The Insularity of School Research

This interesting essay, “A QUESTION OF SILENCE”: WHY WE DON’T READ OR WRITE ABOUT EDUCATION by Houman Harouni in The American Reader makes many points that Goodman, Illich, Holt, Gatto, and other education “outsiders” have made in the past, particularly regarding the solipsistic nature of school research. By taking on more recent examples of educators’ blindness to solutions and issues outside of the academy, Harouni shows how educationalists (his word; I prefer the term “educationist”) conceive of their work as existing in a world apart (“Just wait until you get into the real world,” as parents and teachers say to children every day). Harouni writes:

But don’t be confused. Schooling, in its current form, is primarily neither a science nor an art. It’s a public service industry, and a traditional one to boot. When educationalists talk about “science”, they are often talking about industrial analysis. No one can say clearly what constitutes the “product” or the “service” in this case—and any concentrated attempt would arrive at some inhumane conclusions. But imprecision does not frustrate these measurements. Most educational research relies on measuring imaginary “products”. These are simple and preferably quantifiable representations—test scores being the most common example.

This type of quantitative research is occasionally very useful as a critical tool—it exposes imbalances and deficiencies. However, when it comes to practical solutions, the only thing this type of research can help with is measuring efficiency and effectiveness (it’s an administrative tool through and through). The problem is that in education most imbalances were caused precisely by the administrative attitude that underlies quantitative research: a desire for efficiency, the denial of social complexities, the willingness to eradicate real relationships from human situations and replace them with codified interactions, and the viewing of individuals as isolated statistical bodies. In education, as in other industries, every intervention will have to be subject to quantitative evaluation, and eventually the evaluation will end up reshaping the intervention in its own image.

I urge you to read the essay; it can be a useful article to share with people who insist there’s a strong research and philosophical base that supports compulsory education as a scientific and proven method for creating good citizens (the original, legal purpose for compelling attendance). Instead, to paraphrase the outsiders noted above, compulsory schooling is a scientific and proven method for creating compliant, somewhat confused, consumers waiting to be told what they can do next.

Sadly, Harouni does not even mention the homeschooling movement as a place for new ideas and energy for education, parental and community involvement, and for new places and people for children to be instead of school during the day. Nonetheless, he has clearly identified the problem with school research and, like the young boy in the fairy tale he has clearly announced, “The emperor has no clothes.”