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Curriculum: The Obliteration of Individuality

Hermann Hesse's ideas are engaging and thought-provoking. His linking of experience to the awakening of the soul is made in contrast to a more commonplace connection between education and work...

Vocation and the Soul

There are many types and kinds of vocation, but the core of the experience is always the same: the soul is awakened by it, transformed or exalted, so that instead of dreams and presentments from within a summons comes from without. A portion of reality presents itself and makes its claim.

- Hermann Hesse in The Glass Bead Game

It is clear that Hesse had a fundamental mistrust of his own education. This mistrust, I suspect, comes from what we might refer to as the avoidance of the soul in learning.

In me school destroyed a great deal, and I know of few men of any stature who cannot say the same. All I learned there was Latin and lying.

- Hermann Hesse in Reflections

This is clearly a harsh condemnation of his own educational experience, a condemnation that is common to many writers:

Soap and education are not as sudden as a massacre, but they are more deadly in the long run.
- Mark Twain in A Curious Dream

Education is an admirable thing. But it is as well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.
- Oscar Wilde: For the Instruction of the Over-educated in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever.
- Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest in The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde

He who can, does. He who cannot, teaches.
- George Bernard Shaw in Man and Superman

What is the principle of education? We do nothing but deceive children. We teach them things we don't believe and subsequently they won't believe. We make them promise to avoid everything they see, which subsequently would give them wordly success.
- Prince de Ligne in Mes écarts (Espace nord)

A professor is one who talks in someone else's sleep.
- W.H. Auden in Life of a Poet

Individuality and the Hieracrhical Organization

Each of the comments above share a common theme on the denial of education. For Hesse, the experience his own education constituted a form of deception. For example, Hesse proposed that education fostered an obliteration of individuality and connected this to the nature of the hierarchic organization:

For, after all, obliteration of individuality, the maximum integration of the individual into the hierarchy of the educators and scholars, has ever been one of our ruling principles. ...The hierarchic organization cherishes the ideal of anonymity, and comes very close to the realization of that ideal.
- Hermann Hesse in The Glass Bead Game

One of the problems with statements like these is that they we don't want to believe they are true, or, we are simply unable to focus our perception deep enough to reveal the truth in them. In other words, new ideas that may in fact give a new and much needed sense of freedom to education are often consumed and nullified by the heirarchic organization. Much of this consumption occurs at the level of language, in other words, bureaucracy attempts to control the definition of words themselves.

Hesse was condemning his own education because it did not help to awaken his soul, and may have had the effect of confining his soul.

Improvization and Culture

The Glass Bead Game has many timeless qualties that remain relevant. For example, we might view ideas about interactivity, connectivity, and community through this lens:

"The Glass Bead Game is thus a mode of playing with the total contents and values of our culture; it plays with them as, say, in the great age of the arts a painter might have played with the colors on his palette.
- Hermann Hesse in The Glass Bead Game

The idea of "playing with the total contents and values of our [i.e. - humankind] culture" is one that speaks to Hesse's awakening of the soul. It is an idea that contains a deep-seeded optimism in humankind, while not ignoring its more mercurial nature.

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Hi Jeremy - Interesting entry you referred me to. I agree that there needs to be some "essentials" for people to know. At the same time, the "curriculum" is the medium through which these essentials attempt to pass. Whatever the content is, it is given form by curriculum. This is why history, math, science, etc. are all the same - the words may be different in each of these topics, but the presentation of them is identical. Not enough people understand curriculum for what it is - a technology.

For example, take the idea of "citizenship" and ask the question, "What is the effect of curriculum on our understanding of citizenship?" We might also ask, "Can students really learn to be effective citizens while spending twelve years of their life immersed in a machine-like system of abstraction and classification in which facts and information are more important than the human element?" Or, "If Johnny gets an "A" he wins $20 from his parents and that will encourage him to be a good boy." Pure excrement. Citizenship is environmental, and if the environment we find ourselves in markets the idea of citizenship through language and presents a contrasting reality, we know its fodder. And so do students. Citizenship in education, as it is presented to us through curriculum, seems to be more about preparation for capitalism than contribution.

It's also interesting to note that, according to a news show I saw recently, 68% of students in grades three through eight (U.S.) fall below some standard for literacy. I suspect this 68% contains many bright and creative youth, however, I also suspect they will be foolishly mislabeled. And to be honest, I have worked with some teachers whose reading and writing abilities were not well developed. Reading and writing have become so divorced from the practical realities of everyday life, especially for students, that we find ourselves spending more and more time trying to "teach" it. Does an intelligent person really want to learn literacy as an end unto itself? No. People want to read and write in order to explore and discover things in life that have meaning and relevance. Literacy, for me, is not something that can simply be taught in isolation from everything else. At the same time, the means of evaluating "literacy" is probably just as isolated so the figure may not mean much at all.

We need to challenge the presuppositions of curriculum and replace them with something more durable and connected. In other words, we need to change what we mean by curriculum, or we need to eliminate it as a system of organization. Knowledge, skills and attitudes for far too long have been the predominant triad - they don't work. We're so busy trying to teach students to be good citizens that they give up on us.

Connected Intelligence is a means to change these presuppositions and might be considered a kind of Trojan horse. Your comment about the language is an important one. If we don't change the language we use (either by changing meanings, or eliminating concepts and replacing them with others) any kind of "innovation" is doomed at the outset. The language of education is a powerful means to suck authenticity out of experience. This is why I believe new technologies have, in my opinion, done next to nothing to change the underlying mechanisms of education. Sure, these new technologies offer new potential, but they easily get assimilated into the curriculum and the language of promise surrounding them is nothing more than smoke and mirrors - or, as Hesse might say, a lie.

Great thoughts, Brian. I've wrestled a bit with issues around curriculum as well. It's this weird circular loop in my head.

At its core, curriculum is simply what society has decided that it wants everyone to understand. Many of those things are actually quite important (citizenship, the three Rs, etc) in leading a fulfilling life. It makes me believe that maybe there should be some "essentials".

But would the essential learning for any one individual (to have a fulfilling life) be covered by an individualized curriculum that supported the learner in following their interests? I'd like to think so, but it seems to be so far out of the dominant paradigm that I don't feel like I have the language or examples to properly think it through. I did some thinking about here, though:

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