Active Accountability and the Purpose of Education

The latest guest post on Teacher Voice is written by Dr. Joel W. Gingery, PharmD. He is a retired clinical pharmacist who has since gone on to become a public education advocate. He is a current member of the St. Petersburg NAACP Education Committee, which focuses on economic and educational development in south St. Pete within Pinellas County.

Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel. – Plutarch

Imagine: You’re in New York City on the fifth floor of the The Museum of Modern Art, looking at Le Domoiselles d’Avignon by Pablo Picasso.  Picasso is a Spanish artist, but he’s in Paris when he paints this.  The title translates to ‘The Young Ladies of Avignon’, which refers to a street that’s not in France but is in Barcelona and associated with prostitution. What we’re looking at is a brothel.

Prostitutes
Le Domoiselles d’Avignon – Pablo Picasso

Les Domoiselles d’Avignon is one of the monumental works in the genesis of modern art. The painting, almost 8 ft x 8 ft square, depicts five naked prostitutes in a brothel; two of them push aside curtains around the space where the other women strike seductive and erotic poses—but their figures are composed of flat, splintered planes rather than rounded volumes, their eyes are lopsided or staring or asymmetrical, and the two women at the right have threatening masks for heads. The space, too, which should recede, comes forward in jagged shards, like broken glass. In the still life at the bottom, a piece of melon slices the air like a scythe.

In its brutal treatment of the body and in its clashes of color and style, Les Domoiselles d’Avignon marks a radical break from traditional composition and perspective.

For many art historians, this painting is seen as a break with 500 years of European painting that begins with the Renaissance.  It is a reaction to the oppressiveness with which post-Renaissance culture, its mannerisms, the Baroque neoclassicism, the academies of the nineteenth century, all weighed on the contemporary artist.  This painting is the foundation on which Cubism is built.

 

Picasso Self-Portrait
Pablo Picasso – Self Portrait – 1907

Picasso was one of the greatest and most influential artists of the twentieth century.   He is the inventor of collage, but, most of all, he is associated, along with Georges Braque, with pioneering cubism.  Considered radical in his work, he made use of any and every medium.

His total artistic output has been estimated at 50,000 separate works:  1,885 paintings; 1,228 sculptures; 2,880 ceramics, roughly 12,000 drawings; and multiple other works, including tapestries and rugs.  Picasso continues to be revered for his technical mastery, visionary creativity and profound empathy.

Picasso was born on October 25, 1881, in Málaga, Spain, into a middle class family.  His father was a painter and art teacher who specialized in naturalistic depictions of birds and other game.  Picasso expressed his artistic talents early.   At age 16 he was admitted to the most prestigious art school in Spain.   But he detested the formal training, and, shortly after arriving, he left the school to make his way on his own.  Picasso would have never become the creative visionary that he became by continuing in formal schooling.   The only way for him to become ‘Picasso’ was out of school.

The Purpose of Education

In 1911, about the same time Picasso painted Le Domoiselles, Fredrick Winslow Taylor stated in his book “Principles of Scientific Management” that the duty of enforcing standards of work rests “with management alone.”  This attitude still permeates most of our organizations, whether we realize it or not.

Taylor felt that only management had the right and ability to see the big picture and make decisions.  This “command and control” mentality proved more effective when businesses were organized as hierarchies.  When the work is routine and only requires obedience, compliance, and perseverance, it is the type of work that is easily automated.

In today’s inter-connected, networked enterprise, everyone has to see their portion of the system and make appropriate decisions of their own.  Their work increasingly deals with more complex tasks that require creativity, curiosity, empathy, humor, and passion; the type of work that is difficult to automate and humans are good at.

A new skill set and mindset is required.  Employees need to learn how to be more adaptable, courageous, and resilient, as well as how to connect, collaborate, influence and inspire others.   More importantly, a sense of curiosity and thirst for learning and innovation is essential.

Unfortunately, many of our educational institutions are not sufficiently preparing learners for this new world of work; of shifting learner attitudes and mindsets from passive entitlement to active accountability.

To compound the situation, in our naivete’, we supported accountability initiatives that demand standardization. We asked:  “How can we hold schools, teachers, students, parents, etc., accountable, so they’ll give kids the education we want them to get?”

The result has been a rigid, technocratic, highly systematized and numbers-driven approach to reform, built on big new bureaucracies, costing millions to grind out and analyze countless billions of data points whose connection to children’s real educational success is tenuous at best.

Designed as they are to make the public education system dysfunctional, is it any wonder that these accountability systems fail?  They are impersonal and unresponsive to the real needs of real people. People are curious, interested creatures, who posses a natural love of learning; who desire to internalize the knowledge, customs and values that surround them.

These evolved tendencies for people to be curious, interested, and seek coherence of knowledge, would seem to be resources to be cultivated and harnessed by educators as they guide learning and development.

Too often, however, educators introduce external controls, close supervision and monitoring, that create distrustful learning environments. Essentially, they reflect external pressures on teachers that motivation is better shaped by external reinforcement than by facilitating students’ inherent interest in learning. Under such controlling conditions, however, the feelings of joy, enthusiasm, and interest that once accompanied learning are frequently replaced by feelings of anxiety, boredom, or alienation. They create the self fulfilling prophesy so evident in many classrooms, whereby students no longer are interested in what is taught, and teachers must externally control students to “make” learning occur.

America needs to rethink what it really wants from schools.

Answering this question takes creativity and insight, and courage, because answering requires us to rethink who we are and what it means to be human.

If we are truly passionate about an education system that supports the development of a learning environment in which the learner can grow into his or her highest future potential, we need to challenge ourselves to explore the reality of our situation and follow through with the appropriate action.

Half a century ago James Baldwin warned against this giving in to the tendency to minimize its importance: “This collision between one’s image of oneself and what one actually is is always very painful and there are two things you can do about it, you can meet the collision head-on and try and become what you really are or you can retreat and try to remain what you thought you were, which is a fantasy, in which you will certainly perish.”

Education is by and for the people. People whose purposes in life can’t be standardized or captured in numbers and technocratic systems.  People who are embedded in a bewildering variety of relationships and communities that shape who they are and what their lives mean. People who cannot be the one-size-fits-all interchangeable cogs that our technocratic, educational accountability systems need them to be to function.

Thanks for reading, everyone. As always, if you’d like to be a guest contributor to the Teacher Voice project (or discuss education issues on the podcast), please email me at 1teachervoice@gmail.com.

 

 

 

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