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Creating excellent sheep

July 4, 2010

Catching up on my RSS feed late last night while watching Godfather II into the early hours of the morning, I found this post on leadership from Walter Smith's ever thoughtful blog. He is building on a speech at West Point by William Deresiewicz entitled Solitude and Leadership. As it happens solitude was a personal theme last night so I was probably sensitised to the subject. Unusually I had spent the last two nights eating with a family engaged in multiple conversations. Last night was with David Rooney of Queensland University, his spouse and two daughters engaged in a conversation that ranged from genetics to German literature. When you travel a lot the rhythms of family life are disrupted when home, and travel means a lot of solitary nights in various hotels. Now I am not complaining, there are advantages as well as disadvantages, but its always good to be reminded that people have lives away from seminars, lectures and consultancy practice.

Walter Smith picks up on some key quotes which I repeat below:

  • In an observation about students at Yale: So what I saw around me were great kids who had been trained to be world class hoop jumpers. Any goal you set them, they could achieve. Any test you gave them, they could pass with flying colours. They were as one of them put it herself, "excellent sheep".
  • The head of my department had no genius for organising or initiative or even order, no particular learning or intelligence, no distinguishing characteristics at all. Just the ability to keep the routine going.
  • What we have now are the greatest technocrats the world has ever seen, people who have been trained to be incredibility good at one specific thing, but who have no interest in anything beyond their area of expertise.

Now these quotes mirrored virtually all conversations I have had with thinking academics over the last year or so when the subject has turned to education and the way we are treating the next generation's intellectual development. It also matches my own experience with Daughter's first year of studying anthropology and realising that she will not be able to get through exams the way I did; picking off the open questions and producing enough originality to prick the examiners interest. Instead the only way she can succeed it to repeat and summarise the thoughts of others. She said it herself in a skype chat where her frustration at a recent project bubbled over and she said i get good results when its my ideas.

These days the curriculum and lesson plan has to be fixed, the marking plan made explicit, the readings printed off in a brick of extracts and other material. There is no scope to explore new areas, to move with the flow of a students conversation, to reward original thinking that does no reference established material. In the humanities this is a recipe (sic) for entropy death in human learning. We are destroying variety in the interests of explicit conformity. Even more depressingly the generation of students who know it can be different (and are now teachers) are been homogenised by measurement systems that require inauthentic behaviour and the generation who follow will not even know that there is an alternative.

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