[iDC] education should be inefficient

Simon Biggs s.biggs at eca.ac.uk
Thu Jun 24 16:21:41 UTC 2010

Astra's email was both enlightening, inspiring and (for me) reassuring. Like
Astra my schooling was far from complete. I dropped out of school at 15 to
go surfing and never got back to it. I never went to university, at least
not to do a degree. Years later I found myself teaching at a university (in
a country far from where I grew up) and nobody seemed to be bothered I had
little formal education. They were happy I could teach what I knew (digital
art). These days I rarely teach on taught programmes, mostly working with
research students.

I have always had mixed feelings about teaching. On the one hand I always
feel like a fake in that as I didn't study at a university, or study
formally to be an artist, then why should I know what is necessary to teach
somebody who has chosen to do that. On the other hand, I figure that to be
an artist there is no such thing as an appropriate education and that as I
didn't go that route I might be able to offer students something that is
outside the usual curriculum or approach.

The main thing though is that I have really come to value the openness and
flexibility of an institutional framework that, for all its imperfections,
is able to work with and employ people like myself who are hardly good PR
for them. That is, if I can end up a professional artist and a senior
academic as well then why does anybody need an education. Aren't there
easier, better or more enjoyable ways?

My answer to that is that there might be more enjoyable ways but there is no
easier or better way. Working as a young self-taught artist was tough and I
made a lot of mistakes I probably would not have if I'd gone to college. I
also worked for many years in isolation, as the university environment
offers a social context and creative culture for the aspiring artist that
going it alone does not. That context of mutual support can be invaluable,
especially when struggling to find your own voice. You need to interact with
others in order to differentiate yourself.

So, when a student asks me why they should finish their degree when it is
clear it is not a requirement for them to be an artist I point to these
factors, as well as the studio and equipment they have access to as a
resource they would probably not otherwise have. I also mention that
sometimes their teachers might be able to help them a little.



Simon Biggs
s.biggs at eca.ac.uk  simon at littlepig.org.uk
Skype: simonbiggsuk

Research Professor  edinburgh college of art
Creative Interdisciplinary Research into CoLlaborative Environments
Electronic Literature as a Model of Creativity and Innovation in Practice
Centre for Film, Performance and Media Arts

> From: Astra Taylor <examinedlifedoc at gmail.com>
> Date: Thu, 24 Jun 2010 09:28:49 -0400
> To: <idc at mailman.thing.net>, <scholzt at newschool.edu>
> Subject: [iDC] education should be inefficient
> Hi all,
> Trebor has been prodding me to add my two cents based on my experiences as
> an unschooler and as someone on the academic periphery.  For the last five
> years I've been a documentary filmmaker focusing on academic/philosophical
> themes (I directed Zizek! and Examined Life).  I was unschooled until the
> age of 13 when, believing I would be locked out of opportunities in
> adulthood, I decided to go to public high school.  It was a sociological
> experiment in many ways -- I had never had a curriculum, a bed time, an
> alarm clock, worn shoes all day, taken tests, given grades, had more than
> one or two friends at most.  I lasted three years.  After that, I did
> undergraduate for two and a half years before getting an MA in Liberal
> Studies at the New School.
> I recently gave a talk at the Walker Center last year in which I talk about
> my childhood, the transition into formal school and the university context,
> the history of alternative education in the US, and some of my concerns
> about it -- namely the problems of privilege and withdrawal from the public
> sphere, not to mention the unsettling fact that so many libertarians love
> unschooling too. If you're interested, you can watch it here:
> http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LwIyy1Fi-4Q
> Trebor asked me a very good question: What can the university learn from
> unschooling?  It's a tough one, one I've never quite posed to myself, so
> please forgive these scattered thoughts.
> I should begin by saying I am a firm believer in self-directed learning; in
> fact, I believe human beings can't help but learn.  My sister, who is 18,
> has spent a handful of months in formal school and, compared to her peers,
> she is certainly "educated."
> That said, I'm growing increasingly wary of some of the rhetoric that I hear
> being deployed in discussions about the future of education and in
> conversations I've been having recently, namely strains of
> techno-determinism, anti-institutional ardor, and easy individualism.
> Lately, I¹ve been thinking very hard about how important it is to defend
> institutions of higher learning.  I can list the way they¹ve disappointed me
> in my sleep ­ they are too expensive (and debt really is a means of social
> control), disciplinary focus can be myopic, there¹s not enough emphasis on
> communicating with a broad public, they reproduce structures of privilege,
> the meritocracy is bunk, testing and grades are jokes, they are run like
> business with little commitment to students and learning, the student is
> treated as a consumer/customer, the staff as disposable.  All that and
> more.  Yes, but.
> Why do we need physical campuses?  Here are some ideas.  Because you know
> all those states that you fly over?  Imagine them without college towns
> (Athens, where I grew up, is basically built around a library thanks to
> UGA).  Because they provide meaningful work and intellectual livelihoods
> (college should and could be cheaper, but not from slashing teaching costs ­
> and we know that¹s really about increasing profits not lowering fees).
> Because even if colleges all crumbled tomorrow, elementary and high schools
> aren¹t going anywhere ­ college is the one institution that grants people
> some space to devote themselves to learning with a modicum of control over
> what they learn, a place to undo some of the damage that¹s already been
> done.  Because digital archives are no substitute for institutional memory.
> Going around with my films I have met dozens upon dozens of people who say
> they haven¹t had an opportunity to think about theory/philosophy since
> college.  They miss the abstraction, the intellectual debate for it¹s own
> sake. Has the university served these people, by at least granting them a
> few years (though possibly at an enormous cost) to devote their attention to
> such matters? Or has it let them down by reinforcing the dependence on the
> classroom setting, on teachers, on book learning by curriculum and
> instruction?
> For now, here are some rather random reactions rooted in my upbringing.  I'm
> not sure how much one can generalize from it, given how unusual it was,
> especially in Georgia where we were outnumbered by the conservative
> Christian homeschoolers 10,000 to 1.
> Education vs. Credentialing
> First, there's the issue of education and credentialing. The two processes
> aren't the same thing, obviously, though they sometimes overlap. And of
> course credentials can be necessary to professional advancement. Even if you
> don't use them explicitly (the only times I ever had to prove I possessed a
> degree was to get into grad school and when I adjuncted in the sociology
> department at SUNY New Paltz, the worse paying job I've ever had -- and also
> the hardest) they are no doubt put to work implicitly in many instances. I
> feel at ease and welcome in academic environments in a way my friends who
> lack college experience do not; I feel entitled to access certain
> conversations they feel left out of.  It's important to acknowledge these
> less overt benefits, the cultural capital that we cash in even when our job
> doesn't require we hang our degree on the wall.  I just read an excellent
> account of a year at the Wharton Business School, an example of
> credentialing at it's purest and most absurd. Grades are meaningless (the
> school keeps them confidential), the profs readily confess the students
> don't learn anything or care to, but they pay a ton of money and get jobs
> otherwise inaccessible to them at the end of it despite the fact they know
> not much more than when they enrolled.
> When people (like me) criticize credentialing there's often this idea that
> talent or ability or experience should somehow replace degrees, that some
> authentic measure should replace this inauthentic phony bureaucratic one.
>  After all -- I'm a filmmaker because I made movies, not because I went to
> film school (I didn't).  But I'm not so sure this is much of a leap from the
> meritocratic logic that the school system and business sector currently
> reinforce and uphold: the idea that the best will rise to the top, that
> society should be ranked by talent and ability.  I want to somehow square
> self-directed learning with the ideal of education being a great equalizer,
> but I'm not sure that's easily done.
> When I talk to young people, I basically tell them that school is a game,
> but learning isn't. Because a university education often equals a lifetime
> of debt, I try to share the few tricks I used to get out quick, explaining
> how I graduated in two years (by leaving the overpriced Ivy League for the
> free public option that also took AP credit, by designing a curriculum in
> which all the classes needed to fulfill the major happened in the same year,
> and by doubling up on independent studies, taking tests to skip core
> curriculum, etc) and why (to get into grad school faster, which was tuition
> free after the first semester and gave me more autonomy ­ though I got an
> equal and arguably more useful education working at Verso Books during the
> same period).
> That said, I understand why people want to go to school, even in this age of
> the Internet when teaching yourself or finding an online learning community
> is easier than ever.  School is a real space one can situate a life in --
> the Internet, not so much.  The aforementioned younger sister wants nothing
> more than to go to art school, something I vociferously advise against on
> practical grounds ­ the debt she would incur will never be paid back and she
> would be better of simply investing in some sort of creative project or
> career.  Also, predictably, I wonder who can be taught to be an artist? What
> credential makes one creative?  But what she wants is resources,
> encouragement, a place to inhabit and explore, a real space community, to be
> emboldened in directions she wouldn¹t go on her own, to be given achievable
> goals, to postpone joining the workforce while having health insurance.  Who
> can blame a diehard unschooler for wanting these things?
> Another small point is that I¹ve noticed is that many of the people who are
> most excited about the possibility of alternative education models, who make
> a fetish of self-directed learning and education as slavery, are often part
> of the credentialed classes.  It¹s easy to take advantage of personal
> learning networks if you already have degrees from a fancy school, as many
> (but not all, I admit) of the people involved in the new crop of education
> experiments do.  I think one reason highly educated and credentialed people
> latch on to alt ed theories is there¹s a sense that we are at heart
> autodidacts, despite schooling.  In a way, we¹re the group most attached to
> the romantic idea of the university as a community of scholars, so attached
> that we want to recreate that ideal elsewhere.  That¹s not a bad thing; what
> I¹m calling attention to is the way these education experiments often remain
> bound to a very classic notion of the academy.
> Efficiency
> I recently read Callahan's *Education and the Cult of Efficiency*, which
> provides an excellent history of schooling¹s coevolution with
> industrialization.  Efficiency is not a good word in my opinion and I'm not
> sure it can be reclaimed to serve progressive endsS
> What I appreciate about alternative education, and the parts of the
> university I love best, is the commitment to inefficiency.  Education should
> be inefficient! (That's my soundbyte).  I just interviewed a filmmaker --
> she directed the marvelous documentary The Oath, which was recently
> released.  She mentioned going to a Sudbury school (a radically democratic
> school, where the students, no matter how young, vote for their teachers and
> staff).  Some years she read, others she drew. One year, she said, was the
> "year of climbing trees."  Who knows what she learned in the branches, but
> it may have been a lot.
> I was unschooled without highspeed Internet (first logged on freshman year
> of highschool); my youngest sister doesn't remember life without constant
> highspeed access.  I would say for both of us though, unschooling has been
> more about slowness, about paying attention, immersing ourselves bizarre art
> projects, volunteering, staring off into space, talking to friends, and
> reading books, reading books, reading books.   We sometimes learned quickly,
> when motivated or excited to master some skill, but typically we learned at
> our own pace, which was often slow (sometimes so slow it looked as though we
> were doing nothing at all) and with lots of detours.
> I'm very interested in the promise of digital learning and technology.  I
> know people who have certainly preferred online learning experiences to face
> to face ones.  When?  When the material is interesting, the teacher vibrant,
> and there are levels of interaction between the faculty and students.  The
> least "efficient" online classrooms may be the most effective ones in the
> end.
> Boredom
> Often people ask me if I was bored at home as a child.  For us boredom was
> something to be worked with, passed through: it was a pit stop along the
> road to being engaged, a state of being very different from being
> entertained. ³When you¹re bored, you¹re boring,² my mother would say, a
> phrase that still rings in my ears and one that reveals what may be the
> essence of self-education, the forceful injunction at the heart of
> unschooling, the secret of its reverse psychology, if you will.
> Boredom and solitude are connected in my mind.  I wonder if, in all the talk
> of group learning and p2p and collaboration we forget this. I know we¹re
> excited about learning networks and social media and peer this and that.
> But maybe the most radical thing a teacher can do is tell students to be
> alone with an idea.
> *Open Access*
> * *
> It seems to me that the problem of access to information is the least of our
> concerns, the easiest problem to fix.   Sure, as an unaffiliated scholar who
> occasionally wants to read an obscure text, I'm frustrated by my lack of
> access to JSTOR and my inability to get into Bobst without a crazy song and
> dance routine. It¹s exclusive and inconvenient.  (If anyone can make me a
> research assistant so I can get university library access in NYC, please
> write me -- I'll be in your debt)
> Nonetheless, as we all know, lots of amazing stuff is on the Interent, and
> there¹s more and more of it everyday.  But Google U only goes so far (and
> reading Jeff Jarvis¹ book, it goes so far in a pretty creepy direction ­ not
> to mention that Jarvis, who in his TED Talk says f*ck the SAT has also
> bragged about how his kid is going to the Ivy League, no doubt because
> that¹s where the money and power is).  I had some classes in college that
> were bullshit, that I would have loved to take online, get a decent grade,
> and be done with.  The best classes ­ the ones that made me question
> unschooling -- were all about the teacher, who became a role model of sorts,
> whose enthusiasm was infectious and who, without being authoritarian, was
> authoritative, and pushed me harder than I would have pushed myself.
> Authority
> When it comes to democratic education some people assume that it's about the
> leveling of authority, or horizontal relationships, about no one being above
> you or possessing secret access to knowledge that you don¹t have.
> In my mind, again, the issue is authoritarian vs authoritativeness ­
> compulsory schools overflow with instances of arbitrary, irrational
> authority (when I went to high school I couldn¹t believe I had to ask
> permission to go to the washroom). In the classroom, though, the point isn¹t
> to deny authority exists, to pretend everyone is equal in knowledge and
> ability, or to disavow expertise and experience if you have it.  That kind
> of authority can be inspiring and it¹s also powerful; a legitimate
> authority, a teacher with knowledge, can grant the student permission to
> trust themselves and their capacity, their potential.  The positive uses of
> this sort of authority are important to acknowledge, and too easily ignored
> by people (like myself, on occasion) who cheerlead for self-directed
> learningS.
> All the best,
> Astra Taylor
> *
> *
> Hidden Driver
> www.hiddendriver.com
> www.zeitgeistfilms.com/examinedlife/
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