Alfie Kohn’s latest collection of essays, Feel-Bad Education; and Other Contrarian Essays on Children and Schooling (Boston: Beacon, 2011) was one of the books I read while on vacation in Michigan last week. Kohn as been writing “contrarian” books on schooling and childcare for going on two decades now, and anyone who has read his previous work will find little of surprise in this latest volume, which contains mostly previously-published pieces from between 2004-2010. However, for those of us who don’t subscribe to the wide variety of education periodicals he wrote them for, this book is a great opportunity to sit down and read them in one sitting (and not on the internets!).
I’m not sure how Kohn reads to a skeptic. Ever since devouring his No Contest (1989) and Punished By Rewards (1993) as a teenager, I’ve been following Kohn’s work, which dovetails more or less with my own understanding of human motivation, effective learning, and what it means to live the good life. In other words, when it comes to me he’s preaching to the converted. However, I suspect that Kohn might be one of those authors who — while fitting in very well with the philosophy of self-directed education I prefer — is able to speak about radical childcare and pedagogy without reflexively alienating those who choose more mainstream (institutional) forms of education and childcare. In large part because unlike many other activists in this area, he hasn’t given up on schools as institutions, and continues to believe that teachers within the system of formal education can implement more holistic modes of facilitating learning.
The essays are organized thematically, but all more or less stand on their own. A few specific essays stood out in my own estimation, and I thought I’d use the remainder of this post to highlight those. I encourage you to read the book yourself and find the ones that speak to you! (When I’ve been able, I’ve linked to the online versions of these articles found at Kohn’s website)
In the first section, Progessivism and Beyond, is the essay “Getting-Hit-On-the-Head Lessons,” which argues that the “better get used to it” argument for saddling young children with unappealing tasks (as preparation for, it seems, an adulthood of drudgery) is based in some pretty faulty assumptions about how human beings cope with what my friends and I sometimes refer to as the “fuck my life” experiences of living:
This leads us to the most important, though rarely articulated, assumption on which BGUTI [better-get-used-to-it] rests – that, psychologically speaking, the best way to prepare kids for the bad things they’re going to encounter later is to do bad things to them now. I’m reminded of the Monty Python sketch that features Getting Hit on the Head lessons. When the student recoils and cries out, the instructor says, “No, no, no. Hold your head like this, then go, ‘Waaah!’ Try it again” – and gives him another smack. Presumably this is extremely useful training . . . for getting hit on the head again.
But people don’t really get better at coping with unhappiness because they were deliberately made unhappy when they were young. In fact, it is experience with success and unconditional acceptance that helps one to deal constructively with later deprivation. Imposing competition or standardized tests or homework on children just because other people will do the same to them when they’re older is about as sensible as saying that, because there are lots of carcinogens in the environment, we should feed kids as many cancer-causing agents as possible while they’re small to get them ready.
To me, the BGUTI principle extends beyond homework to such experiences as fraternity pledging, street harassment, and the grueling experience of medical school residency rotations. BGUTI is basically just hazing … for life. It reminds me of a recent post my friend Molly @ first the egg wrote about the willingness of adults to minimize the suffering they experienced at the hands of bullies when they were children, because they feel like somehow the bullying experience made them stronger.
In section three, Climate & Connections: How Does School Feel to the Students? there is a delightfully insightful essay titled “The Value of Negative Learning,” in which Kohn ponders what it takes to make a radical educational activist — given that the majority of contrarian educators themselves grew up within the mainstream mode of education. He writes:
So how is it that some folks emerge with an understanding that traditional education is unhealthy for children and other living things, and with some insight about why that’s true (and what might make more sense instead), and with a commitment to show the rest of us a better way? How did they get here from there?
I suspect the key is a phenomenon that might be called “negative learning,” in which people regard an unfortunate situation as a chance to figure out what not to do. They sit in awful classrooms and pay careful attention because they know they’re being exposed to an enormously useful anti-model. They say to themselves, “Here is someone who has a lot to teach me about how not to treat children.” Some people perfect this art of negative learning while they’re still in those environments; others do it retrospectively, questioning what was done to them earlier even if they never thought – or were unable – to do so before. Some people do it on their own; others need someone to lend them the lens that will allow them to look at things that way.
Of course, a mind-numbing, spirit-killing school experience doesn’t reliably launch people into self-actualization, intellectual curiosity, or a career in alternative education. If it did, we’d want everyone to live through that. Nontraditional educators had to beat the odds, and they’ve set themselves the task of improving those odds for other children, creating places where the learning doesn’t have to be by negative example.
As someone who survived college in large part by intellectualizing the experience (there was good classroom learning and not-so-good classroom learning, but regardless I was taking mental notes on the culture of institutional learning) I was drawn to his image of the survivor as one who learns from the negative … but refuses to interpret that learning as necessary (the BGUTI argument). Rather, the “negative learner” never loses their sense of perspective: their belief that there can, and will be, other ways of growing. And the negative learner who turns into a social justice activist is the person who steps beyond questions of their own personal well-being and asks, “how can I make the world a better place for others too?”
In the final section, Beyond the Schools: Psychological Issues & Parenting, Kohn expands on the idea of unconditional acceptance as a path toward learning and social responsibility. The book-length version of this argument may be found in his book Unconditional Parenting (2005). My favorite article in this section was one called “Why Self-Discipline is Overrated.” The idea of self-discipline or self-regulation is one that often finds adherents in both conservative and liberal circles. Kohn argues that behind the rhetoric can often lie internalized feeling of inadequacy and anxiety that undermine true learning:
More generally, self-discipline can be less a sign of health than of vulnerability. It may reflect a fear of being overwhelmed by external forces, or by one’s own desires, that must be suppressed through continual effort. In effect, such individuals suffer from a fear of being out of control.
He suggests that the reflexive fall-back of encouraging self-discipline as a moral value, even within otherwise liberal-progressive-radical (whatever-the-shit-label-we’re-using-today) circles undermines the very view of human nature that many WTSLWUT individuals would consciously espouse:
What’s interesting about all this is how many secular institutions and liberal individuals, who would strenuously object to the notion that children are self-centered little beasts that need to be tamed, nevertheless embrace a concept that springs from just such a premise. Some even make a point of rejecting old-fashioned coercion and punishment in favor of gentler methods. But if they’re nevertheless engaged in ensuring that children internalize our values – in effect, by installing a policeman inside each child – then they ought to admit that this isn’t the same thing as helping them to develop their own values, and it’s diametrically opposed to the goal of helping them to become independent thinkers. Control from within isn’t inherently more humane than control from without, particularly if the psychological effects aren’t all that different, as it appears they aren’t.
Even beyond the vision of human nature, a commitment to self-discipline may reflect a tacit allegiance to philosophical conservatism with its predictable complaint that our society — or its youth — has forgotten the value of hard work, the importance of duty, the need to accept personal responsibility, and so on. (Never mind that older people have been denouncing youthful slackers and “modern times” for centuries.) And this condemnation is typically accompanied by a prescriptive vision that endorses self-denial and sarcastically dismisses talk about self-exploration or self-esteem.
I hope that with these snippets of pieces I’ve whet your appetite for more, even if it’s only so that you go and read the whole piece in order to argue with it!
Stop back in this time next week for something a little fluffier reviewed: Napoleon … with dragons!
The Goldfish said:
Thanks so much for this. It's been a very heavy going eighteen months or so, and this is the first time in ages that I've read a review of something that I am now excited to read. Straight on my Amazon wishlist!