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Curriculum: Breaking The Pattern That Connects

How we perceive our experiences, indeed how we learn to think, are significantly shaped by years of education. These patterns of perceiving and thinking are deeply influenced by the underlying structure of education, or the assumptions embedded in the design of curriculum, instruction and evaluation. And this underlying structure originates largely in analysis, or the breaking down of information into a variety of parts we refer to as subjects, disciplines, courses and the like. Not only is information formulated through the analytical lens, but so is our organization of time so that disintegrated bits of information are presented over disintegrated bits of time. The effect of this one of creating distance, that is, years of education produces an increasing degree of separation between our authentic everyday thoughts and experiences in the world and the abstract and isolated fragments of subject matter via the machinery of curriculum and instruction that pull our attention away from the immediate...

Clearly, the presuppositions of curriculum and instruction are direct extensions of the machine. A simple definition of a machine is a mechanism or device that helps people do work. An assembly-line, for example, is a system of devices that is designed to faciliate the assembly of something. It is just as accurate to say that a curriculum, and the expression of that curriculum via instruction and evaluation, is also a machine.

The end effect of the curricular machinery that drives years of education is the fragmentation of thought and the abstraction of experience. This effect is reinforced but independent of the "content" presented over time. By this I mean the actual content of the curriculum, or the arrangement of information by the way of subject matter over time, is largely irrelevant in producing the effect. It does not really matter if a student experiences years of a particular focus in history, math, science - whatever - since these bodies of information are presented through the same machinery.

Gregory Bateson notes:

Break the pattern which connects the items of learning and you necessarily destroy all quality.
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

The pattern that he refers to is clearly lacking in education today. This means that millions of people experience an education system that fragments our attention and disembodies our experiences. This perhaps sounds harsh, yet if we were to search for the necessary unity that Bateson refers to we would be left wondering how a curriculum machine that abstracts life into component parts and delivers those component parts in isolated and disjointed blocks of time over many years could ever help to unify much of anything.

There is a parallel confusion in the teaching of language that has never been straightened out. Professional linguists nowadays may know what's what, but children in school are still taught nonsense. They are told that a "noun" is the "name of a person, place, or thing," that a "verb" is "an action word," and so on. That is, they are taught at a tender age that the way to define something is by what it supposedly is in itself, not by its relation to other things.
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

Although Bateson made these comments in 1979, they are just as and perhaps even more applicable today. It is little wonder that attainment of literacy has become such a problem since many educational programs attempt to improve literacy by teaching literacy and carry on the tradition of nonsense to which Bateson refers.

But this problem, this inability to be aware of and question the basic presuppositions that fuel the machinery, has a far more significant impact on people than the teaching of literacy.

There is little doubt that violence has dramatically increased in educational systems around the world. The problem is obviously a complex one and cannot be attributed to one precise reason. However, the fragmentation of mind and disembodiment of experience resulting from years of government imposed subservience to the curriculum machine is, in my opinion, unlikely to help people feel satisfied and joyful in life. Regardless of how instructional strategies may be designed to promote as sense of authenticity in the educational experience, these attempts are made within the immovable surround of the curricular machinery. In other words, all adjectives for learning aside, education embraces the machine.

To be a little more bold, it be be worth our time to probe the possibility that years of exposure to a fragmented and disembodied reality known as education may in fact be a (i.e. - one) contributing factor to unhappiness, a lack of joy in life, depression, anger, and violence. Comments like this can breed conflict. If, for example, my personal self-esteem and identity were closely attached to the notion of being an educator and that I preceived the work I was doing as a contribution to the common good, then a critical probe into the presuppositions that I base my self-esteem and identity on may not be a welcome line of thought. However, I also know that basing my self-esteem and identity on such a notion is a mistake. Social roles are an object of design, not a source.

In my own experiences as an educator I constantly came up against the inability of the educational system to question its own presuppositions. Creative approaches to education were often nothing more than variations on the theme of the machine rather than something that could authentically be referred to as creativity. The machine adds layers upon layers of variations under various guises. We see this today most prominently in the issue of violence and bullying in schools. Rather than honestly and openly questionning itself as a potential source of the problem, the curriculum machine adds a layer upon layer of responses. For example, a bullying task force and increasing funds for counseling are common responses to the issue of bullying - an added layer - while the curriculum itself churns along much as it had in the past.

The problem with authentic creativity is that it results in fundamental change. In contrast, status quo creativity reinforces the existing system. These two kinds of creativity are significantly different. Authentic creativity results in an entirely new composition, while status quo creativity adds another variation to an existing theme. Artists understand this difference, and it is perhaps due to the fact that the artists' exclusive focus on authentic creativity that serves to marginalize them in society. In my experience, most organizations are not really looking for authentic creativity, or a source of creativity that fundamentally alters the basicv presuppositions of our work, but tend to embrace status quo creativity, or a creativity that reinforces exisiting norms. Artists, whether they be immersed in science, history, math, or the traditional arts themselves, are typical unwelcome entitites in closed, self-reinforcing systems.

The emerging trend in lifestyle, or as Jeremy Hiebert calls it "lifestlyism," will face this same critical moment of decision. Will the presuppositions of lifestylism originate in authentic creativity, or status quo creativity? Much of the self-help speak is status-quo creativity in that the focus of the ideas are designed to find variations on living within the exisiting presuppositions of our society. An artistic perspective on lifestylism, however, would be something quite different in that it would seek creativity by questionning and challenging the presuppositions that establish social norms themselves. This places us firmly in the realm of Joseph Campbell's journey through the dark forest - a journey that authentic artists embrace openly.

The curriculum machine avoids the perceptual acuity of the artist, for it knows that if that perceptual acuity is turned upon itself its reason for existing would be brought into question. Instead, it embraces the language of authentic creativity all the while ensuring it never takes hold. As Bateson insightfully points out:

I have taught various branches of behavioral biology and cultural anthropology to American students, ranging from college freshman to psychiatric residents, in various schools and teaching hospitals, and I have encoountered a very strange gap in their thinking that springs from a lack of certain tools of thought. This lack is rather equally distributed at all levels of education, among students of both sexes and among humanists as well as scientists. Specifically, it is lack of knowledge of the presuppositions not only of science but also of everyday life.
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity

He is correct, and the comments are equally applicable today. If we are to look for the patterns which connect within education systems, then the machinery must be redesigned, not on its surface but at its source. But it is not only education that suffers from fragementation. My recent experiences in attempting to get effective care for my mother in a hospital made it quite clear that hospitals have little sense of the phrase patterns which connect. In other words, they have great difficulty seeing beyond the confines of administrative biology.

Gregory Bateson's
- Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity is not merely a book to be read or ideas to be mulled over. He has outlined a system of thinking that, if embraced by an artist, will not result in mere change. It will cause a rebellion - a good and beneficial rebellion that serves to inspire and help people. The warriors of this rebellion are not the institutional intellectuals and status quo artists, but the Artist. For it seems that for the most part it is the authentic artist, more than any other individual, that is willing to stand on the outside and train their perceptual acuity on the presuppositions that often lie just outside of awareness.


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