kitchen table math, the sequel: revolutionaries, architects and education systems

Thursday, January 21, 2010

revolutionaries, architects and education systems

Do people at ed schools study the history of educations systems and paradigms, since they study the philosophy of education so much? It's just kind of amazing when you look into it, how much the course of education for so many has been steered by so few. Some people here have made hints to it before, but I discovered an article that made more intrigued.
Shortly after I retired from teaching I picked up Conant's 1959 book-length essay, The Child the Parent and the State, and was more than a little intrigued to see him mention in passing that the modern schools we attend were the result of a "revolution" engineered between 1905 and 1930. A revolution? He declines to elaborate, but he does direct the curious and the uninformed to Alexander Inglis's 1918 book, Principles of Secondary Education, in which "one saw this revolution through the eyes of a revolutionary." Against School (Harper Magazine), John Gatto.

Gatto, the author of The Underground History of American Education, is not against education, though his view of school (as in the typical public school) is pretty extreme. He is against school the institution the compliance factory, the social engineering tool of architects attempting to construct society according to their vision. If Gatto's metaphor sounds pretty extreme, the idea isn't very new -- in his article he quotes 1924 satirists lamenting the anti-intellectualness of public schooling. The public has been fairly exposed to it since Pink Floyd's Another Brick In the Wall; the song isn't the revenge of a dropout-turned-musician. PF was composed of fairly good students -- competitive students of architecture and art -- yet they too, were "against School".
Some of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell's inspirations for their dystopic novels came from School. Probably for good reason.

There is often talk with this "reform vs. traditionalist" rhetoric as though it were that simple. What tradition, anyway? Has there ever been a golden age of education? I argue not really. The more you investigate the history of school (school anywhere!), the more it seems like the pages out of the history book of Latin America: revolutions, counter-revolutions, coups and counter-coups.

Of course, I don't totally agree with Gatto's picture, though I suppose he simplified the history for rhetorical purposes. If the political spectrum is to be brought into it, public education was a strange alliance of progressive and conservative (in the strictest sense of the word), bringing forth a system that was both radical yet reactionary. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Progressive activists pushed for public education of course, but reactionaries, were faced with the era of populism: ever-increasing mass literacy rates, a politically-awakened population and all of the things that come with small-d democracy.

I am reminded of the one time that my high school world history teacher suddenly asked us -- quite randomly -- if we knew the driving force for why public education was first implemented. Most of us replied with progressive explanations. His answer: factory owners were responsible for the explosion of public education, not the progressives. "Public education wasn't created to educate citizens. It was to train workers so they could work in factories." For a while, I took this as just another fact of history, but it took quite a bit of time for me to realise what he was getting at.

In a paradoxical way, the radical progressives were so ambitious and radical, they unwittingly played into the reactionaries' own hands. School wasn't just to be the place for academic lessons -- it was to be a tool of social engineering to create a more progressive society, a free and enlightened populace and unrestricted flow of ideas. For the reactionaries -- why not social engineering as well? You could also create a more manageable populace this way: disciplined, differentiated, divided, docile. What is "reform education," then? It is an attempt to reverse this early coup d'éducation and restore the original progressive objectives, like Sun Yat-Sen attempting to reverse the coup of Yuan Shikai after he had taken control of the First Chinese Republic. Perhaps not very well -- the reformers are not only divided, they have saboteurs within their ranks, much like the warlords who diverted Sun Yat-Sen's restoration objective.

Which results in the educational mess you might see in your child's classroom today. All of these paradigms and plays for power have been fought by comparatively few compared to the how many people these battles affect. Revolutions? What revolutions? Who knew there could be so much dirty politics involved in your child's education? But veteran parents and veteran teachers can easily attest to how much entrenched power play goes on, of course. Toss teachers' unions and booming education companies and you get a combat theatre!

This isn't merely about the woes of American education. I have been a student of both an American high school and a Singaporean secondary school and must say I found major faults with both experiences. Oh let me say -- despite the good teachers I found in both schools -- I hated high school. In contrast, in my current school -- there are no politics over educational paradigms or standardised assessments, thank goodness. More or less, professors have a free arm to run their class; student feedback is one of "checks" in the system. No rubrics, no standardised professor reports, except of the kind they might submit to Nature. But I hear at many colleges, the edupolitical battlefield is slowly creeping into the picture. It certainly exists in community colleges; I can attest to its presence in the local university I dual-enrolled in.

It is fascinating to explore how certain educational paradigms spread worldwide. There is a certain paradigm for example, that you might find to be common among "Asian tiger" nations like Japan, South Korea, The Republic of China on Taiwan, Singapore, etc. The nationalist movements of countries under colonial or imperial influence are partially responsible for spreading them. China is an interesting case with interesting parallels. The imperial examination system -- very reactionary and conservative, arguably quite anti-intellectual -- was overhauled by a young Guangxu emperor of the reformist faction. The only way China was to progress in the world, of course, if the countless "scholars" and "officials" produced by the system knew anything about math, science, and industry and not merely Confucian rhetoric.

Young Guangxu had good intentions, but alas, he was no Queen Elizabeth and he found himself outmanoeuvred by his more politically-savvy opponents at court. One of the consequences of this drastic reform was the sudden dismissal of countless officials and bureaucrats deemed "useless" by the Guangxu emperor, their removal of power, loss of salary (no pension), etc. After all, the Qing government was facing a major budget crisis. Endemic corruption, sinecures and general parasitism were placing a major strain on Qing resources. Alas, this made the Guangxu emperor quite unpopular among the "old school" (literally) bureaucracy and support conservative Empress Dowager Cixi, who was planning a military coup. Guangxu in desperation turned to Yuan Shikai, commander of the modernised Beiyang New Army. Yuan Shikai had carried out major institutional and technological reforms with his branch of the military -- surely he backed Guangxu's reformation plans, right? Wrong. Yuan Shikai realised supporting Guangxu was too risky: he betrayed Guangxu, who was arrested and deposed from power. Cixi effectively reversed most of Guangxu's reforms.

Young Guangxus -- parents, teachers, administrators alike -- beware. The sad fact of life is that it takes political savvy to be a reformer.

It turns out Yuan Shikai eventually betrayed Cixi's faction too, allying himself with the Tongmenghui republicans, a hodgepodge coalition of various revolutionary factions. Many members were young idealists educated in the West -- France, Germany, England, the US. Oh merry that this coincided with the new progressive education movement! The republicans abolished the imperial examination system and copied the new Western trends, including unwittingly some of its reactionary paradigms. Many new members of the government were only republican in name only; provincial governors or military commanders of a different generation than the students, they had allied themselves with the republicans during the Revolution but did not necessarily have their same aims. Ah! School! What a valuable political tool anywhere.

Yuan Shikai then betrayed the republicans and then exerted his own Machiavellian influence on China's education system. The education system split into two when the Communists took the mainland of course, but once again, a strange mix of radical and reactionary across the straits. Japan and Korea's education system have their own versions of the education story, especially since Japan was under the influence of militarism even as it carried out educational reformations in the 19th century. All engineered by very few people.

The architect of Singapore's modern education system as we know it was a People's Action Party official called Goh Keng Swee. (He was also responsible for much of Singapore's economic development.) Was he progressive? Conservative? PAP politics takes a mouthful to explain. Goh was interested in social welfare as an undergraduate. His graduate studies were in the London School of Economics. He returned to Singapore at a time of great social upheaval and aligned himself with such university buddies as Lee Kuan Yew and Toh Chin Chye, joined the fledgling PAP, and following their win in the elections, became Minister of Finance. The PAP was a centre-left party and quite revolutionary in nature -- it was a dark horse upstart party at the time. In part, the PAP rode to power on the back of its communist faction.

One thing that is particularly interesting is how the PAP inherited its power structure from the Leninist tradition: it still has a secretive and selective cadre system, which still serves as the "inner guard" of the party. It still has a Politburo (since renamed), a Central Executive Committee, and all the other power institutions you might find in a normal Communist Party. It's quite peculiar because with time, the PAP swung steadily towards the right and eventually became anticommunist. (The paradox is not unprecedented: the Kuomintang Nationalists also have a Leninist structure because of an initial Soviet-KMT alliance in the early 1920s.) The cracks in the paradoxical PAP opened up in 1961: the communist faction fought with Goh Keng Swee, Lee Kuan Yew and other moderate party leaders, giving Singapore an electoral drama it has not since seen for almost fifty years. The PAP had its own right-wing faction -- but one suspects they came to an internal compromise with moderate leaders. This transition was very silent, because LKY, a great orator, opponent of sedition laws and a passionate supporter of freedom of speech for the sake of something like "principle" in the 1960s, appears to reverse his position throughout the 1970s, turning very pragmatist until he is found justifying sedition laws and the regulation of political dissent in the 1980s. The radical had become the reactionary.

What of the impact on the education system? The education system has an uncanny bearing to the politics of the time. Singapore's education story is a little more complex than the others because of the division of the schooling into Chinese schools and English schools (which were more prestigious), and there was a struggle between the Chinese-language proponents and the English-language proponents too, mirroring the split between the Chinese-educated communists and the English-educated moderates educated in London. (The moderate-right divide is more mysterious, because the right-wing never broke with the Politburo leaders publicly.) In a way, it too is a mix of radical and reactionary. Goh Keng Swee, under influence from both left-wing and right-wing ideas, divided the Singapore education system into "streams," in a system more complicated than currently is today. One of the explicit aims of the Singapore education system was to train workers for Singapore's fledgling industrialisation. Essentially, there were streams devoted to that -- at the secondary school level it is seen today with such designations as Normal (Technical) and Normal (Academic). The Express stream can be analysed as a stream to produce a bureaucratic, professional and managerial class. Finally, a Special stream to produce Singapore's next generation of leaders, e.g. party members. All very clean, orderly and disciplined -- like a factory.

Goh wasn't the only architect: experts were recruited from all over the world. Experts from countries such as Japan, West Germany, Israel and the Soviet Union joined the Singapore development project. Many features of the Soviet education system can still be seen in the Singapore education system; our HDB public housing programme was asssisted by Soviet experts, since they had the most experience in constructing affordable public housing and the West generally failed at such programmes.

In a way, these architects were extremely brilliant people. The bar model used for primary school math in Singapore was created by a single individual (not GKS however). Goh was one of the experts who chose the right economic path for Singapore, promoting economic and social development while other developing nations suffered under planned economics and property seizures. Buyers of Singapore Math books know that Singapore's education system has been successful, in a way. But I must lament his vision: such is the problem with having a few architects design entire education systems. Having set forth to write about an ideal education system, I suppose it's not a bad thing to first write a tangent about lessons from past attempts at designing education.


Barry Garelick said...

Thank you for this post. I appreciate the history of education initiatives in Singapore. I was trying to research that a bit when I wrote an article on Singapore Math

I contacted various people at the Singapore Ministry of Education to get the history of the development of the Singapore "Primary Math" series, and in particular where bar modeling had come from.

They were very guarded in their answers and would not divulge any information. One kind man at the Nanyang Technological University gave me some limited info, including:

Dr KHO Tek-Hon, who was the Primary Mathematics Project Director (from 1980 – mid 1990s).Together with members of his project team they designed and developed (pilot tested, trialed with independent formative evaluations & then eventually given to the most competent and competitive commercial publisher) and wrote the different editions of the Singapore Primary Science “Textbooks”.

I finally contacted a math teacher in Singapore (whose name I got from an article she wrote. She helped me out and gave me some history, though could not mention any names. Here is what she told me:

Yesterday I had lunch with one of the directors of the MOE maths project. I raised your question with him. Nothing is documented and this was his explanations for the improvement in maths performance.

Earlier on in the 1980s the children did not do so well in maths because they had weak knowledge of maths facts, the algorithms as well as word problem solving. He found the children were still using their fingers to do addition when they were taught the addition algorithm. Changes were brought in such that the focus was to ensure that children were proficient in their basic number facts. He explained that as “success breeds success”, if children could add successfully, they were more likely to learn other aspects of maths- in this case addition algorithm, etc. There were no grand goals.

Next he helped children develop strategies to solve word problems, e.g. using Polya’s 4 stages and introducing the model method as a problem solving heuristic.

All the time the Brunerian philosophy underpinned his ideas of how children learn – concrete-pictorial-abstract approach of learning. With the model method, pupils were taught a method to try and understand the situation given in a word problem.

We can’t quote names because he will be most unhappy if I did use his name.


(i) no grand ideas – just simple details – help children learn their facts well and then help them use the facts

(ii)learn how to solve word problems

All these changes are not documented although I am sure there were minutes of meetings.

Also I suspect with the Singapore society became more affluent, parents had more time to spend on their children and also to think of ways to help children. I think the success in education also matched the development of the society. Not that America nor the west are not affluent, but across society they have different values. If you look at the poor, all their energies are geared towards finding enough money for the next meal. They don’t have time to think of helping their children with their work. However having said that, many Chinese families in Malaysia are not well off but they made sure their children study hard as no one is going to help them should they fail.

farmwifetwo said...

IMO the biggest problem with the education system is that they aren't melding facts with social engineering.. or whatever they call it.

You can't debate a POV if you don't know the facts. You can't build a tree without roots and a solid foundation.

So first things that need to be taught is facts - math, science, history, geography - etc. Public school should be full of facts. Stories read, questions answered, black and white.

Then when one gets to highschool we have a base for which to form an opinion. Form a debate. Children today are not allowed to debate... climategate/glaciergate are taboo in the school system... why are we teaching recycling in public school anyways... Not only are they not allowed to do so... they can't b/c they've never learned the facts on which to base their opinion in the first place, nor work to prove the standard "opinion" wrong.

Remember the facebook or somewhere page where they wanted to ban water from products... using it's scientific name and people bought into it... Those are the kind of people we're raising. They are arguing about the gov't proroging here... but none of the Univ crowd even knows Parliment wasn't even going to open until the 25th, nor that gov't does still run when it's not in session. Gov't isn't actually closed, they just aren't in Ottawa. It's only a month when the Olympics are... Of course the Opposition parties nor the news media are going to enlighten them... Frighteningly, uneducated children we are raising.

le radical galoisien said...

Barry: interesting... my mother actually met the inventor of the bar model method once -- I just can't remember his name off the top of my head. He was giving a seminar, giving advice to Singaporean parents about math off a powerpoint slide (when ppt slides are useful!).

AFAIK his name is fairly obscure. There are some fairly obscure people who have had great influence over Singaporean history. The same goes for American education -- they may be distinguished in their own institution, field or circle (one was a president of Harvard) -- but relatively unknown in history.

I kinda feel there's a lot about Singaporean history that has been covered up -- either by the sands of time or intentionally -- over the years. It makes me ... intrigued. Another interesting case that might be lost to time if the proper study isn't done soon is the development of Singapore creole (Singlish). AFAIK it did not really exist in the 1960s -- Bazaar Malay was the koine dialect of choice. Sometime between then and now, Bazaar Malay was replaced by Singapore creolised English. If you listen carefully you can still sometimes catch very old Chinese grandparents / greatgrandparents using Bazaar Malay. (My grandfather used it -- he did not know Mandarin -- but he's no longer around.)

le radical galoisien said...

How my mother found out I think was that someone else told her... the guy giving the seminar was fairly humble. He was just genuinely interested in improving the lot of Singaporean students.

I think she wasn't sure whether it would be worth going to until one of the deans for our level basically recommended the seminar to my mother. I think that's where she got the scoop from.

Sara R said...

I have a read some of Gatto's work, and I have a hard time trusting it because of the political spin. I prefer Diane Ravitch's "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform" for the history of American public schools since about 1895, and "The Schools We Need" by E. D. Hirsch for the philosophical background. Both of these books stuck to more of a "just the facts" presentation, and I didn't have to spend a lot of energy trying to look for the facts behind the spin.

le radical galoisien said...

Mmm. Gatto has a visible spin, but I think he has value, even if that value is closely connected with his provocation.

It is very interesting to get a glimpse the architects of American public education and what they thought. Many of them were quite unapologetically unprogressive. In so far as to get your attention, I am willing to tolerate a little spin. A stream for the masses to work in factories. A stream for a working class needing a little more expertise. A stream for managers.

I mean, I feel that Aldous Huxley used the analogy of Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, Epsilon, etc. for good reason. Brave New World kind of resonated in me as a Singaporean schoolboy suffering under the anti-intellectual rigours of streaming.

Of course if you're trying to do some serious scholarship and present reforms to a committee (horrors! committees! they do so much good and yet so much evil), Gatto is probably not a good source.

palisadesk said...

Gatto is a self-professed Libertarian and definitely a provocateur. When I first read his stuff -- in the 90's sometime -- I thought he was waaaaaay over the top (sheesh, was I ever naive in those days). Some fifteen years later, after considerably more and varied experience and a lot of investigation into the workings of the education "blob," participation in various fora where I learned that the atrocities I had witnessed were not anomalous but occur regularly across the continent -- I reread Gatto with much less scepticism.

Underground History was an eye-opener. One thing I like to do, however, in any topic I'm very interested in, is check out the sources the author refers to. When investigating reading or math research, for instance, I go straight to the original published studies or abstracts, if I can find them, and try to get the straight dope. Gatto didn't footnote his book but he provided a number of leads to follow. I doubted that the influence of corporate barons and captains of industry was as intimate and extensive as he alleged, and I was not aware of the degree to which public education was permeated by the eugenics movement.

However, when I tracked down a lot of his sources (still need to get a look at some lengthy U.S. Gov. publications -- off to the Library of Congress on my next trip back to DC) I found that, if anything, Gatto understated his case. Many of those who were movers and shakers in the development of public education were open about their intention to use it as a means of social control, management of the proletariat, fostering a consumer society of diligent worker bees, with a way for a few talented lower class kids to rise and periodically refresh the gene pool of the elite.

The fact that Rockefeller and Carnegie spent more than double what the government spent on public education is not well known, and the documents from their respective foundations made it clear that removing children from their parents' (baleful) influence and molding their malleable young minds was a top priority, not development of individual talents and autonomy.

Paradoxically, somehow the system also attracts those with a belief in Rousseau's view of the noble child who is to be left in purity to explore the world on his own terms. How these unlikely bedfellows have in fact woven a mesh that entraps many into diminished expectations and shrunken vistas for their adult lives is an oxymoron I haven't quite figured out, but it seems to be the case. Of course, the PC spin is quite different from the reality.

Some of Gatto's cynicism is vividly explained here

On the whole, I find his work encouraging, in a perverse way. While he expounds upon the many and varied evils (and they are real evils) of the "system," especially in large bureaucracies such as NYC, he also is living proof that an iconoclastic individual can make a positive difference: music to the ears of a guerrilla instructivist.

He goes on:

A relative handful of people could change the course of schooling significantly by resisting the suffocating advance of centralization and standardization of children, by being imaginative and determined in their resistance, by exploiting manifold weaknesses in the institution’s internal coherence: the disloyalty its own employees feel toward it. It took 150 years to build this apparatus; it won’t quit breathing overnight. The formula is to take a deep breath, then select five smooth stones and let fly. The homeschoolers have already begun.

Redkudu said...

>>On the whole, I find his work encouraging, in a perverse way. <<

I like the way you put this. I find Gatto to be incredibly cathartic at times when the madness has gotten to be too much. There's something about reading someone who can put into words what I so often feel helpless to describe or process.

Bob Calder said...

As long as you are looking at foundation myths, please consider Korea.

In 1398, Yo Sung-Gyeh Taejo who established the Yi Dynasty, also established 234 public schools (Hyang Gyo) the 7th year of his reign. His aims were to free people from illiteracy, carry cultural habits forward, and arrange rituals for Confucius and other wise men.

We could criticize the elitism of that time, but what culture didn't exhibit it during that period?

Tracy W said...

My own take on the history is that, whatever the intentions of the people who established publics schooling, they have not produced compliance.
Since the establishment of public schooling we have seen some pretty radical social changes, for example the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s, the legalisation amd legitimisation of homosexual behaviour, the second wave of feminism, the 1960s counter-culture movement, Communist parties getting nearly majorities of the vote in some Western European countries, Margaret Thatcher's massive reforms against the economic Post-WWII consensus, followed by Reaganomics and Roger Douglas. Now not everyone may approve of all of this (I've deliberately listed economic movements that are so disparate that nearly everyone will disagree with one of them), but I think we can all agree that they are massive changes, many of which people in the 19th century or early 20th century would have found horrifying.
My own explanation is that once you have taught kids to read you've opened up their minds, regardless of your intention. And that brainwashing that sticks is far harder than most poeple think.