Monday, February 18, 2008

The paradox of cartography and school

There is an episode of Joey where he realizes he's running late for a date because he didn't calculate the distance to the restaurant properly using a good, old-fashioned map. He states in desperation, 'why don't they make life size maps so you can see how far it is!' The audience laughs. The notion of a 1:1 scale map is simply absurd, which brings us to a paradoxical truth about maps, known as the 'paradox of cartography'. They must be imperfect in order to be useful. Let's briefly look at this basic map to illustrate the point:There are three major flaws (besides the absence of the antartic).
  1. It's inaccurate. Greenland looks roughly the same size as Africa, whereas in actuality Africa is 14 time larger. This problem is due to projecting round objects on flat surfaces. That's why geographers prefer the 'peeled orange' map.
  2. It's based on arbitrary convention. Is there a sign on planet Earth that says 'this side up'? What makes north north?
  3. It's culturally biased. This is why those who live 'down under' appreciate a good upside-down projection of Earth, preferable with the page break in the middle of the Atlantic, not the Pacific Ocean, as opposed to the Euro-centric world view which we're all so accustomed to.
So many students respond to these flaws of archaic mapping by pointing out that we now live in a Google Earth age, where so much more accuracy and flexibility are available on your laptop or dashboard. But these modern inventions reveal the paradox of cartography even more. Do we want the most detailed satellite pictures at our fingertips when quickly glancing at the dashboard to find that darn address? No! Our minds cannot process complex images on the fly. We want a stylized, less accurate (or at least less exact) overview for this purpose. And so for every purpose a map serves, we find that it must be tweaked a bit to function optimally.

Now let's apply the paradox of cartography to school. Is it possible that school functions as a learning tool for how to deal with the 'real world' because it provides students with an imperfect environment? In what other place do you have to raise your hand before you're allowed to speak? Where else are you asked questions that the questioner already knows the answer to (besides in a place of interrogation)? In what other world are you rewarded with report cards? Sure, these procedures resemble the real world a little bit; in normal group conversation we shouldn't speak out of line, and at the end of an average month we receive pay slips (which may even reflect our recent performance). But in essence school is filled with conventions that inaccurately represent the life 'out there.' Furthermore, to find out how culturally biased a school is, all you have to do is talk to the foreign exchange students about their frustrations adjusting to the local school culture.

An interesting phenomenon that could support this analogy is that odd moment in the adult world, when getting involved in a heated debate with a large group of friends in the pub or at the coffee machine at work. We have a sudden urge to raise our hand to request a turn to talk. Everyone laughs. And here's another odd one: Some adults who graduated long ago will still say, 'I shouldn't make it too late, it's a school night,' when in fact they mean the following day is a work day. Why is this?

Before we accept the paradox of cartography as a good analogy for school, it is worthwhile to define the term 'imperfect'. If a school loses your transcripts as you're applying to university, do they have the right to say that their imperfection is the perfect preparation for the real world, where people lose things? Or should we look at the paradox the other way around? A teacher has done a very fair job of assessing the class's tests, with equal opportunities, a transparent point scheme, and well thought out criteria. Isn't his test a perfect imperfection because the world is hardly ever 'fair', 'equal', 'transparent' or 'well thought out'. Here the map has a guiding function.

Does the paradox of cartography show us how the imperfections of school life are actually perfect for young learners?

Friday, February 15, 2008

Is school a cave?

We all love to entertain the notion that our sense of reality is actually a dream. What’s to prevent us from believing that our ‘dreams’ are not actually reality? Who is to say that our brains are not just organs in a vat, receiving certain stimuli, convincing us that all these sensory perceptions are real?

This is the stuff of The Matrix or The Truman Show. Hollywood loves it and so do high school students. The idea is as old as the word ‘idea’ itself. 400 years before Christ, Plato accounted for this sense of another reality in his ‘Allegory of the Cave’. According to this view on reality, we are prisoners in a cave, looking at the shadows of puppets on the cave
wall. That is to say everything we see around us is just a illusion. We may think we see trees and cats and BMWs, but in fact they are only shadows, projected by the light of a fire and some fancy puppeteers. Outside the cave are the true trees and cats and BMWs, or the pure ‘idea’ of these, which would hurt our eyes to look at.

Whether or not we should believe in this allegory is impossible to determine, but it does supply us with an interesting thought tool for looking at school. Have you ever felt like school is a cave? The students are the prisoners. The teachers (or puppeteers) project their lessons up on the blackboard, giving their version of the ‘truth’. And what is the fire they use to make students believe, or perhaps pay attention in class for that matter? Is it their charisma? Is it the notion of getting grades? And what about that exit door that leads to the light? Is that graduation? Is that what teachers are referring to when they tell students about life in ‘the real world’?

Is this allegory of the cave a fair analogy for school? Is school a cave?