The Pre/Trans Fallacy in Public Education

In a post a while back reflecting on teaching the whole child, Will made an observation on what it means to teach the whole child that really resonated with me:

When we talk about teaching the whole child, we’re talking in part about teaching with an understanding that children are fluid beings who grow and develop constantly. In some way, then, the whole child includes who the student was, who they are, and who they will become. 

When politicians use “students first” language, pitting our students against the adults they will become, they negate the whole child, fetishizing students’ youthful selves and devaluing their grown-up selves. In environmental terms, it’s like saying we must prioritize acorns over trees. Shouldn’t we just take care of the whole forest, and defend it against those who want to slash, burn, and subdivide?

This idea of “fetishizing” youth reminded me of something completely tangential, but perhaps bearing some relevance to the broader concern here with holding up children as idealized pawns in ideological warfare. Ken Wilber, a controversial contemporary philosopher, has written about what he calls the “pre/trans fallacy,” in which he points out a potential pitfall in our thinking on nonrational states of being. He delineates nonrational states into “prerational,” such as infancy, Freudian drives, and myths, and “transrational,” which refers to spiritual, metaphysical states beyond rationality. He believes that the danger lies in confusing these two states, such as Jung elevates prerational mysticism to divine insight. Conversely, Freud portrayed transrational spiritual states as a regression to infancy. In other words, according to Wilber, in much of our thought there is little distinguishing between truly elevated states of consciousness (such as those states discussed by Sufi poets and Zen masters) and those states that precede the development of intelligence, or that operate at a minimal level of intelligence. When discussing spirituality, Wilber cautions against distortions of both “reductionism” (such as Freud’s take on religion in The Future of an Illusion) and “elevationism” of spiritual understanding (much of Romantic thought, the New Age movement et al).

At some level, this conflicted ideation of nonrational states can be viewed in the manner we talk about children, as Will pointed out. By prioritizing “acorns over trees,” and ideologically putting “students first” at all costs, we imply that childhood is an elevated state of being, rather than a developmental stage prior to adulthood that requires guidance and nurturing. Though this may seem like quibbling, the way we talk about children and childhood can reveal a deep problem in the manner in which we approach education.

Children require nurturing and guidance in developing sound of body and of mind and with the character and knowledge to face the problems and challenges of their society. It is our job as adults to provide that direction, nurturing, and guidance. Furthermore, it is our job to provide healthy eating options, and create positive learning spaces in which children are exposed to diverse experiences, access to abundant light and green spaces, and ensure students are provided with the academic and social knowledge they require to comprehend their world and make informed choices. Yet if we were to believe that childhood is some elevated state of being, we may instead allow children to do whatever it is that they so choose, as if all they require are boundless options, such that they could direct their own learning and “discover” all that there is to know. Though this may seem like a straw man argument, this sort of mystical thinking about childhood is evident in more extreme strands of inquiry-based learning, constructivism, and ideas about schools in which children are on completely individualized tracks, sift through activities and discover underlying concepts, or interact randomly with different resources.

Teaching is a craft that requires careful channeling of childrens’ innate talent, curiosity, and will towards planned and sequenced targets of learning. The best inquiry-based lessons are grounded in a deep understanding and mastery of the content by the teacher, who has carefully modeled, planned and structured the activities. It is this deep understanding and mastery that is often most obstructed by the policies, structures and schedules of our public schools (such as an unconscionable lack of paid planning time), and most ignored by education reformers who focus on external mechanisms rather than upon curriculum and school and community contexts.

Successful schools that nurture children and provide a strong curriculum are not harsh, militaristic environments. On the contrary, they are environments that abound in niches for sharing, learning, and positive social interactions.

As adults, we have for far too long absconded from our duty to provide warm nurturing and clear guidance and direction to children, and hidden behind political or theoretical abstractions that result, in the end, in the anemic drivel that is the typical curriculum of public schools, and the cold, alienating environment that constitutes many school contexts.

Perhaps if we recognize that we must “take care of the whole forest,” as Will suggested before, rather than reducing or elevating any one component of a school ecosystem, we can resist the urge to fetishize children and focus instead on how to best support those children that have been given unto our care to love and educate.

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