Who do you serve?

In the play “A man for all seasons” Cardinal Wolsey asks the Common Man who he serves. The Common Man replies “I have only one master!” The kicker is of course, that the Common Man is referring to himself, and not the Cardinal. Who do we, as teachers, serve? It’s not such an easy question to answer; the glib reply might be “the students” or “the parents” or even “the department” if you’re particularly jaded. We do operate in a power structure, no teacher is an island no matter how much we might wish for it, but who does that power system serve?

I’ve been trying to do an assignment on education and globalisation. The short version is that assignments suck, the longer version is, I’m questioning some very basic assumptions about how schooling is done in Australia.

Now this is the part where I come out of the closet as a Hattie sceptic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure his data is fine and dandy. It’s the premise I have a problem with. The premise of Hattie’s work is that schools merely exist to make qualified economic units who fit into a capitalist system. For those out of the loop, Hattie did a lot of cool research about what does and doesn’t work in the classroom in terms of measurable learning outcomes. There’s some useful data in there, I don’t want to take away from that.

But let’s do a little mind experiment, shall we? Think back to the teacher who inspired you the most, go back to that memory you have about learning that sets your heart on fire. I’ll bet pounds to pennies that interaction wasn’t one of the effective measurable pedagogies identified by Hattie. That’s my problem with Hattie’s work, it’s reductive and ignores the work teachers do to develop children into adults. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.

Bronwyn Davies and Peter Bansel in an article titled “Neoliberalism and Education” write about how neoliberalism presents itself as natural and inevitable when it’s not. Every teacher knows the two-choice-trick of telling students “Be on task or stay in at lunch”, neoliberalism does something similar “Neoliberalism or disaster!” Experienced teachers know that some children can see through the false choice that is offered and will instead elect to set fire to Stacey’s bag and run off into the wilderness giggling and farting. We can be that naughty child too if we want, setting fire to inequality and running off from the false choices presented to us as educators.

Neoliberalism occurs when education and health are reduced to commodities to be traded, as opposed to the fundamental work of a good society. Neoliberalism occurs when we say Humanities and the Arts are not as important as Science and Mathematics. Neoliberalism occurs when private schools are enriched by public money while public schools go poor. Neoliberalism occurs when education is forced to produce good capitalist workers as opposed to good democratic citizens.

As teachers we can resist these forces, we simply have to ask ourselves, “What sort of child are we forming, and for whom?” or if you’re feeling especially brave “Who do I serve?”