Little Pots of Excrement for Sale

I thought of this wonderful chapter title from Paul Fussell’s Abroad[1] recently in connection with PowerPoint, particularly its increasing use by students giving presentations at school. I have previously said that PowerPoint tends to homogenize discourse, but in fact it tends to do more: it tends to spoil it. This point was made brilliantly in a satirical presentation written some years ago by Peter Norvig, which takes the Gettysburg Address and redoes it in PowerPoint. This send-up, well worth a visit, has Norvig’s permission to be used in any course or educational presentation.

As it should be, for students tend to accept entirely uncritically the false notion that it is “just a tool.” That notion is decisively and thoroughly refuted by Edward Tufte, a professor Emeritus at Yale, in his essay The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint. Professor Tufte makes a strong argument in the 32-page essay that that software has a built-in tendency to inanition, that it can weaken the data sets and associated ideas it presents, that its powers of representation are poor when compared to other, richer media, and that it is tedious to watch. Norvig’s satire shows these weaknesses very well, but the essay goes into devastating detail, particularly in its discussion of the damaged Columbia Space Shuttle in 2003.

Yet Tufte is not just a demolitionist. The essay also discusses how presentations can be improved without PowerPoint and briefly discusses the (rather limited) kinds of presentation that PowerPoint is suited to. Teachers might wish to consider these arguments when deciding how to admit PP to their classrooms. For my part it is a grudging admission: the darkened rooms; the seemingly endless lists read off from the screen; the banality; the tedium, the inevitable delays for plugging in, fixing, and rebooting; the lack of contact with the speaker, who minds his slides more than his audience, the “dreaded build sequences”—all these are problems that simply wouldn’t occur in a well-delivered speech accompanied by a handout of tables and pictures to be examined by the audience at need. I wish we could abandon the little pots of excrement entirely.

* * *

BBC reports that schools in Hong Kong and Shanghai are going from strength to strength as their students score among the best in the world on the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) tests. While Hong Kong’s per capita GDP is among the world’s top ten in the IMF rankings, Shanghai, though also a highly prosperous city, is part of a country placed 94th in that same ranking, and its PISA rating is high even though more than 50% of its students are from the families of poor migrant laborers[2]. Shanghai abandoned its system of showcase schools and decided it would try to bring the “showcase” to all its schools. It will be really interesting to see how this exciting endeavor plays out.

Meanwhile, I thought you might be interested in a few of my own observations of schooling in Hong Kong based on what I have seen while teaching there.

The city spends more than a fifth of its “national” budget on education.

It recruits most of its teachers from the top 30% of university graduates. (The US recruits most of its teachers from the bottom 30%.)

Good-natured raillery does not seem to descend into bullying very often  in this part of the world. One day a 10th-grade student of mine finished his seat work early and took out his Kindle. When I asked him what he was reading, he said, “The Wealth of Nations.” I asked him what he thought of Adam Smith. “He is a better writer than Karl Marx,” the student, a Marxist, replied. Earlier that week he dealt with the heat by fanning himself with a traditional folding fan that he carried with him. Did his classmates give him guff because he is a Communist who reads economics on his Kindle in his spare time and fans himself with a decorated folding fan? No.

As the BBC article points out, though most Chinese parents are not “tiger mothers,” most repose a great deal of faith and respect in education.

It is not unusual for Hong Kong students to bow to their teachers out of respect. By contrast, during my first year of teaching, in California, a student told me “F*** you” with impunity. I don’t need the bows—incense will do—but think of what kind of teachers will stay in a system where they are cursed by their students, humiliated by their administrators, and vilified by their politicians; and compare them to the kind of teachers that stay on in a system and culture that respect them.

Hong Kong is the only city I have heard of with celebrity tutors, some of whom even start franchises for after-school lessons. You can see their billboards around town. Most Hong Kong students who can afford tutors have them.

Though Hong Kong’s students have a life in which school figures highly, most of them do not seem driven, despondent, or gaunt with overwork. The same kinds of shouts and glee ring across the schoolyard there as in any American schoolyards, but the playing stops at the classroom door. And, yes, there is even (a modicum of) chatter and laughter behind that door, though there are predominantly other things too. The point is that, if as a result of their attending to their studies they were to be told to “get a life” (which would never happen in Hong Kong), they would puzzle over what was meant, for they have a life, and study is in it.


[1] It referred to an incident reported by D. H. Lawrence during his stay in Mexico, but some gems can survive a change of settings.

[2] Though it is true that most migrant cohorts comprise students not yet old enough to take the PISA tests.


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