May 25, 2012 § 5 Comments
Often, when I’m out socially (this is rare), I am asked about “education.” The questions go like this: “How’s school?” “Are you done yet?” “What do you think (about this or that on the news or concerning an opinion someone has heard)?”
I’ve found that the best way to respond is by telling a story that lifts the hood and exposes the education engine — or at at least a part of the engine. So here’s a story …
I teach a course that’s a typical (perhaps not ?) composition course for students who may lack some confidence writing — yes, even at Middlebury. It’s called Writing Workshop 0101A (I didn’t come up with the title; you can’t access the course without a password). Students read challenging literature, gain confidence interpreting what they read and learn how to move these interpretations into subjects for their writing. Easier said then done.
I’ve designed the course so that we read only one novel the entire 12 week semester, Don DeLillo’s 827 page Underworld (1997). Students always complain that they are given too much work; that they don’t have time to effectively ingest all the material that they’re given; that they learn for the test, then forget the material. I therefore pace this course as a response to these critical points, giving students the necessary time — and space — to think and reflect, dialog and write.
Students read approximately 160 pages every other week. The in-between weeks are for writing: students come into class with rough drafts and we peer-review; they also receive comments from me, one-on-one, and come to my office, too, to discuss their work as it’s being written. Lots of scaffolding. The course is labor intensive. Leading up to these writing workshop weeks, students are given in-class prompts relevant to what we’re reading in Underwrold – a passage, perhaps, or an entire section. Online, prior to coming to the class discussion on a particular sequence, students have been capturing major ideas and themes and posting them on a forum; they respond to each other, establishing a mellower, online version of our discussions. (I use these to touch on major points students make, and lecture in the gray areas.) Writing, then, happens all the time; it’s a model I want students to have: writing is not just for a grade, rather it’s a practice that should genuinely be done all the time; it’s a way to learn, to see yourself thinking; it’s a way to make sure we don’t lose what we’re thinking; and writing engenders life-long learning, which is what everyone in education says is desired.
For example (I’m trying to be quick about this explanation), Underworld begins with the famous prologue, “The Triumph of Death.” “He speaks in your voice, American,” says DeLillo, “and there’s a shine in his eyes that’s halfway hopeful.” The implications of this line for the rest of the narrative are significant — and daunting. We spend about 25 or so minutes discussing this line and the different paths it gives us into the narrative. Then I give the students a writing prompt (and 10 or so minutes to write in class, afterwards they share their insights): think back to a significant moment in your life that changed your life; this event was perhaps unexpected — or perhaps it was planned — either way, before the event you had one perspective, after you had another: what was going on in your life, the conditions of your life, including your community, family, and so on? what lead you to this event? what happened? Take us through it. And on the other end, the moral of the story is …?
I keep repeating these prompts, in different ways, circling the class, until all heads are down and the students are writing. I don’t care if students write on paper or on a computer (I have no rules against computers in the class, finding these, well, for lack of a better word, stupid: if you’re going to teach this generation, you better get used to — and learn how to — work with computers, cells phones, tablets, etc., in your class, otherwise you have no business being in the classroom).
In all, students will write 5 official essays in the course ( 5 – 7 pages each). What’s significant is that each student essay grows from this intial writing exersice, giving (a) students an entry into Underdworld (b), evolving a theme of the course: a piece of writing, a note, scribbling, a response to a prompt, done at any time, is relevant and can — and must — be used to evolve the more formal writing, and, finally, (c) students learn that they’re going to see, in Underworld, the narrative proper, only what they bring (experience) to the reading and writing act.
The role of the teacher in a writing course is to tap into these student experiences — the knowledge students already bring to the table. In a safe, creative space, students will expand creatively, moving from the deeply personal to the more subtle and complex world(s) of Underworld — but always able to see their signature, which began in their first paper. This is how writers work. I’ve chosen never to cloud this up with ridiculous rhetoric.
Sorry it took this long to get to this last point — what exactly is the knowledge students bring to the table? — but it’s critical to the rest of the story.
It’s important to note, at this time, that this exercise, these lessons, Underworld, is all happening inside an elite liberal arts college in New England. That is to say, we need to understand that the work I’m describing — and doing here — happens behind the hallowed ivy walls of a tradition that suggests that students are learning to think critically on their way to becoming strong, mindful and empathetic, self-reliant democractic citizens; that this tradition is “influenced by the Stoic goals of self-command, or taking charge of one’s own life through reasoning,” says Martha Nussbaum in Cultivating Humanity. And that what I’m trying to do, again quoting Nussbaum, is to arouse the mind, which is essential “for citizenship and for life, of producing students who can think clearly and justify their views.” In education, any other mission is a waste of time.
So now you have a context. And now you can begin to understand what may be going on in education when you see the rest of the story. Here we go: One day, I come to class — this is 3/4′s of the way through the semester, between weeks 8 – 9, and students are pretty accustomed to how we’re working — having in mind to go over a challenging passage in Underworld.
In typical DeLillo fashion, we have beautiful writing, a conflation of the historical with the personal, the psychological and the emotional, and the culture. “On a large console the screen was split four ways and the headshot ran in every sector and, ‘It’s outside language,’ Miles said, which is his way of saying far-out, or too much, or the other things they used to say …”
The key, here, is “headshot.” It’s JFK’s murder in Dallas on that fateful day that seemed to change the country — or, perhaps, the country had already changed and the murder was simply its symptom, a final event lifting the curtain so that Vietnam and Nixon, Watergate and the culture of cynicism we’re in now could emerge.
DeLillo continues: ” … and here was an event that took place at the beginning of the sixties, seen belatedly, that now marked the conceptual end, carrying all the delirium that floated through the age, and people stood around and talked, a man and woman made out in a closet with the door open, remotely, and the pot fumes grew stronger, and people said, ‘Let’s go eat,’ or whatever people say when a thing begins to be over” (496).
In a liberal arts environment full of inquirying minds, one would want students to pick up on “the beginning of the sixities,” “the delirium that floated through the age, “the pot fumes” (the very least), and wonder about that “headshot” that’s “outside language,” exciting a need to know; this creative disruption should, then, launch students into a Google search to come to understand how and why “the screen split four ways” and “the headshot” actually mark “the conceptual end” of an age. Reading is a contact sport and this is the work of reading critically.
DeLillo adds yet two more hints for an easy Google search: Elm Street and Zapruder. Here’s how it reads, finally, bringing the entire passage to a close:
It ran continuously, a man in his forties in a suit and tie, and all the sets were showing slow motion now, riding in a car with his confident wife, and the footage took on a sense of elegy, running even slower, running down, a sense of greatness really, the car’s regal gleam and the muder of some figure out of the dimmest lore — a greatness, a kingliness, the terrible mist of tissue and skull, so massively slow, on Elm Street, and they got something to eat and went to the loft, where they played cards for a couple of hours and did not talk about Zapruder. (496)
There it is — the images are running “continuously” on TV, hence suggesting the importance of “the murder of some figure out of the dimmest lore”; these give off a “sense of greatness”, and there’s a car that has a “regal gleam,” a la Camelot, and the horrid — and beautifully described, capturing the culture to be, the one needing reality TV — “terrible mist of tissue and skull,” moving slowly on “Elm Street” (the motorcade had to proceed to Dealey Plaza, before exiting onto the Stemmons Freeway, again turning onto Elm, from a segment of Main Street, the often disputed and critical change of plans).
DeLillo ends the entire passage with, of course, the most critical of signs, Zapruder, which should, if nothing else, send readers off into a quick but meaningful search to learn it’s function. In other words, if all other rather emphatic signs are missed or dispensed with, finding the significance of Zapruder would create a domino affect and everything would cascade into a single understanding. This is how great writing works. There is a key, a sign-function that opens doors (though these lead to other doors).
When I Googled Zapruder, before class, it took less then 3 seconds to see the first, full suggestion, “Zapruder film,” followed by the second, “Zapruder.” I chose “Zapruder,” not film, thinking that a student may push aside “film” since it’s not in the passage (even though there are images running “continously” on TV). The entire reference is here. This Google exercise, including reading the entry, took no more then 5 minutes to complete.
Back in class, I looked around and asked, after opening up to the passage and re-reading it to the class (students read it for homework a week earlier!), “What is Zapruder? Who or what is Zapruder?”
No answer. Thick silence. (There is creative, necessary silence a teacher works for in a class, and there is non-creative silence, the kind only someone dumbfounded relies on. This was the latter.) By now in the semester, students are not intimidated; we’ve joked around enough and they’ve learned that I’m not someone that creates an inhospitable environment — just the opposite. The learning space I create is open, welcoming, suggesting to students that they can take chances because they’re supported. In fact — not to boast but to give you a full picture — this is indeed my reputation judging from 27 years worth of students’ evaluations performed every single semester I’ve taught.
So then I say, “Someone Google it, please. Google Zapruder.”
In seconds, a few students find Zapruder and one kid reads: “The Zapruder film is a silent, color motion picture sequence shot by private citizen Abraham Zapruder with a home-movie camera, as U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s motorcade passed through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, thereby unexpectedly capturing the President’s assassination.”
The students leaned back, “Oh…,” some say. And if the students would have kept reading the entry, they would have learned about Elm Street.
I leaned forward, and asked, “When you guys read, how many of you have computers open?”
Just about every single student raised her/his hand.
“And are these computers open to Google, Facebook, Twitter? What?”
Students said that their computers are open to just about all of these — multiple windows — including (ironically) Wikipedia for some. (Is the notion of “Windows” also ironic, the deepest and darkest irony, I wonder? Windows to what?)
“And so, in the course of the semester, when we read, how often do you think I ask you guys, in class, to turn to Google and look something up?”
“You always do that,” they answered in unison. Some nodded, “Yeah. Always. We always do it. “
“So could this be a hint? A suggestion? Something at all that may, at some point, suggest to you that what I’m asking you to do is to look things up, quite easily, using the technology at our fingertips?”
Silence, again. Students look away, down at their iPads and MacBook Pros.
There are three distinct challenges higher education is facing: For American students, the challenge is obvious: international students are gobbling up resources and advancing efficiently, particularly in science and economics and technology, creating spaces for themselves, in the U.S. and abroad, and American students have yet to wake up to the fact that, as Thomas Friedman said years ago, the world is indeed flat ; that this race to have the most luxurious “stately pleasure – dome…Enfolding sunny spots of greenery,” as Coleridge says, particularly when we add labor costs — faculty with PhDs and the large staff needed to maintain this “miracle of rare device” — is not sustainable. (Elite institutions, recognizing that change is inevitable, have begun to address this problem.) And the last, the third challenge, perhaps the most critical of all, is that we’re not sure what our students bring to our classrooms — emotionally, psychologically and knowledge: the culture has had an effect on our students and we don’t yet know what this is, though we’re experiencing what we call something, an unknowable, perhaps, something strange and different, unfamiliar.
We’re not talking about who our students are and how they may perceive the world we’re trying to squeeze them into.
I’ve been in higher education for 27 years. I have seen a lot of changes and I’ve seen a lot that looks like change but is nothing more than smoke and mirrors. But perhaps the biggest change has been the student. We need to engage our students differently so as to better learn who they are and what they want; we need to also better engage the world outside the ivy because it, too, has changed and it’s not at all what we perceive it to be.
A huge change in the American student — leaving aside the other two distinct challenges facing American higher education — is found in the story I tell.
In a recent News Hour interview, Andrew Delbanco, Columbia University professor, speaking about his book, College: What it Was, Is, and Should Be,” tries to defend the traditional four-year college experience with a liberal arts education, joining a long list of scholars addressing the issue, and finds that the liberal arts, four-year experience is “not lost, but I think it’s under threat from many directions. And much of that is understandable. The anxiety that parents feel about the cost of colleges … It’s well – place anxiety.”
But when we look at the cost of a four-year liberal arts education, we’re failing to place this in a greater context that is more threatening to a democracy, which is our allegiance to mindless corporatism that has a primary function of scorning knowledge itself. This is why students, sitting with computers open to Google, cannot make the connection and search for Zapruder even though the behavior has been modeled in class time and time again. Thus, as John Ralston Saul says in The Unconscious Civilization, probably the best thinking on this subject, we have been given permission to “interiorize an artificial vision of civilization as a whole.” Students may see Google as part of their world, not ours, in academia, with our demands and constraints. Google, and other systems, are their liberating tools; when brought into the confines of a traditional classroom and used as a tool rather then a liberating break from confusion, a student’s identity is challenged — his or her sense of self is upside down. They’ve been taught, always, to have neat lines of demarcation that define pleasure and work — and school is work since it’s valued as a system for socio-economic success. Zapruder is therefore irrelevant to a student’s vision of reality. Students actually said this. Students embrace ideologies that insist on the “oppressive air of conformity” that “force public figures to conform or be ruined on the scaffold of ridicule.” Doubting and questioning are gone, then. “The citizen is reduced to the state of the subject or even of the serf.” Our students come into our classrooms already reluctant to challenge their position — subjects; they’ve been lead to this because they’ve never been taught to think for themselves and learn through experience. For many students, their lives have been managed.
Our communication technologies, our culture that holds fashion to the highest levels, though it’s the lowest form of ideology, is what paralyzes students that have been spoon fed a culture that insists they be driven to play dates, organized games, the proper college prep courses, the right channels to elite instituions. What is behind this narrative, though, is crude “individualism and false modernism,” leading to a life in a void. Instinct and common sense are lost. They’ve been taught that the world is hostile and that life is a competition. The horror. They can’t connect to Google in an academic setting, even if it’s to their benefit. The student sees absolutely nothing important, nothing relevant in the action of Googling Zapruder so the meaning of the DeLillo passage has been completely lost. But that’s okay, for students. The meaning of the passage, its significance in the narrative is not relevant; it’s an exercise we’ll go over in class. What is relevant is simply getting through the course, nothing more, since this is what’s being promoted culturally: get a degree in something meaningful and this will give you a good life. Students are taught to follow, not to pursue creative disruptions of the status quo.
I feel for my students. I care for them. I have kids their age as well. I feel for all these kids in school today, graduating tomorrow, because I wonder whether they can think critically, critique, fear not standing out because they question.
I leaned forward, again, and said to the class, “Remember this day when you’re handed your diplomas. I want you to go to your parents and thank them. Say, Thank you for spending over a quarter of a million dollars to make sure I’m one more sheep that will follow on command.”
I wasn’t expecting the students’ reaction. They laughed. “Professor Vila, you’re so funny,” they said. “So funny.”
I leaned back in my chair, briefly thinking that I wanted to jump out a window — and I’ve not stopped thinking about this day since.
We can now add to the list such simple battles as that for consciousness versus the comfort of remaining in the unconscious; responsibility versus passivity; doubt versus certainty; delight in the human condition or sympathy for the condition of others versus self-loathing and cynism regarding the qualities of others.
So, “how’s school?” “What do you think?”
May 12, 2012 § 2 Comments
In a recent article in the Middlebury Campus, Parton Sees Rise in Erectile Dysfunction, Saadiah Schmidt tells us that, “The last three years have witnessed an upsurge in the number of male students reporting erectile dysfunction and other sex-related problems at Parton Health Center…” The Director and College Physician, Dr. Mark Peluso, told Schmidt that, “in the majority of cases, the patients were habitual viewers of pornography, and had no difficulty with sexual performance when they were with themselves.” Peluso — and others who study the affects of pornography on habitual viewers — suggest that there is “an inverse relationship between porn and potency — as porn use increases, so do sexual insufficiencies,” Schmidt tells us. (There are plenty of studies looking at the effects of pornography, some debatable and challenging; linked in the previous sentence is only an overview for those unfamiliar. Another interesting article is Pornography’s Effects on Interpersonal Relationships.)
Schmidt’s article set off conversations — and consternation — around campus.
“I don’t believe it,” said some students.
“No way. Guys are confessing to having trouble performing? No way, man,” was another comment.
“I don’t think it’s just porn,” though, became the most common.
The sex and love lives of 18-21 year olds on a college campus are complex, to say the least. Trying to nurture intimate relationships during this transitional stage in life is very difficult, fraught with challenges that students, more often then not, are ill prepared to handle — but that we, faculty and staff may help confuse. Students are thinking about what their educations mean, where their educations will take them; they’re worried about a jobless future — perhaps no future at all; they’re struggling with tremendous amounts of work, stressful demands on their time and energy, and in-between all this they’re trying to carry on relationships.
For some, the minority that is mature enough to communicate meaningfully about vulnerabilities, it can work. For others, however, love is synonymous with “just sex,” which in college means “additives,” such as alcohol and (some) drugs. Love and sex are thus reduced to “grinding” in dark corners of clubs or “rooms” where faces are unseen, music pounds and in the end, there’s the “hook up.” (Film on hook up culture)
Most colleges and universities don’t recognize that life on campuses takes place in three educational-social spheres: the day-to-day going to classes across elysian quads, students smiling, nodding to each other — everything is cool; the other campus comes alive in the dark, and is totally different — usually between Thursday and Sunday, involving pre-gaming (drinking hard in someone’s room, though sometimes alone), before going to a party where the hope is to grind into the hook up among inebriated individuals too bleary eyed to see the other. The goal, apparently, is not even the raw sex, rather it’s the story to tell the next day. The last college sphere is the place of technology, which is 24-7 — cell phones, iPads, computers — where cyber-socializing, gaming, porn, course work that’s online, and the everyday construction of lives — ordering airline tickets, reading news and sports, facebook and twitter, and so on, takes place.
College life is confusing and pressure-filled, so how can meaningful, intimate relationships evolve when what a relationship needs most is time and consideration, understanding and humility, and patience? College life is an impatient one.
We have two competing narratives, at least, always ongoing on a college campus: there’s the life in the classroom — predictable, somewhat staid, the “work,” as students call it; then there’s the less predictable, anxious life in the dark or alone in cyber-connections with cyber-realities, images one projects into the ether, performances of a nebulous and insecure self, a kind of stepping out, slowly, of embodiments of something or other yet to be defined eased out carefully, timidly. And all of this anxiousness gets expressed in the after hours culture of the college night.
Life in college is thus always defined by disconnections, though everything is connected by the ubiquitous presence of manufactured time — usually not enough time. Not enough time to complete assignments. Not enough time to get to the gym. Not enough time to eat. Not enough time to sleep. Not enough. Not enough is the trademark of college life, though countering this — and confusing things and adding tension — is the ongoing narrative of higher education: the future will is full of hope, which translates into wealth and leisure for most students.
The college is therefore the microcosm of the world outside its pleasure dome, outside Xanadu, Coleridges image of Kubla Khan. It privileges a patriarchy that, if we look at our society, as Chris Hedges does in Empire of Illusion, particularly in his chapter, “The Illusion of Love,” we see a “society that has lost the capacity for empathy.” The “not enough time,” disconnected existence of rushing about pre-gaming, grinding, hooking up cyber – culture of college life lends towards a distancing from one’s sense of self, one’s intimacy with one’s sensuality and sensitivity. So we turn to the additives — the drugs and alcohol, and cyber porn where “the woman is stripped of her human attributes,” says Hedges, “and made to be for abuse. She has no identity distinct as a human being. Her only worth is as a toy, a pleasure doll … She becomes a slave.” The dominant heteronormative culture on college campuses across America privilege these vile descriptions Hedges gives us where the viewer of porn is “aroused by the illusion that they too can dominate and abuse women.” So it’s no wonder that erectile dysfunction, once the drinking accompanies the journey from grinding to the hook up, is increasing since the actual level of intimacy required in a sexual relationship is always being pushed aside by the pressure of college life that exist in its three dominant spheres — the academic, the night, and the cyberworld.
But here’s the tragic problem: students are reacting to what we, the adults, show them; we’re indoctrinating them into society like this. By not addressing that students’ behavior as somehow connected to our institutionalized rhetoric, we give it approbation.
“The most successful Internet porn sites and films are those that discover new ways to humiliate and inflict cruelty on women,” says Hedges. The idea, here, is to privilege domination, cruelty and exploitation, subjects that are kept at arms length in sociology courses and political science course, even in literature, but never are these subjects dealt with as sitting at the center of a confused maturation process that is made even more challenging by the false design of our educational environments that would rather build climbing walls and swimming pools and not confront the entire student. We like to only see the student from the head up, an empty vessel that needs to have our wisdom poured into them — climb a wall, exercise, and here’s what you need to know, only. The tragedy in all this is that, by not working with the entire student, we are slowly and carefully, systematically by design, moving our students away from any real understanding of themselves, the “stuff” of life needed for love and empathy. Anyone can have sex — but what is its meaning, its place in our lives?
Maybe we, the adults, have lost our connections to ourselves.
Hedges pessimistically ends his chapter on the illusion of love suggesting that “porn is the glittering facade, like the casinos and resorts in Las Vegas, like the rest of the fantasy that is America, of a culture seduced by death.” It makes sense to me. Are we, in removing students from close relationships with themselves, their internal selves, killing off their potential, their desire to be creative and to evolve? Is this, then, not a culture fixated on death? Is hook up culture — and erectile dysfunction, usually relegated, at the other end of the culture, to Viagra commercials during PGA tour TV coverage where old men golf, drink and can’t get it up — a sign of a culture moving towards death?
Are we witnessing the death rattle of dogmatic institutions unable to sustain themselves any longer and our students, in despair, sensing something is wrong, are merely acting out in a haze of confusion?
Hyper-Interface Culture and the New Age of Education: A Critical Look Under the Hood of the Harvard – MIT Partnership
May 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
Since Harvard and MIT announced a partnership that will invest $60 million into a new platform to deliver free online courses, the academic world has been a flutter. But criticisms and critiques have it all wrong. The joint venture points to a narrower, more stringent future for higher education in America, the furthering of a class system that furtively divides and signals a crisis in education that we’re not debating, namely that our current (analog) models are unsustainable.
Comments and opinions about the Harvard – MIT venture range from those in the business of online education, best exemplified by George Siemens, of Athabasca University’s Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, that sees the Harvard-MIT partnership as merely the elites re-capturing an online presence in a growing and lucrative market, to David Brooks, of The New York Times, who, comparing this move to how newspapers and magazines retooled themselves around the web, worries about students that do not have “the intrinsic motivation to stay glued to their laptops hour after hour” but suggests that, likewise, “Online learning could extend the influence of American universities around the world,” though he is not won over by the partnership, wondering, as did Sven Birkerts 18 years ago in The Gutenberg Elegies, “Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”
This is all wrong. We’re not seeing the obvious, the massive shift that’s already present in higher education.
The critiques of the Harvard-MIT venture assume that the world of technology exists — and grows — outside of ourselves, outside of who we are and, thus, as Martin Heidegger suggests in The Question of Technology (1954), we fail to understand technology as “human activity” This is something. I said, in 2008, at the MIT sponsored conference on Federating Resources Through Open Operability, the early stages of this move, on MIT’s part.
The Harvard-MIT venture is a sign that functions as a map of our current state in education, our American education crisis and as a distinct model for future power and control over delivery systems that, in turn, will certify one’s value in a world that’s constantly shifting beneath our feet, requiring that we re-tool on a continuous basis. Current education models cannot sustain the re-tooling of workers, at any level.
The Harvard-MIT partnership is an agreement to exert massive control over how education will be experienced in the near future — and who will gain. There are several reasons why this is viable — and why this has been brought on by the conditions in our culture.
In 1997, Steven Johnson, in Interface Culture, describing our relationship with technology, said that “we live in a society that is increasingly shaped by events in cyberspace, and yet cyberspace remains, for all practical purposes, invisible, outside our perceptual grasp.” This has created an ongoing drama as we try to (re)imagine — and understand — ourselves in this shifting cultural landscape propelled forward technologically and economically.
The great drama of the next few decades will unfold under the crossed stars of the analog and the digital. Like the chorus of Greek tragedy, information filters will guide us through this transition, translating the zeros and ones of digital language into the more familiar, analog images of every day life. These metaforms, these bitmappings will come to occupy nearly every facet of modern society: work, play, romance, family, high art, pop culture, politics. But the form itself will be the same, despite its many guises, laboring away in that strange new zone between medium and message. That zone is what we call the interface.
Interface, for Johnson, is where the old, analog world is transformed into the message; it comes with culture–altering methods and processes, as we now see as we integrate Facebook and Twitter into our lives. There’s the iPad, the iPhone, the Android and the Kindle. The interface alters perceptions, yet as Johnson rightly asserts, “the form itself will be the same”; that is, the reasoning behind the nature of the interface is still analog, the same. It’s control.
The $60 million investment must be paid back; it must be profitable. Why, then, such a magnanimous offering from 2 of our most distinguished academic institutions?
Answer: it’s about the interface.
Harvard and MIT are offering a free online service, not because they’re investing in the romantic ideals of higher education, but rather because they will learn a tremendous amount about our interactions with their online interface, providing volumes of data about our likes and dislikes, our methods of engagement, the relationships between social networks and, now, academic ones. It’s a harsh economic strategy, winner take all.
Harvard and MIT will have a robust system, behind the scenes where we can’t see it, much as Amazon does when it suggests books to you, that will gather information about our behavior. In turn, this will help Harvard and MIT retool their tool because “clients” will not be able to keep away from the significance of this venture. In other words, given the label, Harvard-MIT, it’s expected that millions will access this portal; these millions will give Harvard and MIT the data they need to fashion a learning portal to fit our behavior.
Education has turned a corner; it’s a synthesis of old analog learning with market realities.
“The ability to rapidly form and reform intelligent communities will become the decisive weapon of regional skill centers competing within a globalized economic space,” says Pierre Lévy in Collective Intelligence: Mankind’s Emerging World in Cyberspace (1997). “The emergence and constant redefinition of distributed identities,” says Lévy, “will not only take place within the institutional framework of business, but through cooperative interactions in an international cyberspace.”
Lévy said this 15 years ago. Some of us paid attention. Colleges and Universities did not — until now.
One of the greatest costs of running a university is technology. This is because higher education has had a distinct analog model they’ve been following, the kind of blindness Heidegger warned us about 63 years ago when he first lectured on The Question of Technology, in a series of 4 lectures, in the Club at Bremen. Heidegger talked about the “instrumental and anthropological definition of technology”; that is, the “means” and the “human activity.” In higher education we’ve always allowed both the means and the human activity to be determined by forces outside the academy — think Apple and Microsoft, for instance, both in terms of hardware and software. Then came the emergence of blogs and course management systems, for profit online universities — and education still following, never taking the bull by the horns, defining the uses of technology on its own terms. We’ve always tried to fit into whatever technologies were given to us at the highest cost, in the meantime enabling a change in higher education determined by software companies. The engineers that create the code have been our cultural and pedagogical gurus for the past twenty years. Until now, until Harvard and MIT have drawn attention to their aggressive attack on pedagogy and interface — or, perhaps better said, their definition of pedagogy gathered from data we provide for their interface that, in turn, will alter the face of higher education, propelling us into an unknown future.
But the high cost of technology is only part of the story, the other chapter is about the high cost of labor in higher education. Next to technology, labor is the biggest drain on colleges and universities. Talent, the professor, is handsomely paid; in public institutions, the professor earns less then at prestigious universities. Academia works on a star model — luminaries with crossover books get paid the best, appear on TED and on the PBS News Hour, Charlie Rose, and so on. Media tends to follow the most prized in an unforgiving system that talks a great deal about the need for excellent teaching but rewards the stars that bring notoriety to the campus, the company label. This system, as Harvard and MIT are aware, is not sustainable.
How much will families be willing to pay for a high – grade education? 60K? 100K? This is where we’re heading with our current analog model. It can’t happen — unless we change things around a bit. Most of the Ivies have changed their financial aid, accordingly; however, labor is still a number one concern: it’s too high. So what if we changed the model?
TED, for instance, is extraordinarily popular. The 15 minute lectures are almost de rigueur these days, having spawned TEDx across campuses. I find myself giving student TED lectures and things I find on YouTube, from lectures to appearances to animation and film clips to highlight ideas. I find myself giving students up – to – the – minute news from around the world, adding to the analog aspects of my syllabus. I correct all student work online. I use MOODLE and WordPress as course management tools. I have students create digital stories, when appropriate.
If a professor is working in these ways, already breaking the analog stranglehold, why not push a bit further and change the role of the professor to be more of a coach: if ready-made lectures, by luminaries, are delivered online and questions, essay prompts, designed work is likewise delivered, then the teacher can simply be one who urges, prods, encourages, and gives students more resources, online, to round off a given subject, which is pretty much what we’re doing these days anyway. Then the professor/teacher doesn’t need a PhD, of which there are too many anyhow. The system then doesn’t need things such as tenure. And the luminary professor doesn’t have to be paid $200K, but rather much less, the rest of his worth determined by “hits” and advertisements to a course, public appearances, digital books sold, etc. Then we really have a star system that mirrors all others in our economic system.
Most big universities, such as Harvard and MIT, have 100 + students attending lectures for approximately 2 years. We know from the analog model that we can deliver education one – to – many. Why not take this online? We can leave the last two years for residency, if we want, reducing energy costs and labor costs since, we also know, graduate students can critique work. We’re heading this way.
But of course this will make our education crisis worse because, already, way too many kids are being left behind in the analog model. These kids don’t have access to good teachers, technology and relevant books. For example, in one of my current courses we’re working with high school students in Washington Heights, New York City. These kids don’t have access to adequate technology, and what they do have access to is highly filtered. Teachers are not instructed on how to capitalize on the technology we have. In a survey I sent to these students, one of the kids said, “I really thank you for having me learn how to use Google.” Can you imagine? Expertise with Google is a sign of an education gap! Though many will have access to the Harvard – MIT online venture, ultimately, these institutions will reap all the rewards and bring along those that already gain from attending them. Nothing much will change unless we address the inadequacies of online learning K-16 and we, in education, start to take greater responsibility and control for what we’re charged to do.
May 3, 2012 § 1 Comment
1. Finding the Artes Liberales
What is the place of a Liberal Arts education in American culture? This is coming up quite a lot these days, and usually accompanied by at least two other critical questions symptomatic of the state of affairs:
- How do we measure the results of a Liberal Arts education — because we’re data driven and results oriented, thus the investment, in all its metaphorical splendor, must come to something?
- How do these results measure up to the cost of a Liberal Arts education (in most places above 50K yearly) — because we are, after all, still puritanical and pragmatic?
Originally, the liberal arts referred to subjects which in classical antiquity were considered essential for a free citizen to study. The artes liberales have always been considered necessary for an informed citizenry — Democracy writ large. The liberal arts nurture the proper citizen, the reasoning goes, because the work of the artes liberales is critical thinking, dialog, cooperation and collaboration, and clear, insightful writing — communication on a grand but subtle scale.
In classical antiquity, this meant the study of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; in medieval times, these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy, including astrology. The curriculum was called the Quadrivium that, along with the Trivium, constituted the seven liberal arts of the medieval university curriculum.
Modernism — industrialization and globalization — changed all this and extended it to include literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, psychology and sciences. What the liberal arts do not relate to is the professional, vocational, or technical curricula. Also confusing or blurring this negation of the professional and technical, are courses (and majors) in the liberal arts college on computer science; we have pre-law, pre-engineering and, of course, pre-med further blurring the lines. One of the most popular majors in many of these schools is Economics, for instance, students keeping a keen eye on Wall Street. (Business Administration is the most popular major across American higher education.)
So I’m just going to put this out there, a comment I made to my education class the other day when discussing these questions and the confusion about how we feel about the liberal arts:
The Liberal Arts in American culture is synonymous with elitism; the Liberal Arts equals privilege — it’s how we see it; and the Liberal Arts is code language for expensive, small colleges, mostly in New England, that are fed by equally as expensive — and elite — prep schools. Attending these has the potential of leading a student to ‘the good life’, which is synonymous with wealth.
And in this calculus of elitism, there exist policies concerning diversity and affirmative action that ensure that students that do not come from socioeconomically privileged geographies attend these schools, have a way in, a keyhole to squeeze through, a door held slightly ajar for those that can demonstrate that they’ve pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and can assimilate into the dominant culture.
Yes, that’s exactly it, said my students, unanimously, at least a third of which do not come from geographies of privilege. It’s true, they said. This is how we “read” the Liberal Arts, they said. Thus is the baggage held by Liberal Arts institutions in the popular consciousness.
2. Finding the Work Inside the Liberal Arts
This raises other questions, of course:
- What goes on in a Liberal Arts education?
- What, in fact, is the relationship between the Liberal Arts school and the elite in American culture? Is it a conduit that guarantees a place at the table of power?
- And, given the above two questions, is the place of the Liberal Arts to enable the evolution of critically thinking citizens or is it simply a high-end conveyor belt with some guarantees for wealth?
These questions are some of the ammunition used to attack the artes liberales. There may be good reason.
Martha C. Nussbaum is on the forefront of this national conversation. In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education (2000), Nussbaum asserts that, “…the unexamined life threatens the health of democratic freedoms, and the examined life produces vigor in the nation and freedom in the mind.” This is the kind of citizen we want — and need; the future of Democracy depends on this intellect. But, says Nussbaum, “We live, as did Socrates, in a violent society that sometimes turns its rage against intellectuals.”
Anti-intellectualism, then, is an assault on the liberal arts, an irony for Nussbaum — and others, like me, for instance — because it’s exactly what we need to have, “freedom of the mind.” But how free is the mind in these schools?
Nussbaum says that, “No curricular formula will take the place of provocative and perceptive teaching that arouses the mind.” Is this what’s going on?
My students report the following: mind-numbing, endless PowerPoints where teachers routinely read from screens; the book or two a week pace that compels students to skim and rely on Sparknotes; rigid writing assignments that ask students to repeat class notes that follow the professor’s ideas rather then asking students for their own insights, feelings and ideas; writing assignments that are always given at the end of a sequence, which students see as assignments trying to prove whether or not the student is paying attention, or busy work writing assignments, nightly or two per week reactions and summaries of the reading to see if the student is reading and following along; research papers and projects, routinely 12 – 20 pages, and assigned at the end of the semester when all classes are asking for the same thing, yet adding final exams as well, leaving no room for dialog, debate and revision. No creativity.
“Provocative and perceptive teaching,” in order to arouse the mind, cannot follow PowerPoints, nor can it ask students to engage in tasks to prove they’re listening; rather, mind arousal takes time and patience. A student — and the teacher — have to sit with ideas, let these ferment, come to the surface, so that learners can come to grips with the complexity that abounds in the human experience. This is how critical thinking is built, how inquiry is conducted. There is little evidence that this is what’s happening, according to students.
But in the pace of a semester, which ranges, depending on the school, from 12 weeks to 15, in a class that, say, meets for 2 seventy-five minute periods, I wonder how much time is afforded to Socratic activity that, says Nussbaum, again, “can enliven the thinking”? If we’re rushing through PowerPoints, and students are frantically trying to copy what’s on the screen (because faculty are frightened of simply giving the PowerPoints to students, this while MIT has put ALL their courses online!), and we’re pushing one text after another, where is the contemplation that the Socratic methods demands? Where are the writing assignments that ask students to grapple with complexity, slowly and carefully? And, since we are Americans and, for the most part, Ralph Waldo Emerson is our philosophical father, where is the time and space to revise, to think differently?
A good instructor must know a great deal about a subject; s/he must be able to draw out students to make complex connections so that the learner can begin to understand his and her capacity to reason. This takes time. If a 20 page research paper is a requirement to be delivered to the instructor at the end of the term, say during the last week or during the exam period, how is the capacity to reason determined and shown to the student? The research paper or the research project is a vital reflection on a subject; it requires time, creativity, insight. How does this happen with the pressure of the end of the term? Students say that what they do is to work through short cuts that simply enable them to produce a 20 page piece, they hand it in, and then forget about it. The goal is to be done.
The way schooling takes place, in many liberal arts institutions, what we’re in fact doing, is working against the promises of the artes liberales and, instead, we’re creating a production system that privileges the end product rather then the process; that privileges being done, rather then an examination of the insights that have gone into creating a piece in the first place. We’re product oriented. The process, where the actual teaching and learning takes place, where insights can happen and where space has to be given for ambiguity is repressed in the name of speed and efficiency. Getting through a packed syllabus and reaching the end of the term are the major course management principles; the number of pages a student writes, by the end of the term, is more important than the quality of insight, the creativity used to approach complexity. A student’s reading on an author, subject or idea is less important then her ability to mimic the teacher’s thoughts, reproduce the teacher’s lecture. Ironically, a passionate, insightful reading of a writer’s passage is more engaging, more useful in producing enlivened thinking.
In the modern curriculum, as we taut the relationship between the artes liberales and the informed citizen, we remove the most vital aspect, which is the time and the space — the safe space — essential for provoking and challenging pre-conceived perceptions about the order of things. We exist in systems based on time and efficiency models, rather then on how we learn. We’ve decided to go along with what we deem to be finished products, rather then trying to understand, in one another, how we come to be creative, how we imagine. In fact, an argument can be made that we’ve taken away the capacity to imagine on a grand scale.
3. Finding Empathy — or can we create a Citizen of the World?
In another, more recent book, Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities (2010), Nussbaum says that the abilities associated with the humanities and the arts, which are critical for our survival as a Democracy are : “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.”
The number one complaint of students I know is that they don’t have time to think; that everything is rushed; that course material is “rammed,” they say, and that how much one reads and does is more important than how deeply one thinks.
“As long as you give the prof what he wants, and you know what that is, then you’re fine,” said a student, echoing what many students say.
“We don’t have time to think about what we’re told we’re learning,” said another.
“We can’t even talk over a meal because we’re always rushing to the next class,” yet another.
What are we doing? Do we even know?
We indoctrinate students into a kind of institutional loyalty that rejects — and punishes — critiques of “local loyalties”. Adding to the problem — and the challenges facing the Liberal Arts — the economic system privileges hyperindividualism, leaving no room for empathy, the ability “to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person.” In this system, it’s hard to actually think sympathetically about another since that Other is a sign of competition, someone or something we need to overcome and outdo. Getting ahead is the primary concern.
The humanities — the artes liberales – should inspire searching; instead, we’ve conditioned ourselves to push students to quickly seek majors, line up behind stringent requirements, though we expect them to take a course here and a course there about Other places in the world — Asia, Africa, Latin America; we inspire them to take foreign languages and to visit other countries, an approach that’s more like looking for the right restaurant, the right vacation spot without really thinking about our impact on others. We have forgotten what Paul Bowles told us in The Sheltering Sky: there is a difference between the tourist and the visitor.
We thus move about without imagining sympathetically the predicament of another person, as Nussbaum suggests. And so the challenge of the Liberal Arts is to (a) justify this conveyor belt approach that could, perhaps, enable some to enter into higher socioeconomic classes and (b) to justify, in doing so, the expense, which is rising. But there is a third consideration: how has this system added to our problems, not least of which is the systematic creation of a society divided along class lines that, in turn, emerge from our stringent parameters that determine access to (elite) higher education.
Chris Hedges, in Empire of Illusion, says that we can lay all of the worlds problems on the doorsteps of the best colleges and universities. I agree. We’re creating assembly line workers, parading as thinkers, eager to keep things as they are, fixing a nut here and a bolt there, but lacking in an imaginative perspective that can embrace, with empathy, the problems and challenges of the world. Privilege has been effectively eroticized. How expensive is that?
In Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future? (2007), former Dean of Harvard College, Harry R. Lewis tells us that, “Unquestionably, the rewards of being part of top-tier university have caused competition for both student and faculty slots that has made both groups better in certain important ways. Yet while the competition has drawn better faculty and students to top universities, it has driven the two groups apart.”
There is a disconnect in the liberal arts academy, not least of which is the notion that we’re not really sure who are students are.