Comment: “Why Tech Still Hasn’t Solved Education’s Problems”

Published online 13 August 2014.

This short piece appeared on my Facebook page yesterday, courtesy of the Atlantic magazine:

Why Tech Still Hasn’t Solved Education’s Problems
One researcher has a compelling hypothesis as to why the once-booming ed-tech sector has struggled.

Here’s the gist of author Robinson Meyer’s argument:

Software might be good at categorizing and organizing knowledge, but it’s not so good at synthesizing and applying knowledge in the creative, and often highly contextualized and personalized, ways that educators and educational leaders have to employ every day.

So Meyer thinks that educational software cannot substitute for “educators and educational leaders,” people who can meet the “uniquely difficult challenge” which he perceives real education to be.  I read this piece and thought that the idea of “education’s problems,” like the idea of education itself, was broadly open to interpretation.  What are educators, and our educational system, supposed to do?  Merely looking up “education” in the dictionary is a question-begging exercise, and so we have:

the act or process of imparting or acquiring general knowledge, developing the powers of reasoning and judgment, and generally of preparing oneself or others intellectually for mature life.

But how are people to be prepared intellectually, and for what sort of mature life?  These questions are not tackled explicitly by Robinson Meyer, and so I hope to examine them in depth here, with my main focus being the role of the teacher — what do we expect teachers to be, and to do?  What social roles do we grant to teachers?  One’s answers to these questions will doubtless reflect one’s attitudes toward educators, education, and “tech.”

The reasons for why adult human beings go to see educators today, and thus the roles we wish them to perform, are usually related to the institutional framework of the adult education system.  When I was a tutor, students would see me if they wanted to pass a course — they in short had institutional reasons for “buying education.”

Education in America today, as David F. Labaree points out (in How To Succeed In School Without Really Learning) is a credentials game, and so if you really want to be “educated,” and get a well-paying job available only to college graduates, you must get a degree.  Labaree describes a reified scheme of courses, grades, and diplomas leading to a portion of the working class which has supposedly “added value” to its labor-power.  This is why we “need” education — if we possess degrees, education will give us better jobs.  In aggregate terms, education will give (capitalist) society a knowledgeable professional class.  Joel Spring calls this the “industrial-consumer model” of education.

In this context the online course, as taught in the context of attendance at an accredited university, is merely a differently-designed gate, one facilitated by the Internet, and the online instructor another gatekeeper.  As an online instructor, I moderate online discussions, handle the class’s late submission policies and policies on plagiarism, and grade papers and tests.  But for the most part I am a gatekeeper — I suppose if our society did not need gatekeepers, online learners could merely join a discussion group (hopefully one with participants committed to the material!) and pass a test after taking any of the numerous online curricular options, and if they did it enough they could earn college degrees.

Of course, the reason why our society needs gatekeepers is itself somewhat pernicious — our society needs gatekeepers because it is organized to hand out privileges to some while denying them to others.  To some extent this is necessary — we wouldn’t want just anyone being a doctor — and to some extent it isn’t.  My main point here is that mature life has become life within a system of political economy, and we can see in this regard that “tech” will probably only streamline the existing system unless knowledge, specifically the knowledge available on the Internet, is allowed some autonomous existence outside of the system imperatives that compel students to “master” it for good grades in institutional contexts.

Now, as for public school education, such as our very young are compelled to attend, our present-day teacher has two roles: 1) as a transmitter of knowledge, according to the model described by Paulo Freire as the “banking model,” and 2) as a classroom manager, through one of several models of “classroom management.”  The point of having teachers teach a pre-digested curriculum is, apparently, to deskill and thus cheapen the teaching profession; and the obsession with “classroom management” is an obsession with the preservation of the present-day social order in miniature, in classrooms filled with children.  As I suggested in my last diary on education:

The singular, official mythology in support of “school reform” is that teaching is absurdly easy, because all teaching is really just pouring facts into heads, which (supposedly) any adult can do.

The public schooling process is today being marked, more and more, with the label of “obsolescent,” as this video implies:

What I have discussed, so far, are ways of discounting the role of “teacher,” to make the teacher into a security-guard or gatekeeper of an existing system of political economy.  The system may be necessary — the role of the teacher, however, is subject to devaluation by “tech” as accompanied by the imperatives of the “industrial-consumer” system.

Now, of course, there are other ways of conceptualizing the role of the teacher, ways in which this role is granted intrinsic worth, use-value, and the capacity to satisfy inner need.  The teacher can be a friend, a spirit guide, a magical being.  The teacher can be a window opening to a radically new reality.  An important crystallization of the transformative roles of “teacher” is given by Peter McLaren in his classic book Schooling as a Ritual Performance.  McLaren gives his crystallization the name of “liminal servant.”  So what is a “liminal servant”?

The liminal servant is both a convener of customs and a cultural provocateur, yet she (or he) transcends both roles.  She does not subordinate the political rights of students to their utility as future members of the labor force.  She is a social activist and spiritual director as much as she is a school pedagogue.  The liminal servant, as the name suggests, is able to bring dimensions of liminality to the classroom setting where obligations that go with one’s social status and immediate role are held in abeyance.The liminal servant does not shy away from the ambiguity and opacity of existence.  She/he is androgynous, drawing upon both feminine and masculine modes of consciousness.  Much depends upon her personal charisma and her powers of observation and diagnosis.  She becomes aware of the strengths and weaknesses of her students by observing and diagnosing their ritual needs.  The liminal servant views working class students as members of an oppressed group.  Not only does she fight for the equality of her students outside the classroom, but she also attempts to educate her fellow teachers to the dangers of false consciousness.  (McLaren, 1986, p. 114-115)

McLaren also elaborated on this concept in this paper.  Liminality, importantly, is that portion of the various stages of social life which is placed outside of the social structure.  Liminal phases of social life, from parties to protests to lessons to rites of passage, are potential instances of the creation of the socially new.  The liminal servant is the guest star, superheroine, or virtuoso artist of liminal social existence.Now, what we call “star teachers” can in some sense be regarded as “liminal servants.”  But “star teachers” are usually only “liminal servants” in a very limited sense — “star teachers” are usually very good at doing what society expects teachers to do, which is to help students master material toward a social outcome full of good grades, earned credentials, and well-paying jobs.  The liminal servant, in a different sense, is someone who teaches toward the outcome of a better society, and a better world, from the shell of the old, less better world.

We might, then, expect to find liminal servants mainly in other realms than that of schooling — in churches, temples, or synagogues, or in marginal political or social organizations.  We know the sort of structured society which needs the teachers we have today.  What kind of society would need liminal servants?  A society which needed liminal servants would be a society which was dissatisfied with its own status quo, and was ready for cultural revolution, even of the mildest sort.  It would not be a society completely given over to conservative politics.  It would be a society which resisted the reduction of education to training, as it resisted the reduction of individuals to the roles of consumers, or of specimens of “human capital.”

I would think that our society’s most successful liminal servants were people such as Martin Luther King Jr., or Malcolm X.  There were also important liminal servants in a more limited sense in the 1930s, as described in Michael Denning’s The Cultural Front.  I would hope that we would need something more from education, today, than that mandated by the “industrial-consumer” model, even if we had to get that something from some other place than an educational system.  “Tech,” in this regard, is a tool, and it is we who decide how it is to be used.


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