A couple of weeks ago, George Siemens published a lengthy post on his experiences at the Education Innovation summit, the conference that produced the Jeb Bush talk that I posted earlier. As usual, George is thoughtful in his reflections, though he does admit to a good deal of unsettledness by the conversation. The post is definitely worth the read.
But what struck me was a comment by Lisa Lane who puts the current moment in great context. It’s a long snip, but I hope you’ll take the time to read it.
Whenever a society goes through an anti-intellectual phase, it attacks schools of some kind (seminaries, colleges, elementary schools). Usually they are attacked for not producing enough of certain types of people (ie US universities after Sputnik wanting more science majors) or too many of other types (medieval clerics), or for being either too elitist (only rich people get in) or too inclusive (too many PhDs), or (as now) for producing “poorly performing” students. All of these viewpoints consider the education system like a factory, producing a product that society wants. So it shouldn’t be surprising that teachers and students are not the focus here – they are the obstacles to creating the quality product. Besides, after over a century of public education, surely they had their chance.
If corporations can promise a better product (which is, of course, what they do best), people will buy it in hopes of realizing their view of what society should be. So yes, we should be extremely concerned if corporate goals determine the vocabulary, intensity and focus of the conversation about education. It suggests that citizens wish to abbrogate responsibility for discussing and reviewing education’s role in the culture as a whole, a conversation that should be taking place among educators, politicians, and ordinary people (almost all of whom have been to school at one time or another). But when the conversation focuses on test scores, “student success” (currently the buzz phrase at my institution), and the valued role of corporations in developing packages and “solutions” (entreprenuerial or traditional), we know we are moving further from the discussion that needs to be happening. This is why it is so dangerous, why subjects like creativity and complexity are sidelined or buried, despite all the evidence that they should be the heart of the discussion.
Education doesn’t need entrepreneurs and corporations, products or services — it needs a citizenry willing to engage in creating a more suitable vision of its role. Leave it to the corporations and we will get, quite rightly, what we have paid for. [Emphasis mine.]
I can’t help wonder to what extent the abrogation of responsibility of parents and community members to have meaningful, serious conversations around education is a direct result of them being products of the system itself. In fact, at the moment, I spend a lot of time wondering if our obsession with tests and competition is a direct cause of our lack of willingness to engage in civil, nuanced debates and discussions on the topics that are most pressing (the economy, environmental issues, poverty, etc.) both on the local and national level.
And if you want to get a sense of how pressing this issue is, read Indiana Senator Dick Lugar’s concession statement after losing his primary bid for re-election on Tuesday. It is, I think, a coherent commentary on the state of affairs in our country right now.
Unfortunately, we have an increasing number of legislators in both parties who have adopted an unrelenting partisan viewpoint. This shows up in countless vote studies that find diminishing intersections between Democrat and Republican positions. Partisans at both ends of the political spectrum are dominating the political debate in our country…They have worked to make it as difficult as possible for a legislator of either party to hold independent views or engage in constructive compromise. If that attitude prevails in American politics, our government will remain mired in the dysfunction we have witnessed during the last several years. …Ideology cannot be a substitute for a determination to think for yourself, for a willingness to study an issue objectively, and for the fortitude to sometimes disagree with your party or even your constituents….I don’t remember a time when so many topics have become politically unmentionable in one party or the other. Republicans cannot admit to any nuance in policy on climate change. Republican members are now expected to take pledges against any tax increases. For two consecutive Presidential nomination cycles, GOP candidates competed with one another to express the most strident anti-immigration view, even at the risk of alienating a huge voting bloc. Similarly, most Democrats are constrained when talking about such issues as entitlement cuts, tort reform, and trade agreements. Our political system is losing its ability to even explore alternatives. [Emphasis mine.]
And there is another question that begs asking, one that Gary Stager and others have been pushing for quite some time: To what extent has the Web and social media played a role in this? Gary sent me a link to this HuffPo column by Howard Fineman which explores this angle as well:
Like an engine without oil or a knee without cartilage, we are in danger of seizing up. We are losing many of our lesser but essential sources of authority, credit, guidance, service and judgment. Face-to-face dealings, accidental acquaintances, the happenstances of geography and commerce are being replaced by a net-based cacophony of political flash mobs, stovepiped thinking and mail-order trade for virtually every product and service.
A partial list of who is under pressure: families with time to be a family, independent-minded elected representatives, small farmers not beholden to Monsanto or Cargill, county chairmen, “big tent” politics, independent business and sales agents, weekly newspapers, local radio and TV stations, teachers with freedom to teach, principals with latitude to run their schools, local religious leaders respected for their character and judgment.
I don’t disagree that the Web could use more civil, intellectual debate, that in many ways it distracts us from more important parts of our lives, and that on some level, our reliance on it for connection and communication and creation is potentially problematic. I also know that, by and large, schools have not responded to these new challenges in meaningful ways that would help students and educators make better use of the best affordances of the Web. Our fear of these online networked spaces have had a huge negative impact on our scattered attempts to help kids become literate, thoughtful, serious contributors of ideas and solutions to the major topics of the day.
But I still come back to this: the Web isn’t going away. It will be a part of my kids’ lives, and much of their success will depend on their ability to use it well, to make sense of their worlds through it, and to contribute to making this a better place for all of us. It’s time for all of us to “engage in creating a more suitable vision” of education’s role, or we risk the perpetuation of a society that is polarized, divisive and unable to solve any of the problems that face us.