School Inception

Nobody likes to receive a half-baked explanation from people higher up, particularly if it is to explain why something cannot be done. What’s more, the specific level of annoyance that’s felt can vary with the style and wording of the excuse. Up there for sheer gall are ‘Because I told you so’ and ‘God works in mysterious ways’. There is another however, that infuriates me even more than these two staples of parents and priests respectively. The worst excuse a person in authority can utter is ‘we cannot afford it’. Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. This is the United States we are talking about. A country that increases its military spending by $50 billion does not come across as a penny pinching nation. There are people who literally have more money than they know what to do with. So why, more often than not, do we accept this explanation so willingly and unquestioningly?

Parker Palmer discusses the reasons more eloquently than I ever could in his essay: The Aims of Education Revisited. Institutions hoodwink us into believing that any ill feelings we have towards society, or the way things are done, are purely a manifest of our own inadequacies. So effective are they at this deception, we often resign ourselves to inaction. In Palmer’s words, we know but we do not recognize. Why does this happen? One reason and one reason alone. Our education system still places obedience to authority above all else. As long as this remains the case, the man in charge will be able to get away with murder. Time and time again, institutionalized cruelty is given a pass. Although this was not news to me, it was comforting to know that someone else gets as mad about it as I do.

As I mused over Parker’s words, I began to rack my brain for the grandest, most heinous embodiment of this phenomenon. That is how I came to ‘we cannot afford it’. We all know about the massive inequalities in wealth within and amongst societies, but still we do not recognize the fact. We know if we redistributed the wealth, we could fix pretty much all of the world’s problems. But we do not. Instead, we tell each other we can’t afford it, whatever ‘it’ may be; ‘we can’t afford to provide free healthcare, we can’t afford to send aid to 3rd world countries, we can’t afford to provide housing for the homeless’. That’s bollocks. We have the money to do all of those things.

So, Parker writes, the solution is in education reform. Unfortunately, progress is hampered by the hierarchical structure of our educational institutions. An Inception-esque dreamscape exists; classrooms within departments, departments within colleges, colleges within universities, there’s no way out! At each scale we can clearly see the authoritarian rule and the subjected masses. Even if some emboldened teacher or even whole department raises the courage to teach disobedience as Parker advocates, the next level in the hierarchy will resist, either consciously or unconsciously, and the system as a whole will likely remain relatively unchanged. I don’t think the situation is hopeless mind; I’m just concerned that much like the movie inception, it will take far longer than it should.

6 Replies to “School Inception”

  1. [Our education system still places obedience to authority above all else. As long as this remains the case, the man in charge will be able to get away with murder. Time and time again, institutionalized cruelty is given a pass. Although this was not news to me, it was comforting to know that someone else gets as mad about it as I do.]

    Yeah. I’ve seen this occur in broad daylight time and time again when it comes to academia and education in general. Parker Palmer has always made me feel like okkkk maybe I’m not crazy after all. It is so easy to merely not want to be a part of academia anymore. I find myself becoming more and more comfortable with the idea of a job within industry where I’ll make more money and receive more accolades for caring about people and their wellbeing. Maybe that is just wishful thinking on my end, but when we continuously hear the woes of senior professors who genuinely care about teaching and receive nothing tangible for it, it’s disheartening. However, if our generation doesn’t begin to right the wrongs, then who will? Our education system has quickly gone from bad to worse when left in the hands of people who don’t care.

    I definitely understand the concerns about the hierarchy within academia. I would like to think that our generation and future generations are more opened minded. I hate to say this but I’ve been in multiple situations where people have literally waited patiently for the “old boys’ club” to retire out.

    Recently, I heard a really encouraging snippet of a speech from Meghan Markle. Although this speech has been circulating in lieu of the recent sexual harassment scandals emerging relating to various celebrities (and not to downplay the former cause, but this video is also popular as a result of her recent engagement to Prince Harry), I found it to be encouraging to both men and women in a sense that little actions can indeed promote change, sometimes even when we don’t expect them to.

  2. Bringing up some very good and infuriating points in that I completely agree with all of them and the fact that I too get frustrated as you do. The courage to teach disobedience however is going to have to be a movement too, led by people like us who have learned to question and challenge…but also us teaching the questioning and challenging (which can sometimes produce backlash as well)… however getting to the optimal levels of challenging and questioning will take some trial and error. In today’s socio-political context how would you envision that happening?!

  3. Disclaimer, haven’t read Palmer, yet I agree with the points you bring up, as well as the follow up comments. So, in a typical classroom environment the teacher is often the “authority” who in theory has the power to decide what is correct and what is not (behavior, content to cover, classroom rules, etc)… so the education reform definitely has to start with us, moving away from the authoritarian role in the classroom to a facilitator, but this shift is responsibility of students as well, only if both parties move from the assign roles, the change can start to happen.

    So we need to be ready to work with students, and be prepared for them not being comfortable, if that is the case with a new approach, and keep digging until whatever objectives you had are met. Eventually I think society will benefit from that change.

  4. I hear you, George. My response to “we can’t afford that” (universal healthcare, housing, equal access to education) is “we can’t not afford that.” And I hear the discouragement about the challenges that face us in higher ed right now. I find the drift, (tidal rush) toward corporatization alarming. (But then I’m somewhat alarmed by the state of the world in general, as you might have noticed.) Yet I remain inspired and reassured by the transformative effects of liberal learning — an education that seeks to open the mind and instill habits of critical analysis, self-awareness and reflection, as well as an appreciation of one’s place in the world and how connected we are with one another. We can’t afford not to provide an educational experience that does that.

  5. Two words: “dialectical materialism”. End of.

    On a serious note as long as we (the current generation or even a subset of our generation) realize that things are not what they should be, change will come. Granted that we should not expect change to come in a day, but remember the saying “Rome wasn’t built in a day.” I will be more than happy if it take a 100 years for the system to change, however what would be worse is if the system was allowed to remain as it is for all eternity. Also I’m not sure if most Americans understand “technical British” terms.

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