Joseph Ugoretz | February 13, 2010 | 12:05 am | Education as Cultural Marker | No comments

Education as a cultural marker.  That’s the theme of this unit.  I want to pick up on some of what we discussed in unit 1, and think more closely about what these different educational choices or pathways tell us about the cultures in which they’re embedded.

Let’s start with just that term–“embedded.”  It’s pretty common to think of education as “training” students in the culture in which they’re set.  That “common cultural background” is something that education promotes or dictates.  It’s where students get taught what is important, what is required, how to act, how to think, what to remember, what to do and what to ask.

But it’s also more complicated than that (as most things are).  Education doesn’t just teach or train culture, it reflects it and it actually forms it.  Students in school are not passive receptors, they are active creators–whether the school knows that or not.  So while school is training the students, students are also training the school (and the culture, and the world). School is an institution with its own culture, its own traditions, values, ideas, and ideologies.  And each school, of course, is different from the others.  (It might help here to think about–and research–the various changing definitions of that term “culture.”)

Can you think of some examples of how you’ve seen this happen?  Or done it yourself?  That could be something we get to in the forum or in your reflections.

And it goes even further.  We often talk about culture as if it were something singular or easily defined.  “I come from a different culture.”  “American culture is…” “Arab culture places a high value on…”But we are all builders, consumers, and critics of multiple cultures, at the same time.  Culture just about always has to be plural.

This is sometimes very clear, especially for people who (like many of you) are in the situation of changing cultures, negotiating differences, from your parents’ cultures, to your schools’, to your friends’, and onward.

Education is not just a cultural marker–it’s embedded in culture(s), and culture(s) are embedded in it.  In some of our readings for this unit, you might see examples (and I am sure you can recall your own) of how students make their own culture, sometimes without the school even being aware of it–or sometimes specifically because the school actively tries to prevent it.

But this, too, is learning.  Maybe it’s more important to have the ability (especially as cultures multiply and diverge in our current landscape) to trade and share and switch cultures as needed, than to have any kind of (maybe imaginary) “common ground.”

Friends and Frenemies
Joseph Ugoretz | February 13, 2010 | 12:04 am | Education as Cultural Marker | No comments

As we’re talking about school and cultures (or just school, or just culture), let’s not forget that neither school nor culture is an anonymous, impersonal force.  Culture and school are both made up of people.  And people, in all settings, interact with other people.  Schools, we’ve seen and discussed, may have official characters, defined rules and policies (even mission statements), but they also have unofficial, personal, socially-defined characters.

Friends?And a big part of that is connections among and between people.  In some of our readings for unit 1 (I’m thinking particularly of the chapter from Tom Sawyer), and in some of your reflections and forum posts, a theme I kept seeing was how friendships, or sometimes the lack thereof, are a defining feature of students’ experience of school.  Many of you talked of the social dimensions of your own educational histories, and your own educational presents.  Making friends, making enemies, being bullied, being a bully, falling in love, breaking up, gossip, team work and competition–all of these are more a part of the experience of school than anything that comes out of a textbook.  We’ll see this again in the readings for this unit.

Friends?In fact, it might be the fights and the friendships, the friends and the enemies (or frenemies) which we remember the most about school.  And isn’t this true about culture, too?  If we’re talking about each of us having (being embedded in, and having embedded within us) multiple cultures, we should also be talking about the groups (of people) which form those cultures.  And it’s not all cooperation and teamwork, either.  Many times what goes on in school is about competing or struggling with another group or another people, defining oneself and one’s culture in opposition to others.  That’s part of what I mean with “frenemies.”  Fighting with someone, for young people and even older people, is sometimes a way of showing affection, or it can become affection, or it can cement affections with others.

And there’s learning there, too (which is why we remember it).  When my daughter started kindergarten, years ago, her teacher told me that the main goal of kindergarten was not teaching kids to count or to read or to know their colors and shapes.  It was teaching them to interact with each other, not to grab, not to hit, how to sit still and stand in line.  And that’s just the teacher’s idea of the social learning that has to take place in that early year.  What went on at recess, what goes on in college dorms or chatrooms or hallways or bars or Starbuck’s–that might be where some very important education (and building of culture) really happens.

As we move to the future of education, as we start opening our classrooms to the wider (online?) world, we also will see new ways for the social, interpersonal part of schooling to work.  I think that humans are endlessly adaptable in getting what they need and finding new ways to create their social spheres.  We’ve talked about how the medium of writing, or the barrier of a computer screen, may interfere with human interaction.  But I think humans need that interaction, and we find a way to get it, even if it takes a different shape.  After all, even our discussion about the ways that writing or computers can interfere with human contact took place in writing on computers! And I think those were some fairly rich discussions, and I think there’s a type of human contact–even developing friendships–happening in this class.

Or if not in this class, at least other places online.  Online friends? Online enemies? Online frenemies?  Just as in “traditional” classroom, there is a “back-channel,” an unofficial culture, and we make it (or you do) among and between and against each other, and we learn from that, too.  So what shapes will school friendships take in the future of education?  What do you think?

Training for What?
Joseph Ugoretz | February 13, 2010 | 12:02 am | Education as Cultural Marker | No comments

I’ve never really liked the word “training” for what happens in school–particularly in higher education.  You train a dog.  Or a dancing bear.  The term seems limiting and constrained; it means that just one small task or skill is the goal.  If you’ve been trained for a job, you know how to do that job.  But you don’t really know anything beyond that.

But schools have often been seen in just that light.  The traditional (and still common) view of schooling is that it prepares students for a job.  Possibly a career (which is a more interesting, and higher-paid, job), but there is a specific goal or endpoint and every student is on a path to that goal or endpoint.  And if we look at some of the history of schools and how they have been conceived (as you’ll do in the chapters from Rethinking Education that you’re reading for this unit), we’ll see that training, or the endpoint of job-readiness or career-placement, has often been a very explicit goal of schools and schooling.  And beyond that, we’ll see that cultures are often very specific about who gets what kind of training, who gets what kind of endpoint.

Education as a cultural marker also means that education marks students and steers them into which cultures, which roles, they will be able to join.  Different students get very different paths–and traditionally, the best students (and I’ll ask you to think about how we define “best,” too) get the widest range of potential choices.  And therefore they get the training to be flexible and open and critical about choosing from among that range.

One of the things we’re seeing as we move to the future of education is that these distinctions are breaking down.  Students are deciding for themselves who is the “best” student, and who gets to take what direction with their learning.  Students who, in the traditional model, would have been given the full range of options, the full broad academic experience, are deciding for themselves that they want the direct goal and explicit end-point that used to be reserved only for “lower-level” students.  And those “lower-level” students are deciding for themselves that a broad liberal education, science and theory and philosophy and literature, are the direction they want to take–they don’t want to just be slotted into one specific job choice.  Or sometimes they’re already in that job, but still taking the opportunity, through TED or Academic Earth, or MIT’s OpenCourseWare, to get the broader education which might previously have been denied to them.

When people can break down the walls of institutions and degrees and departments, and decide for themselves what they want to learn and when they want to learn it, how will that change our schools, and how will it change our cultures? As college students, I’m sure you have had to take classes you would not have chosen if you could really direct your own education.  And maybe you’ve taken others (this one?) which you wanted to take because you wanted to learn something, not because they were required or directly related to a specific career path.

What about those “breadth” requirements? Do they have value?  If you’re a finance major, why should you have to take American Literature? If you’re an English major, why should you have to take Biology?  And if you got to choose all your own courses, exactly as you wanted, would that make for a more limited education? Or a broader one? When MIT puts all their courses online for free, what does that do to the value of an MIT degree?

You can take a Yale course on the American Novel, right now, for free.  You can even watch the lecture (there are actually three parts–this is just the first lecture–but you can get all of them) from that course on Nabokov’s Lolita right here in this course.  Or embed it in your own blog. (you don’t really need to watch this whole video–or the other parts–for this class.  But watch a few minutes and see what you think).

Watch it on Academic Earth

So do you need to go to Yale? Or why would you need to listen to a lecture on Lolita from anyone else? I’m not a Yale professor.  Would you want to hear my lecture on Lolita if you could hear one from Yale?

(And remember the question that came up in unit 1.  What good is a lecture, anyway? Is a series of lectures really a course? This new world of open education might make us question even more what good education or the best education really is.  What is a course, anyway?)