Institutionalized Education: A Quasi-Anarchist’s Perspective

Surely there's more to learning than this

Surely there’s more to learning than this

By Anonymous

Everyone knows that one has to go to school to receive a formal education and formal credentials. But schools are also social institutions. As institutions, schools often stand in the way of education. A competitive education driven by credentials is often responsible for lowering the self-esteem of both students and teachers as a consequence of grading and various other evaluation processes.

Consider that high school and college students have a suicide rate—what sociologists call egoistic suicide—that is significantly higher than the general population. There are many factors to be considered here, of course.  But a contributing factor is often educational institutions that subject mediocre and poor students, or students who lack the self-discipline required to succeed, to brutal ego lashings through punitive grades, academic probation, and expulsion. Such assaults on self-esteem (in the name of enforcing standards) are exacerbated when schools lavishly reward prize students and their teachers/professors with medals, trophies, plaques, and similar totems of honor and excellence.

Those of us who teach on the college level are all too familiar with students who must achieve a high grade in our courses, an A or a B, to avoid expulsion from the institution or rejection from a competitive program within the institution.  Many of these students are driven to do precisely that: earn a high grade, whatever it takes, never mind what is learned.

Then there are students, much less prepared for college, who are weeded out in a quasi-Darwinian process. We as faculty are not encouraged to show mercy to “unfit” students. Sink or swim, and if you sink, too bad.

Recently, I gave a disadvantaged student who had grown up in a Brooklyn ghetto an “Incomplete” in my course. This means withholding his grade, hence his credits, until he can satisfactorily complete the requirements of my course.  I threw him a life preserver, in other words.

The college’s administration was reluctant to allow this, favoring instead a four-year suspension from the college for unsatisfactory work in this and other courses. I prevailed. But not until I was told I had made an unwise decision to continue working with the student.

I made a judgment call.  Hampered by a disadvantaged background and inadequate preparation, the student was nevertheless fiercely determined to remain in college, to succeed in his classes. In my view, he deserved another chance, especially since this could be his last chance to acquire the credentials needed to survive in today’s hyper-competitive world.

Bureaucracies set rules because that’s what they do.  In this case, the student, already on probation for two semesters, faced compulsory expulsion for his poor academic performance in my class.  But it was the rigidity of the system that was the real problem: the insistence that one-size-fits-all rules should apply equally to all students, irrespective of their backgrounds and the obstacles they had to surmount on their way to and in college.

My Solution

If we want true student-centered education, my suggestion is to remove the institutional rules, processes, policies, and competitiveness as driven by grades and GPAs.  Then you’re simply left with students who say they want to learn or who certainly don’t want to be separated from the institution. Rather than a letter grade, offer a less competitive mark of achievement for all students. Maybe a pass/fail with comments from the teacher on the student’s work. An evaluation, yes, but one that can’t be measured or rewarded as a marker in a competitive rat race. The same for the teachers. No more “divide and conquer” system of rewards. True education—which literally means to draw out of the darkness— must come before institutionalized punishment and rewards.

Why can’t schools focus on turning students on to learning, to becoming more curious about the world? The nature of reality, of truth?  Instead, we expose them very quickly to the perils of not succeeding in a marketplace-like setting. The winners become the capitalists, the professionals, the despoilers. The losers, who are always in the minority, become the despoiled: the anomic homeless, the chronically depressed, the prison population, the DOA suicides, the drug addicts, maybe even the psychopaths.

Surely we can figure out ways to run schools that aren’t driven by strict competition and stricter rules. Perhaps a community-based school, what the economist Richard Wolff calls WSDEs (worker self-directed enterprises) where students and teachers would participate democratically in their own evaluations and progress.

Presently, society entrusts education to the managerial class, the appointees of the CEOs of educational institutions, who are generally concerned with compulsively applying rules and procedures, who seem reluctant to think outside the box when it comes to career- or life-altering decisions about students and teachers.

As much as possible, let’s return education to a state of nature, to that idyllic picture of student and teacher sitting on one end of a log where learning—and teaching—is rewarded by learning itself.

The author teaches at the collegiate level and prefers to remain anonymous.

5 thoughts on “Institutionalized Education: A Quasi-Anarchist’s Perspective

  1. I was a bit confused what was meant by your statement ,” A competitive education driven by credentials…”.
    Then I figured out that “credentials” was a “degree”. There are institutions that do not give grades and allow students to define their own goals in each class. Many years ago my son went to Hampshire College and I was not only shocked that men and women lived in the same dorms and visited the common steam baths together ( I am from the ‘old” school ) but that my son defined his own project for each class he took and I don’t think received any “competitive” grade. So there are academic ways of giving latitude to students with varying levels of capability.
    In the case of students who have ambition but may come from a disadvantaged segment of our society I would think that a higher education institution that accepts the individual should provide supplemental programs or encourage the staff to spend the extra time with the student that they may need. Unfortunately with the defunding of the public school system and the shifting of moneys to unsupervised “charter” schools the level of preparation for higher education will continue to deteriorate.
    Our democracy was built on the foundation of a well funded public school system educating all for constructive citizenship. This was never fully achieved with the accepted practice of school segregation.
    We tried to eliminate that with the Brown decision by the Supreme Court but now our politicians in both parties combined with a right wing dominated Supreme Court seem intent on deconstructing education for all. The result will be that higher education will revert to what it was prior to WW II, education only for the rich. It was the GI Bill following that war that gave the opportunity for a higher education to the mass of our young citizens.

  2. “lowering the self-esteem of both students and teachers ” I have seen the effect of lowered teacher self-esteem. The teacher often becomes an authoritarian in order to compensate and thus begins the vicious cycle that has no benefits to student, teacher or mankind

  3. I was lucky to study for my undergraduate degree at a place (U.C. Santa Cruz) that had evaluations instead of grades, at a time (the 60’s) when education was attainable without taking on huge debt. Without the pressure of a quick pay back on a degree, I studied Philosophy. Without the pressure of grades, as students we were collaborative, rather than competitive.

    A decade later, my employer wanted me to be credentialed as a winemaker, so I went to U.C. Davis for a graduate degree in Enology (winemaking). This required quickly catching up in the sciences. I plowed through two years of calculus, microbiology, chemistry, biochemistry, and physical chemistry. Grade competition was fierce, especially as many students in these classes were aiming to get into the medical school on campus. Memorization was key to getting the required grade (anything below a B minus did not count for credit at the graduate school level).

    I am glad I got both degrees. The first prepared me for life, the second for a profession. As I look back, surely my experience of learning science would have been richer in a non-graded, collaborative situation. Luckily, the actual winemaking classes were quite collaborative, and the philosophy degree even came into play, as we were after all working in the realm of aesthetics.

  4. People have complained about schools for ages. For example:

    “The teaching they gave to their pupils was ready but rough. For they used to suppose that they trained people by imparting to them not the art but its products, as though anyone professing that he would impart a form of knowledge to obviate pain in the feet, were then not to teach a man the art of shoemaking, or the sources whence he can acquire anything of the kind, but were to present him with several pairs of shoes of all sorts; for he has helped him to meet his need, but has not imparted to him any art.” — Aristotle, De Sophisticus Elenchis

    Does our education provide us with ready-made answers — some of which have immediate and practical uses — or does it stimulate us to ask critical questions and then develop the best means for arriving at suitable answers to them? As they used to tell us enlisted men in Uncle Sam’s Canoe Club: “If the Navy wants to know what you think, the Navy will tell you what you think.” Here we have the difference between “training” and “learning,” which taught me my lifelong philosophy of education: namely, that “we learn for our own purposes, or someone else will train us for theirs.”

    I never took well to training, but I did learn enough over the years to get by. I guess I’ll have to settle for that.

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