Professor Sugata Mitra is one of the great spokespeople for the strange movement in education that is hostile to the very notion of teaching. Education is good. Learning is fantastic, especially when it involves individuals and small groups pursuing their own interests, preferably searching for information on the internet. Teaching, though, is something we need to be very, very wary of. Unless we are very, very careful to adopt a minimal, low-key, hands-off approach to the gerund that begins with “t” and includes the word “each,” we will be guilty of indoctrination.
Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall project provides an inspiring image for the anti-teacher teachers: a teacherless space in which children learn on their own (surfing the web). Of course there is still a need for teachers to set this space up and to supervise what takes place there, but this will be “minimally invasive teaching”. Mitra’s term is interesting. It implies that all teaching is “invasive” – a word full of negative connotations. Teaching is prima facie bad. The best that can be hoped for in teaching is to keep that badness to a minimum.
Now, the anti-teacher teacher doesn’t want to organise anything that smacks of an old-fashioned moral education. However, what sometimes seems to go unnoticed is that this movement spreads a moral message that is at least as powerful as the message once proclaimed by maximally invasive teachers speaking as if from a pulpit. The message goes out to the students that as far as our notions of the Good are concerned, there really is nothing to get very worked up about. For instance, Mitra wants to make rational thinking one of the three planks of primary education (the others being reading comprehension and information search skills). Now one could get quite passionate about the Age of Reason and start to think of oneself as a descendent of Descartes, obliged to carry on the unfinished project of the Enlightenment, sweeping away once and for all the remnants of the Dark Ages (horoscopes, theism, all forms of fetishism, etc., etc.) and (after reading Henri de Saint-Simon) perhaps arguing that henceforth all shirts should have the buttons up the back. Clearly, that would not count as minimally invasive. To keep things suitably minimal the teacher would have to appear neutral, letting the students find their own set of values. Some might turn to anarchism, others to scientology, and yet others to Buddhism. The minimally rationalist teacher will doubtless prompt the students to defend their chosen value systems, but will avoid creating the impression that more educated members of the society believe that some value systems are better than others lest the minimally invasive outdoctrination slip back into nasty old indoctrination.
In this way, students receive a very specific and utterly unambiguous moral education. They get the message that there is nothing to get excited about. There is certainly nothing to fight for or die for. We have our personal beliefs, but we shouldn’t get too worked up about them because as far as society is concerned there is absolutely no way to prove that one ethical framework is any better than another. The overriding principles are: Relax, take it easy, live and let live.
Although the anti-teacher teachers present their approach as something of a revolution, the fundamental moral message that ends up being passed on to students fits in very nicely with the sort of moral inertia cultivated by television. The form of TV broadcasting (irrespective of any particular content) creates the perfect impression that nothing really matters. When every story shown on television can be interrupted to run an advert for toilet cleaner, everyone gets the message.
In fact, because of TV and other influences in the world beyond school, the attack on teaching has come a bit too late. As invasions go, it is all rather futile. There is nothing much left to invade. The defences were breached decades ago, at least in the West, and it was because of this that critics like Neil Postman wrote nice books back then with titles like “Entertaining Ourselves to Death.” Are there any teachers left on this side of the axis who believe that they could actually begin to preach a moral code without seeing the students rock back in their chairs, yawn, look down at their watches and then look out the window?
Nietzsche said: “Behold I show you the Last Men.” These are (to update the description slightly) basically happy people for whom there is nothing to strive for any longer, apart from perhaps more things that will make life more comfortable, more entertaining, more pleasant – people for whom history has effectively ended, for whom the all-important contentment is perceived to be within reach – people who no longer say: “It was mediocre,” but, “It was OK” – people who want to accept themselves as they are, to be at peace – people who would seek out a therapist if they felt they were starting to feel disgust for something – people for whom the desert is only attractive as something seen from a jeep or from the back of a camel led by a tour guide – people for whom the idea of going out into the desert alone for forty days and forty nights in the hope of catching a glimpse of something utterly higher and other than the chatter of the town ceases to be comprehensible. Why would anyone do such a thing?
After reading about the anti-pedagogic pedagogues, I am tempted to say: “Behold, I show you the Last Teachers.”