Lessons for the classroom, courtesy of Mu’ammar Gadhafi
March 15, 2011 1 Comment
[This post dedicated to a certain new iPad owner at Breen Elementary School, Rocklin, CA.]
Fundamentalist and long-standing authoritarian regimes today are facing the natural consequences of first educating, then suppressing the creative urges of their youth. These kids are voting with their feet and their Facebook accounts, protesting the imposition of an oppressive world view that doesn’t fit the world they know.
While we watch Libya embroiled in civil war, what lessons might Mu’ammar Gadhafi have to offer us? Gadhafi surrounds himself with like-minded comrades, the material beneficiaries of his dictatorship. He loudly proclaims “My people love me!” then identifies the masses of youth against him as “cockroaches, greasy rats and drug-fueled mice.” What, exactly, is he missing? Could it be the culture of the people of Libya has changed while he was busy assuming “his” people shared his values?
Which aspects of our educational system fits the model of Gadhafi’s authoritarian regime? Western youth are maturing in a culture busily molding them into highly interactive and networked human beings, change mediated primarily by technology, and they do not check their interactive expectations at the classroom door. Change has always been what the life of an adolescent is about – it would be an ugly outcome for all of us should a 14-year-old cease craving change – so how do educators accommodate this energy in a responsible manner given that adults are fundamentally conservative and change-averse in their thinking and youth are fundamentally liberal and change-hungry?
I’ve been fascinated to read about the rebellions taking place across the Arab world, particularly when Arab youth are doing the talking. Their demands are actually fairly modest and civil; you’re not seeing them initiate violence, not even throwing tea into the harbor. They are asking for institutional transparency, for attention to their needs, for thoughtful accommodation to the world they live in, one which honors democracy and flattened modes of communication.
While the American education system has been busy not seriously regarding youth culture for the last fifty years, technology has crept into their lives in profound, paradigm-shattering ways. Older adults in our society see quiet signs of change as our bookstores close and it gets harder to find that favorite CD, but we remain simply too busy in our lives to consider adapting to forces outside our experience or personal need.
Some professions can survive with the normal, incremental generational replacement of older workers by younger. As fields of knowledge grow and practices shift, disciplines evolve slowly over time. Education is unique, however, as it is an older generation of staff that dominates the younger staff rather than the younger, more recently-prepared prodding the older, and by the time younger generational insight is able to guide the practice of the dominant group, the field is again thirty years behind. Add to this the fact that educators, as a class, serve youth who bring constant change to the system and you have the real problem of an institution forever on the brink of obsolescence.
Consider a friend of mine who studies the behavior and physiology of the hippopotamus. Over the period of time she has studied them, the typical culture of hippos and their social organization hasn’t changed very much. She can probably assume that aside from adapting to changes in habitat, the way hippos think and behave today is not much changed from the way hippos thought and behaved a hundred or a thousand years ago.
Can educators make the same assumption about our object of study and practice? If the answer to that question is “no” (and I contend it needs to be a rather anxiety-informed “NO!”), then the only responsible behavior on the part of educators at all levels is to include in their professional practice the discovery of instruction that maintains the relevance and effectiveness of their practice. If our culture moves away from standards of practice established fifty or a hundred years ago, it is not the child’s job to adapt, but ours, for the sake of societal health. Rather than hope the culture gives up and sees the world through our eyes, we need to be investing considerable energy and resources in ourselves to remain effective and to keep our work lives meaningful. For some of us that may mean formal graduate work in education technology, and for others it may simply be a matter of opening a Facebook account with gritted teeth and locating Friends, or starting a blog about a favorite hobby for the sole purpose of connecting to their students’ way of seeing the world.
For the course of the entire exercise, however, an ever-present ghost of doubt needs to haunt us: How does my attachment to my personal story and my assumptions keep me from doing the very best job I can for my students? When I look out across the faces in my classroom, do I see “cockroaches, greasy rats and drug-fueled mice,” or do I see the future for which I am responsible?