Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

Pragmatism and Idealism in Real Life

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Reading Time: 4 minutes

Can idealism and pragmatism ever meet? I like to hope so, but that the idealist talking. The pragmatist is skeptical.


flickr photo shared by jenny downing under a Creative Commons ( BY ) license

My boss once asked me how my ideals of social justice can be applied on a policy level. My colleague once asked me how my insistence on contextualization and against standards can be applied at a policy level. I actually have answers for all of these questions. Theoretically speaking. Idealistically speaking. Speaking. Speaking. Because while I do have a good amount of leeway over how I can apply this kind of thing in my own class, in reality, that’s pretty much my circle of control to act. Beyond that, I can only influence circles at my institution or beyond it via my writing. Writing. Writing, not doing. I will not know if my ideas for how to implement my ideals would ever work in real life.

Nowhere do my idealism and pragmatism clash more than in parenting. I try really hard in my personal relationship with my daughter to walk the talk. But my daughter and I do not live alone. There is an entire family. An entire society, consisting of other people and stuff. A lot of overt and hidden influences on her that I cannot control. And yet control should not be what we are after, should it?

So anyway in a #moocmooc Twitter chat today that was absolutely overwhelming because of all the different directions things were going and how much more space and time one needed to expand on like, each TWEET, I said that it’s easy to be subversive in theory, practice was harder. I can be subversive in my teaching but less so in things related to my daughter. I wish I did not have to give my students grades and stuff, so I assess their work in subversive ways – well, as subversive as I can get within the limits I have to work with. Of course it’s a compromise. Grrr

Back to parenting. I loathe the school system in Egypt – all 5 or 6 options of them, including the better-than-public-school options that call themselves “international” and the really “international” private schools that most people of my socioeconomic background send their kids to. So we “sent” her to one of those. It’s a funny word coz it’s not boarding school, but we “send” them to school. Anyway.

There are some alternatives to regular schooling popping up but dare I try them, not knowing for sure whether my kid will be able to get into college if she tries those? Who is to say (how could we say) that people doing alternative schooling with no background in pedagogy can teach my kid better than teachers who at least have some understanding of pedagogy (I hope) or at least some experience or curriculum or whatever. Sure, I don’t let my daughter do homework, because… she’s like… four!!! But would I take the risk of taking her out of a recognized school altogether and putting her in something really radical? No. Not ready for that. Just ready to keep resisting inside a regular school. I’m sadistic that way. I hate the hidden curriculum of schools.

I was talking to someone about how my girl hates wearing school uniform. Conformity. Uniformity. She wants her own personality to show. The school isn’t too strict, so, yeah, we manage to wear PE uniform every day, except the PE uniform is really navy blue pants that look like the school PE track pants (they don’t carry her size anyway) from Mothercare or H&M, and a My Little Pony white shirt she likes (I had to get several because she wants to wear it every day) that I hide under her school jacket. No, really.

So the someone said their kid was like that the first year but the second year they were all pro uniform and wearing it exactly right. And I was like, “are you kidding me? the school broke her spirit!” and they were like, “no, she learned”, and I’m like, “yeah, she learned to OBEY, that it was OK to be like others, that it was better to be like that”. Or maybe not. Maybe I’m overdoing it. Maybe it’s just a developmental thing and kids reach age 5 more understanding of the concept of a school uniform. I don’t know.

Anyway so I was saying on Twitter that I don’t have the heart to take my kid into an alternative form of education. And then I was not sure if I didn’t have heart, courage or recklessness or what. I couldn’t take the risk. Simon Ensor tweeted this:

But of course by leaving her in a school system I know for sure isn’t going to be great for her, isn’t that also a risk? Better the devil you (think) you know? At least I can counter stuff at home. Like teach her literacy rather than skills. They want her to practice writing at home. She writes when she feels like it. For making cards for people. For fun. For drawing rainbow colored letters. Not in homework books where she repeats the same letter 20 times. Ugh. And she reads (well I read TO her) something like 10 books each night (I know I know it’s too long of a bedtime routine and these aren’t even tiny books for infants, they’re toddler books with actual stories, but I speed read them sometimes when I know she needs to sleep quickly).

Sigh. I don’t even know what I want to say anymore… good night

7 Comments

  1. I can relate to the quandary about school.

    I might imagine sending my children to a school which is outside the boundaries of the country în which they live.

    In a sense that is what happened to me. I lived in one place with my parents during holidays and was sent to a school 150 miles away.

    I believe I learnt things I wouldn’t have learnt otherwise but I can’t imagine doing that to my children.

    It’s not great being isolated from peers around where you live.

    I believe that it is important to learn about the system in which one lives (at whatever level) in order to change it as far as possible over time.

    One of my kids went to a school which had a population which for him was very difficult where there was a lot of violence, racketing, etc.

    I naively imagined – like local politicians – that it was a means to break down barriers between communities – that it would be a positive step for ´integration’. Well, he lasted a year.

    I wouldn’t subject one of my kids to that now. It might/does work for some very tough kids…not for him. It is indeed a question of mix. If you have 20 kids in difficulty you don’t resolve it by sending into the class one kid who is different. Then you have 21 kids in difficulty…

    Politicians talk the talk (for othe people’s kids) and send their own kids to elite schools..

    It is not satisfactory. I believe in being pragmatic – that is not compromise (for me) and trying to enable children to be critical of the system in which they live – wherever they live.

    We change what we can change…

    • Thanks for this Simon. I agree re understanding system we are in so we can change it. And yes – working to help my daughter become critical of the system she is in, whatever that may be. Thanks for sharing all of this

  2. Very, very interesting post, Maha, lots of ideas as always. Very interesting reply from Simon – as always.
    I beat myself up for choices I made for my two sons because nothing is perfect. Sometimes the ideal is just fantasy because the people interpreting the ideal are crazy. I know couples who were ready to split up geographically (live apart) just so the mother could live close to the ideal school/preschool. There’s no perfect school but children should not be unhappy. We changed when they were unhappy but sometimes it took too long because I was ignoring my gut feeling. Why?
    And sometimes schools have a PC policy about things that can be seductive but when you look too close the teachers freak you out. (I’m thinking of Gaiman’s Coraline now).
    Whatever school your daughter attends she will also be learning from you and your husband at home, from extended family. And don’t forget that she learns from what you do and not just what you say. I forgot about that a lot throughout my mothering years.

  3. You will never know the right choices to make or whether you’ve made them. All you can do is keep loving her. That is the basis of hope.

  4. My four sons are done with school and only one has chosen university. The others have well-paying jobs in the trades. I have friends who home school. Their children are bright and becoming talented musicians (ages 7-11) on violin, cello and banjo. This would never happen if they spent their whole day in school. Having one parent stay home makes this possible.

    I suppose my idealism is what had me quit my teaching job last June. Pragmatically, earning money would be helpful. But I’m a thinker and doer and I became somewhat tired and mostly saddened at an institution (hard to blame those grinding in it) that puts the wholeness of the person second (or less) to whatever notion of learning it is that they are trying to achieve.

    Please keep speaking AND writing. I have been mostly silent, reading and contemplating my idealistic thoughts these last months. Eventually, I will try to enter the pragmatic world of education work again, but I will bring my idealism with me.

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