Thursday, November 13, 2008


An old saying that I like is that one should --- comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.

This may be an admirable ambition but fraught with peril. There are no end of examples of the troubler, JC, Ghandi, MLK etc etc. Every society seems to have an archetype for the troubler, the trickster, the idiot savant, mystic, social change agent, , hippy, yippie, divinely discontent.

There are also no end of examples of the perils.

The troubler may be a personality type or a manifestation of a personality defect, passive aggressive, hostile, dissatisfied, malcontent, attention seeker etc. As with most character traits it seems that troubler is dimensional and the psychic energy of this trait can be directed to greater purpose or sublimated to become manifest as antisocial behavior or more structural as in Tourettes syndrome.

Most democratic processes embrace, enshrine and entrench the role of the troubler, the knave, the fool, the advocate, the minority report. Many political processes require unanimity and guarantee that the minority opinion, much of it from troublers, is considered.

I've been asked to describe my occupation and I'm looking for a polite word that describes my natural inclination to be a troubler. I'm hoping that I have been able to redirect my natural inclination in a positive way, not as trouble maker but as one who examines social structures and attempts to use a critical approach to pedagogy. The person that asks the uncomfortable question, points out the flaw in a system. The field of education is ripe with opportunity for such activity and many troublers have contributed to the overall improvement of this important social institution.

Unfortunately, institutional education has abandoned it's natural purpose in society and is in desperate need of troublers. I'm always drawn to analogies between religion and education. What strikes me is the understanding that religion is the institution that is supposedly facilitates the human need for spirituality. Similarly, education is the institution that is supposed to facilitate teaching and learning. Just as it is possible to be highly religious but not able to connect with natural spiritual power, it is possible to be highly educated but not able to teach or learn, both natural functions of homo sapiens.

Mary Baker Eddy the founder of Christian Science discussed the problem with the institutional church. Although she eventually became a victim of her own conclusions her analogy is still apt in my mind. She described the scenario where a traveler is crossing a desert and has run out of water and is about to perish. He comes across a damp spot in the sand, digs down and discovers water and is saved. In his joy at being saved and in consideration for others who might find themselves in similar dire straights, he erects a cairn of stones around the damp spot to make it more discoverable by others. Over the ages the experience is repeated by others, each adding a little more to the edifice that is being built around the source.

Eventually, the edifice is so large that it actually begins to obscure the source and people begin to parish because they can not slake their thirst on fine cut marble or stained glass and the attendants and priest control the access to the life giving source, manipulating it for their own purposes. The agents of religion have developed many sophisticated ways to capitalize on their control of the structures of churches and religious philosophies, each one intent on convincing the largest number of people that their religion is the one and only true keeper of the source. While claiming to help people realize their spiritual potential, they skim off considerable social benefits for themselves, power, prestige, control and resources.

Ivan Illich described a very similar scenario for education. Humans as a species have a natural need/desire/propensity to teach and learn. We have figured out that there is a life giving and life sustaining potential in socially constructed knowledge and we recognize that it is our own best interest to teach and learn. In modern society it seems clear that we have the same problem as we have with our natural spiritual urges; the very institutions that are supposed to facilitate the natural process of teaching and learning are obscuring the life sustaining features in the interests of control and personal profit.
In Deschooling Society Illich proposed the critical analysis and dismantling of the structures of institutional education that impede learning.
Paulo Freire, also described the fatal flaw in an education system that is more designed to control people than to facilitate the natural teaching and learning function. Freire's analytical process is generally known as critical pedagogy and recommend the continuous examination of the policies, practices and principles of education.
Illich and Friere were troublers in the finest tradition and their perspectives are even more important as we evolve as homo electronicus.