Sir Ken Robinson’s RSA presentation on “Changing Education Paradigms” (see below) is a well-meaning critique of the “factory model” of education. Nevertheless, I think his alternative is much more flawed than the system he attacks.
At the core of Robinson’s argument is a familiar counter-Enlightenment, romantic critique of modern education. In a bid to standardize and routinize the process of learning, schools apparently suppress the authentic feelings and curiosity of children. Routinized learning (as well as its modern ally, Ritalin) anaesthetizes young people, blocking them from feeling “fully alive”. Furthermore, modern schools are a simulacrum of the factory model: a bell system, specialization and age cohorts. In the end, there’s not much difference between Robinson’s speech and Rousseau’s Émile, or On Education (1762): society corrupts the natural self, a self that – given a natural state – would wander, wonder and feel without reference to common industrial standards.
So if Robinson’s argument is not particularly novel, and refers to an enduring point of view, why then has it never been put into effect in a long-term, large-scale manner? Why have we never seen a romantic view of education implemented by a majority of school boards in the Western world? [Otherwise, the romantic worldview as critique would not persist!]
I would contend that romanticism is a noble but ultimately futile basis for mass education. I share its yearning for individual authenticity and respect for sentiment. However, I’m suspicious of a worldview that has never established itself as a viable alternative to the perspective it attacks. Of course, there are some movements like the Montessori schools and small, elite academies that emphasize experiential or “relevant” education. But these are usually focused on narrow age groups and small education communities characterized by high costs and/or disproportionately motivated participants. Like anarchism, romanticism does not appear practical for large and complex industrial, or post-industrial, consumer societies. In other words, after so many education reform movements inspired by the romantic call to action, it hasn’t withstood the practical test of time. Across so many countries, so many communities and so much time, isn’t it likely that the one constant – the romantic critique itself – has serious flaws?