Education is not escaping the imperative to mechanize, as David Bromwich details in his article “Trapped in the Virtual Classroom.” Though Bromwich’s article is also worth reading for its reflections on our intellectual wrong turns, I welcome it for its concern with the “arts of give and take,” which include conversation and Socratic discussion.
These arts are vital, and they are under threat. One of the chief threats comes from a perverse determination by educators and their commercial epigones to ignore elements of knowledge that do not lend themselves to mechanized treatment, and indeed to ignore elements of the mind that cannot be reduced to machine-likeness. How else could we have reached the point where knowledge of a subject is equated with the ability to take multiple-choice tests?
Take a classroom—mine—in which Theory of Knowledge students are examining how ethical knowledge is constituted and justified. The treatment is bound to be introductory and perhaps unavoidably cursory, but this course is not itself meant to be an ethics course. This week’s topic was corruption. I asked small groups to consider the Texarkana test preparation case and the Atlanta cheating scandal and to come up with a definition of corruption that would cast a net around the bad fish but let the good fish escape. Their definitions went on the board, and I wrote a quasi-Socratic question by each one. We then have a conversation in which they reconsider their definitions in light of my definition-specific questions and these further questions:
1. Are teachers who erase their students’ wrong test answers and fill in right answers corrupt?
2. Are teachers who give their students right answers to tests corrupt, and are the students who receive them corrupt?
3. Are teachers who offer courses of test preparation corrupt and are students who take them corrupt?
All of this is done using the “arts of give and take.” Nothing like the considered treatment and discussion would be possible in a mechanized transmission of information followed by multiple-choice testing. A good classroom seeks and sometimes achieves this educational virtue, and it is important to remember that such virtuous classrooms are not virtual.