Unbecoming American: Pedagogical panopticon

At my relatively old age or state of maturity there are many things about which to dream. As a youth much of this nocturnal secretion necessarily extends beyond conscious experience. Hence we can easily believe that dreams are fantasy, in the sense of words describing what we could not have witnessed or done, at the very least from the bed in which we lay. Since all that is accessible or assessable from what we call dreams are the words- if we have them- to describe, dreams might be called covert verbalization. The only detectable difference is that we attribute this activity to a prior state called sleep. Now I could extend my appreciation to a definition of sleep as a condition and for dreams. However my point here is to focus on the verbal activity, especially supposing a condition of dormancy, whether by day or night.

Perhaps the dreams I have, that is those about which I can give an account, are extensive because I spend most of my waking hours in verbal activity, e.g. writing and talking (even to myself). It occurred to me that I have been doing both, using a pen and my tongue for nearly sixty years, since shortly after my father bought me my first desk at the age of four.

Sometimes my dreams comprise conventional activities, doing things in my sleep that I could do awake. However in the past couple of years my sleep reports are debates and lectures I give as if I were still teaching. In fact my formal teaching career was short and frequently interrupted. I had never sought or obtained more than a temporary teaching license. The profession had only annoyed me until an advanced age and unemployment induced me to seek substitute teaching posts to pay my bills. At university it was said of those in the education college, formerly the normal school, that “those who can’t, teach”. 

In the course of my itinerant pedagogical practice I found that this is indeed true. However like many generalizations, this truism requires qualification. The objection implied was easy enough to find. Many teachers I have met or whom I knew as colleagues would have been interchangeable with any clerk in the lower ranks of the civil or military service. The fact that they spent hours standing before pupils or students was indistinguishable from that of someone who had sat sorting file folders on his desk or marching platoons up and down the square. They were history teachers who knew nothing more than was in the textbooks their pupils had to read. They were science teachers devoid of curiosity or doubt. They were language teachers that neither read nor wrote more than a lesson plan.

All that was testimony to the regrettable truth of young people addicted to school (especially its work calendar and benefits) but with no interest in learning. At the same time there was another kind of person, albeit rare in my experience. That was the person who through teaching overcame what he can‘t do to become someone who can.

I write this after waking from a dream discussing teaching and the relationship between teacher and taught. On one hand taught designates the substance a teacher is employed to instruct. On the other the term applies to those whose role is to respond to the teacher by learning. This invisible process has always been implicitly compared to the effect of what has only been available in the past three decades, namely local wireless transmission, e.g. WLAN. Naturally other metaphors or metaphysics were applied before humanity’s invasion by compulsive computation and the ludicrous comparison of humans with digital machines.

My interest, at least as assessment of my nocturnal articulation, was the difference between the teacher who believes in the transmission of the taught to the taught and the teaching situation in which those who can‘t become those who can. In the same era in which this question became very important to me any observer could detect the increasing frequency and intensity with which “competency” has dominated the rhetoric of all forms of pedagogy. Competency means the ability to do something properly. It also means the authority necessary to do something. For reasons that can be explained but are usually omitted or concealed, the “competency-based” learning widely propagated only addresses the ability to do something but not the authority. This intentional defect is inherent in the rhetoric of schooling as indoctrination- the main reason schools are run. Competency is a euphemism for the reduction of teaching and learning to mastery of test batteries. It is an insincere slogan for intensifying the brainwashing throughout with high density, depleted data. (The analogy to DU munitions made for atomic waste disposal is intentional.)

In my dream the teacher was a person able to do many things. At the same time there were many things the teacher could not (yet) do. The controversy in my sleep was about the performance in the classroom. Does the teacher perform as the source from which the taught must drink? Do the taught have preference in defining what they will learn and hence the content and style of the teacher’s performance? I was bothered by this dichotomy especially because both questions really addressed the power of the classroom and not the pedagogical core questions at all.

As I lay dreaming I argued that the power question must be faced in order to distinguish its exercise. The classroom or analogous space shapes the charges that are detonated within it. Inert materials can be used with explosive effect. However one must ask, should teaching and learning be approached as controlled demolition or the firing of armor-piercing projectiles into captured targets, regardless of the side pulling the trigger?

As I lay sleeping I wandered between the rows and aisles of this classroom like many in which I had once worked. I remembered the lessons I had begun without knowing their ends. Then there was a class I assigned to memorize a poem by Robert Louis Stevenson- admitting that I was actually rather poor at memorizing. I also recalled being asked how I could teach something that was not in the book. To which I replied, the book tells a story, you can believe or not. But it can tell you no more than you find in print. I can tell you a story and if what I say is not clear or you want to know more than I said, well I am in front of you, you can ask me. Then came the retort. How do we know what you say is true?

At this point an apparent paradox arises. The learner is confronted with an artifact and a live action. Which is true, that which I read or that which I see and hear with my own eyes? There is no way to resolve this in the classroom. Therefore the determination of truth cannot be the competency to which professional educators so often refer. On the contrary, the practice of being a pupil or student is to become in a sense “incompetent”. That is to learn how to abandon rigidly prescribed dogma or doctrine or ready assessments if sensual experience- if necessary to become capable as a human being endowed with intellectual authority. There is no standardized test to measure that. No certificate can guarantee that either has been achieved.

Having said that I found myself arguing with a figure indistinct about the necessity of anarchy in education. Although that term was not used in my sleep, the opposition to whom I was speaking was defending the abolition of teacher authority in favor of some higher ethical concepts, like anti-racism, anti-isms of all sorts. My opponent insisted that if nothing else schools or education should assure diversity, inclusion and equity. Knowledge had to be imbued with such moral integrity that pupils and students could have no mistake about the right ways to behave.

I replied without irony- sleep is a literal condition- that I knew of no time when knowledge was exclusively coincident with prevailing morals and therefore had reason to doubt that such an era lay before us. In that great theatrical prop of Western monotheism the beginning of mankind was when two human beings through divine deceit acquired what has been called the “knowledge of good and evil”. One has to ask what knowledge had they before their tragedy? This notion that knowledge- at least that of „good and evil“ – was so crucial (also as in crucifixion) to the exclusion of any other faculty is peculiar. If there was no prior knowledge of this sort then what of importance was known “before the fall”? Perhaps this so-called knowledge was not of something “moral” but of life itself. Certainly the untold centuries or millennia since the alleged event have failed to exhibit much practical knowledge. Instead what one finds is “competency”: the ability to perform tests and the certification of such performance. Perhaps that was the seminal demonstration for the mystification of knowledge that continues in contemporary pedagogy.

As I woke my discussion continued. I had my breakfast trying to bring it to a useful end. So I began to write that which I now conclude-for the waking moment. The teacher is a necessary role in the creation of real knowledge. The pupil role is just as important. In the classroom both roles are performed separately by people who are or at least try to be awake. The texts and other physical materials used are theatrical properties on this stage. While it is desirable that they be useful, it is not essential that they crystallize truth or morals. The world beyond the classroom is neither pure nor crystalline. The most important quality of the pedagogical performance its integrity derives from the skill and commitment with which both roles are played. For more than a millennia moral purity in the classroom has merely concealed the destructive power of those who would prevent a proper performance. The aggressive attacks on pedagogical stages throughout the West‘s educational institutions purport to purify history, arts and sciences. In fact they are heavily funded campaigns of spiritual terrorism directed at destroying knowledge and the capacity of teaching and learning people to produce it. By destroying the human pedagogical theaters, these fanatics are preparing the replacement of human intellectual and cultural production, that is natural human life itself, for those whose dreams comprise nothing- nothing but the destruction they euphemistically denote as “artificial”. Artificial suggests that it is something made, the product of artifice. However therein lies the term’s deceit. The dream of artificial intelligence is a dream without intelligence or knowledge. It is the dream of death by the killers who never sleep.



In Solar Terms

Fruit of the Vine: Volume 1: An Intelligent Family,

Author’s book interview:

Dr. T.P. Wilkinson, aka Wei Santang discusses his two new books, “In Solar Terms” and “Fruit of the Vine”. China Rising Radio Sinoland 231215

Poems and articles on Dissident Voice:



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