Essay 19: Going From Processee to Processor in Education: One’s Own Questions as Countervailing Force

A school such as a college or university processes each student in the administrative sense: obviously record-keeping means the students grades, years of attendance, tuition payments, etc. will be recorded and kept on file.

There is another level of processing, namely, school by definition means the student expects to face a gauntlet of questions in quizzes and midterms, in finals and exams, in the very entrance exams to get into the school in the first place.

A school is a “world” of questions, a site of constant “processing.”

To flourish intellectually, which is the theme of this book, the trick is to flip this over and become the processor. One does this by circumnavigation of the campus “carrying” one’s own questions or mega-questions and thinking of the entire campus as the “answer zone” for one’s “homemade” questions.  One’s own questions become a “countervailing force” to their questions in all the tests and exams and quizzes.

Some quick examples:

Jacob Bronowski is a world-famous educator whose TV series The Ascent of Man was  an international success. In one of his books, Bronowski raises the question of cause and effect in history and social sciences and offers the reader a “mega-question” to carry with him or her to organize an overall campus experience, a kind of educational motif for life during and after school. Bronowski asks:

“England then ceased to grow enough corn (i.e., food grains such as wheat) during Blake’s (1757-1827) lifetime. It is one of a web of changes, no single one of them cause and no one of them effect, whose strands cross over these seventy years. It is certainly linked with the growth of population; with thirty-five years of war,  piracy, and blockade; with mounting debts, taxes and poor-rates; with the rise in prices, and with economic let be (laissez-faire). And these in turn are linked with the enlargement of factory industry and of finished exports; with the enclosure of common land; with the decay of small holders and craftsmen, and the use of unskilled workers; with shifts in political power and loyalty, and with a changing social outlook.

“This is the web, bewildering in detail and overwhelming in the large, which goes by the name of the Industrial Revolution

“To the end of the eighteenth century, woolen cloth made up one-third of England’s exports, and of her whole output. But cotton, the new staple of factory industry was gaining fast; and overtook wool…”

(Jacob Bronowski, William Blake and the Age of Revolution, Penguin Books, 1954, page 35-36)

The student could then fortify his or her understanding of this “cotton-based new history” through Prof. Sven Beckert’s masterful book from 2015, Empire of Cotton: A Global History and understand wool-to-cotton and cotton manufacturing as a “deep engine.”  In order to intellectually blossom and thrive and keep one’s autonomy and balance at a school, say, a college or university, the student must arm him or herself with one’s own “mega-questions” such as Bronowski’s “cause and effect” ones and the whole idea of his ‘web of changes.”

Today’s “web” in the internet sense is itself part of “webs of change” as is a spider’s web and all of this “meta-intelligence’ allows the student to “process” the school and not be simply a mindless processee. This book is about this transition to school-processor in a kind of “secret rebellion” against the “blur” of normal education whereby the contents of a course are almost completely forgotten days and weeks after the final.