The Purpose of Public Education

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Paulo Friere would be horrified if he had lived to see the passing of the “No Child Left Behind” act, and the Orwellian misnomer that the name itself turned out to be. If the standard of education is to prepare students for a, “self-managed life” (Aronowitz, 2009, p. ix), then the modern, industrialized method of education is failing all of its students, regardless of what their GPA may be.

The No Child Left Behind Act was supposed to hold all school districts to a standard, in the same way the FDA holds standards to our drugs. The theory is that the chemicals we put in our body should have to be verified in their efficacy, lest we devolve into the atavistic Snake Oil Salesman of the 1800s. The problem is that education is not a chemical, and students are not molecules. A common criticism of No Child Left Behind is an “emphasize standardized testing” (Nelson). As an educator myself who has taught ESL students for four years in China, I would agree that standardized testing is less than useless at forming adults who can think and reason critically, who can, “become aware of the forces that have hitherto ruled their lives” (Aronowitz, 2009, p. ix). In fact, if one wants to see what a focus on standardized testing leads to, China is a good place to start.

China is a country focused on tests. Your entire future is determined by the GaoKao: one test taken at the end of high school that determines what college you can attend. It is often said that the questions themselves have no relation to proving the test-taker can think critically or reason. Google yields numerous articles about “crazy gaokao questions”, mocking the seemingly arbitrary-ness of the answers. In fact, a critical thinker who was educated to Friere’s standards would fail this test by the simple act of trying to think. This is why much of the public education in China that is focused around the GaoKao is based on rote memorization. “This is the question, this is the answer,” teachers will say. “Do not concern yourself with why it is, but accept that it is”. The why and how do not matter. There is no discovery process or thinking involved. Human beings become algorithms, like the androids of West World who are forbidden to question who pulls the strings and why, and only live to study to work in the 996 life that leaves no room for questioning, only  consumption. Take this example:



There is no intellectual reasoning to be had to obtain an answer for most students. Because this is not taught in a way where one learns Geography, Meteorology, Astronomy and, like a detective, pieces the knowledge together into a cohesive whole, which might pass Fiere’s muster. No, instead, much of Chinese public school is based on the thinking of Wang, who said students “aren’t capable of understanding the meaning of texts and should not bother learning algebra or science. Instead, the key to a solid foundation for a child’s future lies in the memorization … Interpreting and understanding these texts should not just be neglected, but forbidden outright until the age of 13,” (Yiwen).

I align myself more with the philosophy of Fiere than Wang. As a teacher, I still have to find excuses for how my lessons adhere to the new Common Core–but anyone who had to write a memo in business-speak knows how to play the type of language games Orwell criticized in his land-mark essay “Politics and the English Language”, and can “synergize team-building via electronic communication to foster inter-department cohesion” (i.e. send an email to a co-worker). But I do not let it dictate my methods. I teach a unit on debate and logical fallacies. Students write a belief they have, followed by looking up information from the opposing view and then writing a paper from that perspective. Then, we learn about logical fallacies and cognitive biases (certainly the types of things that Fiere thought were “the forces that have hitherto ruled their lives and especially shaped their consciousness”) (Aronowitz, 2009, p. ix), and they re-analyze their thoughts. Where did their initial belief come from? Was it from a fallacy of “appealing to tradition” or “appealing to popularity”? Most of my students had never considered how they came to believe what they believed. I talk about Pavlov and conditioning and Skinner. We analyze media for subtext: “What is the message that this show communicates? Why does the creator of this show want to communicate this? Why do the network want this communicated to you?” Fiere knew that education that was industrialized was a method of control, not a method of enlightenment. Again, I can think of no clearer example of this than my time teaching in China.

I do a unit on Orwell and Animal Farm, and in this unit, every week, students read a news story–the same news story–as told from three different sources and compare how they report them: Do they use loaded adjectives, or downplay atrocities with euphemisms? Do they use the passive voice to subtly disconnect corrupt act from their actors? Do they omit, or make false conjectures (causation/correlation fallacies)? If there are differences, why are they there? One such example was about the protests in Hong Kong. Three sources (South China Morning Post, China Global Times, and BBC) report on an event in wildly different ways.

One student did not pick up on the fact that the China Global Times article reported that, “The bill followed a series of riots from radical protesters in Yuen Long district, including one on July 21 which injured 45 people,” conveniently omitting that the violence and riots were caused by (suspected) government-supporting triads against the protesters, and that the attackers were seen shaking hands with pro-CCP law men after leaving the metro. Their response was “Hong Kong has always been a place with a lot of topics, which makes the original matter even more confusing (especially for a chinese [sic] people).” And of course, that is all their response could be, because that is all that it was allowed to be. Because, as Fiere points out, politics and corporate interests are not interested in educated citizens. Educated citizens are not malleable. They question too much. If the No Child Left Behind Act, and the methods it employs, manages to be more than a passing fad, then the only answers students will be able to give to deep questions about life will be “It doesn’t look like anything to me.