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Desmond Ryan

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'Drop-outs' vote against school - do they have a good reason?

First, let us state the principle relevant to Sir Ken's issue, a refinement of the neo-Darwinian view: "...most higher organisms select their environment before they allow the environment to select them. Release a hare and a rabbit in the middle of a field, the rabbit will run off to the hedge and live its life there, while the hare will be content to live its life in the open field....If a seed falls on stony ground in the desert, it simply refuses to germinate until the next shower of rain comes along and gives it an environment at least somewhat appropriate to its needs." (C.H.Waddington (1972) 'Ninth Lecture. The importance of goals' in Kenny, A.J.P. et al. The Nature of Mind Edinburgh University Press p.128)
Second, let us respect these young Americans for having rumbled that their schools are not a well-irrigated flower bed for their Robinsonian flourishing, but something else, perhaps a selection mechanism for the US economy, against which, they know from their parents, there is no resistance, from which there is no mercy, apart from which there is no life.
Third, let us propose that, notwithstanding the danger of economic marginalization, large numbers of the young people who fail to engage with American schools have decided, in the metaphor of the seeds in the desert, to avoid 'germinating' (i.e. exposing their vulnerable developmental potential) in 'mechanistic' schools which provide no environment for their individual needs.
Fourth, let us accept the tragic conclusion that to be a school-failure by their own hand (drop-out, apathy, disengagement, exclusion) is nevertheless an act of agency, a decision to say 'No' to a system which, while not recognizing their human existence, wants to brand them for life as sub-standard goods, hardly worth taking to market - and wants them to accept that branding as publicly binding for the rest of their life.
Nothing unusual here - drop-out kids are selecting their environment before they allow the environment to select them.


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  • Nov 6 2013: What you say is a good description of the process of opting out by many students. I would not disagree with it. The problem for me as a long term passionate teacher, is that there is mostly no alternative environment for these opt out students. There is too little recognition of self education. Very few really become successful (by their own and society's definition). Mostly they become the bottom level of society, which isn't usually deserved nor fair, nor useful to society. Education systems need to provide a range of educational environments or be designed so that the environment is ultimately flexible, so that each gets what level of support to become successful they need and will use.
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      Nov 6 2013: Robert Winner writes frequently about this- that there should be options that allow people to pursue a range of interests and to develop skills that allow them to build successful lives in a variety of ways.

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