In education today there is an ever-increasing anxiety—an anxiety which emphasizes student success as the end all and be all of education. The idea of student success is so nerve wracking that it permeates the most detailed of instructional activities. Lives and livelihoods are at stake. Teachers and students madly run around trying to make benchmarks and bridge gaps in the instructional details. They simultaneously attempt to “achieve the dream” of a world without failure and unequal results. In their harried busyness teachers and students resemble the proverbial chicken with its head chopped off. I read today about a man who cried tears of blood and whose symptoms left doctors in wonder. My layman’s diagnosis is that he must have been a teacher or a student.

Such educational practice seems premised on the idea that if only we could isolate each discrete element of education for the purposes of analysis, then we could measure it over time, and ultimately we would have the necessary data whereby we could figure out how to make each and every child succeed in the future. In this way, failure is NOT so much NOT an option to form a way to an educated society as it is a way to make a future society that will no longer be able to bear failure. It sounds like a simple ironic recipe which calls FAILURE SUCCESS—a classic situation where we rhetorically win while we lose. But to achieve this, we surely didn’t need the hassle of all this tedious pedagogical micro-managed administration. If failure was the object in the first place, then we could have just as easily said that we wanted to fail in the first place. But that would have called into question the science of what the leading expert educationists, psychologists, and economists told us in their various studies.

So perhaps we don’t want that kind of failure after all. Perhaps the science tells us that we’re just happy to be here simply, and that we need to figure out a way to make this situation perpetual. It’s an education that is similar to what every losing Super Bowl team has said before they played the game that they lost, “We’re just happy to be here.” “The best life is the one where we lose what is most important while we’re living it” might as well be the slogan of today’s anxious busy-body educational administrators.

But what is most important?

The failures of the past education–failures that seemingly occurred in a natural manner according to the limited understanding of pre-modern pedagogy—are less and less bearable in today’s democratic pedagogy. We must do whatever it takes to make all of the students succeed. We must be “student centered” in such a way that meets all of the students’ diverse needs, capacities, and learning styles. Technology in the classroom! MOOCs! PowerPoint! Standardized tests! Regardless, no child is to be left behind—not in the Tim LaHaye manner of the rapture left behind, to be sure—but in the manner according to the modern egalitarian idea of opportunity for progress for all. Surely there must be something we can figure out in the statistics of learning gaps in student learner outcomes that have plagued us in the past to make up for it in the future. Teachers and students must buck up, re-orientate, and recognize that the success of our dear little ones is the end all and be all—even if it means disrupting the traditional modes of pedagogy. Besides, if teachers and students do not re-orient their view, the sun of the future will set before their collective mind’s eye, and they will find themselves destitute as the new meritocracy decides the meaning and place of their lives for them.

Strange that the technocrats say that if we don’t do what they say, then they will be the ones who will rule us without remorse. It’s an issue of necessity. Didn’t Marx say that the proletariat would say the same thing to the bourgeoisie? The dustbin of history, I believe, was Trotsky’s term. Nowadays, we have the claim to rule of so-called meritocrats with their studies making the threat that if we don’t do what they say, they will rule nonetheless. This is both their strength and their weakness. They currently don’t rule, but they promise to rule in the future like Thucydidean Athenians to the rest of the Melian losers. The good news is that Athens failed too. Perhaps the meritocrats will pick their all-too pious Nicias too. Regardless, everyone suffers in the meantime.

Let me say that I’m not persuaded by all this. In fact, I’m wondering whether there ought not to be a “non-student centered” pedagogy of failure. Why not teach our students failure? Then these students used to student-centeredness might learn they are not the center of all things after all.

Isn’t failure a more reliable fact of life than success? What is the lesson of the Sicilian expedition? To paraphrase Marx, who are these winners who have educated the educators in terms of student centered education geared for success? I would call them losers. Albeit, they are losers with a lot of power who have all sorts of data-driven studies which purport to demonstrate the truth about what it means to be a human being. But they are also losers because they never had a good liberal arts education, and so they don’t even realize that their programs presuppose a vision of the complete human being.

As an alternative to edu-speak/admin-speak education, I would suggest that a liberal arts education could better provide the needed flexibility and adaptability for today’s society and economy than today’s trendy pedagogy. Moreover, a liberal arts education also keeps a focus on the virtues necessary to sustaining a free society, as well as addressing the more profound questions of what is the good life and what is the good society—and what is man, world, and God and the relations between these things. Educational theory, modern economics, management science, evolutionary psychology, etc., on the other hand, are constitutionally incapable of keeping that focus.

NOW TO PREACH TO THE CONVERTED: An education with a good teacher in the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides, Augustine, Dante, Machiavelli, Shakespeare, Hobbes, the Federalist, Kant, Nietzsche, etc.—experienced and carried out in a “social environment” which encourages far-going questioning, but which also upholds the good kind of moral education that people used to learn from their parents—could provide an alternative to the harried emphasis that teachers and students currently have on success. Here they could even learn that virtue doesn’t guarantee success, or that vice sometimes wins in this world.

You might say that this is an education bound to fail. It is for losers. But to borrow the ironic trope, sometimes losers are winners—sometimes failures succeed. That said, it is probably not possible today.

Do we currently live under tyranny? It is an interesting question. No?

Articles by John Presnall

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