The Power of School is Based on a Fiction

In his provocative book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari asserts that “the power of schools is based on a fiction.” Not the first to describe the progression of the human species in a technological future, Harari’s most interesting analysis may reside in his astute exploration of the historical narratives we have created in an attempt to make the world a more palatable, orderly, and meaningful place. While the implications of technoscience and dataism may arguably hold the greatest, potential significance for the future of education, it is the evolution of homo sapiens through storytelling – our bid to make sense of the universe – that helps us explain education today and how it might, potentially, be liberated from this fictional narrative. The decision to start ranking students in school is a case in point:

“When schools began assessing people according to precise numerical marks, the lives of millions of students and teachers changed dramatically. Marks are a relatively new invention. Hunter-gatherers were never marked for their achievements, and even thousands of years after the Agricultural Revolution few education establishments used precise marks. At the end of the year a medieval apprentice cobbler did not receive a piece of paper saying he has got an A in shoelaces but a C minus in buckles. An undergraduate in Shakespeare’s day left Oxford with one of only two possible results –with a degree, or without one. Nobody thought of giving one student a final mark of 74 and another student an 88.6.”

Should one attempt to question the artificial constructs upon which this core of education are based, one will likely hear a combination of the following, defensive responses: (1) This is how it has always been. (2) It works. (3) We can’t change it. Yet society should expect the leading voices of an institution charged with preparing learners to contend with an uncertain future to actively challenge such falsehoods. For this is not how it has always been. The truth is that, once we validated this fallacy, we simultaneously acquiesced to the institutional relegation of learning to “achievement”:

“Schools soon began focusing on achieving high marks. As every child, teacher and inspector knows, the skills required to get high marks in an exam are not the same as a true understanding of literature, biology or mathematics. Every child, teacher and inspector also knows that when forced to choose between the two, most schools will go for the marks.”

Just like the evolution of money, society gives currency to those things it imbues with importance. True value and power resides with those who control the currencies of compliance and selection, privilege and influence. Over time, we convince ourselves of unbreakable, sacred scriptures in defence of these stories we have created to maintain order, convenience, and entitlement. The power of these stories, as Harari reminds us, “rests on their ability to force their fictional beliefs on a submissive reality.” This submissive reality is founded upon the illusion of scarcity. The fiction that prescribed a currency based upon the measurement of learning is a perversion of the mythology of scarcity that is founded on a toxic culture of self-interest and competition.

These fictions force us into very elaborate systems of cooperation, which are harnessed to serve fictional aims and interests. What prevents us from changing this story and adopting a new narrative? For Harari, the longer we cling to a fiction, the more difficult it becomes to acknowledge that the damage it has created has been in vain. It is time to provide learners and educators with the freedom to co-construct this plot, to give expression to their creative and imaginative energies. It’s their story, after all.

While we can’t predict the future and it is a tiresome activity to try, we do know, with some certainty, that Harari’s prediction about learning is already a reality: “Traditionally, life has been divided into two main parts: a period of learning followed by a period of working. Very soon this traditional model will become utterly obsolete, and the only way for humans to stay in the game will be to keep learning throughout their lives, and to reinvent themselves repeatedly.” This reality negates the mythology of prestigious universities and the rabid competition for scarce college places. Learning is so much more than a four-year college degree. The scarcity model is a lie.

Today’s learners want a say in their learning and access to the tools that will give them greater ownership of learning activities that engage them in the realities of the world they live in. This world is not school. We can engage our students in completing worksheets, answering the questions at the end of the chapter, making a poster on their favourite animal, or truly empower them with authentic approaches to tackling the very inequities and challenges that our world clearly needs. If we are to continue to believe in schools, we must subscribe to the ideal that every learner has a voice that can make a difference in the world. Education has an obligation to provide these learners with an opportunity for these voices to be heard.

The power of schools is based on a fiction. It’s time to change the story.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Harper, 2018.

Picture credit: Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash