The Failings of “Alternative Education”

While potentially great in theory, so called “alternative educational systems” or “learning centers” are a travesty and fail to educate those who are most in need of education. Before continuing however, I think it’s necessary to distinguish between learning centers for at risk children, and learning centers for rich white kids who “don’t like the classroom”. The former, that is different methods of schooling or learning centers for at risk youth, are very successful at educating specific groups of people. The latter however, those that are designed for students who just want to get out of school, have created a new breed of people: the slacktivist.

You see, active learning is replaced with pseudo-intellectual circle jerks. Critical thinking is replaced with mindless regurgitation of teacher’s political views. And courses on activism and government engagement consist of, and I quote a friend who goes to a “learning center”, lessons saying “if you bitch and whine enough, you’ll get what you want”.

Specifically, in my own home town of Columbus, Ohio, there is something called Mosaic, a learning center that describes itself as a school that “challenges students to become analytic thinkers, effective communicators, successful collaborators, and responsible citizens”. Sounds good in theory, right? But in practice, it fails miserably for a few reasons.

First, the kids it draws ensures its own failure. While Mosaic is described as a radical new approach to learning for students who are, among other things, “[i]ntellectually curious, creative, or unique” it doesn’t actually draw people who want to learn in a different setting, it draws people who simply want to duck out of class. So they may be unique and creative, but they have no will to learn. It get’s  worse than that though. For the students it attracts are not your typical “thugs” who skip school, rather they are the faux artist burnouts who, when not getting high, sit in circles and isolate themselves from the real world. These faux artist burnouts are so prevalent within the program that you have students holding “wine parties” in basements acting mature, holding group meetings where at least someone is intoxicated (in terms of extra-curriculars, sometimes the adviser), and I know of one instance of a student snorting cocaine in the bathroom at the center and then proceeded to drive home while high. 



When students like this are clumped together, not only is no work done, but the students that actually came in hopes of a better education are either suckered in to partaking in vices or are deprived of the hope for a better education.

Second, the education that occurs destroys critical thinking and promotes only surface level knowledge. While Mosaic is touted as the forum for critical thinking, when that is put to the test, the results are stunning. The lessons that are actually “taught” are conducted on single issue topics with no discussion of any alternative. For example, in discussions of social justice, they will have a speaker come in and talk about “white privilege” without discussing ways to break down the supposed privilege, alternative explanations for the impacts of “white privilege”, or even asking the students to think for themselves on the issue. This model of objective learning – that is, “this is a fact and you can’t argue” – works in subjects such as math or science, but when it comes to the humanities, it’s doomed to failure. Specifically in the context of Mosaic, there is a phenomena which a student there calls “Mosaic argumentation”. “Mosaic argumentation” is when topics are discussed but if one asks a deeper question other than “what is X?”, a form of cognitive dissonance kicks in and the person talking about “X” bumbles around without actually saying much of anything because the only model of thinking they know is surface level regurgitation and can’t break out of that.

Interestingly enough, the student who coined that phrase also said that he needs to “catch himself” when he starts to think like all the other special snowflakes and “individuals” at Mosaic.

Finally, and most importantly, the education that occurs breeds something that is called “slacktivism”. “Slacktivism”, according to Belarusian researcher Evgeny Morozov defined “slacktivism” as “feel good activism that has zero social or political impact” which “creates an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group” (x). “Slacktivism” is posting a photo on Instagram of you holding a sign that says #BringBackOurGirls and thinking you’re doing jack shit to help the girls in Nigeria or shouting “stop Kony!” and thinking you’re changing the world.

This model of activism should evoke memories of the “Kony 2012” campaign and the effort to “cover the night” to bring Kony to justice that failed so miserably. Yet, this is the model that is taught at Mosaic. A friend of mine was really excited for their unit on government and public engagement and thought he would learn something. Turns out, he was gravely mistaken. As per him, the thing was an entire unit about how you’re entitled to things from the government and if you don’t automatically have them, there are ways to get them. Specifically, and I quote him here, they learned that “if you bitch and whine enough, you’ll get what you want”.

This sad attempt at teaching people how to engage the government not only leads to nothing getting done (see Kony 2012) while the “activists” either get some material reward or a warm fuzzy feeling from clicking the “Like” button on Facebook, but is actually counter productive to the attempts at changing the status quo in favor of social justice. The reason for this is actually quite simple, when you “bitch and whine”, you’re annoying and people stop listening. It’s that easy. Bitching and whining will do nothing to advance any cause, rather, it will alienate people and make people annoyed with your movement and more likely to dismiss it.

Don’t believe me? Think about “rape culture”. For years third wave feminists have whined about “rape culture” and the supposed evil that exists and finally, after years of whining about it people were fed up and something was done. RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network, not only said rape culture is a myth, but they actually said that the third wave feminists’ whining “has the paradoxical effect of making it harder to stop sexual violence, since it removes the focus from the individual at fault, and seemingly mitigates personal responsibility for his or her own actions”. (x)

That’s right, when whining and “activism” has worked, it’s been counter productive to the goals of the whiners and the “slacktivism” that occurs is nothing more than mental masturbation.
So please, if you are the coordinator of an “alternative education” center, do some reflection on what type of education your students are actually getting and whether or not they’re actually able to go out into the world and achieve their goals.

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