July 22, 2024

Apparently, I’m the Conservative

I’m in the Sierra Mountains skiing where the altitude has replaced sleeping with hallucinating.

So, unable to sleep, I read Will Richardson’s latest blog post at 4AM. Will expands upon a blog post by David Weinberger in which Weinberger asks breathlessly,

“Why did the world shatter at the touch of a hyperlink?”

Weinberger is a Web philosopher, so one can expect that in his world view, the universe is made of “the Web.” It is the answer to every question. He also makes the mistake (IMHO) in believing that human behavior, culture and institutions may be reduced to information access.

Weinberger, admittedly one of the smarter “Web philosophers,” nonetheless uses the bits vs. atoms analogy first expressed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1996 book, Being Digital, not to predict technological innovation, but in order to paint a dystopian vision of the present in which “every discipline” is now “a fiction.”

Will Richardson expands on Weinberger’s theme and writes the following:

“And I’m wondering, deep down, have we known all along that this idea of an “education” was really a fiction, something we created out of necessity with the implicit understanding that in a world limited by atoms, it was never really the end all, be all, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances? And if we didn’t know that, can we admit that now?

The circumstances have changed. We’re no longer constrained by atoms. For 125 years we’ve been making the learning world small, and now the world is all of a sudden big…huge. All of a sudden, the walls have been obliterated. Learning is unbound, and “an education” is next.”

I fully appreciate Will’s impatience with the educational landscape, but I think I disagree with his thesis.

There was no omnipotent power forcing us to make learning small. Besides, some pretty great freakin’ stuff was invented over the past 125 years – including the World Wide Web. Diseases were eradicated and great social movements triumphed. The past century gave us Dewey, Patri, Papert, Malaguzzi, Piaget, Kohl, Kozol, Kohn, Sizer, Littky, Meier, Holt, Postman and countless others who reinvented education.

The 1826 book, “Last of the Mohicans,” was the most popular book in America at the time of its publication, but is barely readable by literate Americans today. 100-110 years ago, millions of Americans could read and play Ragtime sheet music on their piano. That feat surely “atomizes” the ability of a lot fewer people to demonstrate a whole lot less talent with a much simpler instrument like Garageband today.

We might turn President Obama’s recent proclamation, “We do big things,” into the question, “We do big things?

It’s weird playing the role of the conservative, but isn’t there a hell of a lot we (all) can do to make schools more productive contexts for learning? Can’t we teach interesting things in meaningful ways? Can’t we develop genuine expertise and share it with our peers and the next generation? Can’t we be receptive to the intentions of young people and learn from them – if not skills and facts, perhaps intensity?

It seems to me that the “blow up the past,” “extinguish everything that brought us here (good and bad)” stuff is really a cheap parlor trick – pure rhetoric.

Kids may discover how to play with a cello on the Web, but they’ll never become a cellist that way. We see how well factual knowledge is obtained when half of America is sympathetic to birtherism. We live in a society where most Caucasians don’t know someone of a different race, yet we embrace the “diversity of the blogosphere,” which is less diverse than a public bus. How does culture sustain itself and progress? Democracy?

So many questions…

Why do we congratulate ourselves for using Skype? Why do we limit children’s computing to keyboarding instruction, Internet research or burping into VoiceThread? Is nothing fixable? Do we need 21st Century skills to supplant time-honored intellectual processes?

Why do we so lack the capacity for self-correction. Why is it safer and more comfortable to behave in a way contrary to the interests of ourselves and the kids we are supposed to serve? Why has the slightest act of disobedience against the curriculum or administrative edict taken on biblical significance? What’s wrong with US?

Who can we trust to invent a future when so few of us have the courage to teach as well as we were instructed the first night of teacher-ed? The only reason for despair is if we are truly “the change we’ve been waiting for.”

If you’re interested in learning more from the wisdom of our predecessors about how to “educate” better, check out this collection of books provided by The Constructivist Consortium.

You should also check out The Daily Papert and Constructing Modern Knowledge!

3 thoughts on “Apparently, I’m the Conservative

  1. Gary, thanks so much for this pushback. I don’t know if it’s “conservative,” and, like you, I don’t care. It’s useful and insightful.

    I want to pushback on your pushback in two regards, one trivial and the other less so.

    The trivial: I can see why you’d think from the post you quote that you think I reduce human institutions to info access. Actually, a fair bit of what I’ve been writing argues against understanding the Net in terms of info and info access; to me it’s more about connection, communication, sociality… That doesn’t show up in this particular post, however. I more want to resist more strenuously the idea that my post contrasts bits and atoms. In fact, I’m contrasting links and atoms and truth with atoms. Given the prevalence of the Negroponte framing, I should have guarded against the bits vs. atoms reading.

    Less trival: I don’t read Will as suggesting that we blow anything up. In fact, he writes:” The work now is in making the transition happen in ways that don’t hurt the kids or teachers currently in our schools.” That’s not very blowy-uppy rhetoric. Indeed, the entire notion that our institutions are falling because our new medium lets us embrace truths that we’ve known _all along_ is also rhetoric of continuity: the institutions refashion themselves around old and continuing truths.

    However, I personally do think that our educational institutions are going to be disrupted more than your post seems to me to acknowledge. I believe that the Web culture is leading to changes in some basic educational assumptions, including the idea of definable topics, masterable disciplines, an agreed-upon canon, that learning is something individuals do, that learning is a private (as opposed to public) act, that the sign of mastery is the ability to write a linear report, that writing is the medium of knowledge, that credentials are the best indication of competency, etc. These are all assumptions (and in each case, they are of course far more nuanced than the little phrases I’m using to point to them) that are being challenged more fundamentally than I think anyone would have imagined 20 yrs ago.

    So, thank you for the provocation!

  2. David,

    Thanks so much for your comments. I appreciate it. I’m honored that you found my blog and hope you’ll read more of my work here and at The Huffington Post.

    The title of my blog post was intended to be ironic. I’ve spent nearly 30 years trying to make schools more learner-centered and my own doctoral research was based on creating a school from scratch for incarcerated at-risk kids where we put their interests, talents, expertise and passion ahead of an arbitrary list of stuff to be learned. Kids who had “failed” to learn by school standards for years were able to do exceptional work and demonstrate their capacity for intensity. I began teaching online during the first term of the Clinton administration and began working with schools where every kid has a laptop since 1990. I am a longtime colleague of Seymour Papert and I have always believed that things need not be as they seem and that computers (and the net) would create wondrous new opportunities for learners.

    I also recognized that there would be some sort of traumatic event that would cause education to change overnight. I’ve never subscribed to the notion that change is slow. I hoped that my own work preschool-through PhD with private, public, international and home schooling communities would prepare me to create new models once the current system crumbled.

    However, I now see that way too many children will suffer, for way longer than ever anticipated, while the current system fights surrender by dragging public education in the wrong direction with all its might. See http://stager.tv/?p=1973 (a very recent post on just how bad things have gotten.) Jeb Bush, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan and other mean-spirited threats to public education are advancing a vision of “educational technology” that goes well beyond reinforcing the status quo. They turn schools into computerized Dickensian test-prep sweatshops with Orwellian titles like “School of One” or “Carpe Diem.” They sell personalization and impose compliance. Computers dispense a diet of drill and practice organized in “playlists” as the ever groovy venture capitalist Tom Vander Ark is fond of touting. Education will be privatized, joyless and Web-based.

    Papert’s analogy to Perestroika is apt, but the educational status quo and the capitalist forces dragging schools in the direction of less relevance, greater standardization, authoritarianism, privatization and a greater emphasis on mechanics and compliance are making things so bad that it’s easy to conclude that things will never get better.

    Actually, I may have buried the lede in my post. My major criticisms are reserved for the educators who like to engage in speculation about the future and make “bold” statements that schools are beyond salvation. Screw the millions of kids trapped in that system. I’ve got speeches to give.

    Educators don’t need Web statistics, brain research or data warning us of the FInnish threat to our way of life in order to do the right thing and educate children well. We know what to do, but too often lack the courage to do so.



  3. Race.

    “We live in a society where most Caucasians don’t know someone of a different race”

    This sentence clunks to most readers who do not live in North America.

    Americans seem to love talking about ‘race’, treating the word and the concept as a given.

    You are trapped by it.

    Try talking about ‘class’ … it’s more real, yet it’s taboo.

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