Friday, February 13, 2009

Ruminations 13: Beating Education into Teachers

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer)

This is another in what I hope to be a month long series of aphoristic (ἀφορισμός) essays, meant to provoke thought rather than explain it. The hope is that, built up on each other, the series will provide a matrix of thoughts that together might lead the reader in new directions. Though each can be read independently of the others, they are intended to be read together and against each other.

Education is usually far more complex, and education policy is far more ironic, than is popularly understood. Students have been known to beat teachers (Students beat teachers – a signal of morals degrading? (Viet-Nam). But the state apparatus is apparently sometimes willing to use beatings as a disciplinary tactic itself.

The value of education, and its effect in society was recently highlighted in an interesting way in Tanzania. (SPARE THE ROD, SPOIL THE TEACHER). Both the story of this triumph of education and its moral are worth consideration:
The teachers union in Tanzania is considering legal action after 19 school teachers were given the cane. The primary teachers were caned by a police officer after an inquiry into poor exam results at three schools. The report blamed teachers for being late or not showing up for work and not teaching the official syllabus. . . . The BBC's Vicky Ntetema in Dar es Salaam says the case comes at a time when parents and human rights groups in Tanzania have been calling for a ban on flogging of schoolchildren throughout the country.
Shock as Tanzanian Teachers Caned, BBC News Online, Feb. 13, 2009. Many morals come to mind, and they all cut against each other. The usual moral is easy to draw: violence is bad, and generates its own cultural imperatives that then manifest in all sorts of ways. The inefficiencies of the education establishment can come back to haunt both teachers and the state; and bad management can have unintended consequences. The greatest negative consequence is the strain it places on the construction of a rule of law state.

But perhaps the more powerful lessons are more subtle, ironic and perverse:

1. Education can be quite effective in ways beyond the power of teachers to control with any degree of precision. In this case the one lesson taught best was that flogging is an effective tool of management and control. This lesson seems to have become a powerful organizing concept within systems of governance in Tanzania. And not just there. It seems that students have learned their lessons well, but the teachers may be been unaware of the lessons taught.

2. The police power of any state reflects the education it receives. In this case, the teacher became the student, and the lesson was brought home by another teacher--the police establishment of the state apparatus. There is a certain symmetry between the relation of teacher and student and that between police and teacher. Even teachers can be students.

3. It is not clear what teachers are beating into students beyond the utility of beating, a lesson then augmented on their own bodies by a superior force. That is probably an important lesson for the state, as well as for the teachers. Yet it is unlikely to be confronted as all actors focus on violence rather than the deficiencies that violence is covering.

4. The classroom has gone global. Even in rural Tanzania, it is impossible to completely avoid the global panopticon. The power to observe implies a power to regulate, as both police officers and local teachers will realize--the former receiving a lesson about the utility of judges and courts (or at least administrative tribunals) before punishment, and the latter about the impact of global standards of teacher conduct on the way on which lessons are administered in Tanzania.

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