Why we all need countercultural education

Here’s another way of looking at the role of education. The author is thinking of schools but I have something broader in mind. More about that below. First, here are the opening paragraphs of “Unplugged Schools” by Lowell Monke, which appeared in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion:

“Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, ‘Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.’ Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, ‘That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.’

“Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.

“I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat — to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.”

As one such area of needed compensation, in the rest of the article Monke goes on to look at our growing emphasis on information technology. It’s worth reading, but here I want to focus on the idea that education should compensate for society’s excesses, that it has a responsibility to be countercultural in some important ways. And I’m thinking of education not just as schooling, but as including all the thinking and reading and conversing that we do for ourselves after our school days are over.

But why would we think of education this way? Because the world of books, ideas, curiosity, and learning can give you the tools to transcend your particular time and place. Through books you can look at the world through someone else’s eyes — someone from another time, another temperament, even another culture.

Monke is suggesting that we seek these alternative perspectives deliberately. It sounds contrarian — figure out what your culture is doing and use ‘education’ to find other ways. But this doesn’t mean that you have to change. It means you now have options. You can see that what the culture has chosen for you is indeed a choice. You don’t have to accept it. Without such an education, the excesses of the culture are just the sea you’re swimming in, like the proverbial fish who is unaware of water.

The countercultural role of education has been on my mind lately as I’ve been re-reading one of the most famously contrarian books in American literature, Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Walden is often mis-characterized as a book about wilderness survival or withdrawal from society. In fact, it’s mostly about questioning society’s assumptions and looking at things closely for yourself.

More about that starting March 20, as we begin “A Year in Walden.”

7 thoughts on “Why we all need countercultural education

  1. Pingback: Why we all need countercultural education | Lea...

  2. Steve

    This is a great piece. A lot of educators talks about how “kids learn today,” and the upshot is usually very good for tech companies bottom line. Technology does allow us to do some neat things in the classroom, but if students’s have short attention spans then we should work on making them longer. Nietzsche said that learning to read slowly is a form of cultural critique. That seems to be even more true today.

    I also liked your take on *Walden*: “Walden is often mis-characterized as a book about wilderness survival or withdrawal from society. In fact, it’s mostly about questioning society’s assumptions and looking at things closely for yourself.”

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks – yes, I agree that tech companies’ bottom line plays a role in this. Some things are good – the agency I work for is using Apple’s free iBook Author software to create regional history materials for students (after their schools purchase iPads, of course!). So that makes it easier for us to get placed-based content to kids, though I worry sometimes that people value technology’s flashiness over content. No matter how the content is delivered, if it’s to be worth anything, at some point the student has to do the hard work of reading and comprehending it… without being distracted by some other cool app or other bright shiny technobauble.

  3. FullEmpty

    Beautiful piece. I wish educational systems the world over would have the integrity to be “countercultural”. What will begin a real and pervasive shift in perception is the big question.

    1. thecuriouspeople Post author

      Thanks – unfortunately, I think a lot people view education as nothing more than job training. And certainly, when people are economically insecure it’s difficult to get them to think beyond that.

  4. FullEmpty

    Dear David, I wonder if you have come across the Indian educational philosopher J Krishnamurti, who set up schools in India, the US and the UK. Some of what he says links very closely to your concerns as expressed in your post above. I’m pasting a brief description of his work below. Thanks.

    In his writings and talks to audiences all over the world, Krishnamurti emphasized the need for a fundamental transformation in human consciousness. The turmoil in our relationships and in the world is a reflection of our self-centredness and our confused attempts to escape pain and suffering. Without this transformation, he felt that there was no possibility of lasting peace and freedom for the individual or for society…
    Krishnamurti felt that education has a central role to play in nurturing a living awareness in the student and the teacher. The Krishnamurti Foundations set up many schools in India, America, and the U.K. and the teachings have been the inspiration for many others over the decades.


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