Here are some thoughts I’ve had for awhile about the nature of schools and learning.
The book The Gift by Lewis Hyde has had a deep impact on my life and work. In it, Hyde proposes that artists have a hard time making a living because their work is based in one kind of economy, but they live in another. Hyde posits that the mainstream culture is a commodity culture but artists live in a gift-giving culture.
Bear with me while I try to explain what he says. In a commodity culture, goods and services are exchanged tit for tat – I give you money, or some expression of value, and you give me some good or service in return. Then we’re even and the transaction is done. See ya later.
In a gift-giving culture (and Hyde gives examples of a number of traditional cultures that use gift-giving, like the potlatch of Northwest natives) the gift is given freely without expectation of immediate reciprocity – he says the gift “goes around the corner”, out of sight. Since the transaction isn’t complete, the relationship stays – a gift-giving culture builds a web of interdependence. In a way, wealth is expressed not by what you have, but by how much you give away. Hyde says artists, by the nature of their work, are gift-givers. Musicians can’t help but play, dancers dance, artists paint and writers write. If they hoard, waiting for proper monetary compensation, they dry up and the gift stops. They offer these things up, believing that something will come back. Art builds community.
But therein lies the rub for the artist. It’s hard for them to get a fair commodity value for their art, since these works arrive to them as gifts and are passed on as such, whether they’re paid in money or not.
Okay, that’s a short and fumbling explanation of Hyde’s book – if you want more, I highly recommend it, though I will add that for all its brilliance, to my mind, the second half is kind of a slog.
I’ve been thinking about this in relation to schools, and it explains a lot about the current (and perhaps chronic) fight over whether schools are succeeding or failing. When I look at the schools I work in, I see, overarching everything, a gift-giving culture. Almost everything is offered without expecting immediate return. Children give assignments to teachers, and offer to read out loud to their classmates. Nurses hand out band-aids. Teachers bring in their own books to the classroom and parents bring in snacks. Children share their French fries. Teachers fill in for their co-workers at recess, or as lunch monitors. Children bring in small gifts for their teachers. Cupcakes appear in the teacher’s lounge. In all of these exchanges, and thousands more, there is no tit for tat, no final accounting, no exchange of any currency (okay, French fries)– they are done to make the culture go, and with each of these simple gifts, the web of connection grows. For all the math that’s taught, it’s amazing how little is measured in a school. And this ignores the greatest gift-giving of all – the one that truly goes around the corner – the teacher gives the gift of teaching and knowledge without ever seeing the final result. Only years later, a grown person may realize the gift they were given, and have no way to pay it back except to offer something similar to someone else.
That return on investment is a hard one to measure.
Even though we don’t name it, all of us understand intuitively that the school is a gift-giving culture. That’s why when a teacher demands a raise, or decides only to work as much as they are actually required (“work to order”), or walks out on strike, many people are incensed. How dare that teacher insert filthy money into this situation? We feel that the unspoken rules of an unnamed gift-giving culture have been broken. By and large, teachers are loath to make waves. Most teachers, in my experience, are nurturers and accomodators – it takes a lot to get them to speak up about being treated fairly. In this, they’re like artists, or nurses – their work offers gifts that can’t quite be monetized. They really would rather teach.
I especially see this paradox playing out in high-stakes testing and the ongoing push to measure educational achievement. We have witnessed the emergence of the quantifiers, the bean counters, as the major arbiters in whether an education is valid. Calibrating things, measuring their value, giving merit pay based on test scores, counting the number of minutes of instruction time and doing away with activities not easily measured (um, for instance, like a storyteller’s visit or a class party), are done in the belief that this will be more educationally effective.
Except schools don’t work like that, and neither do humans. When we leave no room for these “valueless” activities, these expressions that have no immediate return, or we insist on finding a way to measure them, we’re destroying the fabric of the culture. While we need to reach agreement on what things are important to teach, and find ways to see how a child is growing, when the measurements drive the activity of the school, the culture is damaged and you get a lot of sullen people who are going to think twice about giving without return. Not just teachers, but kids and staff.
I think some people who institute this stuff have good intentions. But they’re wrong. No matter how you cut it, a school isn’t a profit-making corporation offering goods and services in exchange for equal financial value. It’s a bad model.
A test score that punishes isn’t a gift at all.