October 4, 2020

On democracy, education and teaching

On democracy and education.

In order for a democracy to function, individuals must relate to one another as equals. Only then, can we all come together and engage in collective decision-making. Only then, can we elect eligible representatives we trust to speak on behalf of all groups in government.

Pairing this week's readings for Democracy and Inequality class with Diane Tavenner's Prepared illuminates how meritocracy has gone wrong. Tavenner talks about leaving no one behind. Our meritocracy normalises cut-throat competition. Tavenner's Summit schools demands for diversity. Our meritocracy drives wedges between class, race and gender.

At the same time, reading Prepared has been nothing but inspiring.  I empathise with the helplessness she faced in a fragmented public education system. Her desolation palpable when she describes burned out teachers and under-funded schools. In the first 10% of her book, I am reminded about why I stopped volunteering as a tutor, and eventually, why I stopped tutoring at all. But as I go on to read the remaining 90% of the book, I find myself increasingly energised and hopeful, for I am presented with a blueprint for the sort of revolutionary educational reform I had ever only imagined about. The best part is that has not only has Tavenner's model worked, it has also flourished.

On teaching

Ralph Waldo Emerson had once exhorted for all educators to inspire the young minds under their charge to “believe in their noble nature," not to let their existential aspirations “degenerate into the mere love of money." More importantly, he implored for all teachers to never forget "the capital secret of [the teaching] profession, namely to convert life into truth."

What does it mean to convert life into truth? To inspire students to pursue their inclinations and work towards mastery? To equip students with skills so that they'd be all-ready to face the world on their own?

Prepared has given me hope about the future of education, if only we could just turn things around. Above all, it reminded me of why I started tutoring all those years ago. And a small part of my brain toyed with the idea of going back into teaching one day.

On a democratic schooling experience

Moving on to Jennifer Morton's piece on How Elite Education Promotes Diversity Without Difference. Such a hard-hitting piece. This piece has  moved me profoundly. I can't help but spot parallels between her experiences in the US and in Singapore.  This piece struck me so strongly that I emailed Prof about it.

Students from marginalised communities who attend elite universities find themselves living and studying not just with the children of middle-class professionals but also with those who come from the richest families in the country. These universities produce an elite, but they also reproduce it, admitting a disproportionate number of students from the highest income sectors.

What an education in an elite university does not offer is  learning about the lived experience of poor, working-class Americans that classes in "sociology, politics, history and anthropology" cannot teach.

In the community college that Morton currently teaches, almost half of the students come from poor families. These students grapple with many difficulties, including working long hours while juggling a full academic load,  some are severely behind in crucial academic areas, and some already have families of their own. Morton emphasises that she is not “glorifying” their difficulties. Rather, she aims to highlight  "how their rich, complicated lives add a dimension to the classroom that [she] didn’t enjoy as an undergraduate or graduate student."

What does the educational experience then mean for democracy? Morton says:

If, for example, we want to foster policy discussions that include a broad range of perspectives, we must do better than turning to a room full of Ivy League or Oxbridge graduates. Instead, fill that room with graduates from places such as CCNY or the University of Hull. These students are much more likely to have educational experiences that can contribute different insights for a more representative elite.

This led me to think: what are the kinds of educational experiences do our current leaders have?

A quote that I really like.

I feel like a garden that's finally been watered, so my flowers can bloom.  - Tove Jansson.

Jansson said this when she fell intoxicatingly in love. As for myself, I wonder what kind of self-growth it takes to feel the same- to be so grounded and sure-footed in an endeavour of my choosing, that I feel ready to bloom.

Final thoughts.

At this point, I still think I'm too comfortable. Way too comfortable.

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