Educate or manipulate?

29th August 2008 at 01:00
In our more therapeutic, anti-authoritarian times, when "caring" schools are so concerned with teaching the "whole child" rather than simply "your subject", we should have better teacher-pupil relationships and more harmonious schools than before.

Instead, we appear to have ever more concerns about classroom indiscipline and a greater level of anxiety about the behaviour of children in general. Why is this?

In an interesting book written by Edgar Friedenberg, The Vanishing Adolescent, some of the answers to these questions are provided - which is strange, considering it was written in America in 1959. Despite the time lag, Friedenberg identifies some significant developments in 1950s America that sound very familiar.

The tolerant, democratic approach to the teenager, he felt at the time, was a potentially positive change in schools. However, he argues, if adults fear young people, they cannot use this less paternalistic model successfully.

For Friedenberg, fear existed in the American teaching profession because the "humanities" and the pursuit of knowledge had become diminished. School personnel, he argues, had not grown up using the humanities to understand themselves and life. Education itself had consequently become technical and unrelated to people and life. Lacking a clear philosophy or meaning to the transmission of knowledge, schools had lost a sense of purpose. They had also lost the central and significant framework within which relationships between teachers and pupils could flourish. They had lost their rationale and, as a result, had lost their authority.

The ambivalence teachers feel towards adolescents, Friedenberg argues, is "simply a kind of repressed panic-response to the liquidation of authority over them". With this loss of authority comes a friendly face - a child- friendly approach - but one that is often underpinned by anxiety rather than a genuine engagement with young people.

The passion, moral absolutes and search for meaning, which is part of the "aristocratic" adolescent life, is frightening for a teacher who no longer has passion, belief or authority. However, rather than punishing the student, the teacher now puts an arm around their shoulder and manipulates them.

The adolescent search for self-definition in a society which has no purpose of its own is increasingly difficult, while a school which, as Friedenberg puts it, loses "confidence in its authority to maintain order" employs "specially-trained experts to crawl inside the miscreant, exorcising him from himself, and engineering his consent to their guidance".

Lacking the authority of knowledge and meaning when conflicts with pupils arise, teachers "mediate" rather than "clarify". The guiding concern is simply to protect the teacher rather than clarify the meaning of experience for the youngster.

Rather than helping to develop the individual, the school nervously manipulates and interferes in more areas of the young person's life. Relinquishing his or her role as educator, the teacher involves himself or herself in activities and forms of engagement with which he or she has no expertise. The result, for Friedenberg, was that the knowledge and learning of the teacher was lost, while the space needed for the development of the adolescent's `self' was undermined.

The question of whether to educate or manipulate is even more important today.

Perhaps next time your boss tells you to teach the "whole child", rather than being passionate about your subject, you could hand them a copy of The Vanishing Adolescent.

Stuart Waiton is director of Generation Youth Issues.org.

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