The Secret Child Soldiers of the West

Whatever happened to the internet’s virtual avatar Joseph Kony?  The 2012 multi-media internet campaign created and promoted by the group Invisible Children described itself as a movement seeking to end the conflict in Uganda and told the story of a former child soldier called Jacob.  The campaign caught the attention of people from all walks of life, but the media specifically focused on the righteous indignation and outrage expressed by celebrities (surprised?) and high profile community representatives.  The real life Joseph Kony is alive and well of course, still waging war with the help of child soldiers, mainly in the heart of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The former Catholic altar boy, who claims Divinity as well as being God’s spokesperson here on earth, has been fighting to install a government in Uganda based on the Bible’s Ten Commandments.  But that hasn’t happened, so for the time being Kony is still at large with his child soldiers while being wanted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court (ICC). When his child soldiers are not fighting, they are usually high on drugs, and play violent video games. Reports suggest their life is tough and very dangerous. They are used to carry out highly dangerous tasks as message bearers and spies. Moreover, reports suggest that they are often used for sexual gratification by older soldiers.

There are several reasons why children are used as soldiers. Firstly, they are more docile and impressionable and easier to train. Secondly, during their training they have to kill and maim others. They do this willingly or have often been raised in violent circumstances or simply get a thrill out of the kill. Sometimes they are under the influence of narcotics. Finally, traumatised and fearing for their lives, they have gained a sense of belonging in a community whose only goal is to kill and maim others.

Adam Lanza was a child soldier. But he was a virtual child soldier. Before going on his killing spree at Sandy Hook Elementary school, it is reported that Lanza spent hours playing a violent online video game- Call of Duty: Black Ops 2.  Since it was launched and made public this shockingly violent interactive multi-media program erroneously called a game, has grossed over $ 1Billion in sales. In its first 24 hours of release it managed sales in excess of $500 million dollars. So what’s this game all about? Essentially it is described as a First Shooter Video Game. That means the player has an assault weapon on their screen and they shoot as many people dead as he/she can. The so called kills are accompanied with explicit graphic detail of exploding heads and body parts, along with screaming obscenities. The enemies are of course of African, Latin American or European origin-so negative cultural stereotypes abound in the so called game.  The website released some astounding statistics about the game and it is worthwhile quoting here in full:

For about 3 weeks, Call of Duty Black Ops 2 has been in the hands of players. The numbers are booming and players have killed the world’s population of 7 billion people about two and a half times over, being totalled around 18 billion kills. Players have been playing for about 19,000 virtual years. Nearly 375 billion shots have been fired.

Of the 18 billion kills, 1.5 billion have been head shots, averaging out to eight percent of all fallen losing their head. Over 106 million gamers have been stabbed in the back…Call of Duty players have destroyed over 319 million cars. (Lake, A, 2012)

Family friendly stores like Toysrus sell the game alongside their cuddly toys and baby care items. While respectable, conservative online retailers like also market the game as one of their top selling items. It is estimated that over 11 million accounts have been set up to play the game, and among those 11 million accounts a high percentage of the players are in the 12-15 year old age group. Furthermore, online reviews suggest that children as young as 8 years old play the game. Here’s what some of the children have to say about the game:

Kid, 11; love it. it is on for ages 11 and up.

Kid, 12 years old

What the review fails to realize is that you can turn off the blood and cursing. The game is violent. Basically the games goal is to kill as much as possible. I mean I hear worse words at school.

Teen, 14 years old

This game might look bad in the review but you don’t really concentrate on an enemy once they’re already dead.

Kid 10 years old

Black Ops is good for 10 and older in my opinion. When you first go to the main menu, a message will pop up asking if you want to enable graphic content. If you do not want your kids to see blood, gore, or hear very bad language press no. Now the blood and gore will disappear and very dirty words such as f*** will be censored. The game should be fine under these settings. However, these settings do not apply in multiplayer and online. Only let your kids play with friends online because players can have very inappropriate conversations. Also, words such as da*n, he*l, and a**hole are used in the single player campaign and it can be too violent for younger viewers. Hope this helps!!!

Kid 11 years old

First of all. There is no specific “language filter.”  But there is a content reducer. It takes out F-Words, blood, and gore. If you play the game with the content filter, it is just like a rated T game i think. If you play without the filter, it is really profane. It has a lot; and I mean a lot of blood and language without it. It tells a really complicated story but it makes sense at the end. I guess it can be “educational” by showing all of these different places and etc… that had to do with the Cold war and such but its my opinion. The controls are very easy to pick up on. If you have played MW2, the controls are the exact same. In conclusion, it is a great game. If you are a fan of the series or not, you will like it

Kid 12 years old:

This is the best Call of Duty I have played, and not as violent as Modern Warfare 2. The violence is not very bad except for a scene where you shove glass down a man’s mouth and then punch him in the face. I got it the day it came out for my PS3. Get the game.

Kid 11 years old:

Can someone tell my parents in a comment that this game is just fine? They think that just because i play it i am going to go outside and shoot someone. That’s crazy. (Common Sense Media, 2011)

Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 is one of a series of graphically horrific, sadistic and violent interactive multi-media manipulative experiences, and while marketed as a game for older teenagers and adults they  specifically target the innocence of children as potential users.  Users engage in simulated war like activities in which avatar like enemies, more often than not racist stereotypes, have to be killed in extremis in order for the online user to score points or win. The most worrying aspect of these kinds of online interactive controlling programs is that children are being manipulated and conditioned into negative psychological thinking, disturbing behavioural patterns and aggressive attitudes.  For example that certain races are the enemy or that killing is an integral part of life’s experiences, or that being at war is a natural state of existence. This is subtle but effective social conditioning and programming at its worst. It is highly manipulative propaganda too, with the message that killing people is fine if you have a clear mission in mind and feel compelled to do so. In one particular interactive program Modern Warfare 2 a scene is set up in an airport, and the user infiltrates a terrorist group earning their trust. The objective is to kill every civilian in the airport then get out. The graphic visuals include unarmed people in an airport running for their lives while being shot down in cold blood.
According to the American Psychological Association, violent video games increase children’s aggression. They become conditioned to react in a strong negative way, rather than responding in a discerning way.  For example they could attack something, or be mean to another person for no particular reason other than gaining personal pleasure.  Also research suggests that there’s an increased frequency of violent responses from children who engage with these interactive multi-media programs. A more disturbing aspect to these programs too is that like the child soldiers in Uganda and the DRC these interactive programs do not teach moral accountability or responsibility or the importance of an ethical worldview. The children who engage with them are rewarded for creating suffering and maiming and killing, and according to some psychologists, they inturn adopt aggressive postures, language and attitudes as normal coping mechanism in everyday life.  There’s also well researched evidence which suggests that engaging with explicitly graphic violent multi-media programs correlates with children and young people being less caring, kind and helpful towards each other and others, and that should they become addicted to these interactive media, like their child-soldier counterparts in Africa, they need to undergo a significant period of deprogramming to return to a relatively normal state of being in which they are able to engage with more healthy and positive ways of relating to their peers and significant other people in their lives.
The media, parents, care-givers, schools and other social institutions which take on responsibility for the disseminating of knowledge and information, and the education and welfare of children seem conflicted. On the one hand they argue for creating a nurturing community of children and youths, who as  learners and civil citizens will embrace positive healthy personal and social values that will create functional and sustainable communities. Yet, they shift blame away from themselves for the actions of those in their communities who have been programmed and conditioned through interactive multi-media platforms, to enjoy creating death and mayhem through killing others.

It’s time for us to recognize and act on the truism that corporate culture appropriates the innocence of children, just like Joseph Kony. It is about time that groups like Invisble Children, along with other Child Safety Organisations  and the Education profession, recognize and understand how compliant, obedient children at home and at school , when left alone or with their peers, are vulnerable to the manipulation and powerful conditioning of violent, interactive multi-media platforms which masquerade as games and entertainment.

There’s a powerful argument which asserts that the real teachers of our children are not in our schools, universities, colleges, churches, or other supportive social institutions. They reside in the boardrooms and advertising agencies of the corporate world; with its hidden agenda of offering a violent and aggressive consumer culture to children.

What are disappearing are trustful, supportive and productive bonds between adults and children. These are being replaced by a culture of suspicion, and a social consciousness endorsed through mis-trust and negative interactive multi-media platforms where everyone is a potential enemy. A nihilist social discourse is replacing the once positive hopeful social narrative  that regardless of our culture, religious and political beliefs or indivdiual life styles, humanity in general is able to work towards peaceful co-existence.


Common Sense Media. (2011, March 9). All teen and kid reviews for Call of Duty: Black Ops. Retrieved January 10, 2013, from Common Sense Media:

Lake, A. (2012, December 2). Call of Duty Black Ops 2 statistics and figures. Retrieved January 10, 2013, from

The Uncomfortable Truth about Violence, Entertainment and Violent Crime in Society.

Three weeks after the United States of America was overwhelmed with grief at the murderous rage of a 20 year old man who went on killing spree ending the lives of 26 people, including 20 children in addition to his own mother and then himself, the violent, horrific film Texas Chainsaw 3D, featuring an antagonist called Leatherface, who wears a mask made of human skin has topped the US box office making over $20 million in its first weekend release. The film is released by Lionsgate Pictures, and is directed by John Luessenhop and written by Debra Sullivan and Adam Marcus. I only mention these details because people ought to know who the purveyors of violent entertainment are. It is the 7th film in a series which portrays extreme, sadistic violence perpetrated by one human being on another.

The original movie, released in the 1970s, was refused a certificate by the British Board of Film Classification. They felt its themes of sadistic terror, extreme violence and aberrations of bizarre human behaviour unsuitable as a form of entertainment. The BBFC certainly showed a balanced duty of care for the moral well being of its society and local communities in protecting people from gratuitous, sadistic and sickening violence which masquerades as entertainment under the so-called Horror genre.  In sharp contrast the United States Supreme court ruled in 2011 that individual States did not have the right to regulate the sale of graphically violent video games to children, arguing that governments do not have the power to “restrict the ideas to which children are exposed”. Initially I was puzzled by this ruling because in in Miller v. California, 413 U.S. 15, 93 S. Ct. 2607, 37 L. Ed. 2d 419 (1973), the Supreme Court concluded that a work is obscene and can be regulated if it appeals to a viewer’s prurient interest; portrays sexual conduct in a patently offensive way; and lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value. The Court further ruled that interpretations of this definition may vary across the United States and that communities may apply their own local standards to determine obscenity. ( Encyclopedia of American Law, 2008) However, the above ruling was one based on sexual behaviour not on gratuitous violent behaviour, although it can be argued that a causal link exists between the kind of violence portrayed in Texas Chainsaw 3D and sexual violence perpetrated against others. Art it seems does imitate life.  It reflects a society’s accepted standards and values and what it holds and deems sacrosanct for the well being of its members. While it might appear that in the United States of America, despite its alarming statistics of sexual violence against women, men and children, prurient, aberrant and explicit sexual behaviour is less acceptable than sadistic violent behaviour, neither is acceptable in a civil society.

Social institutions, whether they are courts of law, educational institutions, or film classification boards act as control mechanisms in our societies.  The principle being that they regulate the kind of information which makes for a functional, as opposed to a dysfunctional society. Schools are examples where the kind of information along with the flow of information are carefully regulated, and for very good reasons.  Their inclusion and exclusion of information reflects the kinds of values a society embraces and the vision it has for its future.  For example, there is much debate and argument on the standard and quality of movies, novels and stories which should or should not be included in a liberal arts program.

A film like Texas Chainsaw 3D lacks any kind of intrinsic social value and if none of the films had  ever been made we would not have suffered any great  social or cultural loss. However, the series of films have been made, along with thousands of other excessively violent films, video and online games. And communities and societies have suffered great losses. Research into the effects of violent films, television programs and video games on young children suggests that they can develop more aggressive behaviours in their teenage and late adolescent years. Jack Kornfield’s (1994) alarming statistic that our children “see on average eighteen thousand murders and violent acts on TV before they finish high school” is  astounding and alarming. He writes further “On this earth as I write today, more than forty wars and violent revolutions are killing thousands of men, women and children. We have had 115 wars since World War 2 and there are only 165 countries in the world. Not a good track record for the human species. Yet what are we to do?” (Kornfield, 1994, p.25)

It’s an urgent question. What are we to do? Wait until another deeply disturbed person-a product of a particular culture and society-goes on another murderous rampage?

It seems to me that our societies have become so dysfunctional at a bureaucratic level that urgent discussions on returning to values which uphold the dignity and respect of human life have all but been lost. In trusting the branches of governments to look after our moral, social and political affairs we have given up any sense of personal moral and social responsibility. I am reminded of Adolf Eichmann’s defence when charged with crimes against humanity. He argued that he was not responsible in any way for the deaths of millions of Jews during World War 2. His job was one of a loyal government civil servant who had to manage moving masses of people from one country to another or from one town or city to another. Any consequences, immoral or otherwise which derived from his duty statement as an employee of the State were irrelevant to him and he argued that he was innocent of the crimes against humanity and not responsible for the deaths of any concentration camp prisoners.

The World in general, and the United States in particular did some soul searching after the Sandy Hook massacre-opinions were expressed, theories abounded and reasons were sought and offered as to why a young man would kill so many so violently. The killer’s disturbed mental health was a key argument put forward, and perhaps this was the case.  Or is it more to do with the collective mental health of a Nation or any Nation for that matter,  which seeks a high degree of gratification through various forms of violent and horrifying entertainment?


Encyclopedia of American Law. (2008, March 3). Philosophical Arguments for Censorship. Retrieved January 7, 2013, from West’s Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2.: http://legal-dictionary.Philosophical+arguments+for+censorship

Kornfield, J.  A Path with Heart, Bantam Books, New York, 1994

Questions arising from the Process of Schooling and Societal Violence

On Tuesday 2nd October 2006, a 32 year old man held hostage a group of young students between the ages of 6 and 13 at a small rural Amish school in Pennsylvania, and later executed 3 girls and critically wounded several others. Earlier in the same year, September 26th a 25 year old man embarked on a shooting spree at Dawson College in Montreal killing a young woman and injuring up to 19 other persons. According to police sources, the man enjoyed playing a computer generated simulation game which re-enacted the 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. On April 16th 2007, a disaffected student when on a shooting rampage at Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg Virginia killing 32 students and wounding many more. Today, every person in the world is reeling in shock and disbelief at the willful murder of 20 children between the ages of six and seven, and 7 adults in Newtown, Connecticut. Innocent children and caring adults denied their lives by a young man who didn’t want one. Other similar incidents have occurred across the United States and in other parts of the world over the last 15 years:

October 1997: Sixteen year old boy stabs mother then shoots dead two students at a school in Mississippi and injures several others.

December 1997: Fourteen year old boy kills three students in Kentucky.

March 1998: Two boys 11 and 13 kill four girls and a teacher in Arkansas.

April 1998: Fourteen year old boy shoots dead a teacher and wounds two students in Pennsylvania

May 1998: Fifteen year old shoots dead two students in school cafeteria in Oregon

May 1998: Fifteen year old boy shoots himself in the head after taking a girl hostage.

June 1998: Two adults hurt in shooting by teenage student at high school in Virginia

April 1999: Two teenagers shoot dead 12 students and a teacher before killing themselves at Columbine high school in Colorado

May 1999: Student injures six pupils in shoot-out in Georgia

November 1999: Thirteen year old girl shot dead by a class mate in New Mexico

February 2000: Six year old girl shot dead by a classmate in Michigan

March 2001: Student opens fire at a school in California killing two students.

April 2003: Teenager shoots dead head-teacher at a Pennsylvania school then kills himself.

May 2004: Four people injured in a school shooting in Maryland

March 2005: Minnesota school boy kills nine then kills himself

November 2005: Student in Tennessee shots dead an assistant principal and wounds two other administrators.

September 2006: Gunman in Colorado shoots and fatally wounds a teenage school girl the kills himself; two days later a teenager kills the head teacher of a school in Cazenovia, Wisconsin

February 2008: 14 year old boy shoots dead a fellow student in Oxnard California because he was  Gay.

On Friday 26th April 2002, a 19-year-old German youth returned to his school in Erfurt, Germany, from where he had been expelled a few weeks earlier. He killed 13 teachers and two students before killing himself. In May of 1998, an 18-year-old High School senior, Jeremy Stroemeyer, from Orange County in Los Angeles, California, lured a 7-year-old African American girl into a toilet block, in a Nevada Casino, in the early hours of the morning. He sexually assaulted and strangled her, while his friend and classmate peered over the cubicle and did nothing to intervene. I knew Jeremy. He had been an 11th grade student in my literature class while I was on an assignment at an international school in Singapore. He was popular, well liked by his peers and the adults who worked in the school. He seemed to be amiable, perhaps a little earnest in his need for approval, but nothing out of the ordinary with regards to angst and adolescent development. He left the school at the end of the semester, and returned to the United States, and began his senior year in the fall of 1997. After his arrest and arraignment for murder, those of us who knew him – his peers and teachers – were in a state of shock; our perceptions of Jeremy had been deceived by this horrendous act of cruelty. “Why did he do it”? One of his friends asked in disbelief. “I had him stay over in my house many time, I just don’t believe it”, one of my students exclaimed with incredulity.  I attempted to explain with difficulty the shock of accepting that someone we had come to know, and perceived as a ‘good’ person, could have committed such a heinous act. We were in denial because Jeremy had been one of us. This crime caused me to reflect more deeply on the purpose of schooling, if after 12 years, a person proceeds to graduate lacking in values of compassion, tolerance, cooperation, love and understanding?

The German Psychoanalyst, Alice Miller, argues that sources of rage, hatred and anger in adolescents and adults can always be traced to violence, both physical and psychological, inflicted upon the young and very young, in the name of child-rearing, schooling and socialization processes. [Miller, 1990]. She argues that the last 200 years of socialization practices have infested generations of people all over the world with a “poisonous pedagogy”. Once a physically brutal and violent way to raise children, today it has become a psychological terror campaign, whereby the young are manipulated out of childhood, into a world of adult guilt and betrayal.

The conscious use of humiliation (whose function is to satisfy the parents’ needs) destroys the child’s self confidence, making him or her insecure and inhibited…For the purposes of self protection, it is only the adult’s friendly manner that remains in the child’s memory, accompanied by a predictable submissiveness on the part of the “little transgressor” and the loss of his capacity for spontaneous feeling…the results of this struggle against strong emotion are so disastrous because the suppression begins in infancy, i.e. before the child’s self has had a chance to develop…significantly, cause and effect are confused here and what is attacked as a cause is something that the pedagogues have themselves brought about. This is the case not only in pedagogy, but in psychiatry and criminology as well. Once “wickedness has been produced in a child by suppressing vitality, any measure taken to stamp it out is justified” [Miller, 1990, pp. 21-31].

There is sufficient evidence to suggest that people who are mistreated in their formative years will act out similar behaviors as adults. Likewise, the more subtle forms of childrearing, which involve psychological manipulation, which we are all products of, have a profound effect on our behavior as adults. More often than not this is expressed in benign forms, such as the way we brush our teeth, or arrange our clothes in the closet, or eat at a table or hold our bodies, to more neurotic behaviors like showering many times a day, checking that doors are locked repetitively, to even more disturbing behaviors such as agoraphobia, or the numerous conditions under the broad diagnostic term, schizophrenia, which need intervention by qualified practitioners.

Schools act as surrogate parents, reinforcing disciplines, or exercising new forms of power and control over children. Miller quotes the following example “In school, discipline precedes the actual teaching. There is no sounder pedagogical axiom than the one that children must first be trained before they can be taught. There can be discipline without instruction…but no instruction without discipline” [Miller, 1990, p. 31]

Issues with regard to human behavior and how to modify and encourage its various manifestations contribute to some of the most contentious debates in education. Indeed, discipline in all its various guises has been labeled as ‘normative practices’ (Rousmaniere, Dehli and de Coninck-Smith, 1997). Are we living in a more enlightened age when it comes to matters relating to understanding human behavior and implementing procedures for behavior modification? Discipline and punishment is about controlling minds and bodies and affecting human behavior. The social sciences stand as a testament to human endeavors to understand the way people behave, and there is ongoing argument and debate about the benefits of a systematized imposition of order on the human condition. Alice Miller’s training and practice as a psychoanalyst has enabled her to hear firsthand accounts of child-rearing practices, which in most instances can only be recognized as acts of cruelty, and of emotional, physical and sexual abuse. She argues that “The conviction that parents are always right and that every act of cruelty, whether conscious or unconscious, is an expression of their love is so deeply rooted in human beings, because it is based on the process of internalization that takes place during the first few months of life…” [Miller, 1990, p.5] She further asserts one of the more obvious empirical conclusions one can draw from human nature, and that is if a child is nurtured with unconditional love and understanding, and without physical violence or emotional blackmail, then they in turn will practice the same kind of behaviors as fully grown human beings. Nelson Mandela describes this basic human experience in detail in recalling a sadistic and brutal Commander of Robben Island prison, where he was held for 18 of his 27 years of imprisonment. Mandela writes:

Badenhorst had perhaps been the most callous and barbaric                                  Commanding officer we had had on Robben Island. But that  day in the office, he had revealed that there was another side that had been obscured but that still existed. It was a useful reminder that all men, even the most seemingly cold-blooded, have a core of decency, and if there hearts are touched, they are capable of changing. Ultimately, Badenhorst was not evil; his inhumanity had been foisted upon him by an inhuman system. He behaved like a brute because he was rewarded for brutish behavior. (Mandela, 1994)

This is not a new idea and tends to be reflected in spiritual beliefs across cultures, which encourage love, tolerance, compassion and the value of “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Miller’s more serious assertion, and one we as educators ought to take heed of, is that more often than not methods of child-rearing, including discipline and moral regulation in schooling, are carried out in such a manner so that a child is not aware of what is being done to him or her. Miller addresses several complex, yet important questions throughout her text: “How were our parents brought up? How were they permitted-even forced-to treat us? How could we, as young children, have become aware of this? How could we have treated our own children differently? Can this vicious circle ever be broken? And finally is our guilt any less if we shut our eyes to the situation?” (Miller, 1990, p.9) She cites some classic examples from texts dating back to the 16th century to back up her claims. The following passage by J.Sulzer, written in 1748 serves as an illustration:

If wickedness and willfulness are not driven out, it is impossible to

give a child a good education. The moment these flaws appear in a child

it is high time to resist this evil so that it does not become ingrained through

habit, and the children do not become thoroughly depraved…if parents are

fortunate enough to drive out willfulness from the every beginning by means

of scolding and the rod, they will have obedient, docile and good children…

as soon as a child develops awareness, it is essential to demonstrate to

them by word and deed that they must submit to the will of the parents…”

(Miller, 1990, p.13)

Miler asserts that it is generally accepted that children forget a lot of their early childhood, but the serious consequences from the trauma of harsh treatment will live on and manifest itself from mild neurosis as an adult, to the more bizarre manifestations of complex psychopathologies. There are no harmless pedagogies she argues, because even when an adult is sure they are considering the best interests of the child, their true motives are:

  • The unconscious need to pass on to others the humiliation one has undergone oneself.
  • The need to find an outlet for repressed affect.
  • The need to possess and have at one’s disposal a vital object to  manipulate.
  • Self-defense: i.e., the need to idealize one’s childhood and one’s parents by dogmatically applying the parents’ pedagogical principles  to one’s own children.
  • Fear of freedom.
  • Fear of the reappearance of what one has repressed, which one re-encounters in one’s child and must try to stamp out, having killed it in oneself earlier.
  • Revenge for the pain one has suffered. (Miller, 1990)

Miller is not an advocate of anarchy in child rearing, on the contrary, she argues strongly for tolerance, compassion, awareness, respect and the importance of leading children to awareness and self-knowledge.

She chooses three case studies to support her arguments. Firstly, Christiane F, an adolescent drug addict, who was the victim of child abuse, sexual, physical and emotional. Secondly, the childhood of Adolf Hitler is analyzed in detailed and thirdly the formative years of Jurgen Bartsch, a child killer, is scrutinized. Each case is studied meticulously and Miller’s claim that the upbringing of the respondents affected their behavior as adolescents and adults is convincing. Her analysis of the suffering of Sylvia Plath as an example of a child reassuring the parent in a role reversal of child-rearing practice ends the book on a poignant note. While adults are able to reproach their God, Miller says, “Children are not allowed to reproach their gods-their parents and teachers”. (Miller, 1990)

The regular explosions of violence in schools throughout the world can also be attributed to a poisonous pedagogy- an approach to socialization practices through teaching and learning- which has become separated from important spiritual and psychological characteristics of human development. Moreover, no matter how innovative a curriculum nor how prestigious a school is held by its local community, until we as teachers, administrators and teacher trainers come to understand the subtleties of our own psycho-social development, and the nuance with which it interacts on a conscious and unconscious level in our lives as educators, then the psycho-dynamic of power relationships, played out daily in the process of schooling, will continue to cause inexplicable aberrations of behavior, and explosions of murderous rage by those who have become lost to themselves in the process of schooling.

This view is supported by Gatto, who argues convincingly that schools, rather than educate, create severe social and psychological pathologies that are irreversible, because they are symptomatic of a wider and deeper cultural malaise. Schools he asserts are the problem not the solution [Gatto, 1992]. Illich identified a similar argument over 30 years ago [Illich, 1962] According to both educators; schools are not about educating our children. Schools create confusion and reinforce notions of inequality through justifying a particular economic code. They create emotional and intellectual dependency, together with an indifference to everything. They instill a conditional self esteem into children which says, “you’re only as good as your report card” and through their competitive values and collective surveillance codes [everybody is alerted to be watching everyone else] impart to all children and young people that any kind of privacy equals subversive behavior, and a private life is a negative value and leads to anti-social behavior [Gatto 1992]. Like Illich, Gatto argues that we need less schooling not more.

It is evident that we need to renew the idea of schooling through curriculum reforms. Overburdened and irrelevant curricula, selective knowledge and regulated behaviors are creating toxic environments in schools. They are fertile grounds for cultivating murderous rage and violence of a kind, which schools deny, could ever happen, and for which the wider community seeks to find a scapegoat and shift blame. We are confronted with this scenario in a chilling report on the profiles of the young men responsible for the Columbine massacre:

“Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris seem to have been shrouded in presumptions of innocence. After professing their love for Hitler, declaring their hatred of Blacks, Asians and Latinos on a public website no less, down loading instructions for making bombs, accumulating the ingredients, assembling them under the protectively indifferent gaze (or perhaps with the assistance) of parents and neighbors, stockpiling guns and ammunition, procuring hand grenades and flak jackets, threatening the lives of class mates, killing thirteen and themselves, wounding numerous others and destroying their school building –still the community can’t believe it really happened “here”. Still their teachers and classmates continue to protest that they were good kids, good students, solid citizens.” (Williams, 1999, cited in Giroux, 2000)

This is a sad and tragic example of two young men blending into a system, seemingly subordinated to its history and traditions, and complacent with its own definition of success. It is also about the serious ramifications for boards of studies, curricula designers, schools, and indeed all educationalists, who adhere unflinchingly to a theory of limited intelligence; one comprising of affective, cognitive and psychomotor domains with predetermined limited powers of ability, function and performance.  In such a model of human potentiality, the body becomes a docile vessel for an imposed curriculum. Children are the passive respondents in a controlled learning process. Schooling is something ‘done’ to them, rather than an experience of cooperation, and active participation. In the process of schooling, we forget that human beings are more than the sum of their parts.

Schools should be places for positive learning experiences. We should gain insights and knowledge about ourselves, so as we grow and develop we can enjoy the knowledge and wisdom gathered along the way. How can this take place?  It could begin with the recognition of one another’s uniqueness, and progress with the inclusion of usas the living embodiment of the curriculum in day-to-day school life. Pablo Casals expresses this suggestion with sensitivity and insight:

“Every second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe; a moment that     never was before and never will be again. And what do we teach our children in school? We teach them that two and two are four and that Paris is the capital of France. We should say to them, “Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In the millions of years that have passed, there has never been another child like you.” (Casals, 1970)

The American educator David Purpel breaks down the layers of meaning in the debates, discussions and arguments about educational reform, to reveal our human vulnerability and fear to bringing about serious change in education. He argues that human beings have to work towards goodness. It is not innate. Our capacity for self-deception can lead us into all sorts of trouble as a species. If education is for the betterment of humanity why, Purpel asks, are we facing catastrophic consequences through the human development of our planet? Purpel argues convincingly that our mechanistic metaphor of the universe enables us to deceive ourselves into believing we can conquer and subdue all of nature [including human nature] with little if any consequences.

“We as educators have for the most part been able (willingly) to separate

our concern for education from our discussion of our most serious and profound

matters. What is the meaning of life? How do we relate as a family, nation people?

What is a just and fair way of distributing rights and responsibilities? How do we

make appropriate moral choices?” (Purpel, 1989, p.5)

Notwithstanding the extraordinary efforts made by most students and teachers, questions always remain: What difference do we really make in society? How are we contributing to positive social transformation? If we look through the lens of compartmentalization we can see that some domains of human effort are a testament to what we are able achieve. Aspects of the arts, sports, sciences, humanities, and religion, to name a few, shed light on our capacity for goodness, compassion, tolerance, understanding, love and cooperation. But, if we adjust our lens we see the whole picture. A landscape ruined through war, conflict, greed, deforestation, conflict and savage competition.

Purpel argues that there are no simple solutions to the crisis facing humanity. He points out that opportunists are seizing the moment to push their own social and political agenda in educational reform. In particular he argues that a vacuum left by the rejection of any sound moral and spiritual understanding is leading the way for Rightist groups, together with conservative politicians, to set the agenda for changes in the process of schooling. These changes, insofar as they have any impact are superficial and deal more with textual authority/power/control issues, rather than seriously analyze the assumptions, which underpin our educational aims and objectives. Only a critical inquiry, founded upon an incisive analysis of these assumptions will enable us to reform our schools.

Purpel shows us the inherent contradictions in post modern educative values:

    Transformative Values   Institutionalized Values
Community Individual
Worth Achievement
Equality Competition
Compassion Sentimentality
Democracy Authority/Power/Coercion/Control
Humility Arrogance
Commitment Alienation/Displacement/Complacency
Faith Reason
Professional   Responsibility Self Deception

(Purpel, 1989 pp.31-61)

His analysis of the dichotomy produced through the inherent contradiction in values promoted and institutionalized in schools, and those made manifest through actions and behaviors, is perceptive, insightful and instructive about the consequences of our actions as teachers and administrators.  He argues that such contradictions create confusion and frustrations for all involved in the process of schooling. We end up applying simple solutions, to complex problems. It is easier to discuss curriculum reform, electives, student behavior, codes of conduct, assessment procedures, exam results, sporting prowess, student and staff morale and building maintenance, rather than address the core issues confronting people daily like, unemployment, environmental degradation, spiritual impoverishment, war, famine, and poverty to name a few. When we deny reality we legitimate a false consciousness, which leads us into self-deception and the delusion that we really are masters of our own destiny.

The tragedies of Connecticut, Blackburg Virginia, Columbine and Erfurt; to single out a few suggest we pay a high price for such folly. Yet, schools are sites of potentiality, and our future can be quite different from the past if we embrace knowledge inclusiveness, founded upon sound ethical and spiritual principles. I am not advocating a dogmatic or doctrinal approach here; rather the multiple spiritual traditions of humanity have a lot to offer us, and could be the way forward in addressing the myriad problems humanity is facing today. The abandonment of spiritually and morally based philosophies, for those of the humanist tradition, have created a crisis of meaning in people’s lives. We need a broad moral, spiritual and educational framework as ” a point of departure that focuses on principles, priorities and orientation” [Purpel, 1989, p 156].

Human history is barely of a ten thousand year duration, and the

concept of justice, love, and compassion is perhaps four thousand

years old. The fact that those ideas have been developed and affirmed

is in itself miraculous and the related fact that we have not nearly accomplished

other commitments is not at all surprising. If it took millions of years to go

from stone to energy (as in the example of coal) what would be a reasonable

expectation for a people to go from animal-like to God-like? [Purpel, 1989, p.165]

Inclusive school curriculums, which will promote, support, and develop the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dimensions of a person’s life. Healthy people transform an unhealthy society. An inclusive school curriculum will value:

  • the production of one’s own knowledge over textbook knowledge.
  • the inclusion of autobiography over depersonalized  ‘objective’ histories.
  • ecological and ecumenical world-views over authoritarian and dogmatic discourses
  • thinking about the assumptions, which underlie thinking processes, over memorization and rote learning
  • reflection and rumination in learning over simple recall of information and data
  • the value of intuition as an integral part of rational processes
  • eclecticism over linear thinking
  • spirituality, mystery, cosmology and the spirituality of science over scientism
  • an acknowledgement of gender ambiguity over stereotypes
  • the inclusion of race and ethnic differences over nationalism and global culture
  • the development of interpersonal skills over institutionalized roles
  • the development of a defensive logic over the art of reasoning, to help youngsters face and deal with fear, prejudice, bigotry, racism and social injustice
  • love, tolerance, compassion and cooperation over competitiveness  (Slattery, 1995)

For the most part these subject-matters and themes are under-represented or excluded from the a 21st century school curriculum

Knowing through systems of information, data and knowledge like information technology, computer science, general sciences, social sciences, mathematics, humanities and the arts is acquired knowledge. But the journey of the individual learner is different. There is the revelation of an inner knowledge, an intuitive awareness if you like of the world and ones place in it. One feels this more than knows it, and I think it is part of the ever-increasing understanding of what it is to learn. The linking themes in all of this are autobiography, learning, understanding and knowing. This merging of two experiences of knowledge enables one to understand how separated and fragmented learning cultivates ignorance. “Where is the life we have lost in living?” Eliot writes, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” [Eliot, T.S. 1971].


Apple, M.W & Beyer, L.E. (eds) The Curriculum: Problems, Politics and Possibilities, State University of New York  Press, New York, 1998, pp.6-7

Casals, P. ‘n.d.’, ‘Quotation’, ‘Great Musicians on Sound, Spirit and Heart’  <  (accessed 27/7/2002)

Dewey, J. Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education  The Free Press, New York, 1916, pp.6-8

Eliot, T.S. Collected Poems: 1909 – 1962, Faber & Faber, Great Britain, 1974

Gatto, J.T.  Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling,

New Society Publishers, USA, 1992

Giroux, H.A.  Stealing Innocence: Youth, Corporate Power and the Politics of

Culture, Palgrave,  New York, 2000, p.7

Illich, I.  Deschooling Society, Penguin Books, Great Britain, 1971

Mandela, N.  Long Walk To Freedom, Macdonald Purnell (Pty) Ltd. Randberg,  South Africa, 1994, p. 594

Miller, A . For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelties in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1990

Purpel, D    The Moral & Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education, Bergin & Garvey, New York, 1989

Rousmaniere, Dehli & de Coninck-Smith, (ed) Discipline, Moral Regulatio and Schooling: A Social History   Garland Publishing, Inc, New York  1997, p.3

Slattery, P. Curriculum Development in the Post-Modern Era, Garland Publishing, New York, 1995























Why Bill Gates must Eradicate Malaria and not Education.

The multi-billionaire, lobbyist, IT corporate founder of the Microsoft conglomerate and philanthropist Bill Gates is highly opinionated on subjects ranging from HIV-AIDS, to what schools and universities should be doing in providing an educative foundation for the lives of those privileged to be able to gain entry to schools and universities in the United States of America. It is not uncommon for the rich and powerful-once having acquired their status-to pontificate to the rest of us on what’s wrong with our world and society, and to tell us how we should rectify these problems while at the same time telling us how we should be living our lives. There are many examples of this-especially in the United States of America-Donald Trump attempts to impose his myopic world view of business and entrepreneurship on the whole planet yet despises differences within his own country. Oprah Winfry struggled through a tough abusive childhood to find herself able to promote the use of some not so well founded self-help theories on a global population desperate for affirmation of their innate goodness as human beings along with those in desperate need of professional help-it was the latter who often were mis-lead or misinterpreted her good intentions through some of the pseudo-therapist she had on her shows-we all remember one of the off shoots of her talk-show, that Dr. Phil character and his neo-conservative behavourist views on how to solve both personal and intrapersonal problems . And there’s the creativity guru, Ken Robinson who re-discovered his own creativity after years of traditional teaching and learning in the Arts and Drama sectors of education, and has since taken up a crusade against educators throughout the world arguing that they kill creativity in their students, forgetting that most of them were reading and using the ideas of Edward de Bono long before they had ever heard of Ken Robinson. Yes, it’s always possible to critique the world when one is sitting atop of the pile. Although Shakespeare, that great logical, linear dramatist and writer did put it more eloquently “But ’tis a common proof that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face, but when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend” (Shakespeare, 1599).

In one of his regular TED talk appearances (those virtual ipod telecasts where people invent new language like ‘framed or tipping point’, or where they regularly turn nouns into inaccurate verb forms and then teachers have to re-teach basic grammar to their students) Bill Gates combines two very disparate topics-seeking a cure for Malaria and curing all the ills of 21st century education (Gates, 2009). The first part of the talk is informative even though Gates isn’t a medical doctor-although one is able to fudge their way through such topics dropping certain terms and phrases into the talk-but he does rely on statistics of mortality to buttress his argument, and releasing non-malaria carrying mosquitoes into the audience is a nice touch and is well received by those present. There’s no doubt that it is money well spent and his philanthropic work in fighting Malaria is a much needed boost for the poorest of countries struggling with this deadly disease and unable to cope through a lack of international investment and corrupt governance.

For a man who unashamedly admits he dropped out of College-almost as a challenge to the whole educational edifice-he has very strongly worded opinions on education and how he thinks it should progress in the 21st century: Testing, IT as preferred delivery methodology, and breaking the National Teacher’s Union’s powerbase in protecting the rights of educators in his country.

Yet, it has been found over and over again that testing alone is not the mark of an educated person. It is simply a means to an end. It provides lots of statistics for people like Gates to ruminate over and ohooh and ahhhh and identify trends and make decisions without considering the impact of their decisions on an individual’s life in any school classroom and to education in general. We do not create and inspire life-long learning simply through testing. Moreover Gate’s visit to one school in the US,  where he recounts how the teacher was literally running around the room in an effort to keep kids attentive is praised as inspirational-and a model all teachers should aspire to-in reality and how it is described  sounds like the teacher concerned was on amphetamines and more importantly the extent the teacher was able to transmit knowledge is simply ignored and not addressed. And this is often the case with those outside of the teaching profession who choose to critique education for their personal gain and social standing on the wider national and global stage. They simply lack the basic knowledge to understand how a human being learns.

Gates quoted some alarming statistics from within the United States of America-30% of youth drop out of US high schools before graduation, and 50% of minority students drop out too (he didn’t define this term so we were not clear what he meant and TED talks for the most part deny the audience questions, as if their speakers are talking ex-cathedra like some secular Pope)He claims that students from low-income households in the US only have two choices when they leave high school-jail or a college degree. I found such rhetoric while totally inaccurate, misleading and sensationalist. At one point I thought I had mistakenly tuned into Fox News and the Bill O’Reilly factor, but when I checked my iPad (yes I admit to now being a member of the cult) I was still listening to a TED talk. So I waited to see where he would lay the blame for this profoundly disturbing nihilist view of his country’s lower income youth population and the social and economic inconsistencies in its educational sector.  Is the cause of falling educational standards to be found in the very nature of the advanced capitalist corporate based economy the United States of America uses to prop up its ailing democracy? No. Could it be the gross inequalities created for generations by its totally bankrupt economy? No. Could it be to do with its increasingly  absurd popular culture and its obsession over celebrity status and fictionalised lifestyles as portrayed through  film, television and reality TV programs which for the most part its population are fixated with in their spare time? No. Could it be an obsession with fantasy, plastic surgery, Botox injections, Joan Rivers and fast food? No. Could it be that terrorists from another part of the world have bypassed all the homeland security measures and infiltrated the country and planted some kind of mind numbing anti-learning compound in the water supply of the whole country? No. Then what could be the problem? Teachers! That’s right, there just aren’t enough great teachers teaching American kids how to learn. According to Gates most are doing a terrible job-that’s right! He used test based results (from where we do not know) to generalise that for the most part teachers throughout the United States of America are failing in their professional duties. Moreover their Union protects them too much and their contracts do not allow for sufficient monitoring of how they carry out their professional duties. In a crude analogy to a factory production line he argued that unfettered access to any classroom should be the right of school administrators- suggesting that he has no basic understanding how schools and Colleges operate, how they promote teaching effectiveness and how teachers, while being specialists in their respective disciplines are also the bridges bewteen competing curricula inititiaves, student learning, student social and personal crisies, and parents and guardians demanding a say in the whole educative process. Furthermore, in a sweeping generalisation and equally dubious claim he asserts that teachers who gain a Master’s degree as part of their commitment to life-long learning and professional development do not make any difference in the classroom from teachers who chose not to undertake a Master’s degree. These assertions are being shouted from the highest hilltops by a man who unashamedly proclaims to the youth of the world how he dropped out of College. What makes a difference is that amorphous term the ‘great teacher’ His solution is more testing and more ‘great teachers’

Firstly, education and life-long learning are not about test results. While summative assessments and testing provide some measure of a student’s success they do not provide the whole measure. One needs to look beyond the classroom into the lives and families of the students who have been mis-represented by Gates in his overall assessment of education in the US. The corporate culture from which he has done very well is largely to blame for the gross inequalities in his society’s families, and its education system. Charter schools were set up to counter the failing public school system and while they are for the most part successful it is more to do with the fact they are held to be more accountable for students achievement and teachers work very hard together to achieve student success. It could be the same in public schools, but for the many social issues teachers must confront daily in their classrooms.  Instead of going to a well known very successful charter school to confirm his  bias, Bill Gates ought to  go into some of his country’s poorest school districts  and see what kind of great teachers there are struggling against the social justices and inequalities and corrupt local officials while trying to provide an education to the youth of his country.  He could start in Shannon County school district, South Dakota, and then move on to the North Forest Independent School District in Houston, Texas. Or instead of investing a million dollars into edX spend 10 million in some of these poorest schools-inspire and motivate teachers and students don’t undermine them through profoundly naïve and unfounded assertions about the state of education today. Secondly, as a Master’s degree holder I say to someone who dropped out of College- do not underestimate the value of a Masters’ Degree-it becomes an area of specialization which builds on the initial foundations of knowledge gained in an undergraduate program and is of enormous benefit to any teacher who wishes to be an excellent role model for life-long learning to their students. It is through such a commitment to study and learning that we are able to inspire youth to pursue an education.  Thirdly, you cannot create ‘great teachers’ through allocating money for merit pay or lessing their access to job security and benefits. Great teachers emerge from a system whihc provides them with more than adequate resources, good benefits, appropriate training opportunties, professional development opportunties-including studying for a Master’s degree and a PhD.  and small class sizes whereby one person; i.e the teacher, can constructively engage with each student on a professional and inter-personal level; rather than rushing around a room like an eltie athelete trying to maintian a large class’s attention.

Bill Gates emerged from a different world. He gave up his opportunity to experience what a College based education is like and how it creates, promotes and inspires a learner.  He chose the savage competition of the corporate sector with its fierce, highly competitive values and its arrogant disregard for the notion of an educational sector critically appraising its own system and the system from which it is derived, along with an individual’s opportunity for their emotional, spiritual and intellectual growth within that system. The irony and conundrum today for Bill Gates and others  is that Microsoft Inc; Apple Inc; and the various other purveyors of IT gadgetry live in a bubble. They are the 21st century bubble boys and are far, far removed from the reality of teaching and learning today. They create the   IT distracters which are being  integrated into formal learning environments without any conscious awareness of their effects on student learning and student success.  The IT sector and its representatives are not only attempting to usurp the educational sector and eat up fought after funding for educational programs to sell their products; but are seeking to lay the blame for falling educational standards at the very feet of those who have been coerced into embracing educational technologies and edutainment –the teachers.  In this particular TED talk Gates comes across as arrogant, uniformed and as an anti-intellectual; someone who wants to destroy education; rather than a serious committed philanthropist who is working collaboratively for educational reform. With such an attitude and unconscious awareness of his dislike for formal learning he is better advised to focus on eradicating malaria rather than inadvertently eradicating education.


Gates, B. (2009, February). Bill Gates on mosquitoes, malaria and education. Longbeach, California, USA.

Shakespeare, W. (1599). Julius Casear. Stratford-upon Avon: William Shakepeare.

iGnorance in the pursuit of a 21st century education.

In his seminal work on education, John Dewey wrote that “Were all teachers to realize that the quality of mental process, not the production of correct answers, is the measure of educative growth something hardly less than a revolution in teaching would be worked.” (Dewey, 1916). What did Dewey mean? Essentially he is calling us to nurture and develop the essential cognitive processes a developing human being requires so they have the requisite skills to be able to participate as literate members of their respective societies.   These are not developed at the expense of other essential skills found in our social and emotional lives; on the contrary our essential cognitive development includes key areas of psychosocial and emotional development too.  For example Piaget posited 4 key stages of development each interdependent of the other and arrived via the individual’s readiness to move beyond their own accomplished period of development. For instance during the sensorimotor stage (Birth to 2 years old) an infant builds and integrates understanding of himself or herself and reality (and how things work) through interactions with the environment. This isn’t achieved devoid of social or emotional engagement, but is interdependent and developed through it. Nor is this achieved through staring at a flat 2 dimensional screen; an infant learns  to differentiate between themselves and other 3D objects. Learning takes place via assimilation (the organization of information and absorbing it into existing schema) and accommodation (when an object cannot be assimilated and the schemata have to be modified to include the object). At the preoperational stage (ages 2 to 4) the child is not yet able to conceptualize abstractly and needs concrete physical situations. Objects are classified in simple ways, especially by important features. At the concrete operational stage (ages 7 to 11) physical experience accumulates, and is increased. The child begins to think abstractly and conceptualize, creating logical structures that explain his or her physical experiences. Finally, formal operations (beginning at ages 11 to 15) through cognition reaches its final form. By this stage, the person no longer requires concrete objects to make rational judgements. He or she is capable of deductive and hypothetical reasoning. His or her ability for abstract thinking is very similar to an adult (Ginsberg & Opper, 1987). Aside from Piaget there are many other theories on how we learn: Skinner, Howard Gardener, Montessori, Rudolph Steiner and so on , all argue for a balanced and socially interactive approach to teaching and learning in which key skills about inter/intrapersonal relationships are nurtured and developed too-in other words the educative process isn’t a single flat line leading to an eventual university degree, it’s a highly socialised process, with many diversions and detours in which we work towards ensuring that our children become well adjusted, balanced and happy human beings who make a positive contribution to their own lives and the lives of others. And it is this view of teaching and learning which is being eclipsed by the iNsane rush to digitalise every aspect of teaching pedagogy today. In defence of educational technology however,  it has achieved some practical innovations in teaching and learning. One in particular comes to mind and it is the flat classroom project. This multi-award winning  approach to linking teachers and students globally is an example of integrating useful aspect of technology into the field of education not the other way around.  And there are others too-I examine for an international awarding body which scans test papers and essay and enables examiners to download these into a program to be marked. This replaced a costly paper based system which couriered examination materials all over the world. There’s also the digitalised text books and the 3D imagery which brings alive subjects like Geography, History, Biology, Chemistry, Mathematics and Physics to name a few; and in the junior years there’s  a plethora of material available ( if one thinks like some major publishing houses that placing a developing child in front of a screen is an ideal way to learn). Recently, I was privileged to sit in on a Grade 1  numeracy blended lesson in which some educational technology was used to reinforce the concept of 1 digit numerals. The teacher finished the lesson by placing on her hand a glove puppet in the form of a shark. Much to the delight and giggles of her students the shark gobbled up all the numerals each child had, not before they counted them out loud. I couldn’t help but wonder how the students would have responded to a cold, unfeeling screen with a shark eating the numbers courtesy of Microsoft or Apple Inc. or one of the many major publishing houses eager for a slice of the big buck money pie available through developing digitalised learning resources. The point is there is so much glamour and hype associated with iTechnolgy along with iGnorance about how we learn which is driving the technology agenda in teaching and learning today, without any moral or ethical consideration about the affects and effects on children and young people as they learn. There are three critical factors for healthy physical and psychological development in a child which will never be duplicated through any kind of educational technology. They are movement, touch and inter/intrapersonal connection to other human beings. What will future generations of administrators, teachers and learners do when all the apples have fallen from the iTree?

Dewey, J. (1916). Democracy and Education. New York: Macmillan.

Ginsberg, H., & Opper, S. (1987). Piaget’s Theory of Intellectual Development-Thrid Edition. New York: Prentice Hall.

Unbundling the Lies in the Branding of Education

In a recent article a BBC writer Tom Chatfield, posed the question ‘Can schools survive in the age of the web?’  It’s a naive question insofar as it isn’t a matter of survival it’s more about any institution’s willingness to transform itself from an organisation which lays claim to being a conveyor of official knowledge to an establishment which acts as a conduit for learning and understanding in an age of competing ideologies and powerful vested interest groups.

Education in the general sense has always been contentious. Questions about what we are taught and how we are taught have been (and still are) at the forefront of teaching and learning.  Paulo Friere’s Critical Pedagogy and Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society  are two approaches to teaching and learning which challenge us to critically appraise our knowledge and information societies and cultures and the processes through which they enable us to learn and have free unfettered access to knowledge and information.

The 2011 movie Detachment, portrays the aimless and depressing life of a substitute teacher who seems to drift from one  teaching post to another, aware to a degree of the cycle of success and failure within traditional forms of education, yet seemingly incapable of doing anything about it-the film is a kind of nihilist response to Peter Weir’s 1989 film Dead Poet’s Society. One of the key terms used in Detachment is ubiquitous assimilation; the idea that if we are flooded with constant, repetitive information and knowledge on a subject we will eventually accept it without any kind of critical appraisal.  Chatfield’s article embodies this term in its understanding of the debate or lack thereof about the assimilation of education into the corporate sector in general and the technology sector in particular.

His analysis of the impact that technology is having on education is limited to its capacity to deliver educational programmes, not in its ability to help people learn.  His examination of the issues is padded with examples and opinions but no depth in the argument. For instance the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are reported to have invested a million dollars into edX, claimed to be the world’s largest online learning initiative. Udacity has over 160,000 students in its online courses. The Khan Academy delivers online learning to tens of millions of autodidacts, and Ted talks have billions of views. (Chatfield, 2012). He continues citing Wikipedia, and the arguments put forward by Clay Shirky and others that contemporary education is being disrupted by “a new story rearranging people’s sense of the possible.” (Chatfield, 2012). Attractive claims to make, but we could easily say that tens of millions of women throughout the world read The Women’s Weekly or Vogue, but where’s the evidence that the status of women throughout the world has been improved through reading these glossy covered gossip sheets?

What is not revealed or highlighted in the gushing positive support for this disruption is the lack of credible researched evidence that we are learning better and that what we are learning is creating better societies and a better world.  I have seen the work of Sugata Mitra and understand the aims and objectives of the One Laptop per Child Organisation. Yes, they are innovative, but only up to a point. Neither example provide us with any evidence that children who have access to knowledge and information via a laptop or a screen embedded in a concrete block in a New  Delhi slum are learning and retaining knowledge. Leaving aside the ethics of Mitra’s approach to educational research and the claims which have emanated from it, it is disingenuous to assert that initial intrigue and interest in a piece of new technology to the uninitiated is going to enable them to gain access to a place in their respective highly competitive and class driven literate societies, let alone teach themselves any kind of curriculum. Moreover,  further claims which have arisen from Mitra’s “experiments” are as equally insidious. Chatfield cites an MIT review which asserted that “if kids in Ethiopia learn to read without school, what does that say about kids in New York City who do not learn even with school?” (Chatfield, 2012). The answer to that question is of a sociological nature not an educative one. It’s about the quality of life afforded to certain classes and cultures of city kids in New York, not what kinds of resources they lack (which is many) or have access to in their day-to-day lives.

Furthermore the spectacular claims being made about autodidactic (self-taught) learning and educational technologies are a part of the bundle of lies being propagated by the Corporate IT sector in promoting their products. Microsoft and Apple Inc. are at the forefront of the push to technologize education at the expense of understanding the specialisation of how we learn.  For example, the audacious claim that children in rural Ethiopia were able to move from rudimentary literacy skills in a second language to being able to hack the operating system indicates the failure of that project from both an ethical and pedagogical perspective, and undermines any credibility in the autodidactic argument..

Education has always been an uncomfortable place to inhabit-its very essence is to question and to debate what is of benefit to itself and to future generations of learners. With regard to technologies, mobile learning devices and access to online information there just isn’t the evidence that the quality of learning, the building on our current extensive bodies of knowledge, and the quality of life on the planet is going to substantially improve in the near future, no matter how many laptops, iPads, iPhones or other mobile learning devices are distributed to the poor and disenfranchised, or what MOOCs offer; especially when there’s anecdotal evidence  along with research which suggests that online learning and the use of technology in teaching and learning to the privileged  hasn’t significantly improved their educational success.

Chatfield, T. (2012). Can Schools Survive in the Age of the Web? London: BBC World Service.

Education Technology and Mental & Physical Health Disorders

The relationship between internet usage and learning through a computer or mobile device is elementary. While there may be differentiation in the assignments or tasks undertaken (personal as opposed to specialized) the media interface is identical. For example, researching for a project or reading through an online Publisher’s book-like interface, or playing a video game, or updating Facebook, or social networking, or using a movie making application, or a language or mathematics based application for school or college courses all involve similar cognitive processes which utilize our working memory, reasoning and creative brain functions. They also involve similar interactive relationships between a human being and a machine, no matter what type of branding and packaging of the machine be it an iPad, a Samsung galaxy, a Microsoft or Lenovo tablet, or any other of the myriad hand-held mobile devices on the market today. So to distinguish between an internet addiction and an addiction to a mobile device is useful only insofar as it delineates the purpose not the interface used for that purpose.  Spending 6-8 hours online at school or college or playing games or chatting or surfing the net watching YouTube clips or using a computer or mobile device to study or complete research for an assignment all carry the same psychological and physical health risks.

We know very little about the long term psychological and physical effects contemporary technology has on people in general and youth in particular except that some of the early studies are indicating that fundamental changes in social behaviour and mental and physical health after extended periods of time using technology are deleterious to human physical well-being, human social relationships and the human character.

For example, there’s evidence to suggest people behave more rudely and aggressively online. Psychologists call this the disinhibition effect-I call it bad-mannered, belligerent, antagonistic and outright cruel and rude anti-social behaviour. It is argued people feel less inhibited when not seen and feel they can express themselves more freely and without feeling vulnerable to criticism. But the results of this kind of reasoning put into practice can have devastating and tragic consequences.  Recently, a 13-year-old girl hanged herself after being bullied at school for months by a group of her peers who tormented her with names and threats of violence. Seventh grader Rachel Ehmke killed herself after what her parents said were months of abuse at her Kasson, Minnesota middle school. Several days before she took her life, an anonymous text message was sent out to other students at the school calling her a ‘slut’ who needed to be forced out of the school. (Thompson, 2012). In another tragic case, a young Indian student committed suicide by hanging herself after two boys posted obscene comments about her on Facebook (Jalandhar, 2012). But probably the most cruel and sadistic example of online anonymity and the disinhibition effect is the tragic and untimely death of 13 year old Megan Meier. Megan began receiving nasty messages from a boy a few weeks after she met him, via her MySpace account. After many messages of kindness and support she received one telling her the ‘world would be a better place without you’. Megan believed she had been rejected by the boy and committed suicide in her home. However, the boy never existed. He was an online character created by Lori Drew, a 47 year old married woman and a mother herself, who lived four houses down the street.

But it is not only social networking and the improper use of mobile devices which are having such a deleterious effect on our social relationships and our innate capacity for civility, compassion and kindness. The formal use of technology in education is undermining teaching and learning processes and the quest for knowledge. I mark hundreds of essays written by high school seniors every year for an international examining body, and I’ve noticed an exponential increase in the copying and pasting of information from websites-especially Wikipedia- without any real understanding of content. Moreover, I’ve also noted a reduced capacity for critical thinking and in-depth analysis from graduating high school seniors across the world.

Whereas teachers were once the bridge between the curriculum and the student, facilitating the teaching and learning processes, now technology is usurping that role, and the once strong, stable pillars of human reasoning, critical thinking, life-experience, empathy and understanding are being replaced by bridges of aluminium, fibreglass and fairy dust courtesy of Apple inc., Samsung and Microsoft These mobile devices are simply edutainment platforms for audio-visual media, books, periodicals, movies, music, games, apps and web content. They are being peddled and publicized by a marketing team of corporate moguls and educators with vested interests and embraced by educators caught up in the youthful but naive claim that teaching and learning methodology and content is outdated and needs to be realistic (whatever that means) and catch up to the 21st century.

There’s been no conclusive research which suggests that any mobile learning device is going to enhance and transform the learning success of school and college students. What we do know through research is that the kinds of experiences the iPad, laptop or desk top computers or any other piece of educational technology offers is limited to the innate ability of the user to learn. In other words, you can distribute a mobile learning device or computer to every pre-school, school or college age student in the entire world,  yet this will not make an iota of difference to whether they learn or not. Why? Well leaving aside intrinsic motivation, country, culture, social class and equal educational opportunities, the same cognitive processes are involved in learning whether the instructional tool is a person or a machine. Working memory, the key cognitive bridge between knowledge maintained and knowledge transformed through building on what’s retained, functions under whatever environmental conditions it encounters in the teaching and learning process. However, the caveat is this; cognitive overload a psychological and intellectual state which occurs when too much material of an auditory, visual- spatial or narrative nature is presented, undermines and prevents the uptake of key information and knowledge sequences in the teaching and learning process. And presently the educational technology currently used in pre-schools, schools and colleges without impunity are designed to increase rather than decrease the likelihood of cognitive overload.  Tools and applications which encourage multi-tasking in learning do not always act as facilitators of learning; they simply provide seductive distractions to what is required to be taught, learnt and remembered. Human beings on the other hand, are better placed to avoid this pit-fall, as they understand and have empathy with the learning process-two key human qualities not yet mimicked through technology or IT applications.

The long-term effects of technology use on physical health are only beginning to be understood. Changes in the physiology of the brain have been detected through long-term online interaction; for example microstructure abnormalities in adolescents with internet addiction disorder suggests that poor goal directed behaviors along with impaired working memory are the direct result of prolonged long-term exposure to a computer or mobile learning device. (Yuan, et al., 2011) While the destructive and negative effects spawned through technology induced social behavior are now self-evident. The international mental health encyclopaedia known as the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM-IV) will include Internet-use disorder as a condition “recommended for further study” in its forthcoming May 2013 edition. The educational sector would be well advised to take heed of this, and to monitor its implementation of educational technology and the effects it has on the impressionable, vulnerable minds and bodies of those in its pre-schools, schools, colleges and universities. It is one thing to be swept up in the hype and technophoria of the moment; and quite another to be held accountable for the long term psychological and corporeal effects and consequences that mobile and computer based learning is having on the physical and mental well-being of present and future generations of learners.


Jalandhar. (2012, August 16th). Student hangs herself over obscene Facebook comments. Retrieved October 13th, 2012, from Deccan Herald:

Thompson, P. (2012, October 13th). Girl, 13, hangs herself after months of torment at hands of girls who scrawled ‘slut’ on her school locker and warned her to leave. Retrieved October 13th, 2012, from Mail Online:

Yuan, K., Qin, W., Wang, G., Zeng, F., Zhao, L., Yang, X., et al. (2011). Microstructure Abnormalities in Adolescents with Internet Addiction Disorder. PLOS , 1-21.