Dispelling Illusions

Chris McNutt
April 2, 2019
Chomsky relays how our society holds up its “truths” in an Orwellian fashion — each idea is how it has always been, and changing it would be neigh impossible.

On Current Affairs, Episode 19, Noam Chomsky states:

As soon as you begin to look at the actual world, the illusions collapse pretty quickly…[when you look at] hegemonic common sense and ask how it’s established — what happens when you investigate it?

Chomsky relays how our society holds up its “truths” in an Orwellian fashion — each idea is how it has always been, and changing it would be neigh impossible (despite, of course, these ideas changing overtime. “We’ve always been at war with Oceania.”) Of course, this is no truer than in education, where the traditional system is seen as unconquerable and the way it’s always been. Looking at the educational record beyond compulsory, standardized, rote-learning classrooms is edgy and radical and simply put, a pipe dream. To revolt against the system and change anything instills a serious case of apathy and dread as the wall to climb is so vast and bewildering.

When we ask: “why do we use state standardized tests?”, Occam’s Razor calls for us to assume it’s to measure student progress and hold accountability to the education system. Obviously, there are many problems with framing “accountability” in this sense, and even more with believing that standardized tests actually do this. When we challenge this illusion — we realize soon that there are ample, obvious problems with assuming that standardized tests actually work as intended. They were built out of good faith — ensuring that everyone is successful — but don’t work as a measure of achievement when applied to the our ever-growing population (Gawthrop, 2014).

Rather than going through every problem in the education system, I’m noting that most teachers know of these problems. It pains me when a teacher says, “because that’s just how things are” to back up de-humanizing practice. The majority of educators believe one-size-fits-all tests aren’t appropriate (Walker, 2016) — so why are we using them? Further, when teachers discuss grades, mandated curriculums, project-based learning, and the like — they fall to the same defense: “I like what you’re saying, but it’s just not possible at my school.” If we know better, why aren’t we pushing back?

Chomsky continues by saying that if everyone believes something, but it seems contentious, then it’s likely not true. The underlying purpose of this statement is to question authority. To practice critical thinking is to look at systemic problems and take a stance, often against the status quo. If we want to teach “21st century skills” — wouldn’t it make sense to actually use those skills in our practice? Creativity, ingenuity, and problem-solving is the enemy of traditional education practices — yet if we don’t push back against a brick-walled system aren’t we just victims of our demise?

The point is that it’s not enough to believe in the pedagogy — one has to take action. We can sit around and debate facets of progressive education all day, but unless someone is actually taking steps to implement anything, children will never actually benefit, defeating the entire purpose. And if the current system is so contentious, so undeniably hurtful, then why can’t we band together and do something about it? All it requires is the majority to redefine the status quo, take purposeful action, and dispel the illusion.

Chris McNutt
Chris McNutt is the co-founder and executive director of Human Restoration Project, a nonprofit organization focused on student engagement, well-being, and motivation. His work centers on realizing systems-based change, examining how progressive pedagogical shifts (e.g. PBL, ungrading) reimagine school to best suit the needs of students and teachers alike. He was a public high school digital media & design educator who focused on experiential learning, portfolio-driven assessment, and community involvement.
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