Monday, March 12, 2012

Won't Get Khanned Again: How Can Education Help Democracy Trump Capitalism?

The other evening, I saw an article about Salman Khan's latest plans to expand his "education" empire into the world of brick and mortar schooling (how unrevolutionary of him, I must say), and it set me to thinking. One sentence caught my attention in particular:
"They played a 'paranoia' version of the game Risk to understand the theory of probabilities using Monopoly money, where kids trade securities based on the outcome of the game."

There's nothing obviously new about this: there have been teachers offering stock market simulation "games" in various grade bands for decades. So what's the big deal? Maybe nothing, maybe something significant. Here we have Sal Khan, former Wall St. hedge fund analyst (not a job for which I hold a great deal of respect, for some reason, particularly in connection with the education deform movement), giving summer campers, some of whom by his own words, "couldn't see the board" (which I assume means that they were quite young), the opportunity to find out how our capitalist system works. Not that the word "capitalist" or its variants ever gets mentioned of course. But it's certainly Sal's prerogative to indoctrinate proselytize rationalize um, expose students to The Market.

What popped into my head was, "How do educators (in mathematics or any other subject) who are concerned not only about social justice and the obvious inequities (and iniquities) of the current American system give students the opportunity to critically examine the assumptions about what it means to be human that are inherent in our so-called "free-market" capitalist system and how that system impacts our alleged belief in "core democratic values."

For those of you not playing along at home, let me remind you that the reason we've fought wars over the last 60 years in places like Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Nicaragua, Somalia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya (to name just some of the low-lights; for a more thorough list of our military interventions, both foreign and domestic, over the last 120 years or so, go here), is to spread our "democratic core values" and bring freedom to oppressed people throughout the world (or so I've heard it said). Yet, some people lately have been making a lot of noise that includes the notion that we don't really have democracy or anything vaguely like it here at home. And some folks are linking capitalism and the activities of Wall Street, banking, multinational corporations, globalization, and much else that I suspect Mr. Khan finds perfectly fine, to the absence of meaningful democracy, social justice and equity in these United States.

So while I can't stop Sal Khan from expanding his influence into the hearts and minds of our children, particularly since Bill Gates isn't backing my on-line screeds financially or otherwise, nor has the O'Sullivan Foundation offered me $5 million in grant money to spread my vision to physical classrooms, I guess I'm still free (until the Internet comes under complete control of the government and its corporate and oligarchical masters) to try to get others interested in offering kids a different viewpoint. In particular, I invite people to offer ideas (information on and/or links to already-existing projects, speculations on projects that might be, or inklings of possibilities) on non-didactic education (how's that for an oxymoron?) on the human and humane implications and costs of unchecked capitalism.

My initial thought last week was that I wanted a game that allowed students to explore various economic, social, and political arrangements and systems in ways that made it likely (perhaps unavoidable) that players would need to think hard about what it costs people to live and work in our system, not just Americans, of course, but people all over the world, and not just monetarily, but in terms of physical, intellectual, emotional, ethical, spiritual, and other aspects of what might be called human health and well-being. Naturally, the environment in which we live, the planet we inhabit, would likely need to be considered carefully as well.

Lest I appear more completely ignorant than I actually am (which is, of course, quite ignorant of a host of things), I should mention that I'm aware that Bucky Fuller was up to something at least in part like what I'm raising above with his World Game. I'm most certainly not in his league, but I'm thrilled to have discovered in reading about his game ideas that during the 1960s, Fuller several times proposed them as the core curriculum for Southern Illinois University. I'd like to see his college curricular idea and raise him a K-16 and beyond curriculum, one that begin as close to the start of formal education as possible and finds ways to lead students into conversations about the what happens to us when we operate in a capitalist mindset. I think there are fundamental ethical questions and assumptions that kids of school age care about and are quite capable of discussing intelligently.

I do put in that oxymoron about non-didactic education advisedly. There's no question that it's possible to readily create lessons the entire point of which is to propagandize an anti-capitalist moral. That's not what I'm interested in, however. I think that if such a curriculum is to be useful, it needs to be much more open-ended than what being the flip side of Mr. Khan's little market game seems grounded in. But maybe I'm chasing a chimera here. What do you think?