"[T]he spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized." Norman Davies cited in Pinker 2007
It is sleeting with rain, a sodden, dreary grey outside – I just love weather that encourages behaviours of curling up on the sofa with a bowl of pumpkin soup, hot buttered toast and Stephen Pinker’s Edge opinion piece With clear skies and searing sunshine there is an expectation that you should get off the couch, put down the toast, and get out there, return phone calls, write reports, visit schools, pop in on the Auckland Tuanz conference etc .
I will admit that the buttered fingers makes it harder to use the laptop … you will have to forgive the aberrant keystrokes that result when I “two finger slither” onto the wrong key pad. But Pinker’s piece is allowing me many connections with how we represent school and the 21st Century Learner and I want to read, think and type at the same time. I am wondering - Are we thinking and talking about school wrong? Instead of tracking global decline in the efficacy of schools are we looking at the reverse?
Pinker asks how we could so readily and comprehensively continue to misrepresent the global decline in killing and cruelty as the reverse - as an ever increasing descent into violence, chaos and anarchy.
"But, now that social scientists have started to count bodies in different historical periods, they have discovered that the romantic theory gets it backward: Far from causing us to become more violent, something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us nobler." Stephen Pinker
And asks “…. how could so many people be so wrong about something so important?” - he suggests the following
1. Cognitive illusion: We estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples.
2. Intellectual culture: Loathe to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions of civilization and Western society.
3. Incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.
4. The decline of violent behaviour has been paralleled by a decline in attitudes that tolerate or glorify violence, and often the attitudes are in the lead.
It is not that we have lost our taste for violent fantasy. Apparently 80% of us admit to having fantasised about killing someone we don’t like. A statistic that surprises me. I’m one of the 20%. That doesn’t mean I don’t fantasise - I am just entertained by different stuff. And as someone who can describe a violent encounter with a hammer wielder living out some murderous fantasies [I just know I’m going to be banned from telling bedtime stories to any grandchildren I may collect] I also find the statistic strangely reassuring.
Pinker identifies “critical variables in the logic of violence” as
- Self interest and the logic of anarchy
- Life is cheap
- Non zero sum games
- Increasing kernels of empathy
He finishes strongly with the thought challenge "Instead of asking, "Why is there war?" we might ask, "Why is there peace?""
His argument makes me wonder if we have got the way we look at school and issues like student ab/use of MySpace, YouTube, txt bullying etc, wrong as well. Are we mistaken in all that rhetoric about education failing the 21st Century learner?
“The reforms of the late 1980’s and 1990s were a specific response to the fact that this education system was not delivering the outcomes needed as New Zealand underwent substantial economic and social change …. The answer lies in reorienting the system. Our challenge, as we examine how to make a difference (that is, how to ensure equal opportunity in education) is to reorient our system away from the organisation to the learner.” Hon. Steve Maharey Minister of Education 2006 Enabling the 21st Century Learner
Pinker’s arguments also work in the context of education. For in our thinking about schools we are subject to
1. “Cognitive illusion:” If we “estimate the probability of an event from how easy it is to recall examples” we are more likely to remember the incidents when students were failed by school than the times when school helped students become confident and competent members of our society.
2. “Intellectual culture:” There is a something about the universality of school experience that Ken Robinson refers to in his TED lecture, that means that whilst we are loathe to admit that there could be anything good about the institutions per se, we save a particular vehemence for the institution of school and its role in the perceived mis/behaviour of young people.
3. “Incentive structure of the activism and opinion markets: "No one ever attracted followers and donations by announcing that things keep getting better.” So very true when you look at schools. There are so many benefits in continually railing against and reinventing schooling - benefits to those who are making money from the marketing of change to schools and benefits to those increasing bureaucracies of people – and I use Illich’s term here - those “licensed to distribute it”
4. Our attitudes to what schools might reasonably be expected to provide have changed. For example we increasingly seek “relevance” and authenticity”
“One of my central concerns is the reform of education, which has degenerated since my generation made “relevance” a quickie standard of judgement.” Camille Paglia Introduction Sex Art and American Culture
To paraphrase Pinker … The failure of schools to educate young people has been paralleled by an increase in attitudes that seek education as yet another quick fix intervention, and often the attitudes are in the lead.
There is a lot more provocative thinking in here, for example I suspect that we might understand and increasingly value Singer’s “increasing kernels of empathy” as a reason why schools are succeeding rather than failing through the connectivity afforded by social software, txt messaging, YouTube, blogging and MySpace.
Then there is the scenario sketched by philosopher Peter Singer. Evolution, he suggests, bequeathed people a small kernel of empathy, which by default they apply only within a narrow circle of friends and relations. Over the millennia, people's moral circles have expanded to encompass larger and larger polities: the clan, the tribe, the nation, both sexes, other races, and even animals. The circle may have been pushed outward by expanding networks of reciprocity, à la Wright, but it might also be inflated by the inexorable logic of the golden rule: The more one knows and thinks about other living things, the harder it is to privilege one's own interests over theirs. The empathy escalator may also be powered by cosmopolitanism, in which journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one's own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I". Pinker 2007
Using Pinker’s framework it is easy to explain why we have fallen into the “cat burning” equivalent of talking up school failure. Are we thinking and talking about school wrong? Instead of tracking global decline in the efficacy of schools are we looking at the reverse? Perhaps our schools and schooling have never been better. Perhaps like the decline in violence across the globe “something in modernity and its cultural institutions has made us” better at educating our young people.
In Pinker speak
“Instead of asking, "Why is school failing?" we might ask, "Why is school successful?"