Thursday, 16 March 2017

I just countersued- Prince Ea: the same old arguments in a shiny new video

Judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree and it’ll spend a lifetime thinking it’s stupid
Albert Einstein

You’ll see this quote everywhere. Its memorable and tidy and superficially convincing. It’s often accompanied by the cartoon at the top of this post (in which the goldfish is in a bowl on top of a tree stump, which makes me think damn that goldfish is a really good climber already).

Except Einstein never said it. It’s a perfect example of how the Internet has resurrected the principle that a lie can get half way around the world before the truth can get its boots on. A glib, seductive claim untroubled by veracity or evidence. This is how the video ‘I just sued the school’ starts. It’s also very much how it continues.

Fans of 19th century educational clichés dressed as slick, radical innovation are in for a treat, in a short film/ advert/ performance by hip-hop inspirational speaker Prince Ea called 'I just sued the School System' released in 2016. (It’s already had over 5 million views. I can only imagine how many staff meetings and assemblies have already pored over it.) 

To be honest fans of these ideas are rarely not in for a treat, as such proclamations are common as pigeons and as old as coal. Did you see Ken Robinson’s magnum opus in this area? I’d be more surprised if you didn’t. His TED talk 'Do schools kill creativity?' (12 million views) is currently the industry standard in this territory. And a few years ago a keen young rapper called Boyinaband took up the torch with his viral ‘Don’t stay in school.’ (14 million views) As you might gather, they think schools are rubbish. 

I’ve made hay out of both of these before. See here for my review of Ken Robinson's oeuvre and here for my thoughts on Boyinaband. They position themselves as radicals, innovators and disruptors of ancient paradigms. But their arguments are straight out of the 19th century and the first wave of romanticism and progressive education. Their arguments are thin at best, and rely more on an appeal to the emotions than fact. But the problem with ghosts and wraiths is that you can’t knock them out with the biggest haymaker. It's hard to put gas in a box. 'What is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence', as the clever Hitchens brother once said. But what if they won’t be dismissed? What if people still believe? What if they prefer the ghost?

The People vs The School System

Let’s look at the video. For a start you notice the production values. This is well designed, scored, cast and performed. Prince Ea is sincere, convincing and convinced. The rhetorical dimension is beautifully executed. Set in that Neverland trope, a mythical court of truth and goodness, he plays a young Atticus Finch/ Torquemada, holding the school system to account for its many crimes- here gamely represented by a sneering, old white man. Righteous vigour versus infirmity and privilege. Which is great because for a minute I thought he was going to play the obvious rhetorical tropes.

Over 6 minutes we’re treated to a shopping list of every educational cliché: schools are no longer fit for purpose; schools haven’t changed in 150 years whereas cars and telephones are unrecognisable, and so on. Some of the charges laid are quite remarkable. Apparently schools:

  • Kill creativity
  • Kill individuality
  • Are intellectually abusive
  • Turn millions of people into robots
  • Are guilty of malpractice

These kinds of allegations stagger me with their casual vilification of educators. Millions of people work in the systems he describes, grafting and straining and giving every damn they can, only to be told by an incredibly successful product of that system (Magna Cum Laude in anthropology, University of Missouri) that they are 'abusive'. It pretends to make a distinction between attacking ‘the system’ and the people who inhabit it. ‘They’re not the problem. They work in a system.’ This is the rhetorical equivalent of someone in a pub saying ‘No offence, but’ before telling you your kids are ugly. ‘The system’ isn’t just some administrative miasma or dystopian fantasy bureaucracy like HYDRA or SMERSH. It’s composed of the people within it, many of whom may disagree with this policy or that, but who for the most part give far more of a damn about making it work than…well, someone who has time to make inspirational videos for a living.
No corpse of an idea is too ripe to have lipstick applied and paraded: ‘I did a background check. You were made to train people for factories. Straight rows. Short breaks.’ No, no it wasn’t. For a thorough deboning of this myth, see here. This misunderstanding of how and why public schooling was created is indicative of the quality of analysis throughout. And besides, does anyone really think that contemporary schooling is designed to create factory workers? How many factories have counsellors, art and drama, Glee and chess clubs? You didn’t do a background check. You just read Ken Robinson with a highlighter pen.

You might as well claim that redcurrants and White Christmases were the same thing because they were both colours. Could it be that rows are an efficient way to seat students to see what the teacher is doing? Could it be periods of work followed by brief spells of rest are a pretty sound way to get things done? No, obviously they are instruments of tyranny. ‘We all have a past,’ he tells us. ‘I myself am no Gandhi.’ You got that right. Gandhi was informed.

Fashionable in the 80s

The video is peppered with unintentional hilarious goofball moments. ‘Scientists tell us no two brains are the same.’ Cue a scientist in the stand holding a plastic brain. Conceivably this alludes to the theories of multiple intelligences or perhaps even learning styles like VAK which have been so comprehensively blown up by contemporary neuroscience and cognitive psychology. Such ideas are common tropes in pseudo science, and used to justify multiple sins in classrooms. Of course our brains aren’t identical- otherwise we’d be the same person- but they work pretty much the same way, aberrations notwithstanding.

The process by which we all learn is remarkably similar in function and execution. The drive for entirely personalised learning, like so much of this video, was hip about ten years ago, but has been challenged repeatedly since. Teachers are actually pretty good at spotting where students are with their baseline knowledge, and working out what to teach them next. Neuroscience doesn’t teach us that- classroom experience and solid subject familiarity does. I don’t fret about what kind of brain little Jessica or Jasmine has; I ask myself what do they need to learn next. While the narrator is fretting about cookie-cutter education and ‘one size doesn’t fit all’ (does it ever?) paradigms, teachers are getting on with the job. He seems to think we stand there and lecture for an hours to our students and the devil take the hindmost. Which ignores all of the questioning, feedback, and discussions that take place. 

To the narrator, it’s 'educational malpractice' for one teacher to stand in front of twenty children . Meanwhile I’m thinking ‘Man, that's a pretty good ratio, I wish all my classes were that small.’ He calls it ‘horrific.’ He says it’s ‘the worst criminal offence ever.’ Perspective, reason, evidence, propriety all self-immolate in a gas station conflagration of hyperbole. I can only guess how he describes murder.

Teachers are underpaid, he claims, apparently walking back the charge that we are worse than carpet bombers, which is nice of him. ‘Doctors can perform heart surgery,’ he says. ‘But teachers can reach the heart of children.’ And I’m reminded of Owen Wilson’s con artist in Wedding Crashers. ‘You know how they say we only use 10 percent of our brains? I think we only use 10 percent of our hearts.’ It makes a decent inspirational coaster, but as an argument it lacks something.

And ‘Curriuclums are created by policy makers who have never taught a day in their lives.’ For a man who sells inspirational mugs, this is pretty brave stuff. And ignores the obvious mechanisms that curriculums usually go through before they ever see a classroom, which involves substantial input or design by teachers. But, y'know, facts

Bullsh*t Bingo

If you had ‘Uses Finland as an argument’ in the sweep stake then prepare to collect your winnings, as he does indeed, go there like the SAS. ‘They have shorter school days, good wages, and focus on collaboration instead of competition.’ They also have a population of five and a half million and a winter 100 days long. Plus they’ve started to fall down the international league tables despite still having all of these things. And many have argued that their prior dominance was founded on existing cultural factors.  Education tourism is a sin, or as Prince Ea might put it ‘the greatest tragedy known to humanity ever including the great flood.’ Probably. And besides, Singapore does pretty well too, despite it representing a system closer to the human power cells of the Matrix than the antediluvian Eden of Scandinavia. Oddly, he does mention Singapore but doesn’t develop this apparently argument-shredding counter example.

By now he’s going full pelt and the clichés are like buckshot. He mentions Montessori schools as a shining example of what he sees as a solution, despite the fact that nobody can seem to get that child centred model to work on anything apart from very tiny children- probably for the very good reason that child-led enquiry is perfectly natural and useful in the infant stage, but pretty terrible as a way to accrue second-order propositional knowledge, ie academic subjects. He name checks
the Khan Academy, because it’s apparently against the law to be a groovy thought leader in education without advocating flipped learning, despite the enormous chasm of any substantial evidence that teaching yourself academic subjects is of any use to any but the most motivated, mature, and crucially, already able. Try getting that to scale up to ‘most kids in general.’

Summing up

The framing device here is a courtroom, so allow me the same conceit: J’accuse. His solutions aren’t real world solutions. The children he talks about aren’t your average kid from your average home. His solutions suit the wealthy, the middle class, the children of supportive and culturally literate homes. His crepuscular arguments are delivered with passion and intensity, so allow me an equivalent intensity: the solutions he proposes are divisive, unrealistic, costly, and promote social immobility, illiteracy and the disenfranchisement of children- particularly those from backgrounds of social and economic disadvantage. They signal boost the already privileged at the expense of those children who happened to be born in the wrong neighbourhood, the wrong family, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong tax bracket. They are well-meant, no doubt. But so are people who promote the boycott of vaccines.

This kind of muddled, goofy optimism, these charming and harmful nod-along singsong aphorisms should be resisted at every opportunity. Education is far from perfect. In fact, it’s in a bit of a pickle. But that doesn’t mean chaos is preferable to the hot mess we’re in. There are solutions. But they won’t be found in this Hallmark Card, Silicon Valley, cartoon fantasy where schools are villains and every child is a butterfly. We cannot Eat, Pray, Love our way out of our problems. It’s going to take a lot more than reheated leftovers from a brainstorming session out of an advertising agency.

Why do you hate children?

You want children to be creative? Great; so do I, and just about every other teaching professional. The way to make that happen is to stop pretending that creativity is some kind of magic, mysterious thing that happens when you put children on bean bags and get them to design a poster, and realise that humans are naturally creative and the way to encourage the expression of that faculty in a developed and mature way is by teaching them. Teaching them bags of beautiful, fascinating domain specific knowledge and skills, the scales and arpeggios of creation. Mozart and Shakespeare mastered their classics and chords long before they wrote operas and sonnets. 

Ladies and gentlemen of the jury I put it to you that education is unwell, but it needs medicine, not homoeopathy and voodoo magic. But as Abraham Lincoln once said, ’Don’t believe everything you see on Youtube.’

Case dismissed. 


  1. I think a lot of this is driven by people who believe they would have achieved "greatness" or become "creative" if only..... and they blame schools as they are an easy target. Yet, I just don't see how creativity, or originality I suppose is what is really meant, can occur on demand or be induced.

    Take Erasmus Darwin - for all intents and purposes a great mind in his own right - yet he was able to achieve what his grandson, the better know Darwin, did.

    Other than bringing other human beings up to speed so they have a shot at being creative, innovative or original, I don't see what we can do.

    Like all good cults, progressives are waiting for the time when their prophecies will become true and when it doesn't happen they have to blame some external source, double-down and convince themselves that one day it will.

    The realists do need to win out here if we are to create an education system that gives equality of access to human knowledge and wisdom to the greatest number of people possible.

  2. Thank you! Brilliant, and very much needed to be written.

  3. Brilliant - and beautifully written.

  4. As a teacher of 15 years, I am deeply demotivated by the 'one model fits all children' approach that is alive and well in our school system. Assessment is a perfect example, measuring only a tiny part of what children learn... Ignoring the advances in neuroscience that is unlocking the secrets of learning. I say the education is guilty as charged.