Friday, February 17, 2017

Post-Modern Education

I don't think I ever posted this, from last year.  It appeared in Christian Renewal last summer...screen shots from an emailed digital version appear below.

I should say that I'm still in public school, still want to be in public school...and I'm very frustrated with what is happening there.   

Indeed, I enjoy the challenge of trying to insinuate some of this post-modernity into my classes, but it's daunting challenge.

A lecture series at George Fox University last year asked participants to consider the ramifications of  Living in Postmodern America.   I was invited to give the talk on education, which caused me to ponder whether teaching, learning and school are, in fact, postmodern.  The simple answer to that is yes and no--yes, teaching and learning are postmodern activities, but no, education, as a system, is intensely Modern, and fundamentally hinders the process of teaching and learning.
Modernity is bureaucratic, which means it is organized, structured and numerated.  Postmodernity is, by contrast, situational—in other words, constructed, subjective and relational.  Education, the social and collective endeavor to deliver teaching and learning to students, is highly bureaucratic, and getting more so by the day.   The bureaucrats who populate those bureaucracies, and who organize and measure the minutiae of the activities of our lives and work, are the hallmark of Modern life.  And education bureaucrats (or, educrats, if you will) numerate and measure features of education that bear little relevance or connection to the complicated relational reality of teaching and learning.
Consider the push to create more thorough and comprehensive standardized testing.  This requires outcomes measured in numerable ways, which render evaluation and assessment both valid (that is, objectively measurable and comparable) and easy.  Along the way, of course, more standardized testing stimulates the inevitable, even if unintended, standardization of learning and curriculum, and this Modernization elevates and prefers assessment devices that can be easily compared, and numerated test results do precisely that.  And the infinite loop of bureaucracy’s self-fulfilling order runs on.
 Modernity’s impact extends beyond the practical problem of standardized testing to the philosophy of education, though.  The Enlightenment bequeathed us rationality, and a philosophy of science and an epistemology that elevate empiricism and the observable and confirmable above all other forms of knowing and understanding. If it can’t be observed (measured) and confirmed, then we don’t know it’s true.  The social science literature—from political science to organization studies—abounds with analyses of how bureaucracies fixate on concretely measurable things, which too often grossly misapprehend the breadth and depth of a situation.  This is true—and astoundingly so—of the growing education bureaucracy today.
 The culture in school is clearly that the data will show the real picture, data don’t lie, and good numbers will always be smiled upon.  So, Modernity hums along, having given us a rationalism and empiricism that tilt toward the accumulation of ever more (questionably useful) data.  And education—the social endeavor—marches in step with Modernity’s tune.
 Modernity’s grip on Education, thereby, infringes on and alters the relational activities of teaching and learning.  This reality gives (or, should give) Christian parents pause.  For people who take their children’s education so seriously, it’s no surprise that home schooling or private Christian school are so often preferred over the highly bureaucratized public school.
Christianity is about relationships—our individual relationship to God, through our relationship to Christ; our relationship to our neighbors and strangers; and our relationship to our families, not least of which is parents’ relationship to their children.  And a fundamental aspect of that relationship is the educating of those children.  

But many Christians “fear” Postmodernism, of course—it is thought to be the font of self-oriented, subjective, relativist philosophy from which flows every pathology of contemporary secular America.  But in the all too typical cyclicality of human thinking and endeavor, postmodernity’s ascendance looks plenty like a return to premodernity, and in ways that can be perfectly comfortable to Christians.
Where Modernity relies on an empiricism that repudiates truth claims that can’t be verified by rationalist science, the “Pre is Post again Modernity” emphasizes a reliance on language—not numbers.  Postmodernity’s emphasis on intersubjectivity focuses on stories, as told by people, akin to the way the Bible uses personal stories to testify to God’s and Christ’s work.
Moreover, postmodernism opens up room for a robust notion of theology, even if only unintentionally.  Where Modernity begat academic disciplines that have increasingly segregated both enquiry and understanding in closely guarded silos, postmodernity breaks down those disciplinary boundaries, encouraging knowledge and understanding to be applied across the range of human endeavor and understanding, similar--at least procedurally--to the way Christ-centeredness reaches into every domain of a Christian’s life.
The complex web of learning and thinking indicated here hearkens back to something like the classical education so many Christians have so long sought for their children.  Seeking wisdom from ancient examples (through the stories of the lives and times of those people) is something like a postmodern return to the premodern, and is completely unModern.
This brings us full circle, for the Common Core State Standards—and the accompanying testing processes—are fundamentally at odds with classical teaching and learning.  Where classical approaches value the knowledge and wisdom accumulated through the ages, the CCSS establish skills as the paramount virtue.  Finding the main idea (and identifying the passage that communicates that) is more important in the new philosophy of Education than pursuing any particular set of ideas and values.  Texts need not be prioritized for their content or meaning, rather each and all can be mined for quasi-technical elements like main point and supporting evidence…all the better for standardized tests that must be easily gradable in order to generate the required data that will tell us how Education in America is going.

As a teacher in the Modern system, I can attest that the bureaucratic endeavor called Education is going nowhere fast, especially as far as what Christians want for the teaching and learning relationships that comprise their children’s lives.  As a parent who sends his child to a classical Christian school, the possibilities for teaching and learning, which I have here described as postmodern, are still wide open, but not in a Modern public school.

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