the school system, but is the media playing this role, is it casting us all in the same mould?
Oh yes. I’ve been saying this for years. People keep saying that we need to have a national curriculum and I say to them, “We have a national curriculum – through the media, we already have a national curriculum”. School’s job is to somehow break through that… we have to work on changing the media. The school is educating the heads, not the hearts or anything else, and the media is educating us in ambition and distraction, which is just awful, turning us away from the important problems rather than toward them. And school is paying no attention to those problems, teaching the various subjects in a way so that mostly you’re not thinking about real life problems. It’s bad news. Gender is very basic to these problems. Until we change our ideas about men and women, masculinity and femininity, the planet is in serious trouble.
Do you think that things are moving in a positive direction when it comes to problems relating to education and gender?
In the school setting, my impression is, bear in mind that I’ve been retired for years, but my impression is that it has moved up – so that my young friends, my young female acquaintances, get much further along before they notice that there’s any sexism.
This is also the case in philosophy, you would have been one of very few women doing what you were doing.
Well, for a long time I was the only one. When I was an undergraduate I actually was not in philosophy, but there were no women professors – I was at Radcliffe, the girls’ part of Harvard, and there were no women professors.
My husband taught at Boston University, in the philosophy department, and there was a man there who had been a businessman in Denver. He had retired and he fell in love with philosophy, so he worked there for free. And he once told me that he had never seen such nastiness in all his life, or in business, as he saw in the philosophy department in particular, and in the university in general – and it was because the stakes were so low. No money involved, no grants, nothing – it just made people all that meaner and more competitive. Of course, within philosophy, philosophy of education – which is what I do – is the lowest of the low.
In my view, this is all because of gender. If you’re talking about higher education, or liberal education and you’re a philosopher, that’s OK, but if you’re talking about schools then you’re talking about women and children. In political philosophy, as someone put it to me, women and children are in the ‘ontological basement’ – that was her phrase. And that’s where they are in philosophy in general. My theory is that you have no more prestige than the prestige of your subject matter.
Is there a more productive, more enjoyable way to spend one’s years from 5-18?
In the United States, there’s the mythology now, which has been passed down by historians of education, that the United States has been there and done progressive education – and it was a disaster. And this is false, this is patently false. There were schools, some of which were good like mine – which was just wonderful – but most of the country didn’t do it. We need to break down these myths. There’s also a myth that it’s an elitist kind of education and that wasn’t true at all for our school – there was a whole range of economic classes. The point is that school can be terrific, I know it for a fact because I lived it.
Is there anything else you’d like to add about how we can best teach and learn, or what we should be teaching and learning?
John Dewey talked about educating the whole person. What I talk about is that we need to be thinking about educating not just the whole person, but all our children in the whole range of the culture’s wealth. Some of the culture’s wealth is located in the private home – like the three Cs – and it’s just as important as anything that has to do with the public world. So we need to be thinking more broadly about what parts of culture we’re passing down to our children. There’s also the ‘problem of generations’, and this may be the biggest issue of all. If you start looking at education from the perspective of the culture instead of the perspective of the individual – John Dewey started that and then he forgot about it, and it’s crucial to do it because once you do it you start asking different questions – and one of the main questions we’ve got to start asking ourselves, in western culture at least, is: “What are we passing down to the next generation?” Are we passing down our cultural wealth? Or are we passing down our liabilities? And when you look around and you see the greed, the racism, inequality and all the rest, you know that we’re passing down our liabilities. And the problem of generations, as I call it, is how to maximise the transmission of the good stuff of the culture – the assets – and how to minimise the passing down of the bad stuff. I really think that this is the crucial thing that we have to start thinking about.
Instead of just looking at our own child and how he or she is going to get a job – I know that’s important – we must start looking at what the culture is passing down. Are we passing down any kind of belief in the value of the Earth and the need to preserve it? No! No, but we’ve got to.
A renowned philosopher of education, Martin was one of the first professional philosophers of education to bring a feminist perspective to her work. Her books include The Schoolhome, Cultural Miseducation, Educational Metamorphoses, and Changing the Educational Landscape.