September 04, 2003

Mythic Education

It seems to me that the purposes, that the greater part of school education is
geared towards, is dumbing down or (more politely) "socialisation" and that
students that are heavily dd-ed or socialised, get certain rewards, such as
"good jobs," big cars and and desirable partners.

Now then, there may be some particularly hard nosed students that are able to
accept that the "content" of what they are is relevant only as 'pumping iron for
the brain,' so that then can prove how much they can brutalise themselves
(or "train their mind"). However, most students want to believe that the learning
content is useful, *not* just in the sense of being a means to get grades, jobs,
and cars etc.

Hence educators are faced with a dilemma.

Leaving aside purist attempts to be Rudolf Stiener, swimming teachers, heavily
vocationally oriented teachers and some language teachers; there are some teachers
that are in the lucky position of imparting content that is useful to students but I
would say that they are in the vast minority. Most of us are in the business of

Accepting this fact, the dilemma for me is, in order to get students to study
it seems necessary to *lie*. In order to help them to get all those consumer
rewards (that most of them want), praise, and good grades, it seems necessary
to lie, at least by omission, and encourage students to believe that the content
they are learning will actually be useful to them.

This dilemma was brought home to me recently after auditing the class of a
"very good", motivating teacher teacher. As well as having an excellent command
of his subject, he also told his students how much he loved the subject and how
much he wanted them to gain the same enjoyment that he gained from it.
The students were very enthused and grade-wise, he gets very good results.

1) The small percentage of students likely to use and enjoy the content of
what he was teaching are those that are like him, going to be teachers.
2) For most of the students the content is likely to be utterly useless to

However, by convincing the students that the content is useful/fun-to-non-teachers,
he achieves what many educators, his superiors, and the students themselves
view as good results. However, I don't think he was lying. He and many "good
educators" seem to be oblivious to the fact that what they are teaching is only of
use to people like themselves. They seem to be thinking "I am using and enjoying
this, so the students can too," without considering the different circumstances that
students are likely to face. My guess is that they are able to block the lives of
their students from their minds, partly deliberately, and partly

What I am wondering is, is there a teaching theory or ethic, that recognises this
dilemma, and looks at it full in the face.

I know of one: Esoteric Buddhism. It starts with the premise that it is necessary
to teach pupils not-the-whole-truth, saving the the-whole-truth for later since
fresh students would give up if you hit them with the big whammy at the beginning.
I really feel that there is a need for a theory of "esoteric education."

In the extreme, an Esoteric theory of education might encourage teachers to tell
their students that what they are learning is dreadfully important and so encourage
them to study. Then finally, it might recommend that teachers get together with
students, after the exams, and say "This was all pap, but you are going to go to
an Ivy League school, and get fat pay checks, so let us celebrate." Doing this
might be better than never telling them the whole-truth, in the manner of the "good
teacher" mentioned above.

It might be argued that it is valuable, for the students, to never be told the truth
of the inutility of what they are learning. Or that there is some sort of valuable
epifany to be had when the penny drops and the student realises that the content
of his or her studies had little utility other than to teachers. Even so, even if this
is a theory book that should be kept out of reach of children, for educators at least.

Finally, on a more positive note, perhaps it is possible to have what I would call
a theory of mythical education, where students too would be encouraged to engage
in the process of equivocation, and make their own dreams and myths.

In this, more democratic approach, teachers would be encouraged to give
students the techniques for learning, consistent with constructivist, "student centered"
principles, including the ability to equivocate for themselves.

For example, consider the case of someone teaching French to a group of students
that have little opportunity to use it. The teacher may

1) Overemphasise the opportunities to use and enjoy French blindly (the "good,
enthusiastic teacher")
2) Overemphasise the opportunities to use and enjoy French, as a lie
3) Tell the students the boring truth about the lack oppotunities to speak French,
that there are innumerable opportunities, but they are very unlikely to be realised.
Then instruct the students in ways of overemphasising the likelihood of these
opportunities materialising for themselves. There is nothing particularly insidious
about this. It is sometimes called "Image training," and the techniques are varied.
Just hanging a poster depicting France on ones wall, reading something about
France, seeing some French films. All these things may be encouraged by
"conventional" teachers, and this mythical education only puts a new spin on them.
E.g. the purpose of as making a penpal abroad is not "to practice French" (the
amount of practice will in fact be miniscule) but create the sentiment, the expectation,
the myth that one will have the opportunity to practice French. The purpose of
this education would be to provide students with the mythmaking skills required
to enable the students to dumb themselves down, in the recognition that his is
what they really want to do.

This sort of theory needs to be founded on a philosophy which recognises the
*utility* and healthiness of non-truth. I am thinking of Lacan's view of the mature self
(as misrecognition) and Neitzsche's appraisal of truth

Friedrich Neitsche 1876 The Birth of Tradegy

Posted by timtak at 03:25 PM | Comments (3)