The Big Pickle


Bruce Thomas


I think the United States at the dawn of a new millennium has got itself into a very big pickle in the matter of education.  To explain this pickle Im going to set out two definitions and then tell two stories.

The word to be defined is student.  The word has two quite different meanings, depending on context.  In the college or university context, a student is one who matriculates, pays bills, attends classes, takes tests, and eventually acquires a diploma.  The definition is very procedural and institutional.  A common thread tying all the various elements together is compliance: the students goes where he/she is supposed to go, does the assigned tasks, and meets the distribution requirements.  Call this student One.

The second definition of student is captured in the phrase I am a student of....whatever...:  the civil war...the monarch butterfly...the cold war in Eastern Europe from 1945 to 1990.  This meaning of student is provocatively different from the first meaning.  It connotes learning that  is non-institutional ,  personally meaningful, self-motivated, self-directed, and long term if not indeed lifelong.  Call this student Two.

The first story begins with a comic strip.  The first panel in this strip, showing two boys and a dog, has one boy saying to the other:  I taught Spot how to whistle.  In the next frame the second boy replies:  I dont hear him whistling.  In the last frame the first boy retorts:  I said I taught him.  I didnt say he learned it.

This comic strip vivifies with quiet humor a disconnection between teaching and learning that I discovered when I was just beginning an inquiry into human learning.  It wasnt long into that inquiry that I realized that formal teaching and schooling are a very recent human invention.  In fact, for my purpose, I am going to divide in an act of incredible hubris human history into two eras, BS and AS B Before School and After School.  Im not sure when the first school appeared in human history, the question never occurred to me until I was working on this speech and it is now on my agenda as a student of learning to find out.  In any case, the precise date that divides BS from AS doesnt matter, what matters is that in the BS era, life was all learning and no teaching.  And, while slow or impaired learners tended to end up in the stomachs of saber toothed tigers or under the feet of wooly mammoths, clearly a significant percentage of BS people learned or otherwise we would not be here in this room today.

I am going to call this preschool era form of learning natural learning@ B a dangerous label that will certainly invite challenge but so be it.  It begins at birth.  The caption that applies to all of babyhood and toddlerhood is:  What the hells going on here?  And just about everything that a baby and a toddler do is in search of answers to that question.

I want to give several examples of what I am calling natural learning.  Two are from infancy and toddlerhood: talking and walking.  Its now something of a commonplace to cite these instances of uninstructed early learning but sometimes we need to revisit commonplaces.  The simple point is:  We dont teach children to talk and walk.  They learn both.  The adult role is to establish the settings for such learning.  Adults have to be around, have to create the homes and other places where babies and toddlers exist.  I am reminded of a wonderful insight from a man named D.W. Winnicott, kind of an English version of Dr. Spock, who once said that there is no such thing as a baby B there is always a baby and someone else B because if there is just a baby, very soon that baby ceases to exist.

The second instance of natural learning is cultural.  This one is the hardest to explain, in part because its the old how do you explain water to a fish? problem.  The notion of culture I am talking about is not the contents of the Art Institute of Chicago, although the definition includes those contents.  It is the way we come to know our world and what to expect from it.  It is all the largely inexplicit assumptions that establish the differences between the normal and abnormal, the expected and the unexpected.  It is that vast compendium of assumptions and ideas and concepts that composes the hidden foundation of our society.  It is what everybody knows. 

Heres an example.  How do you explain the fact that in the US we have an extraordinarily standardized system of education even though we have neither national standards of education nor a controlling central educational authority?  This is a classic example of the value at times of revisiting the obvious.  We can call it the Portland question:  Why is it that schools in Portland, Oregon are essentially identical in every important respect to those in Portland, Maine?  How does that happen?  It is a case of natural learning in the cultural sense.  We learn what school is from an early age.  Then we go to school and that deepens the learning.

So whenever there is a school to be created in the United States, there is an unspoken agreement about what school is.  No one was taught the elements of this unspoken agreement; it is simply learned as a consequence of growing up in this culture.

Enough on natural learning.  At some point in history, school appears a momentous event.  I dont know when it happened.  But I do know the consequence, which was that it set in motion a process whereby a focus on teaching supplanted one on learning.  The result today is that we have a system in education that seriously misrepresents the ways and byways of human leaning.  Note that I said, in the preceding sentence, system in education not system of education.  The two are completely different and that difference is fundamental to my argument.

Systems of the sort that Im concerned about divide into two categories:  systems of, and systems in.  The system of education is relatively simple to explain and describe; it can be described with a few charts.  You show the state board of education and the legislature, and then local boards of education, and the federal government off to the side playing certain specific roles.  With several charts or tables of organization, you can present the system of education in this country. 

The system in education is completely and utterly different.  At its heart is an operating theory of learning.  The wonderful thing about this operating theory is that you cant write to your state board of education or your local board of education and get a statement of it.  We have to look at the system in education and distill it out of the system.  Ive rendered this operating theory in terms of 15 principles.  And when I say operating theory, I mean the theory that explains what people actually do.  The crucial question is the validity of this operating theory.  In the light of what we now know about childrens learning, every one of these 15 principles is wholly or substantially wrong.  So its bad theory.  And thats not all:  Its bad theory with a bad attitude.  Because the attitude implicit in our systems theory of learning is that neither teachers nor children can be trusted to make any important decisions about their lives in school.  The system embodies distrust.

If we say that the system in education is bad theory with a bad attitude, then we are saying that our system of education institutionalizes error.  The question immediately arises:  How could that happen?  How could such a system survive in a putatively rational society.

Thats a good question that warrants some discussion.  There are a number of answers, and I will present only three. 

1.              Schools do work, in the sense of performing certain valuable functions in our society.  Schools are now integral to our economy.  They provide, for example, child and youth care for working parents an absolutely crucial function, so obvious that we overlook it.  Our economy is unimaginable without schools taking care of children while their parents work.  This care-taking function become the more important as the homes in our society empty out as both parents work or as one parent leaves.  Schools also keep youth out of the labor force and thus regulate unemployment.  And of course schools provide employment education is an enormous industry, spending billions each year, I forget the current total; its over 150 billion a year. 

Theres another crucial function performed by our schools, also economic in nature, that in fact entails learning but not instruction.  We have an economy based on money.  What do you do with money?  You exchange it for something you value or need.  How do you get money?  Also by exchange:  you exchange labor or product for money.  How do students learn (and learn to accept as natural and appropriate) this system of money-based exchange?  Much of that learning takes place in school through the practice of grading student work.  Grades are proxies for money.  Students learn from a very early age that what is important in school is the grade, became of its exchange value.  Grades in the early years are exchanged for promotion to the next grade and for lots of other things too, like parental approval and school status.  Then later grades are exchangeable for admission to desired secondary schools and then colleges or universities.  You may think that I am being critical or judgmental.  Not at all.  Im simply being descriptive.  If you take a random sample of a 1000 high school students, and ask each one what they got in English last term, 99% will answer with something like, Well, I got a B+.  Maybe 1 or 2 or even 4 might say something like, Well, I got a really good understanding of the English romantic poets, or I began to suspect that Emily Dickinson is a fraud. 

The point here is aptly captured by John Holts definition of a good student as one who forgets the material after the test rather than before it.  Theres no ambiguity in school about the matter of grades; what you get of durable value out of a course is the grade.

2.              Second and lets remember that the answers here discussed are to the question of how institutionalized error persists human claims to rationality are, like Mark Twains death, greatly exaggerated.  One of the important books in my life is The Human Animal by Weston LaBarre, a cultural anthropologist.  He has a memorable line to the effect that man is unique among the animals in his practiced ability to know things that are not so. 

3.             Schools take credit for learning that takes place before school, outside of school and after school.  Theres no way you can stop human beings from learning.  Humans even learn in schools but that is not the result of the system in education. That kind of learning is some composition of individual human achievements.  I would even defend the proposition that any outcome of the system that you can clearly attribute to the system is a bad outcome that systemic outcomes are by definition bad outcomes.


Now we are at the end of this condensed gallop across the entirety of human history.  We are left with a truly majestic irony, wrought by that factory of ironies, history.

An institution dedicated to the perpetuation and improvement of knowledge obscures many of the significant ways that humans durably learn.

I am not criticizing our educational system.  I am doing something far more devastating:  I am trying to describe it accurately.  To describe it accurately is to say that we human beings at the outset of the 21st century have got ourselves into one hell of a pickle.  And were all in that pickle together the pickle of being saddled with a system in education that institutionalizes error.

Thats the end of the first story.  The second story is about my own educational history:  The institutional names that figure in that history Phillips Exeter Academy, Harvard College, Oxford University suggest a certain story.  I want to relate the real story.

The real story begins in central New Hampshire, in a small town, in the late 1940s and early 1950s.  There, in my early elementary years, I attended a one-room school house.

One teacher Mrs. Plants, who drove over from Plymouth every day one room, 8 grades, some 30 students, and a metal-jacketed potbelly stove in the middle of the room.  Three points about that experience:


1.             School wasnt particularly important.  It was generally enjoyable, and it didnt put too much of a dint into my free range childhood existence.  It was virtually the only adult-organized activity of those early elementary years. The rest of the time was playing or doing self-organized sports with my friends or wandering around in the woods; or reading in the local library.  From that experience I derive considerable support for the notion of its taking a whole village to raise a child.

2.                   I must have learned a fair amount but I dont remember being taught very much.  I spent most of my time reading and rereading the 23 volumes of a series called The Boy Allies.  In the back of the one room was a glass-fronted bookcase that constituted the school library.  The Boy Allies must have constituted about two-thirds of the total library.  Years later, I began to wonder if these books were a figment of my imagination, until I discovered one volume in a bookstore in Houston, about ten years ago.  Now I have been able to collect about half of the total set.  So they were real and they were my curriculum.

3.                   The experience left me with a feeling that school was a generally benign place where I could mostly pursue my own interests. I have no memory whatsoever of any testing, or even of grades.  There must have been report cards but I dont remember them and so conclude that they were not particularly important.


Now, fast forward about 8 or 9 years.  Im now a sophomore at Harvard, nominally majoring in English, actually majoring in ice hockey.  In middle of the year, I suddenly decide to drop out, borrow $50 from my room mates and light out for the territories.  I worked in a Buffalo NY steel mill for 3 months and then shipped out as a deckhand on a self- unloading steamship on the Great Lakes, hauling limestone, coal and sand from one place to another.  I was out of school for about 19 months, which also included some traveling around in the U.S., Mexico and Europe.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I have to say that this act of dropping out was a major crossroads my in life.  It was in many respects the beginning of my real education. I discovered a reason for being in school, which was a consuming interest in organized labor.  So I chose to go back to college, rather than attending college as a step in the lockstep progression from elementary to high school to college.  I switched to Harvards version of American Studies, and pursued my particular interest in American labor.  I had to get out of school to find a reason for being in school.

I want to draw two points out of this story.  First, the very act of writing it out caused me to rethink and reframe much of my own history.

Second, it prompted me to assess whats been retained from the formal academic side of my education.  Whats been retained was determined by personal interest, pleasure, personal tutoring relationships, personal commitments and by a developing sense of proficiency, of competence.  When I assess what remains in my head what remains as part of my daily working repertoire of knowledge from formal schooling at Exeter and Harvard, I am struck by how little of the formal instruction remains.  All the science is gone, most of the history, all the math after algebra.  What remains is:  an ability to write sharpened by two English courses in high school; a conversance with French born of four years of high school French; and two legacies from tutorial in my newfound major at Harvard in my second sophomore year: a confidence in my intellectual abilities and what turned out to be a lifelong interest in reading, not between the lines, but through them, to the realities lurking behind.  And I need to add also an interest in ethics and morality provoked by a course at Exeter taught by a retired dean from Princeton, named Bob Wicks.

Going back to my introductory remarks:  What happened in the post-dropout years was a merging of the two definitions of student.  I was still a student One:  matriculated, bill paying, dutiful.  But I was also a student Two having become a student of labor history. 

These two definitions have been rendered a variety of ways as I have discovered over the years.  One of my favorites is given by Robert Frost.  Frost wrote introductions to some of his collections, and this is one called The Figure a Poem Makes.

Scholars and artists thrown together are often annoyed at the puzzle of where they differ.  Both work from knowledge; but I suspect they differ most importantly in the way their knowledge is come by.  Scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic; poets theirs cavalierly and as it happens in and out of books.  They stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.  No acquirement is on assignment, or even self-assignment.  Knowledge of the second kind is much more available in the wild free ways of wit and art.  A school boy may be defined as one who can tell you what he knows in the order in which he learned it.

            I differ here with Frost in seeing the two as opposed.  I see them in interaction.  That at least is how I have experienced them.  What you get from the world beyond school enlivens and motivates your search in school; and what you get within school enriches and illuminates your experience outside and after school.  Let me give two very specific, concrete examples.

Some twenty years ago I worked for a community organization on the south side of Chicago.  For reasons not worth explaining except that they were pure happenstance I acquired responsibility for the preparation of a business Plan and a pro forma budget for a construction company.  $250,000 had been set aside in two federal agencies as capital funds for this construction company, and the release of the $250,000 required the preparation of the plan and the budget.  I had no idea whatsoever what a pro forma budget was and only the faintest idea of what went into a business plan. But I had two little epiphanies that made the two exercises a lot easier and indeed kind of enjoyable.

In the matter of the business plan, I realized that it was essentially a highly stylized form of fiction.  In the matter of the pro forma budget, I realized that it was similar in a number of respect to composing a poem.  It entailed a certain discipline of expression; it alternated between concealment and revelation; and it created a world of its own.  In the end, I just had to make sure the fictional world of the business plan accorded with the poetic world of the budget.  Apparently it did, because the agency got the money.  What happened after the money was released is another story that unfortunately I cant tell for fear of a libel suit.

In subsequent years, I made part of my living by writing proposals, and it was always made easier by keeping in mind the idea of a proposal as a stylized form of fiction.  And thats neither as flippant nor as cynical as it sounds.  Because I am using fiction in its literary sense, which means we are talking about reality rendered in some interesting alternative way.  I am reminded of Ambrose Bierces definition of a saint as a dead sinner, revised and edited.  Proposal writing takes live reality and revises and edits it so that it fits the particular illusions and aspirations of a funding source.

My second example dates from 1982 when I worked for Adlai Stevensons campaign for governor.  I was asked one day to go over to the Chicago Teachers Union and pick up an envelope.  It turned out to be a $5,000 check the CTUs contribution to the Stevenson campaign.  That one act made me realize that in spite of the fact that part of my campaign responsibilities lay in the realm of educational policy, I really didnt know very much about education.  When the campaign was over, I decided to undertake a personal inquiry into education that turned out to last about 18 months.  Having access to the University of Chicago library, I began walking around in the education area of the stacks and was so appalled by the number of books on education that I decided to measure them.

So the next time I went to the library, I brought along a tape measure and I calculated that there were 10,300 linear feet of shelved books on the subject of education.  How then to make the task manageable?  Initially I just walked around and picked out books that looked interesting.  After a period of three months, I got enough into the subject to frame a single organizing question that then disciplined the rest of the 15 months of the inquiry.  That question was:  Why has the history of American educational reform been so uniformly disappointing in its results?  It partakes of the quality of a good question because it can never be fully and adequately answered.  And what had happened, of course, was that I had become a student of American educational reform.

Thats the end of the second, personal story.  I must say, Im more than a little surprised by it.  Ive never seen my own history in terms of a metronomic alternation between Doing Stuff and then going back and thinking about it or acquiring the skills to think about it in a better or at least different way.

In the first story, I partitioned human history into two eras, Before School and After School.  My point was that in the AS era, we have evolved a system in education, at the core of which is a bad theory with a bad attitude.

I need to emphasize two effects of this system.  One, it blunts the individual students sense of personal responsibility, motive and interest.  Not completely, of course, and all these generalizations have exceptions.  But the systemic tendency is always toward this result, because it tells people what to do.  So it blunts precisely those aspects of the individual self that make for durable learning.

Second, it breeds disrespect for the very thing it nominally worships: knowledge. This is the result of our testing/grading system.  Because that system says, in very clear unambiguous terms, that the student is only responsible for demonstrating competence in the skill or command of the material until the final test is over.  The operating currency of schools is grades; grades are proxies for the skills and knowledge content and in time they have come to be substitutes for those skills and that content.  Grades are the supreme value within school; and what they stand for the actual knowledge is by contrast, not considered of durable value.

So were back to that majestic irony, which I now render is a slightly different way: The system nominally dedicated to individual empowerment and the enhancement of knowledge disempowers the learner and discredits what is to be learned.  Thats the big pickle that weve got ourselves into, as a society:  How do we unravel this system that is so antithetical to real and durable learning?


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