The Dead Hand in Education

On Sat, Jun 11, 2011 at 10:06, Michael Gurstein wrote to

There may be some interest in this context…

The Dead Hand of (Western) Academe: Community Informatics in a Less Developed Country Context

I’m just back from a variety of recent travels–lecturing, workshopping, seminaring, meeting with academics and researchers in various parts of the Asian less developed countries (LDCs). Specifically I was invited to discuss community informatics with academics/researchers in 3 universities in 3 rather different regions of Asia.

In reflecting on these meetings I realized the very strong strain of consistency in our discussions. In each instance, the academics, almost all of whom had recent Ph.D.s from research universities in Developed Countries (DC’s) returned home to find that their recently acquired skills and areas of expert knowledge were of little direct value in their home environments…

Compare John Dada of Fantsuam Foundation in Nigeria, teaching practical IT to Africans from all over the continent. Or Dr. Paul Farmer of Partners in Health, working out how to deliver health care to the poorest people in Haiti and more recently Rwanda with better standards (in certain critical respects) than in hospitals at home in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts.

It is also true of most recent Ph.D.s working in Developed Countries that most of what they were taught is useless, except in strictly limited areas defined mostly by the corporations that employ them. Education should teach one how to learn whatever is necessary, how to determine what is necessary, and how to solve problems of kinds one has not previously encountered.

Robert A. Heinlein (1907–1988)

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Also, John Alexander Smith (1863–1939)

Gentlemen, you are now about to embark on a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life, save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.

Smith was Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford University. Statement recorded in 1914.

This is the essence of the problem we have at One Laptop Per Child and Sugar Labs. It is not just at the university level, but occurs in every primary and secondary school that uses the European curriculum originally imposed by colonial imperial powers both at home and abroad, with the intention of producing narrowly focused professionals who could not interfere in political decisions, and a mass of factory workers, shop clerks and the like with even less political clout.

Almost all of these curricula were also strongly influenced by religious groups intent on maintaining control of the population, such as the Catholic Church at the time of Charlemagne’s schools and the later medieval Universities; Pietists in Prussia; the Church of England in the UK and the British Empire; the Southern Baptist churches in the American South, and the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa.

Not that the idea was original with any of them.

Plato (ca. 428 BCE–347 BCE)

The greatest principle of all is that nobody, whether male or female, should be without a leader. Nor should the mind of anybody be habituated to letting him (or her) do anything at all on his (or her) own initiative–to his leader he shall direct his eye and follow him faithfully. And even in the smallest matter he should stand under leadership. For example, he should get up, or move, or wash, or take his meals…only if he has been told to do so. In a word, he should teach his soul, by long habit, never to dream of acting independently, and to become utterly incapable of it.

Plato, Laws 942d (350 BCE)

Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814)

You must fashion [the person], and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will.

Addresses to the German Nation

John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)

A general State education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another: and as the mould in which it casts them is that which pleases the predominant power in the government, whether this be a monarch, a priesthood, an aristocracy, or the majority of the existing generation; in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading by natural tendency to one over the body. An education established and controlled by the State should only exist, if it exists at all, as one among many competing experiments…

On Liberty (1859)

The result is that any such education system is in no way suited to a free people with the right and ability to govern itself. The most extreme case is

It is not who votes that counts, it’s who counts the votes.

Attributed to Stalin

No, it’s worse than that. It’s who decides whom and what gets on the ballot, and who has no say in the matter.

The Sugar Labs Replacing Textbooks program has a project in the design stages for a generic civics textbook that will explain not only how a government should work, but what to do when it doesn’t. Then we propose to adapt it to the various legal, political, and social realities of the various countries where our students are trying to understand what is really going on and get involved in making it better.


About mokurai

Generalist; End poverty at a profit for all
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