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Here, Kitty

In my last posting I suggested that some menaces, like Macavity, work invisibly and are ‘not there’ when attempts are made to detect and stop them. It may seem flippant to name a class of potential disasters after a fictitious cat, but in the musical version of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, Macavity is a menace.

The response to the novel corona virus is revealing another menace that dodges attention. It is the danger that people will start to believe, wrongly, that online education is as good as the live and personal kind. Besuited personages are already coming out of the woodwork of their tendentious and commercially funded ‘Institutes’ to offer this argument and to welcome a turn of educational events that in the normal course of things would never have begun.

Actually, online education is a second-rate spare tire that can be used to get the car to the garage in an emergency, but then must be replaced. A whole generation of teachers and students now know how true this claim is. Ask them if they’d rather be at school or in front of their screens, and there is only one answer they will give unless they were giving or getting a spare-tire education in the first place. I include college students and their professors, one of whom writes to say that remote lessons are an unsatisfactory substitute for the close engagement he and his students used to have. Because he teaches at a small college with an admirable student/teacher ratio, he is able to mitigate partially the effects of remoteness by having daily written encounters between himself and them. Consider by contrast the teacher of large or immense classes, his Zoom screen a flickering honeycomb of indistinguishable little faces or, as Orwell might have put it, an undifferentiated blue stuff. Who could be in favor of it unless the alternative was a pandemic?

We should never underestimate the ability of people to be panicked or provoked by educational ‘movements’ or to run before them, particularly if they really don’t know how education works. They can sometimes work rapid havoc, as in the case of the University of Virginia’s dismissal of its president Teresa Sullivan. Its governing body got the scent of the MOOC menace (remember MOOCs?) and off they ran. Sometimes the havoc is persistent, as in the twenty-year upheaval in education caused by “value”-“added” “metrics” (remember VAMs?), whose partisans are still clattering across empty prairies like the bucks chased by the “firecat” across Oklahoma in Wallace Stevens’s poem “Earthy Anecdote.”

Another cat! But the firecat, unlike Macavity, is a menace because of its power to stampede dumb animals.

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