Saturday, 21 June 2014

Gumption: a missing ingredient in Aboriginal Education(?)

nec tibi quid liceat, sed quid fecisse decebit occurrat; mentemque domet respectus honesti
(consider not what you may do, but what you ought; and let your sense of what is right govern your conduct) - Claudian

Years ago, I read Robert Persig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974). Despite its "new agey" title it is considered an American classic. In it, Persig coins a phrase "gumption trap" that sets the whole story of Phaedrus, a teacher of creative and technical writing who loses his mind, suffers through horrific therapies, but eventually finds his way back to sanity.

A gumption trap is complete loss of confidence brought about by outright "failure" in something where all subsequent inaction is further reinforced by fear of failure. It is a feedback loop that smothers any sense of initiative. Many of us are not unfamiliar with it but aboriginal children seem especially prone to its stultifying effects, especially if the child came into school speaking one language and is expected to learn and assume another to "achieve" some level of acceptance.

I remember one episode where I came in midway through a course on graphs (my attendance in school was rather intermittent, and I've only myself to blame), and I had no idea what I should be doing—to plot a pair of numbers onto the graph—so I just drew a curve as best as I could. The teacher was not amused.

I didn't really understand what he said in anger for the whole class to hear but the sting and embarrassment were real enough. I lost interest in numbers and thought for the longest time that when it came to mathematics I was a complete write-off: turns out there is a whole ocean of difference between arithmetic and mathematics, and where I'm almost completely useless in one I more than make up in the other. I'm no mathematician but I do have an intuitive feel for mathematical thinking. To contemplate mathematically-derived structures have a calming effect on my thinking. There is something spiritual in being able to say: It is thus and could not have been otherwise, and now I know (how and) why.

The apparent lack of achievement in Aboriginal Education is not attributable to the teachers nor the students but the blame lies in the system itself. It is in the very epistemology and teleology of the "iron cage" where the mindless (intentionally designed thus) checking off of its obligations in the process matter more than the actual imparting of knowledge and capability upon the students who are left largely to fend for themselves having acquired coping mechanisms that often puts them in direct conflict with the very people who may want to help them but aren't afforded the time and resources to address the short-falls of the system let alone the personal effects in which these young people find themselves.

A system-wide reset is impossible. But some (even short term) funding arrangements may allow for pockets of calm and thriving even for a short time—hopefully enough time for the teachers and students to transcend the "gumption trap" long enough get to the other side of righteousness.

Jay

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