Sunday, March 18, 2012

Deja Vu All Over Again

"Retrospective" seems to be the key word in art, music, movies, media and even schools these days as we look back fondly on our imagined idylls in the 20th century and pay homage to the past in remake after remake.  This is natural, I suppose, since it is only after some time has elapsed that we can form an intelligent perspective and decide what it all meant.  
Walking Mural (1974) by Asco, a Chicano conceptual
and performance art group from East Los Angeles.

In this spirit, the Getty Institute in Los Angeles spent ten years researching, organizing, and coordinating a mammoth art happening that involved 60 installations from Santa Barbara to San Diego, from Santa Monica to Palm Springs, heralding postwar art in LA, Pacific Standard Time.  The website itself is a work of art, documenting the vast richness of cultural and political statement from an array of artists working in every imaginable medium.  For sheer immersion in a disturbing zeitgeist, my favorite experience was Under the Big Black Sun at the MOCA Geffen Center in Japantown, where the fractured '70s came alive in the work of 125 far-out artists from every LA microculture, viewed to the beat of video loops from the Vietnam War, Watergate and Nixon speeches, Reagan election hoopla--a cacophony of absurdity.  If we survived the '70s, I thought, and the birth of post-modern cynicism, can't we find our way forward from here? 

It was no surprise, then, to discover among these displays a series of stark black and white photographs documenting the visual absurdity of industrial plants in the South Bay juxtaposed to interior shots of short-haired students with blank faces lined up at proto-computer monitors or standing at conveyor belts, learning the new languages of modern media, the skills of modern manufacturing.  It was regimented Big Brother stuff, of course, but what blew me away were the comments by the artist, talking about the "factory mentality" of our schools, the lack of individuality in our teaching, the lock-step learning schools expected from the students and, most of all, the clear separation of young people from low socioeconomic classes into menial, repetitive, simple-minded tasks.

Wow, I thought.  An artist of the '70s could clearly see what we are still having trouble conceptualizing 40 years later.  Despite all the new bells and whistles of the computer age, the tweaks to the curriculum, the concerted effort to move minority kids forward, we are still dealing with a system that defeats us at every turn.  As John Goodlad is fond of saying, "The system is not broken.  It is working perfectly."  It's just doing something that we no longer agree with sociologically.  Thus, all our cosmetic efforts to improve a program or buy more computers or train better teachers or pour more money into old ideas are doomed to failure if we do not engage with the crux of the problem:  the STRUCTURE of the SYSTEM.

Yet, all around us, the retrospective continues:  We were doing personalized learning in computer labs in 1982; why haven't we progressed from there?  We were doing technology for teachers with hypercard stacks in 1988; why haven't we progressed from there?   We were doing magnet/special interest schools in the '80s; why do we still think they are an answer?  We had a huge push for science and math teachers and students in the '60s and again in the '80s.  Do we have to go around that wheel again, too?  We fought out phonics vs. whole language in the '90s.  Can't we figure out how to do both?

I never thought I would be around long enough to be one of those old teachers who used to say to me, "Just watch.  It will all come around again."  And, amazingly, it does, as though none of us is smart enough to see the bigger picture and to say, "Wait a minute.  We have to do something radically different!"  All right, I'm exaggerating, because many people are beginning to say exactly that these days, and their voices are growing in number and having more clout:  The homeschoolers, the charter schoolers, the alternative schoolers--They all understand that something radical has to happen.

And they're right.  I'm just stuck on the idea that the radical change we need to make must be for EVERY child, that we need to be smart enough to agree on a SMARTER SYSTEM that will produce new, open structures where every child, every teacher, every parent, and every community will thrive.  What do we do, you ask?  How can I help?   I invite you to reams of articles and an animated version of a talk by Sir Ken Robinson on my Articles/Video page and then join our campaign on Facebook, where Change the Schools becomes a function of changing our minds . . . .

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