Another Brick in the Toxic Wall
On Schools: From Augustine to The Ant Tribe
One of the best-known poems in the Chinese language, written during the Sui Dynasty (589-618) goes:
书中自有黄金屋 In books there is a golden house
书中自有颜如玉 In books there is a beautiful woman
This association between having education and enjoying wealth and status may come as news to a lot of broke, indebted graduates, including China’s own ant tribe (蚂蚁). Even so, the expensively educated tend to rise to the top of hierarchies around the world.
An education system is a nation’s way of building the society it wants. The ancient Spartans practiced eugenics at birth, killing any male child deemed weak or infirm. Those who survived were sent, at age seven, for thirteen years of brutal warrior training.
The Duke of Wellington was quoted as saying that The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton. But, as mentioned before in this series, education is often behind the times when it comes to producing leaders and brilliant minds. Much of the modern world was built by dropouts, from Charles Darwin and Henry Ford to the more recent examples of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg.
The Filling of a Pail
WB Yeats wrote that “education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire”. However, this principal often proves impossible to live up to. Schools, in their modern form, have their roots in the drive to produce obedient factory workers, showing up on time, dressing the right way, and responding to bells and other orders.
One of the most important and radical books on the subject is ‘Deschooling Society’ by Ivan Illich. In it, he observes that schools create dependence by teaching the need to be taught. He adds: “Most learning happens casually, and even most intentional learning is not the result of programmed instruction.”
On the first page, he lines out how schools confuse process with substance. Pupils are “schooled” to confuse grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new.
Augustine of Hippo’s ‘Confessions’, described by Wittgenstein as possibly the most serious book ever written, exclaims “Per molestias erudito”, “true education begins with physical abuse”. This principal carried through the Spanish Inquisition and still survives today. In all but two American states, corporal punishment is still legal in private schools.
One of my favourite books growing up was Roald Dahl’s childhood memoir ‘Boy’. In it, he writes:
“All through my school life I was appalled that masters and senior boys were allowed literally to wound other boys, and sometimes quite severely. I couldn’t get over it … Only a few did so, but that was quite enough to leave a lasting impression of horror upon me.”
I went to school in the 1990s when, although corporal punishment had recently been abolished, its legacy clung to the air. Many of the teachers were obviously damaged by it.
Sad Little Men
I went to a grammar school, the kind of institution notorious for churning out (and being staffed by) sad little men. As well as the occasional inspirational teacher whose legacy lives with you forever, there was the usual handful of pedants and perves.
This included a P.E teacher who was a walking, talking Daily Mail column that passed himself off as an educator. There was a Chemistry teacher called Gary Mogey who wore flamboyant waistcoats and bowties and, like a lot of people who go out of their way to look like a colourful character, was actually an obsequious, social-climbing weasel. On all my travels, I have never encountered anybody who had such a high opinion of themselves with so little supporting material.
There was a witless thug of a Design & Technology teacher called Paul Haworth, about whom the expression ‘small dick energy’ could have been invented. He was so tickled by having the power to punish people that he used it incessantly and with complete disregard for his duty of shaping young minds.
I left the school at the earliest opportunity. My choices of A-Level, Bachelor’s degree, and Master’s degree were all a case of following my star instead of getting trained for a profession, and despite trying my hand at a number of jobs, it happened that my only viable option when it came to a first post-graduate job was to be an English teacher in China.
The employer’s website stipulated that it was important to have a relaxed, outgoing personality to thrive. I had neither, but had to shoehorn myself in.
The Western staff lived in a mixed-sex dormitory similar to the Big Brother House in that it was mostly populated by the young, photogenic and hedonistic. Breaking the law was an everyday activity, whether it was watching pirated DVDs, working on a tourist visa, or walking down the street swigging a beer bottle. Beer was so cheap we could barely afford NOT to drink it.
Even though our job was ostensibly to train young people in a country whose industry was taking over the world, the pace of life was slow as the chocolate-coloured river that drifted past our workplace. Being ‘chilled out’ was routinely talked about as if it was the highest of all virtues, and discussing work outside work was punishable by having to down your drink.
For me, chilling out was not an option. Worst of all, I took it personally when kids messed around in my classroom, and (being more influenced by school than I cared to admit) saw it as some kind of insult to my manhood instead of kids being kids.
Through internal training, I managed to realise that getting kids to behave was mostly a science. I grew as a person, even though I was still very much a reluctant teacher. It was a bit like a version of ‘Mr. Holland’s Opus’ in which everyone was a promiscuous drunkard.
Martin Amis’ memoir ‘Experience’ posits the theory that the first thing most people do upon having children is to forgive their own parents for everything. Can the same be said for people who become teachers?
In ‘Confessions’, Augustine added that ‘many sins are committed by men weeping and groaning in their distress.’ My theory about characters like the aforementioned Paul Haworth is that his penchant for petty power plays stemmed from a deep-seated sense of inferiority. And the reason why he feels inferior to other people is that, well, he is inferior to other people.
The jealousy, the bitterness, the ridicule
In ‘Heart of the Original’, Steve Aylett points out that for some people, the experience of school is so toxic and unpleasant, they have to spend the rest of their lives recovering. And it is easy to succumb to what crooner David Gray referred to as the jealousy, the bitterness, the ridicule.
Every few years I encounter a sad little man. These are people who, though not necessarily male, behave in ways that reveal their upbringing. They can’t stand being interrupted, even when they have absolutely nothing to say, and every conversation is like a dick-measuring contest.
As Thomas Mann observed in the 1930s: “Whether I liked it or not, he was a brother – a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother…The relationship is painful to a degree. But I will not disclaim it.”
My tolerance of this behaviour has led me in some wrong directions. One of the most important friendships of my late twenties was with a PhD candidate who was like a Gary Mogey for my adult years, an overbearing cretin who thought that his tiny world (academia) was the world.
As for education, well it tends to move with the times eventually. In 1971, Ivan Illich concluded that the most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man (sic) the opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.
At that time, the technology that could make that happen was the stuff of science fiction. Now it is commonplace. Organisations have sprung up around the world to connect those who are able to teach with those with a desire to learn.
Who knows, institutions like this may make old modes obsolete, cut out much of the nonsense, and make teaching about the transmission of knowledge, instead of mindless obedience, and the promotion of sad little men into positions of authority.