If Hong Kong people don’t like drilling or any rotten style of pedagogy, why do we still pay billions of dollars to star tutors for the service of ‘spoon-feeding’ and drill our students for exams?
I’m just fascinated by what I have read from Deleuze, Guattari and Bernstein while reading up for my PhD.
I always ask undergraduate students a very simple question. What is good education? I think this question makes a lot of sense to these pre-service teachers because the whole point about teacher education is to sensitise them to the importance of good teaching. They should be equipped with essential skills and knowledge before entering into the real world of classroom.
As expected, their answers are very ideal and are somehow underpinned by the progressive philosophy of education: creativity, no spoon-feeding, no rote learning, student-centredness, communicative approach, no drilling, learning by discovery, etc. One doesn’t need to read John Dewey’s Democracy and Education and notice that we all espouse and profess these values – at least on our lips.
But are we just paying lip service? If teachers in Hong Kong adhere to the philosophy of progressive education, why is education in East Asia still ridiculed for its exam-oriented culture and ‘rotten’ style of teaching and learning, as we can see this problematic cultural stereotype (‘neo-colonial discourse?’) in the BBC documentary ‘Are Our Kids Touch Enough? Chinese School’?
My point here is not to deconstruct how the BBC or other Western media outlets construct and vilify ‘the Chinese teacher’ or ‘the Chinese learner’ (well, perhaps later on we should do such critical analysis of this new type of Orientalist discourse like Edward Said did). I want to shift the focus back to Hong Kong parents, teachers, students and policymakers ourselves and wrestle with a contradictory social reality. We are often told to embrace ‘progressive education’ or an imaginary ‘Western model’ of education (well, remember the Finnish Lessons by Pasi Salhberg and the much celebrated education system of Finland?). Meanwhile, Hong Kong education is often denounced as a total failure with the following characteristics: rote learning, drilling, and authoritarian style of teaching and school management, etc. If you read any complaints on social media against the government policy and anti-education discourse propagated by Lawrence Cheng Tan Shui and Alfred Cheung Kin Ting), you will see the complaints are more or less the same as the British colonial rulers described about the local Indian and Chinese education a hundred years ago.
But why are still many Hong Kong parents and teachers fond of drilling in TSA despite the EDB’s clear message against it and our penchant for this imaginary ‘western’, progressive model of education? If we don’t like spoon-feeding, why is there a booming market of cram schools and tuition chains (also known as ‘shadow education’) where parents/students ironically pay for spoon-feeding and hence sponsor tutors to buy Ferrari or Lamborghini sports cars? It is schizophrenic, isn’t it?
In my earlier piece published in HKFP on the drilling culture behind TSA, I argue that the frenzy behind drilling reflects what Frank Furedi called a ‘culture of fear’ – fear amongst the parents and teachers that students will ‘lose at the starting line’ in the times of ‘liquid modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman) or ‘risk society’ (Ulrich Beck). But after reading something about ‘schizoanalysis’ developed by the French poststructuralist philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, I want to refine my argument a little bit here.
The most excluded members of society ‘invest with passion the system that opposes them, and where they always find an interest, since it is here that they search for and measure it. Interest always comes after. …Repressing desire, not only for others but in oneself, being the cop for others and for oneself – that is what arouses, and it is not ideology, it is economy…violence without purpose, a joy, a pure joy in feeling oneself a wheel in the machine …Desire is agape.’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 1983, p.346-7, cited in Savat and Thompson, 2015, p.285)
Why do we invest ourselves in private tuition, drilling, rote learning, boring teaching, etc., even if these little ‘machines’ make our educational lives unbearable? The phrase I highlighted is telling: it gives us a pure joy in feeling oneself a wheel in the machine. If a teacher sticks to the orthodox ELT pedagogy such as communicative language teaching (CLT) or task-based learning and teaching (TBLT) approach, students and parents are very likely to complain. Senior teachers such as the vice principal or department chairperson, in order to fend off such complaints from parents and salvage the reputation of the school, would probably give a few words of advice to this passionate teacher and ask him/her ‘to play the game’. The hidden message is – just spoon-feed the students, and that is the meaning of good teaching. Meanwhile, we all know Hong Kong people love complaining – our education system is exam-driven, teaching is exam-driven (also known as ‘washback effects’), etc., but in a way, if teachers adopt innovative teaching, they are very likely to be in trouble because many students and parents prefer the ‘traditional’ Hong Kong or East Asian style of teaching (I’m sure Singaporean teachers have a similar issue here).
In Freudian psychoanalysis, desire reflects our fundamental lack. However, for Delueze and Guattari, ‘desire is connection,…a process of increasing expansion, connection and creation’ (Colebrook, 2002, xxii). It is different from the Freudian notion that we desire because we lack or lose something in our unconscious level. In this connection, a desiring machine is ‘the outcome of any series of connections’ and the idea of ‘machine’ points to the connections and functions, with cogs and wheels inside. For example, a man works out in the gym for weight training not because he suffers from an inferiority complex. His desire to build muscle, according to the Deleuzean logic of desire, is seen as his desire to expand and improve himself, not only that he looks down on his skinny body. In fact, our impulses, drives, desire, and the unconscious are part of the wider capitalist economy. In a similar vein, parents and teachers drill students not because students lack something. We do that, despite our aversion to it, because ‘it gives us a pure joy in feeling oneself a wheel in the machine‘. We actually derive pleasure from the pain we got. We invest with passion this distorting system that opposes us, and where we always find an interest in drilling (e.g. reputation, social status, fame, etc.). We search for and measure achievement. The capitalist logic inevitably produces such schizophrenic mentality.
Here, it is very tempting for me to reduce Deleuze and Guattari’s project of schizoanalysis down to very simplistic terms given its complex theoretical labyrinth inherited from Kant, Leibniz, Spinoza, Freud and Lacan. The purpose of this short piece is just to scratch the surface and offer another perspective on the debates over the ills of our education system – or the discourse on the apparent problems in East Asia we are currently facing. Deleuze and Guattari resist the idea of developing schizoanalysis as a model or grand narrative. In other words, I’m not trying to build a theory of education or learning based on their philosophy. So what’s the way forward? I have no idea. After all, psychoanalysis, schizoanalysis or any cultural or social theory is often rejected in the circle of social sciences. Does this mean something about our unconscious inclination to repress our desire as well?