…all my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.
Herman Melville Moby Dick
Thank goodness for the efficiency culture in which the purposeful classroom is extolled as a place free from ideological baggage. This is schooling that has reached some sort of ‘end of history’; where classroom doors are closed to the intellect in the name of unthinking behaviours in which all seems sane rather than as places for the madness of the ‘purposeless’ pursuit of wisdom.
In his book: John Dewey, Confucius, and Global Philosophy, Joseph Grange writes about a world where mere information holds sway:
Meaning would fade away and be replaced by data. The responsibility to carry out human judgement… would be traded in for the security of statistical analysis. Numbers would be substituted for argument and reason. Machines would make irrefutable decisions. Human beings would become resources to be quantified. Life would flatten out and intensity, depth, and width of experience would be lost.
This might work in an efficient branch of Tesco but should it be what a school is like? The purposeful classroom is a place for a stop gap, time and motion, approach. Mere information rather than the adventure given to minds in formation. Teachers in this environment succumb neither to the virtue signalling of the morally certain progressive or the fallen misery of the traditionalist where all are tainted by original sin. No longer an optimist or a pessimist be, these teachers work in the day to day and believe they are ideology free. Time is spent full of motion: activity, follows activity and the wasteful pursuit of academe, is replaced by the minutely measured approach of efficient delivery that can be computed, and incentive schemes for managers, teachers and pupils are devised.
What use the barricades? All has been won and lost in wars past. This classroom has pre-packed PURPOSE writ large. These teachers have no need to question anything because they know what they are for, they do things purposefully. But, just like walking quickly through corridors with piles of books can make you look efficient, the reality might be merely busy-busy and only seemingly sane because everyone else is doing the same.
In this atmosphere staff become unthinking consumers of get-a-fix-quick-kits that they find online and in books. To satisfy the managerial instrumentalism of their leaders, and the ever-soon-to-visit government inspector, they ensure their pupil surveys are full of smiley emojis. They have to ensure their targets are hit or surpassed… they have to create data showing that their charges are on target or being held to account. The teacher has their yearly appraisal and adds meaningful, measurable activity upon meaningful, measurable activity to satisfy success criteria to show that they are a productive member of staff.
An unexamined idea of what works becomes the ultimately unsatisfactory pastime of filling in time. With nothing more to guide than the perceived need to do something, anything, neither management or teacher can break beyond the idea of the efficiency born of the time and motion study. The view that a school is an academic institution, is jettisoned and replaced with the culture of an office, a business, a place of instant results. Instead of thinking about what it is to be, they collect initiatives and kite marks, and bring in ideas to keep people busy: Someone thinks student voice needs democratisation so they give pupils an inconsequential vote, someone else thinks cross-curricular project work is a good thing to bring in, so they do. Someone else feels mindfulness, and mindset will help. Someone else says taking working class underachieving boys to a production of Blood Brothers will be a good thing as it might increase attainment. Many an initiative comes and goes. Some people become head of initiative wotsit, the thrust of which seems to be in conflict with the head of initiative what’sup and the data collecting for both seems equally as burdensome. But as long as it works… and you know it works if it increases the number of emoji smiles the customers, sorry, pupils provide.
With teachers being seen as mere captains of industriousness teaching becomes a smorgasbord of guff. With emojis as capital pupils are forever entering into transactions with teachers: ‘But is this in the test?’ ‘Is this relevant to my chosen career as a wage slave?’ The teacher tries to justify their subject and the chosen topic in terms of its potential marketability: ‘teamwork and creativity’ replaces the joy and insight into the human condition. Instead of playing or listening to a Beethoven string quartet and grappling with the impossible task of trying to put into words what is not quite understood, music has to be understood straight away, explanation given, not felt, one direction of meaning rather than a little mix of uncertainty. A difficult reading of a great novel is replaced by the reading of an easier second rate one, because ‘our kids’ can’t and, after all, if we want to measure success by emojis rather than a never ending intelligent inquiry into human life in all its forms, then we need to have purpose.
Art is replaced by commercial concerns, which, to be fair, the contemporary art world itself models with depressing regularity.
What sort of world should school represent? Should it just prepare kids for a life of office drudgery – in which case it probably functions very well, or should it prepare youthful humanity to realise its higher possibilities? Should it expand the self or narrow the self? For many people school is the one chance to glimpse the possibilities that are both spiritual and temporal. This is Culture with a capital C, not as something contingent on bourgeois values but something, once released from that burden, as freeing of the intellect and the soul. This collective and individual endeavour sees teachers, as Isaiah Berlin put it, making a student :
…more at home in the intellectual world…
By ensuring that they have the:
capacity for rising to a clear perception of structures of thought and knowledge, of their similarities and differences, of their methods of discovery and invention and their criteria of truth and validity; above all a grasp of their central principles… what is novel and revolutionary in a discovery and what is development of existing knowledge that lifts men intellectually.
From this pupils can look at patterns, thoughts, artefacts, they can take part contemplatively or actively exploring that which is:
permanent or changing, buried in, or imposed on, the welter of experience, which philosophers have regarded as man’s highest attribute; but even if they are mistaken in this, it is surely not an unworthy goal for… education.
And this pursuit, should be a common pursuit, which in the end is far more efficient than that of the stop gap ‘what works’ collection of techniques to collect the highest number of emojis.