Education in America: Of Hungry Wolves and Docile Sheep

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W.J. Astore

I was educated in public schools by dedicated teachers in the pre-digital age.  My teachers read books to me and had me read books.  I learned math, partly by rote, but also through friendly student competitions.  Science I learned by doing, like chemistry with Bunsen burners and test tubes.  I had classes in art and music, and even though I had little talent in drawing or playing an instrument, I still learned to appreciate both subjects.  My high school was big and diverse, so I took electives in courses I really enjoyed, like science fiction, photography, even a course in aquariology, in which I built my own aquarium.  And I must say I’m glad there wasn’t the distraction of Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, and similar social media sites to torment me; video games, meanwhile, were in my day still crude, so I spent more time outside, playing tennis, riding my bike, hanging with friends, being in the world and nature (fishing was a favorite pursuit).

When I was a teen, we learned a lot about history and civics and the humanities.  We spent time in the library, researching and writing.  I took a debate course and learned how to construct an argument and speak before an audience.  When I graduated from high school, I felt like I had a solid grounding: that I knew enough to make educated choices; that I could participate as a citizen by voting intelligently when I was eighteen.

Something has happened to education in America.  You can see it in the big trends that are being hyped, including STEM, vocational training, computers and online courses, and privatization (charter schools).  What suffers from these trends is the humanities, the arts, unionized teachers, critical and creative thinking skills, and, most especially, civics and ethics.

STEM is all about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.  My BS is in mechanical engineering and I love science and math, so I’m sympathetic to STEM classes.  The problem is how STEM is justified – it’s usually couched in terms of keeping America competitive vis-à-vis other nations.  STEM is seen as a driver for economic success and growth, a servant of industry, innovation, and profit.  It’s not usually sold as developing critical thinking skills, even though STEM classes do help to develop such skills.

From STEM we turn to vocational training.  Many students seek a career, of course, and not all students wish to go to a four-year college, or to college period.  But once again vocational training is mainly justified as a feeder to business and industry.  It’s often reduced to education as training for labor, where the primary goal is to learn to earn.  It may produce decent plumbers and welders and electricians and the like, but also ones who are indoctrinated to accept the system as it is.

In The Baffler, Tarence Ray has an article, “Hollowed Out: Against the sham revitalization of Appalachia.”  Ray critiques ARC (the Appalachian Regional Commission) in the following passage that resonated with my own experiences teaching at a vocational college:

“The ARC [in the late 1960s and early ‘70s] also placed a lot of emphasis on career and vocational education.  This appealed to President Nixon, who was desperate to counteract the student activism of antiwar and environmental groups.  ‘Vocational education is more politically neutral,’ one White House aide put it.  But it was also advantageous for the multinational corporations who controlled Appalachia’s coal resources and most of its institutions of power–the goal was to create a workforce that was skilled but also obedient.  An education in the humanities emphasizes critical thinking, which might lead to political consciousness, a risk that the ARC could not afford to take.” [emphasis added]

My dad liked the historical saying, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  A vocational education sounds good, especially to those in power.  Doubtless young people need marketable skills.  The shame of it all is that the final “product” of vocational colleges–skilled graduates who are “workforce-ready”–is by design a limited one—an obedient one.  America needs active and informed citizens as well, and they need to have the skills and mindset to question their bosses, their so-called betters, because if they lack such a mindset, nothing will change for the better in our society.

Along with STEM and vocational training is an emphasis on computers and online courses.  Nowadays most school administrators would rather fund computers and networked classrooms than raise pay for teachers.  In fact, online courses are advertised as a way to replace teachers, or at least to reduce the number of full-time teachers needed on staff.  But I question whether one can learn sociology or art or philosophy or ethics by taking an online course.  And I remain skeptical of big “investments” in computers, SMART boards, and the like.  They may have their place, but they’re no substitute for education that’s truly student-centered, and one that’s focused on civics and ethics, right and wrong.

The final trend we’re seeing is privatization, as with charter schools.  The (false) narrative here is that teachers in unions are overpaid, unaccountable, and otherwise inflexible or incompetent.  Somehow the magical free market will solve this.  If only one could get rid of unions while privatizing everything, all will be well in America’s schools.  Private corporations, driven by profit and “efficiency,” will somehow produce a better product, a word I choose deliberately, for they see education as a product.  And while some charter schools have been innovative and effective, many others have failed, mainly because education isn’t education when it’s reduced to a “deliverable” – a commodity driven by and reduced to money.

At a time when the United States desperately needs critical and creative thinkers educated in the arts and humanities as well as STEM and vocational subjects, our schools and especially our legislators are rejecting their duty to serve democratic ideals, choosing instead to embrace business, industry, economic competitiveness, and obedience, all in service of the bottom line measured in dollars and cents.  Now more than ever, America needs young people who are engaged civically and ethically, who value more than money and materialism.  Yet many of our schools are pursuing a much different agenda.

Is it because hungry wolves prefer docile sheep?

Education is Labor, Right?

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W.J. Astore

So, the Trump Administration wants to merge the Department of Education with Labor.  What a surprise.  According to Mick Mulvaney, the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, “They’re [Education and Labor] doing the same thing.  Trying to get people ready for the workforce, sometimes it’s education, sometimes it’s vocational training – but all doing the same thing, so why not put them in the same place?”

I saw this push for education as workforce development when I was a professor of history in Pennsylvania.  Education was largely reduced to vocational training, in partnership with business and industry.  My classes in history (including the social history of technology) were essentially “filler” classes, and indeed I had a student tell me he might see me again if he needed another “filler” class.  I wasn’t angry; I was amused at how perceptive and honest the student was.

Of course, America will always have the Ivy League.  Education as training for a job won’t really drive the curriculum at Yale or Harvard or Princeton.  You can still get a decent liberal arts education in America, assuming you have money.  But if you don’t, it’s off to “workforce training” for you.

When I was still teaching, I used to argue that my history classes were especially valuable to students at the college where I taught since they might be the only college-level course in history that they’d ever experience.  I’d argue that plumbers and welders and nurses needed to know history too.  Why?  Because they’re not just aspiring plumbers and welders and nurses — they’re American citizens, and the health of our democracy is based on a well-informed and broadly educated citizenry.

The Trump Administration doesn’t want such a citizenry.  Their vision of education is not about creative and critical thinking, and it certainly isn’t about challenging authority.  Rather, it’s about job training, workforce development, preparing people for a lifetime of labor — and supine obedience.

Well, as our “stable genius” president said, “I love the poorly educated.”  Under this latest proposal, he’s putting his “love” into practice.

An Addendum: When you treat education as a business, as administrators have been doing in higher ed, is it any surprise when education is reduced to a feeder and filler for labor, for business and industry, for the workforce?  As a professor, I had plenty of experience with administrators who sold education as a commodity, who talked about students as “customers” and professors as “providers” of a product.  One high-level administrator insisted that we professors meet our students “at their point of need.”  Another big push when I was a professor was on retention.  Keep those students in college!  If only to keep enrollment up and the tuition dollars flowing.

We have reduced education to a business and classes to commodities, so why not combine education with labor?  It makes perfect sense … and supports perfectly authoritarian rule.

The Attack on Critical Thinking

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Critical thinking?  Forget that.  Obey!  (Inspired by the movie, “They Live”)

W.J. Astore

When I was still teaching college, I’d tell my students that a major goal of their education was developing a bullshit meter.  This BS meter, I said, would help them to discriminate between fact and fiction, between informed views and misinformed ones, between respectable opinions and disreputable propaganda.  Become critical thinkers, I told them.  And that included being critical of my teaching, for every professor has biases and makes choices about what to include and what to exclude, what to stress and what to elide.

Critical thinking skills are what is being elided and excluded in much of education today.  This is obviously convenient to those in power, for they do not wish to be questioned.  In the name of economic competitiveness, of teaching job skills, of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math), students are encouraged to focus on getting ahead, on making a high salary after graduation, the better to repay student loans and contribute back to the college as alumni.  On their web sites and marketing brochures, colleges often feature prominently how much their students can be expected to make in salary after graduation.  The almighty dollar sign: It’s the key metric of success.

A narrow utilitarianism, based on money, has come to define education.  Much like war, education is becoming just another racket (think here of Trump University!).  Eight years ago, when I was still teaching away in the classroom, I wrote the following article for TomDispatch.com.  I’ve decided to share it here today, because I don’t think much has changed since 2009. Indeed, education in America has only worsened as Donald Trump and Company have taken a hatchet to educational funding.  But stupid is as stupid does.  (Then again, Trump isn’t so stupid; as he himself enthused after the Nevada caucuses in 2016, “I love the poorly educated!”  Yes, hmm, yes.)

Education Ourselves to Oblivion (TomDispatch.com, May 2009)

Hardly a week goes by without dire headlines about the failure of the American education system. Our students don’t perform well in math and science. The high-school dropout rate is too high. Minority students are falling behind. Teachers are depicted as either overpaid drones protected by tenure or underpaid saints at the mercy of deskbound administrators and pushy parents.

Unfortunately, all such headlines collectively fail to address a fundamental question: What is education for? At so many of today’s so-called institutions of higher learning, students are offered a straightforward answer: For a better job, higher salary, more marketable skills, and more impressive credentials. All the more so in today’s collapsing job market.

Based on a decidedly non-bohemian life — 20 years’ service in the military and 10 years teaching at the college level — I’m convinced that American education, even in the worst of times, even recognizing the desperate need of most college students to land jobs, is far too utilitarian, vocational, and narrow. It’s simply not enough to prepare students for a job: We need to prepare them for life, while challenging them to think beyond the confines of their often parochial and provincial upbringings. (As a child of the working class from a provincial background, I speak from experience.)

And here’s one compelling lesson all of us, students and teachers alike, need to relearn constantly: If you view education in purely instrumental terms as a way to a higher-paying job — if it’s merely a mechanism for mass customization within a marketplace of ephemeral consumer goods — you’ve effectively given a free pass to the prevailing machinery of power and those who run it.

Three Myths of Higher Ed

Three myths serve to restrict our education to the narrowly utilitarian and practical. The first, particularly pervasive among conservative-minded critics, is that our system of higher education is way too liberal, as well as thoroughly dominated by anti-free-market radicals and refugee Marxists from the 1960s who, like so many Ward Churchills, are indoctrinating our youth in how to hate America.

Nonsense.

Today’s college students are being indoctrinated in the idea that they need to earn “degrees that work” (the official motto of the technically-oriented college where I teach). They’re being taught to measure their self-worth by their post-college paycheck. They’re being urged to be lifelong learners, not because learning is transformative or even enjoyable, but because to “keep current” is to “stay competitive in the global marketplace.” (Never mind that keeping current is hardly a guarantee that your job won’t be outsourced to the lowest bidder.)

And here’s a second, more pervasive myth from the world of technology: technical skills are the key to success as well as life itself, and those who find themselves on the wrong side of the digital divide are doomed to lives of misery. From this it necessarily follows that computers are a panacea, that putting the right technology into the classroom and into the hands of students and faculty solves all problems. The keys to success, in other words, are interactive SMART boards, not smart teachers interacting with curious students. Instead, canned lessons are offered with PowerPoint efficiency, and students respond robotically, trying to copy everything on the slides, or clamoring for all presentations to be posted on the local server.

One “bonus” from this approach is that colleges can more easily measure (or “assess,” as they like to say) how many networked classrooms they have, how many on-line classes they teach, even how much money their professors bring in for their institutions. With these and similar metrics in hand, parents and students can be recruited or retained with authoritative-looking data: job placement rates, average starting salaries of graduates, even alumni satisfaction rates (usually best measured when the football team is winning).

A third pervasive myth — one that’s found its way from the military and business worlds into higher education — is: If it’s not quantifiable, it’s not important. With this mindset, the old-fashioned idea that education is about molding character, forming a moral and ethical identity, or even becoming a more self-aware person, heads down the drain. After all, how could you quantify such elusive traits as assessable goals, or showcase such non-measurements in the glossy marketing brochures, glowing press releases, and gushing DVDs that compete to entice prospective students and their anxiety-ridden parents to hand over ever larger sums of money to ensure a lucrative future?

Three Realities of Higher Ed

What do torture, a major recession, and two debilitating wars have to do with our educational system? My guess: plenty. These are the three most immediate realities of a system that fails to challenge, or even critique, authority in any meaningful way. They are bills that are now long overdue thanks, in part, to that system’s technocratic bias and pedagogical shortfalls — thanks, that is, to what we are taught to see and not see, regard and disregard, value and dismiss.

Over the last two decades, higher education, like the housing market, enjoyed its own growth bubble, characterized by rising enrollments, fancier high-tech facilities, and ballooning endowments. Americans invested heavily in these derivative products as part of an educational surge that may prove at least as expensive and one-dimensional as our military surges in Iraq and Afghanistan.

As usual, the humanities were allowed to wither. Don’t know much about history? Go ahead and authorize waterboarding, even though the U.S. prosecuted it as a war crime after World War II. Don’t know much about geography? Go ahead and send our troops into mountainous Afghanistan, that “graveyard of empires,” and allow them to be swallowed up by the terrain as they fight a seemingly endless war.

Perhaps I’m biased because I teach history, but here’s a fact to consider: Unless a cadet at the Air Force Academy (where I once taught) decides to major in the subject, he or she is never required to take a U.S. history course. Cadets are, however, required to take a mind-boggling array of required courses in various engineering and scientific disciplines as well as calculus. Or civilians, chew on this: At the Pennsylvania College of Technology, where I currently teach, of the roughly 6,600 students currently enrolled, only 30 took a course this semester on U.S. history since the Civil War, and only three were programmatically required to do so.

We don’t have to worry about our college graduates forgetting the lessons of history — not when they never learned them to begin with.

Donning New Sunglasses

One attitude pervading higher education today is: students are customers who need to be kept happy by service-oriented professors and administrators. That’s a big reason why, at my college at least, the hottest topics debated by the Student Council are not government wars, torture, or bail-outs but a lack of parking and the quality of cafeteria food.

It’s a large claim to make, but as long as we continue to treat students as customers and education as a commodity, our hopes for truly substantive changes in our country’s direction are likely to be dashed. As long as education is driven by technocratic imperatives and the tyranny of the practical, our students will fail to acknowledge that precious goal of Socrates: To know thyself — and so your own limits and those of your country as well.

To know how to get by or get ahead is one thing, but to know yourself is to struggle to recognize your own limitations as well as illusions. Such knowledge is disorienting, even dangerous — kind of like those sunglasses donned by Roddy Piper in the slyly subversive “B” movie They Live (1988). In Piper’s case, they revealed a black-and-white nightmare, a world in which a rapacious alien elite pulls the levers of power while sheep-like humans graze passively, shackled by slogans to conform, consume, watch, marry, and reproduce.

Like those sunglasses, education should help us to see ourselves and our world in fresh, even disturbing, ways. If we were properly educated as a nation, the only torturing going on might be in our own hearts and minds — a struggle against accepting the world as it’s being packaged and sold to us by the pragmatists, the technocrats, and those who think education is nothing but a potential passport to material success.

Divided, Distracted, Downtrodden: The Social and Political Reality in America Today

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W.J. Astore

The American people are being kept divided, distracted, and downtrodden.  Divisions are usually based on race and class. Racial tensions and discrimination exist, of course, but they are also exploited to divide people.  Just look at the current debate on the Confederate flag flying in Charleston, South Carolina, with Republican presidential candidates refusing to take a stand against it as a way of appeasing their (White) radical activist base.  Class divisions are constantly exploited to turn the middle class, or those who fancy themselves to be in the middle class, against the working poor.  The intent is to blame the “greedy” poor (especially those on welfare or food stamps), rather than the greedy rich, for America’s problems.  That American CEOs of top companies earn 300 times more than ordinary workers scarcely draws comment, since the rich supposedly “deserve” their money.  Indeed, in the prosperity Gospel favored by some Christians, lots of money is seen as a sign of God’s favor.

As people are kept divided by race, class, and other “hot button” issues (abortion and guns, for example), they are kept distracted by insatiable consumerism and incessant entertainment.  People are told they can have it all, that they “deserve it” (a new car, a bigger home, and so on), that they should indulge their wants.  On HGTV and similar channels, people go shopping for new homes, carrying a long list of “must haves” with them.  I “must have” a three-car garage, a pool, a media room, surround sound, and so on.  Just tell me what mortgage I can afford, even if it puts me deeply in debt.  As consumerism runs rampant, people are kept further distracted by a mainstream media that provides info-tainment rather than news. Ultimately, the media exists to sell product; indeed, it is product itself.  No news is aired that will disturb the financial bottom line, that will threaten the corporations that run the media networks, that will undermine the privileged and the powerful.

The people, kept divided and distracted, are further rendered powerless by being kept downtrodden.  Education is often of poor quality and focused on reciting rote answers to standardized tests.  Various forms of debt (student loan debt, credit card debt, debt from health care and prescription drugs costs, and so on) work to keep the people downtrodden.  Even workers with good jobs and decent benefits are worried.  Worried that if they lose their jobs, they lose their health care. So much of personal status and identity, as well as your ability to navigate American society, is based on your position.  For many it’s lose your job, lose your life, as you’re consumed by debt you can’t repay.

Divided, distracted, and downtrodden: It’s a recipe for the end of democracy in America.  But it also serves as a roadmap to recovery.  To reinvigorate our democracy, we must fight against divisiveness, we must put distractions behind us, and we must organize to fight for the rights of the people, rights like a better education for all, less debt (a college education that’s largely free, better health care for everyone, and far less emphasis on consumerism as a sign of personal and societal health and wealth), and improved benefits for the workers of America, who form the backbone of our nation.

We can’t wait for the politicians.  Most of them are already co-opted by the moneyed interests.  Meaningful change will have to come from us.  That is, after all, the way democracy is supposed to work.

America’s Military Academies Are Seriously Flawed

The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets
The Air Force Academy Chapel: God and Fighter Jets

W.J. Astore

U.S. military academies are neither Spartan in being dedicated to war, nor are they Athenian in recognizing humanism (even the humanism of war).  They are Archimedean.  They focus on engineering and the machinery of war.  But two millennia ago even Archimedes with his clever war machinery could not save Syracuse from defeat at the hands of Rome.

There is a lesson here for America’s military academies – if only they spent more time studying history and the humanities and less time solving equations.  But they do not.  I taught history at the Air Force Academy (AFA) for six years.  My experience?  The AFA was far too focused on STEM subjects (science/tech/engineering/math) to the neglect of history, political science, and the humanities.  Today, America’s military cadets still concentrate on STEM, and they still receive Bachelor of Science degrees, even when they choose to major in subjects like history.

A technical emphasis may make sense for Air Force test pilots or Navy nuclear engineers; it does not make sense for Marine or Army lieutenants patrolling the mountains of Afghanistan.  Nor does it make sense in counterinsurgency warfare and nation-building operations, which involve soft skills and judgment rather than kinetic action and calculation.  Small wonder that the U.S. military in 2007 had to hire civilian anthropologists to teach the troops that winning is not only about hammering the enemy with superior firepower.

Emerging from an engineering mindset, young officers are too number-oriented, too rule-bound, too risk-averse.  U.S. military officers, old as well as young, tend to think geopolitical problems – even in destabilized cauldrons like Iraq and Afghanistan – are solvable if you identify and manipulate the right variables.  They think history and politics, human and cultural factors, can be controlled or compensated for.

Ever since their service academy days, they have internalized a puzzle-solving mindset, one that is suitable to technocratic hierarchies in which “progress” is measured by metrics.  Their thinking about war is infected by quantification and business-speak in which assets are leveraged and force is optimized.  Reinforcing this impoverished view of war is an officer evaluation system that stresses numbers, numbers, and more numbers, since if it cannot be quantified, it did not happen or does not exist.

When I was an officer and professor teaching history, many military cadets would ask, “What can I do with a History degree?”  They were thinking not in terms of which course of study would make them savvier, more effective, officers and leaders.  They were thinking in terms of which academic major would help them become a pilot (even better: a test pilot or astronaut), or they were thinking which major would make them more marketable once they left the military.

As a result, the vast majority of cadets at the Air Force Academy took two, and only two, history courses: a one-semester survey on world history and another survey course on military history.  (Cadets at West Point take more history courses, but technical subjects are over-stressed there as well.) They had virtually no exposure to U.S. history (unless you count AF heritage or Academy trivia as “history”), but plenty of exposure to thermodynamics, calculus, physics, civil engineering, astronautics, and related technical subjects.  Naturally, an engineering mentality pervaded the air.  Notably absent were critical and sustained studies of recent U.S. military performance.

Combine a reductive, problem-solving approach shared among U.S. military officers with the dominance of lawyers in U.S. governmental systems and you have a recipe for number-crunching rationality and rule-bound conformity.  Solutions, when proffered by such a system, involve cleverness with weapons and Jesuitical reasoning with laws.  A perfect example: America’s high-tech drones and the tortured legal reasoning to sanction their assassination missions.

Educated as engineers and technicians, young officers are deployed to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and charged with negotiating the “human terrain” of cultures utterly foreign to them.  Lacking knowledge of their own history as well as the history of the cultures they walk among, it is hardly surprising that they make little progress, despite hard work and honorable intentions.

Today’s U.S. military likes to fancy itself a collection of warriors, but America is not Sparta.  Today’s military likes to fancy itself the bringers of democracy, but America is not Athens.  Today’s military is Archimedean, infatuated by technology, believing in smart machines and victory achieved through violent action — much like America itself.

But mastery of machines by the military or, for that matter, tortured legalistic gymnastics by civilian commanders, is not in itself sufficient for victory.  Just ask Archimedes at Syracuse, or a US Marine at Fallujah, or even the constitutional lawyer-in-chief at the White House.

The Education Business: Money, Money, Money (Updated)

W.J. Astore

As a college professor, I’m in the education business, a word that repels me but which nowadays is undeniably true.  One of the marketing slogans where I teach is “A degree is measured by its success in the workplace.”  In other words, if a college degree leads to a decent salary in the “workplace,” it’s worth it, but if the “workplace” does not reward you with a position with good pay and benefits, your degree is without merit.

Education in America has become just another business.  It’s increasingly monetized and corporatized.  Hence it’s unsurprising that educational results are measured increasingly by standardized tests developed by corporations.  If education is reducible to standardized metrics, you can run it and control it just like a business.  Professors become providers, students become consumers, and education becomes a commodity which is marketed and sold to consumers. Administrators are the middle managers who ultimately answer to corporate-dominated boards. “Success” for an administrator is measured mainly by money: funding drives, corporate donations, endowments, and similar issues related to budget and “the bottom line.”

As usual, Joe Bageant knew the score.  And he knew how to express it in pungent prose:

Now that education has been reduced to just another industry, a series of stratified job-training mills, ranging from the truck-driving schools to the state universities, our nation is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.  Education is not supposed to be an industry.  Its proper use is not to serve industries, either by cranking out feckless little mid-management robots or through industry-purchased research chasing after a better hard-on drug.  Its proper use is to enable citizens to live responsible lives that create and enhance their democratic culture.  This cannot be merely by generating and accumulating mountains of information or facts without cultural, artistic, philosophical, and human context or priority.

Consider the harsh reality of Bageant’s statement: America “is no longer capable of creating a truly educated citizenry.”  It’s impossible to deny this statement, especially when institutions of higher learning use the “workplace” as the measure of success for their degree programs.

Education today is disconnected from democracy.  It’s disconnected from producing an educated citizenry with critical thinking skills.  Rather, it’s connected to consumption; indeed, education is just another ephemeral consumable in a world of goods.  It’s valued only for its monetary fungibility, i.e. how much money can I make with this degree?  Alternatively, from a provider’s perspective, how much money can I make from offering these degrees?

Increasingly, there’s only one true degree offered by American colleges and universities: the business degree.  Such is the uniformity of market-driven ideology applied to education.

Say what you will of “diversity” in higher education as measured by differences in age, gender, skin color, sexual orientation, and all the rest.  Such diversity doesn’t matter much when all these “diverse” students are striving for the same thing: a fungible degree that’s translatable into money, money, money.

Show me the money!
Show me the money!

Update (12/4): When you treat students as consumers, there’s a tendency to buy the idea that “the customer is always right.” In other words, don’t offend the customer with disturbing ideas, such as the legacy of structural racism in society. Better to ignore such topics, especially when the “customer” complains about being offended by the ideas the professor (whoops — I meant the provider) introduces in class. See this story from Slate for more details.

Placing Too Much Faith in Technology in the Classroom

Stare at the screens, you zombies!
Stare at the screens, you zombies!

W.J. Astore

Americans put a lot of faith in technology.  Nowadays, we see computers, one-gun projectors, Smart boards, and similar technologies as essential to education.  But are they really?

In many cases, computers and PowerPoint and one-guns are simply fancier overhead projectors.  And when you show a video, does it matter if it’s from YouTube or from a DVD or from an old film projector?  Many of the new technologies allow us to make slides or show videos with more ease, but they don’t change education in any fundamental way.

Take calculators.  When I was in middle school in the 1970s, electronic calculators were taking over from slide rules as the new shortcut calculating device.  I wouldn’t want to go back to slide rules, but calculators didn’t make us any smarter.  Indeed, by focusing on getting the right answer as an exercise in operating the calculator, the new devices tended to obscure the meaning of the answer.  You learned to operate the machine and not necessarily the concepts behind the mathematics.  It was all solution, no understanding.

I didn’t like it at the time, but I learned long division, how to do square roots, how to solve quadratic equations, how to plot a graph without a calculator doing the heavy lifting for me.

Classrooms themselves are fascinating areas where “old” technology often lingers.  I still use chalk boards (or white boards), and I still occasionally use those old overhead projectors.  I was using slide projectors as late as the year 2000; in some ways, they were better than PowerPoint (e.g. brighter images and no worries about gigabytes of memory or backwards compatibility).

All this is to say that I’m skeptical when someone touts a technology as revolutionizing education.  It’s true that students need to know about computers and the Internet; the so-called Digital Divide is a real thing, with disadvantaged students suffering in a world driven by computers.

But education itself remains a process that is personal, creative, imaginative; education is an exercise in alchemy, the mixing of minds in the classroom that sometimes creates dross, but other times leads to – well, maybe not gold – but to exciting new ideas.

If technology can serve as a catalyst in this creative endeavor, that’s great.  But oft-times I see students in a PowerPoint-induced coma, staring at slides and images and thinking that the only thing that matters is memorizing the words on those slides.  An overuse of PowerPoint reduces teaching to briefing; the instructor becomes the “sage on the stage” and the students become unthinking zombies.   And it can be highly tempting as an instructor to fill that role – just give the students what they want, a simple template to memorize the course material so they can do well on the tests and jump through the hoop that is your course.

But that’s not education: it’s training.  Or worse: it’s conditioning.

Real education is not about the technology.  It’s about creating a dialogue; it’s about stimulating critical and creative thinking.  And to do that, the best “tools” are fully engaged human beings, teachers and students doing an alchemical dance of the mind in the crucible of the classroom.