Learning, Anarchism, and Faith

The blurb for my talk tomorrow runs this way:

Education: An Anarchist Approach
Cultural assumptions try to enforce understandings about education relative to age segregation, instruction vs inquiry, grading, the learning environment, seasonal attendance and separation of religion from the rest of the learning process. Radical allegiance to Jesus’ way obliges us to reckon with a richer, more complicated and demanding perspective on education than simple alternatives of “public or private.” A.K.M. Adam (AKMA) will discuss the education system from the perspective of his work in both church and seminary institutions, and as a home-schooling parent. He looks forward to a lively discussion on ways anarchic Christians might envision and practice education in a setting where participants can learn from one another.

What I actually plan to say involves connections among several of my familiar themes and some observations I don’t repeat quite as frequently. I’ll be wobbling between first-person singular and plural throughout, since Margaret and I share ideas and practices relative to formal and informal education (not that she’d agree with everything I say, but that the things I say aren’t neatly extricable from our collaborative teaching).

Who we are: My (our) approach to teaching derives from a wide variety of experiences, our own and our families’. My grandfather taught at a prep school and a college; my father, private school and college; my father-in-law has taught high school, and is always in demand for teaching adult learners about his areas of interest; I’ve taught in a private elementary school, college, and graduate programs. Margaret and I are public school grads, with heaps of years of study in college and graduates programs. We’ve TA’ed for others, and I’ve supervised TAs. We have pursued topics in which we were interested on our own, without institutional guidance. And we home-schooled our three children, each in a different way.

So we bring a lot of experience to the topic, but relatively little expertise (in the sense of “things we learned about teaching from academic experts”). That engenders blind spots in our approaches, but it permits some strengths as well; we try to pay respectful attention to what we can learn from the experts, while we also grant considerable authority to our first-hand observations as learners and teachers.

My own reasoning about education is powerfully colored by the situations and experiences from which I’ve learned the most. I learned a lot about comedy, for instance, from watching movies with my father and talking through the details of what makes them funny (or not), and from reading about W. C. Fields. I learned a lot about probability theory because I was intrigued by baseball statistics and, in an era that did not yet know the term “sabermetrics” I spent hours calculating, theorizing, comparing, in order to ascertain more precisely what constituted sound strategy, at the same time that I teetered on the verge of failing high-school math courses. (That familiarity with probability theory has influenced practically everything I’ve thought since those days lying behind the sofa with Earnshaw Cook’s Percentage Baseball. I’ve learned from famous and relatively-little-known professors in lectures, and I’ve had the privilege of sitting in seminars with several of the outstanding theologians of the 20th century, arguing with them as though we were equals.

Autodidact, Pupil, and Learner: Ways of learning differ in their qualities and effects, and differ in how different people take to them. An autodidact — as I was, when it comes to baseball statistics — has the freedom to follow leads and construct arguments that haven’t been pre-digested by the institutional parents who instruct us what follows from what, what counts and what’s just ridiculous. On the other hand, the autodidact risks falling prey to misapprehensions that no teacher has had the opportunity to explain and correct. The pupil — the docile consumer of an instructor’s structured knowledge — can often progress further in settings that rely on institutional knowledge, but they relatively easily succumb to the temptation to regard their institutional experience as an absolute horizon of fact and wisdom. Much as I learned about probability theory on my own, or about the Old Testament from Brevard Childs, I think I have learned best from intense deliberative argument with my friends; the communal setting, with the mutual obligations of respect and politeness but also of demanding the best of one’s colleagues, nurtures thinking (not “free” thinking exactly, but not thinking under the manipulative control of a Teacher) and seeks the greatest strengths and most dangerous weaknesses of ideas. That atmosphere provides a nearly ideal setting for learning, so far as I can tell.

Learning Ecology: We take cues from our environments about how we should respond to others; the setting of education can support or militate against rich learning. Sometimes we couch this in terms of “expectations”; we hear that students of whom teachers ask much often demonstrate more impressive achievements than those whom their teachers assume not to be capable of outstanding work (witness a score of movies from Stand and Deliver and Dead Poets’ Society back to To Sir, With Love and numerous others). At the same time, some contextual signals can frustrate teaching and learning, while others facilitate teaching and learning. The obvious class-based differences in test performance (and the idea of “test performance” itself) provide one example; at a more subtle level, though, the effects of gender on students’ work in science and engineering studies illustrates a far-reaching phenomenon of which particular, more local instances can affect learning even more strongly (and less subject to amelioration, since they don’t lend themselves to Major Grants). Where is the classroom located, and what does it suggest about how the school, the teacher, and the wider culture regard the value of what gets done there?

Signifying Practices: My concern about learning ecology impels me to press the question of “What do we want to say with the ways we teach?” When we assign our children to institutional structures that divide them into manageable divisions of age and, sometimes, alleged “ability,” of differentiated fields of knowledge, and then tell them that nine months of this experience are compulsory, but that three months constitute a libeation from learning — what are we teaching them? When we determine in advance that every normal eleven-year-old will attain proficiency in these areas in this sequence taught according to that curriculum, what effects can we reasonably anticipate? When we constitute for our children a primary social group of other children mostly their own age, what behavior and inclinations can we suppose that they will reflect? And what do all of these characterizations suggest that the culture we inhabit thinks about education?

I’ll follow up all that with some discussion of how we ended up home-schooling Nate, Si, and Pippa. We didn’t so much intend to be home-schooling pioneers in our communities as we fell into it. Each child responded (responds) to our efforts in a particular way, and we try to respond to each. At the same time, not every parent will take up home schooling, and not every teacher has the opportunity to teach just three students (or the obligation to take responsibility for their learning in so vast a range of fields). What, then, shall we do?

That’s pretty much the skeleton of what I expect to say. It’s none of it original; I’m a dreadful magpie of other people’s ideas, which I then assimilate and reconfigure to suit my own reflective purposes. But it’s how I anticipate beginning my conversation with anarchist Christians tomorrow, anyway.

4 thoughts on “Learning, Anarchism, and Faith

  1. Yay for this AKMA! And as for being a dreadful magpie of other’s ideas, do you means to say that you are actually a good student too?

    Do let us know how the talk goes. Maybe the anarchists will set up a wiki so we can all weigh in.


  2. Sounds interesting. I’ve gotten fascinated with education over the last two years as I’ve thought about how we might teach our 2 sons and also through my enrollment in the ESL teaching program at Duke.

    Have you had any chance to become familiar with the work of John Taylor Gatto? He was a multi-time teacher of the year in NYC public schools and eventually left the system due to his revulsion to the public school system. He has a lot of rather subversive things to say about the way public education is done in our country. One of his books is available for free online if you ever want to look into it.

    Gatto has quite a lot to say specifically toward questions like those you pose under “Signifying Practices.”

  3. Thanks for all this good stuff and trust the talk went well. Much of this debate looks rather different from a UK (and, specifically, English) perspective, but I am just weighing up my next job move with options for (home) schooling very much in mind, so not too different!
    I am posting a link to your stuff from my new blog at paultrathen.blogspot.com

    Go well!

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