“it was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment . . . . “

Give this a view (and a listen):

I really like this little “animate” of Sir Kenneth Robinson talking about the challenges facing our contemporary system of education (from K-12 to higher ed), but I was left wondering about his characterization of curricular standardization as a legacy of both the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution (you’ll hear it around 2:05).

I understand and agree with his point (made many times by others) about standardization as a consequence of industrial theories of organization, but I’m not clear how educational theorists like Locke or Rousseau could be blamed for this.  In many respects, Robinson’s pedagogical agenda, in its insistence on following the individual pupil’s rate of learning, is at least as reminiscent of Rousseau’s Emile as it is Dewey’s critique.  I was also intrigued by his notion that the (unspoken?) assumptions driving Enlightenment theories of education reflected an “intellectual model of the mind” focusing exclusively on “deductive reasoning” and “knowledge of the classics,” assumptions that will quickly divide students into an academic elite of “smart people” and a much larger group of “non-smart people.”  What’s more, such assumptions persist, zombie-like, in our contemporary obsession with high-stakes testing of cheaply delivered, testable content, “student tracking,” and curricula based on a lockstep progression of students into an industrial workforce.  And he shows, without much difficulty, how very different the (advanced, post-industrial?) world is from the assumptions in which the current system is formed.

As someone who agrees with much of this diagnosis of contemporary education, and who witnesses how it has played out in my state’s system, I think there’s a lot of value to this critique. (I do wonder how to scale up the kinds of interactions he calls for, to maintain the educational access that everyone says they want).

But without expecting too much from a thought-provoking cartoon, I’d still like to think about the Sir Ken’s characterization of the “intellectual culture of the Enlightenment” (if there is such a thing): does it really foster a reductive notion of the mind and its capacities, and does it really divide education into academic and non-academic tracks?  Another way to put this question is to ask whether practices like standardized assessments of learning represent yet another legacy of Enlightenment theories of mind, or something that the historical Enlightenment could teach us how to critique?



4 responses to ““it was conceived in the intellectual culture of the Enlightenment . . . . “

  1. Anna Battigelli

    Now that is entertaining. But despite some trenchant points, the anemic understanding of enlightenment education as dryly rational and merely logic-driven is problematic. I’m not sure that the binaries he uses hold up.

    I can imagine a very different piece criticizing the culture of mindless praise that produces similarly mindless “divergent thinking” as a problem in itself. I think we want *both* rigorous analytical capacity *and* the capacity for independent and creative thought (or, to use his term, divergent thinking).

    The map of ADHD diagnoses, with its high east-coast concentration, is interesting.

  2. Dave Mazella

    It’s strange to me, Anna, because I’m not sure where these kinds of caricatures of Enlightenment thought come from. The notion of a “dryly rational” and “logic driven” 18th century, so far as I know, has been a staple of retrospective accounts of “Romanticism,” but I suppose that any generalization along these lines is vulnerable. But no, I think that the culprit here is industrialization rather than the rationality of Enlightenment thought, though I suppose you could say that one couldn’t exist without the other.

    The more interesting question, though, is Sir Ken’s “divergent thinking,” and how we might recognize and encourage the genuine and valuable aspects of this mode of thought. (obviously, a perennial issue in education) As far as I can tell, it’s a variation on the hoary old notion of “critical thinking,” but with an explicit acknowledgment that creative and critical thinking are mutually constitutive. (We can’t criticize something unless we can imagine and fully articulate alternatives, either intuitively or systematically) But it seems that many of the attempts to isolate and foster “critical thinking” in education, esp. at the K-12 level, have produced faux-concepts and make-work. There’s been quite a bit of work on “metacognition” in educational psychology and pedagogy, but as you might have seen in my earlier exchange with Laura, much of the discussion remains at the level of, “I like when it happens with my students, but I don’t quite know why or how it develops.” But I think that many 18c writers were highly self-aware about these paradoxes surrounding critique and its battles with various forms of collective “error.”

    To get back to the video, the strangest thing is how Sir Ken does not recognize that past thought may very well offer its own conceptual resources for “divergent thinking” about the present. This is probably a disciplinary issue. But I spend a lot of time in the classroom trying to undo the effects of other people’s instruction.

  3. I saw this video earlier in the week, sent from someone at my son’s school. It must be on its way to viral.

    I’m currently working on a project on 18c education, so this conversation is very interesting to me. Instead of claiming the the factory model of education either arose from _or_ was countered by the Enlightenment, I’d say that the 18c struggled with many issues similar to our own, despite (and this is an the important caveat) the much smaller scale of education then. Pedagogical texts of the period wrestle with concepts of disciplinarity, the role of education in real life, curricular change (from the classics to, as in the dissenting academies, a practical education), information overload and perhaps mostly, how to get those darned kids to settle down and work. The problem of distraction, even descriptions of physical wiggling, is discussed again and again. The cultural history of ADHD needs to be written.

    I’m distracting myself here, taking a moment for this blog from a paper I’m whittling down for presentation this week at the MLA on Robert Dodsley’s famous textbook, The Preceptor. This book, intending to encompass in two volumes all one needed to be educated, is based on specific, disparate disciplines–its twelve areas, ranging from reading & writing to geometry to political science to ethics to sociology (not in these terms, see http://bit.ly/fLRceT), look much more like a modern liberal arts curriculum than an early modern quadrivium. In a certain sense, the idea that a book might cover All You Need to Know might seem to lead inexorably to standardized testing.

    Yet the preface to The Preceptor explains that it offers what others do not: “In examining the Treatises hitherto offered to the Youth of this Nation, there appeared none that did not fail in one or other of these essential Qualities; none that were not either unpleasing, or abstruse, or crouded with Learning very rarely applicable to the Purposes of common Life.” This is what Sir KB wants, right?–pleasing yet practical, not overly abstract. The Preceptor also claims to provide variety that will please students at multiple levels—it is “intended … to correspond with all Dispositions, and afford Entertainment for Minds of different Powers” which is why it “contain[s] Treatises on different Subjects.” So we start to see here the idea of individualizing students instead of grouping them into age-based classes of learning. Interestingly, this also implies that multi-disciplinarity emerges from the multiplicity of individuals instead of an a priori need for breadth or comprehension for each individual. But although this book addresses what is seen as “restless Desire of Novelty, which gives [teachers] so much Trouble” and claims that it is “better adapted to the great Design of pleasing by Instruction,” it also asserts that limits must be imposed on both entertainment as well as depth of knowledge (which in itself can become a form of entertainment) when one must be trained for a profession. The preface later explains that

    “the book is drawn up for Readers yet unexperienced in Life, and unable to distinguish the useful from the ostentatious or unnecessary Parts of Science, it is requisite that a very nice Distinction should be made, that nothing unprofitable should be admitted for the sake of Pleasure, nor any Arts of Attraction neglected, that might fix the Attention upon more important Studies. (xii)

    So while pleasure in learning is to be encouraged, the student properly trained for the middling sorts of jobs needs to know which learning will be _profitable_. This does seem a sort of precursor to industrialization. At the same time, Dodsley is aware that in this burgeoning age of the novel—an age in which the print trade itself has guaranteed that the multiple and all-too-pleasurable entertainment products for young readers are competing with more studious pursuits for their time and attention—the most important areas of knowledge must be made attractive.

    Of course, the idea of teaching through entertainments dates back at least to Locke, even somewhat to Comenius, but not wanting to take up anymore of your time and attention, I’ll stop here.

  4. Dave Mazella

    Well, wasn’t it Erasmus who doubted that Latin could be taught to schoolboys without the whippings? The resistance and distractability of the student seem to be perennial problems for educators, but I believe that the notion of a universal curriculum puts a lot more pressure on teachers than earlier, more stratified models of instruction. (see Grafton and Jardine on the complaints that the Humanists had about their unruly aristocratic pupils)

    To address your point about the Preceptor, I do think you’re correct that a curriculum like this seems to internalize the larger cultural tensions between a commercial society’s imperatives and those of an inherited tradition of learning. The preface’s point, if I understand you correctly, is that these competing imperatives must be synthesized and balanced in order for the pupil to succeed in such a social setting. The mediating term that allows this is “profitable,” which is surely significant, but we might as well say, “useful.” (utility would be my conceptual bridge between Enlightenment and industrialization)

    But yes, I agree that it is the scale and universal ambitions of modern projects of education that make it difficult to imagine more individualized forms of instruction.