The educationist Buzz-of-the-Month Club has many items in its lineup at any one time because each of them takes months, or sometimes years, to run its course and then decay from cutting edge to trailing edge in footnotes and storage rooms. Like the dark rooms in the Tower of London where the Rack, the Iron Maiden, and Skeffington’s Daughter are stored, we can find books, reports, and other relics of Open Classrooms, New Math, and Whole Language for our horrified incredulity. Did people really think that converting a school into Grand Central would improve learning? Did people really think that grade-school boys and girls would count better by learning set theory? Did people really think that students would learn good English by reading bad English, or that their hunger of imagination would be satisfied by trying to digest “pieces” whose hero does community service as a “consequence” of “inappropriate behavior”?
Yet all these things had the sanction of “research” when the Buzz-of-the-Month Club first offered them. Obviously “research” is not enough warrant. I do not mean to offer a blanket condemnation of research as a tool of education but to say that sometimes it is misguided, and that when it is, it should be rejected. We do this using the remedy Jacques Barzun calls the “judicial temper,” operating under the guidance of what Richard Hofstadter calls “the collective experience of the human race.” To the argument that it is not scientific, I would answer that science gave us Open Classrooms and New Math, and rest my case.
But the move to on-line “schools” is proceeding with no precautions at all: little or no research, and no respect for collective experience or the judicial temper, which weighs and judges, letting experience and common sense operate on evidence and testimony. The Temper tells us to treat certain evidence and testimony with caution. In another context we are warned against McScience, that is, tendentious “science” that is funded by private corporations or the foundations associated with those corporations. When we finally get “the research on” on-line “schools,” as we certainly will, the Temper will have to weigh the possibility of its being of this corrupt kind.
There are some impediments to the success of the judicial temper in keeping on-line education at bay. One is a massive retreat from the old vision of education as a public good, which resulted in the commitment to education by California’s late governor, the father of its current governor, and the heyday of the University of California and California’s public schools, from one of which I was graduated the valedictorian. Now some schools graduate them in litters, and not because budget-cutting has made them lean, mean and efficient.
Another impediment is the pressure within education circles constantly being applied by educationists wielding their brooms and wrecking-balls in the service of Transformation. The most alarming thing about the transformationists is their airborne certainty and absolutism. One of them recently said, “When observed from the 20,000-foot level, the basic building blocks of higher education—its priorities, governance, instructional design, and cost structure—have hardly budged.” This is meant to be an indictment, but a moment’s thought will tell us that some of this supposedly antediluvian higher education is eminently successful, and the world is beating a path to its door, while some is producing “graduates” who cannot make correct change at work. That difference can hardly be attributable to a systemic breakdown. But more troubling is the writer’s metaphorical perspective of great height. Who does she think she is? And with what transformation will she be satisfied? There is no way from reading the article to tell. And anyone who has looked down from 20,000 feet in an airplane knows how little we actually see from that height.
China’s First Emperor Qin Shihuangdi, the noted education transformationist, started the Burn Books Bury Scholars (fénshūkēngrú) movement to root out the past. It might have been a bit too non-metaphorical for the taste of today’s transformationists, and it was not successful in supplanting old values (Confucian) with new (Legalist). Some years after the First Emperor himself had been buried, a (Confucian) school was established whose story Jung Chang relates in her book Wild Swans.
Before relating what happened to that school I must mention Edgar Snow’s biographical chapters on Mao Zedong in his book Red Star over China. Young Mao was constantly falling for and then rejecting schemes of education for himself. His radical dissatisfaction with education remained in him, the child being father of the man, till in the 1960s he was able to start the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, also designed to sweep away old education. It did, too, for ten years, as the universities closed down and teachers were sent to the country to dig turnips and wear dunce caps. (I know one of them.) That two-thousand-year-old school Jung Chang wrote about was destroyed, its basic building blocks transformed into rubble. Propaganda posters from the time of the Revolution, when they showed Mao, usually depicted him as detached from humanity, rising above the horizon like a twenty-thousand-foot mountain. God save us from these airborne personages!
That detachment from humanity is the last impediment I want to treat. What kind of inhumanity are we readying in our schools when we move towards online “schools” that focus narrowly and relentlessly on the curriculum map, instructional delivery, and “value”-“added” “metrics”? A lot of the planning seems to forget that it is for people, not parts. Real teaching no less than “scripted teaching” is being replaced by “blended learning,” but where do the students fit in as human beings? Let us listen to one of them, an American, from whose essay this is taken:
Before school starts, all students receive their schedule for the year, and the first thing my friends and I always did was compare classes and teachers. The teacher, even more than the subject itself, was the most important detail of the class. How the teacher acted, how the teacher looked, how the teacher was personality-wise—these were all essential to us. The way one acted around a teacher could make or break a year. Should I act formally? Should I be sassy? How much trouble would I be in if I turned in a late assignment? Before even meeting these people, I have created a set of possibilities for them using my imagination.
I am not being in the least facetious when I wonder what hopes and images students will cultivate as they confront their blended learning screens, and how they will use them to feed their hunger of imagination. Instead, I will contrast these sorry and defective visions with my colleague the math teacher Mr. P. When I was at a summer workshop one year, I saw a video of a math class being conducted at the Phillips Exeter Academy by a gifted teacher. On this particular day the students were working in small groups on their separate problems, coming to the teacher when they had questions or needed help. It had an effect on my teaching, but I bet no one would have watched it to learn math. I have seen Mr. P. likewise getting his students to work on the whiteboards, as he chaffs and joshes and explains them into an understanding, much as the Exeter teacher did. He also gives traditional chalk talks. Regardless, at the end of class he is usually surrounded by a knot of students with questions. Most students admire him, and work as much to please him as because they dote on differentiation. One of these students was giving his ToK Presentation in my class, and opened it with two quotations on a PowerPoint slide: one by Immanuel Kant and one by Mr. P. What inhumanity are we proposing in an alternative system in which students do not have such anchors to humanity in their screen-filled education?