|Theodore Richards, author of Creatively Maladjusted|
Jane Goodall, an experienced teacher and academic at both secondary and tertiary levels, reviews Theodore Richards' newest book, Creatively Maladjusted: The Wisdom Education Movement Manifesto
Early in my career I spent some months as a casual teacher in Sydney’s inner west. Some of the schools in the area were quite rough, with high levels of student aggression and disaffection, and the challenge in these environments was especially acute for casual staff. One school in particular had a reputation as somewhere best avoided. Most of us on the casuals list learned to declare ourselves unavailable if we got a call from them, but I’ve never forgotten an encounter with a young teacher who took up the challenge and went there regularly.
I was curious to know how he managed. He shrugged. “I just sit down at the desk and get on with my work.” But didn’t he find he had a riot on his hands? “Sometimes.” He was smiling, in a relaxed sort of way. “Usually they get bored with that before long. Boredom’s their biggest problem.”
Yes, but… My mind was racing ahead, thinking of the lengths those kids had gone to on my last visit to let me know just how bored they were with my carefully prepared material. That, he admitted, had been his experience first time round. So the second time, he just brought some books and sat at the teacher’s desk reading, letting the chaos rage around him. After ten minutes or so, two of the girls approached him, sneering:
‘You’re not a very good teacher, are you?’
‘Why do you say that?’
‘Because you’re not teaching us anything.’
‘OK.’ He pulled two chairs up to his desk. ‘What would you like to learn?’
And of course, by the end of the lesson, he had rings of chairs all around the desk, as more and more students decided to see what was going on.
Looking back on this conversation, I have different questions from those that were in my mind at the time. What makes someone able to bring such a completely different strategy to the teaching situation? And now, in the midst of a national debate in Australia about the Gonski reforms, designed to address the problem of ‘under-performing students', why are policy-based solutions so cumbersome in comparison?
These are the kinds of questions that interest Theodore Richards and his colleagues in the Wisdom Education Movement. Creatively Maladjusted, as a manifesto for the movement, poses a whole range of quite fundamental questions about education, what it means, its traditions, principles and philosophies. Underlying the questions is an urgent sense that in failing to ask them, we have managed to get it all wrong. In his introduction, Richards quotes the Dalai Lama: ‘Education is in crisis the world over.’ The focus of this book, though, is on the problems with education in the Western world.
|"A manifesto is what we need right now."|
I am wary of generalizations about ‘the Western world’ but Richards does acknowledge the need for some caution here. Far too often, he says, those who critique Modernity or the West indulge in a kind of anti-intellectualism. He is also aware of the temptation to set oneself up as the advocate of a right way against everyone else’s wrong way. Although I’m not sure that he entirely avoids this trap, his criticisms are founded in some genuine experience of alternative approaches. In his late teens, he began working for the Sue Duncan Children’s Centre on the south side of Chicago, a world away from the privileged milieu of the University of Chicago where he was still a student. After he graduated, he went to Zimbabwe to teach in an adult literacy program. His educational philosophy is also influenced by studies of traditional Tanzanian education, and by an ongoing program of training in the Chinese martial art of Bagua.
The title of the book is taken from a statement by Martin Luther King Jr: ‘Human salvation lies in the hands of the creatively maladjusted.’
Since maladjustment is normally associated with destructive social tendencies, the combination of words is designed to make us think twice about both maladjustment and creativity. To be creatively maladjusted, says Theodore Richards, is to go against the grain but to do so in a spirit of generosity and imaginative freedom, spurred by the conviction that it is wrong to fit into a broken system. Richards sees modern Western education as a broken system, in which schools are driven by an obsession with testing. Teaching is all about the delivery of information, and the syllabus is derived from a mechanistic view of the world. This kind of education results in what he calls ‘nature deficit disorder.’ There is too much dependence on technology, and little or no focus on the body as a learning vehicle.
But he doesn’t acknowledge that there is a counter-tradition in Western education. Every so often, a prophetic voice emerges to declare the whole system broken, and to offer a powerful alternative vision. The eighteenth-century Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau presented a radical back-to-nature model of education and upbringing in his novel Emil, first published in 1762.
When English poet William Blake wrote ‘the tygers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction’ he was calling for the valuation of fiery passion over downtrodden conformity. Charles Dickens’s novel Hard Times opens with a scene in which children are being drilled in facts, numbers and ‘ologies’ in a bare vault of a schoolroom.
‘Girl number 20’ is failed for being unable to define a horse, although she is a circus performer born to ride horses.
And there are more recent examples: Pink Floyd’s movie The Wall, for example, with an animation sequence showing children being put through a sausage machine, while the voice-over shouts – ‘Hey, teacher, leave those kids alone!’
Richards doesn’t refer to these. Nor does he credit the continuing influence of Rudolf Steiner and the Steiner (Waldorf) schools in providing an alternative model of education based on natural philosophy and representing many of the values he advocates. [To add another dimension to this vital discussion, the author correctly sees those influences as very weak in the United States and almost certainly elsewhere, including Australia and Europe. ED.] The possible weakness of this book is that it puts forward a sweeping and quite stereotyped view of contemporary education, and the alternative vision it presents relies too heavily on a rather vague notion of ‘creativity'. It’s worth remembering that this is now a buzz-word with the technology companies whose influence he dislikes. Richards' purpose, though, is to write a manifesto, and that means getting the essential principles across in an economical and assertive way. And perhaps a manifesto is what we need right now. One of the passions that drives this book is a conviction that education is being ruined by regimes of testing, born of a failure to realize the deeper values and purposes of human learning.
Richards writes: "If we seek to become educated only for ourselves – that is, for our personal wealth and prestige – then we have missed the opportunity for our knowledge to become wisdom. I am proposing that the only way to assess an educational system is to look at the direction in which our communities, our country, our planet, and our species are headed. If the test scores go up but we continue to destroy the Earth, are we succeeding?"
It’s a pretty compelling question, and gives a sense of urgency about the disconnection between the aims and objectives of so-called ‘achievement’ in education and the qualities that enhance our lives as natural beings.
The best parts of the book are those that are more personal, and testify to Richards' belief in a quiet, contemplative relationship between teacher and student. In the Preface, he tells a lovely story about taking his two-year-old daughter for a walk around the campus of the University of Chicago and having to discipline himself to stop and watch her while she pokes at the lily-pads on the pond. Perhaps one of the hardest things for a teacher to learn is when to be passive, and simply allow space and time for human curiosity to come to the fore.
Danvers, Massachusetts: Hiraeth Press
Dr Jane Goodall is a writer, literary critic and teacher, and a frequent contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club. Do share your views and comments with her and us below. (Use "anonymous" if you don't have a google email address - wade through the "captcha", remembering it is always two "words". Should be easy!)
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