School Meets the Matrix
Not much original content to post today. As the school year enters its terminal phase, I’m engulfed in that ominous fourth-quarter weariness that translates into a creeping internal silence. It’s a great time to listen to Current93 and read Ligotti, Cioran, Amiel, Lovecraft, Robert Frost, and other prophets of the void. It’s also a great time just to sit outside or before a window, remain motionless, and contemplate the essential serenity — or maybe it’s better characterized as a perpetual, limpid exhaustion — of nature. But it’s not such a great time to talk (whether verbally or textually) or be active.
One thing that has still managed to catch my attention lately is the relationship between education and cutting-edge digital technology. This isn’t a purely theoretical interest; the school where I teach has applied for a grant to transform itself entirely into an eMINTS school. Part of the school was converted a couple of years ago. The hope is for the conversion to be completed over the next two years. If you’re not familiar with eMINTS, just visit their Website to learn more.
The term itself is an acronym for “enhancing Missouri’s Instructional Networked Teaching Strategies.” In a nutshell, it’s a program that remakes traditional schools into computer-centered ones. For each classroom it provides one computer for every two students, plus a computer control center for the teacher and an electronic white board (as in a SMART Board). But it’s more than just a passel of technology. The eMINTS people come in and provide 200 hours (!!) of initial professional development training for faculty to teach them how best to integrate the technology into their classroom instruction. The entire edifice is built around a “student-centered” approach to education and predicated upon the constructivist theory of learning, all of which is entirely in keeping with well-established trends in American educational practice that reach as far back as the progressive education movement of the 1920s and 30s, and even farther.
Since all of this promises to work radical changes on the nature of what I do here at my job, if indeed I stay on at it, I’ve thought it prudent to learn as much as I can about these matters. So for several weeks now I’ve positively inundated myself with articles, essays, and reports about constructivism, student-centered learning, and the use of computers and other digital technology in education.
Thus far, the result has been to turn me into a naysayer, or even a mild doomsayer. (Big surprise, that.)
Among the mountain of materials I’ve read and am still reading, a handful of essays, papers, and articles stand out as particularly illuminating, intelligent, and helpful. Below are links to three of them, along with relevant excerpts. Be advised that all of this research I’m performing has spontaneously evolved into a work in progress; I may well have a whole lot more to say about the issue of computers and digital technology in education as the weeks and months go by. For now, suffice it to say that while I think the integration of computer technology and Internet access into education offers some undeniably attractive, useful, and truly beneficial capabilities — such as a recent circumstance in the Great Books class that I teach, where I had students download portions of Plutarch’s Lives instead of being forced to buy new books or forego Plutarch entirely — in general the whole push seems founded upon two less-than-honorable and less-than-beneficial motivations: first, the further subsumption of formal education in America under the rubric of consumerism, vocationalism, and the rest of the Ellulian scenario that makes technical efficiency and economic gain the be-all, end-all of life; and second, a wholesale desire, which is framed by techno-evangelists as a simple necessity, for schools and teachers to capitulate to the outlook, mindset, sensibility, and worldview of an entire generation, or two, or three, of people who have been shaped from earliest childhood by a mass media-saturated environment. In other words, it’s education as framed and conducted for economic slaves who demand that everything they do be entertaining. And it’s being aided and abetted in ferocious fashion by the U.S. government via the No Child Left Behind Act and other such measures.
If this characterization sounds more like a caricaturization, I urge you to look up and read various recent publications by the U.S. Department of Education that address the issue of technology and education. Relevant reports and documents include, e.g., 2002’s 2020 Visions: Transforming Education and Training through Advanced Technology and 2004’s Toward a New Golden Age in American Education. The latter was released in late 2004/early 2005 to serve as the official federal education technology plan, and is subtitled “How the Internet, the Law, and Today’s Students are Revolutionizing Expectations.” If you read through these and other such government publications, you’ll find not a whit of restraint or self-awareness regarding the double-edged nature of what digital technologies and Internet access have to offer schools. You’ll find nothing in the way of examination, or even an acknowledgment, of the fact that the benefits of these technologies to education are hardly a matter of settled consensus or established fact. Instead, all you’ll find is a blatantly cheerleading-toned promotion of the transformation of schools into high-tech centers, all of it justified by repeated references to “the global economy” and “economic competitiveness” and “the knowledge and skills needed for the 21st century workplace.” If you think I exaggerate, I urge you to read these materials for yourself. And while you’re at it, don’t fail to notice the science fiction-sounding tone that enters in when surveyed students and technology experts wax enthusiastic about the future educational uses of virtual reality and computer-generated tutors.
The overall uber-optimistic tone of things is captured in a passage from the latter of the above-named documents that I find to be fascinating for its combination of hubris and heedlessness: “Within 10 years [No Child Left Behind] aims to abolish illiteracy and bring millions of children currently ‘lost’ to the educational system into the mainstream of learning and achievement. It is comparable in many ways to this country’s 1960s quest to put a man on the moon. Combined with the increased use of new technologies and the motivated expertise of today’s students, it means that 10 years from now we could be looking at the greatest leap forward in achievement in the history of education.” The implications are most visible in the context of the opening line of the report’s executive summary, which makes clear its primarily economic focus: “Over the next decade, the United States will face ever increasing competition in the global economy.”
As an aside to all this, I’ll point out that it’s been interesting and refreshing through the course of all this reading and research to rediscover Jacques Ellul, whose work I first discovered through my reading of Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends in 1991, and which exercised an enormous influence over me.
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And now for a few extended quotations from some of the things I’ve been reading lately in relation to all of the above. If the following excerpts interest you, I urge you to follow the links and read the essays/articles in their entirety, since they do a wonderful job of articulating some of the issues that should — but currently don’t — occupy centerstage in a lively national dialogue about the pros and cons of re-visioning and restructuring America’s educational institutions according to the technological imperative.
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“NCLB represents a watershed mark in a century-long movement to think of education as a production task. Standards are established for all students — analogous to a set of product specifications for a production assembly line. Curricula are written for teachers to use to build those products. Standardized exams function as quality control checks of those products on that production line. NCLB mandates that all products from the line be raised to a certain quality standard — i.e. all students must pass the exam. No child should be left behind. It is difficult to argue against this notion of higher quality once one views education as a production task. My suggestion is that this idea is fundamentally wrong, and that education is instead a profoundly human endeavor.
….”The phenomenon that lies behind the NCLB legislation was described by Jacques Ellul as la technique in his book of the same name in 1954, translated into English as The Technological Society in part because of the recommendation of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World in 1932. Ellul (1964) defines la technique as the ‘totality of means, rationally arrived at and having (for any given stage of development) absolute efficiency.’ (xxv). He argues that the effect of this phenomenon is the consumption of all human ends by increasingly technological means.
“Ellul’s writing can be a challenging read, and many of his examples are from postwar France and world events which many of us today may not find so compelling. The contemporary American writer Neil Postman revisits much of Ellul’s argument in his book Technopoly – the monopoly of technical thinking. In this book he describes the surrender of culture to technology. His premise is that the uncontrolled growth of technology destroys the vital sources of our humanity. In the field of education I would restate his argument to say that the fundamentally human character of education is being increasingly invaded by the same technological thinking that dominates in our culture. NCLB is an embodiment of that invasion.”
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“Thus if one is concerned about the invasion of technopoly into education, then the critical thing to oppose is not, for example, the use of computers in K-12 education or the possibility that computers will one day replace teachers in schools. The thing to oppose is the kind of technical thinking embodied in legislation like NCLB which suggests that improved school productivity is synonymous with better student learning. Postman is particularly skilled in arguing against a ‘sleepwalking attitude’ against using computers in the schools in ways that might ‘distract us from more important things.’ What I am suggesting is that we need to guard against this same sleepwalking attitude regarding the larger invasion of technical thinking into how we help students learn. The triumph of technical thinking is best embodied in the mechanism of NCLB and not in the presence of computers in classrooms.
….“Ironically [Seymour Papert’s] argument for school reform is ultimately that our current schools are inefficient. According to Jacques Ellul, efficiency is the sole value of our technical system. Thus Papert proposes to undo technical thinking using technology. But the reason that he gives for undoing this technical thinking is fundamentally technical — to help a complex system function more efficiently. So while in many ways Papert seems to understand the heart of Ellul’s argument about the predominance of la technique or technical thinking, in the end he appeals to the technical value of efficiency to make his case. One of the most profound parts of Ellul’s critique is that he argues that technical thinking is so pervasive that it is very difficult to escape it, even when one is consciously trying to do so. Ellul’s point is not simply that there are the ‘good thinkers’ who critique technology and the ‘bad thinkers’ who are its sponsors. His point is that all thought is pulled in the technical direction, and that our technical solutions are ultimately exacerbating our human problems. For Ellul technical thinking is the only way we have left to think in this modern (and post-modern) age. This brief exploration of Papert’s perceptive critique of technical thinking makes that point once more. Doing things more efficiently is something that even our best critics of technology must appeal to if they are to be heard.”
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“I tend to agree with Postman and others who see these figures as reflecting, at least in part, a being overwhelmed with entertainment-saturated developmental milieus and a continual bombardment of endless, useless, unintegrated facts; what Brown and Duguid calls ‘information’ in contrast to ‘knowledge.’ It is a cliché, but a true one, that the ‘medium is the message’ and we are absorbing the media of ICT into our bones without, in my view, critique and analysis commensurate with the seriousness of the enterprise. I am not here arguing for the elimination of ICT in higher education. But it is amazing to me how rapidly this question of the reduction or elimination of ICT has become un-askable. It is all simply there like the air somehow and one is only chided or smiled at in pointing that out in a serious tone of voice.
“Hubert Dreyfus writes, ‘…not only are we transformed by the way we use our tools, we are not aware of how we are being transformed, so we need all the more to try to make explicit what the Net is doing for us and what it is doing to us in the process.’ What I am looking for, what I am committed to, is a robust, open, sustained conversation about the psychological, social, economic, educational, moral and spiritual impact of ICT that is just as robust as the evangelical fervor with which ICT is being embraced in our schools and homes. THAT, it seems to me, is what education is all about – not only teaching our students to ADAPT to the world they are being thrust into but developing a strong personal and social centering that is able to imagine change and act on that imagination.”