Education for robots

This is a misleading excerpt:

Class of 2020, welcome to college… Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. It would be hard to design a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education. Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these ‘4Cs,’ I would add ‘curiosity.’) Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.[1]

I found this passage in Prufrock, a traditionalist conservative literary newsletter. But if the intent, and how could it be otherwise, was to entice me to read the original article, it succeeded brilliantly. I was drawn to the article from which it is drawn out of both a sense of horror and curiosity as to how one might justify such an approach.

I remember all too well Richard Weaver who, despite his evident distress at the state of society, managed to preserve that stereotypical academic sense of detachment right up until he got to the topic of education and, more specifically, John Dewey.[2] It would be something of an understatement to suggest merely that Weaver lost all perspective in advocating a disciplinarian education against a progressive education. There’s a reason for this. As Joseph Betz wrote in his comparison of Paulo Freire to Dewey,

Freire’s adults must unlearn what society has so far taught them. Dewey is quite aware that there is a permanent American danger that the young might be socialized into the ways of an unjust society, one in which a leisure class educates its children into a life of control and intellectual enjoyment and educates the children of the working class into habits of obedience and physical labor. In such a society, “a few will appropriate to themselves the results of the blind and externally directed activities of others” (DE, 88). But this is not a democratic education or a democratic society, and Dewey warns against it. For Dewey, as well as for Freire, class membership is a threat to genuine education. Society cannot help but to educate its young to custom, but if it is to be Dewey’s democratic society, it must institutionalize in education the habit of criticizing custom, of modifying custom in the direction of the progressive society, one constantly seeking to extend the benefits of associated living to all its members.[3]

For a traditionalist conservative, this is anathema. Conservatives generally favor hierarchy[4] and for Weaver[5] and T. S. Eliot[6] especially, the overriding concern is not with social injustice but rather with those who stir up discontent against what they view as entirely legitimate, even Christian theocratically-ordained, authoritarian hierarchy. Yet for all his fury, Weaver failed to explain why a disciplinarian approach might be superior by any standard I consider important: He was instead concerned with conformity and compliance.[7]

So having been thus enticed, as I followed the link in Prufrock, I was a little surprised to land on an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, where I would certainly not expect to find advocacy for disciplinarian education.

Indeed, this is not what I found. Instead, in an essay adapted from a convocation address for a class of 2020, Scott Newstok expresses concern for “the first [generation of students] to have gone through primary and secondary school knowing no alternative to a national regimen of assessment,” which he refers to as “our disastrous fixation on testing.” Newstok’s point, contrary to Prufrock’s possible sympathy for disciplinarian education, is to advocate a cathedral approach to education. Widening that excerpt to include a bit more context, we see criticism of a focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) to the detriment of “a complete education”[8]:

But now your education is in your own hands. And my advice is: Don’t let yourself be cheated anymore, and do not cheat yourself. Take advantage of the autonomy and opportunities that college permits by approaching it in the spirit of the 16th century. You’ll become capable of a level of precision, inventiveness, and empathy worthy to be called Shakespearean.

Building a bridge to the 16th century must seem like a perverse prescription for today’s ills. I’m the first to admit that English Renaissance pedagogy was rigid and rightly mocked for its domineering pedants. Few of you would be eager to wake up before 6 a.m. to say mandatory prayers, or to be lashed for tardiness, much less translate Latin for hours on end every day of the week. Could there be a system more antithetical to our own contemporary ideals of student-centered, present-focused, and career-oriented education?

Yet this system somehow managed to nurture world-shifting thinkers, including those who launched the Scientific Revolution. This education fostered some of the very habits of mind endorsed by both the National Education Association and the Partnership for 21st Century Learning: critical thinking; clear communication; collaboration; and creativity. (To these “4Cs,” I would add “curiosity.”) Given that your own education has fallen far short of those laudable goals, I urge you to reconsider Shakespeare’s intellectual formation: that is, not what he purportedly thought — about law or love or leadership  — but how he thought. An apparently rigid educational system could, paradoxically, induce liberated thinking.[9]

In Newstok’s view, the crucial difference is not so much between a progressive or a disciplinarian education, but rather between a liberal—meaning broad—education and one narrowly focused on preparation for a job. He wants (and I also want) students to take advantage of an opportunity barely addressed by general education requirements (which he doesn’t mention) to gain a broad base of knowledge, from which he thinks creativity is possible.[10] There’s more to creativity than this: As Alfonso Montuori argues, the notion of a “lone genius” working in an attic apart from social and traditional influences is a myth.[11] Newstok writes,

The most fascinating concept that Shakespeare’s period revived from classical rhetoric was inventio, which gives us both the word “invention” and the word “inventory.” Cartoon images of inventors usually involve a light bulb flashing above the head of a solitary genius. But nothing can come of nothing. And when rhetoricians spoke of inventio, they meant the first step in constructing an argument: an inventory of your mind’s treasury of knowledge — your database of reading, which you can accumulate only through slow, deliberate study.[12]

Montuori and Ronald Purser evoke creativity as an emergent property of a (complex) social situation[13] and in lecture, Montuori relies heavily on his experience as a (quite good) jazz saxophone player. Yet context is not strictly limited to the present; I believe we can safely argue that history and an accumulation of ideas are a part of that context.

Unfortunately, this is not the present direction of academia under neoliberal influence. Instead, we devalue professors; those with tenure are the lucky ones as colleges increasingly rely on poorly-paid contingent labor—adjuncts—with no job security and no benefits to teach classes, even as enrollment rises and people with Ph.D.’s scramble to find work.[14] Higher education is increasingly reduced to job training for corporations who refuse to invest in it themselves,[15] to be satisfied in large part by a year or two in community college.[16] Politically, the liberal arts are increasingly viewed as irrelevant to one’s all-important career.[17]

Modern conservative politics push the notion that people who flip switches, burgers or bedpans don’t need “education.” They instead need “job training.” In Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget, someone crossed out this phrase: “to extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses and to serve and stimulate society.” And added this instead: “to meet the state’s workforce needs.” Walker backed down on the language change when it was exposed, claiming it was a “mistake.” Really it was just one more tired attack on the idea of education as a public good, one that helps people find fulfillment and meaning.[18]

There are a couple aspects here. One, as Edwin Lyngar alludes to in the forgoing passage, is a sense that if you’re poor, you should settle for low-end jobs that don’t require much education. Jonathan Kozol writes of this even at the K-12 level:

A lot of wealthy folks in Texas think the schools are doing a sufficiently good job if kids of poor folks learn enough to cast a vote—just not enough to cast it in their own self-interest. They might think it fine if kids could write and speak—just not enough to speak in ways that make a dent in public policy. In economic terms, a lot of folks in Alamo Heights would think that Edgewood kids were educated fine if they had all the necessary skills to do their kitchen work and tend their lawns.[19]

Which is to say that we are kissing goodbye to the notion of social mobility, at least to the extent that education plays a role.

But second, we are saying that self-actualization, or the notion Martha Nussbaum expresses that every sentient being should be enabled to develop to their maximum abilities[20] will be a privilege of wealth, and that the rest of us are to be consigned to lives with constrained horizons.

And what this is to say is that access to education is to be one marker of caste, where perhaps a few may develop themselves to their maximum capabilities; where maybe a few more see higher education as job-training for higher-paid jobs, but whose horizons are still constrained within the job-training paradigm; and where a great many have no access to education beyond the K-12 level at all. Which is, in turn, to suggest that all but the wealthy will be reduced to their productive capacity. And as technology widens the scope of jobs that may be automated, the lucky will be those who have jobs at all.

To say it frightens me that we are so blatantly viewing humanity in these terms would be to understate the matter. I have to wonder if this is really the world that even the rich would want. For it is certainly the world that they, and we, are getting.

  1. [1]Scott L. Newstok, quoted in Micah Mattix to Prufrock mailing list, August 30, 2016, http://us9.campaign-archive1.com/home/?u=09f1740da57f3d9169001129e&id=e676795940
  2. [2]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  3. [3]Joseph Betz, “John Dewey and Paulo Freire,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society 28, no. 1 (1992): 111.
  4. [4]David Benfell, “Defining conservatism,” April 12, 2013, https://parts-unknown.org/drupal7/journal/2013/04/12/defining-conservatism
  5. [5]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  6. [6]T. S. Eliot, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture (London: Faber and Faber, 1962).
  7. [7]Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of our Time (Louisiana State University, 1964; Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 1995).
  8. [8]Scott L. Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Think-Like-Shakespeare/237593
  9. [9]Scott L. Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Think-Like-Shakespeare/237593
  10. [10]Scott L. Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Think-Like-Shakespeare/237593
  11. [11]I have heard Alfonso Montuori lecture, but the argument is also present in Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, “Social Creativity: Introduction,” in Social Creativity, eds. Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999), 1:1-45.
  12. [12]Scott L. Newstok, “How to Think Like Shakespeare,” Chronicle of Higher Education, August 29, 2016, http://www.chronicle.com/article/How-to-Think-Like-Shakespeare/237593
  13. [13]Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser, “Social Creativity: Introduction,” in Social Creativity, eds. Alfonso Montuori and Ronald E. Purser (Cresskill, NJ: Hampton, 1999), 1:1-45.
  14. [14]Kelly J. Baker, “The Impermanent Adjunct,” Vitae, February 26, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/354-the-impermanent-adjunct; Josh Boldt, “99 Problems But Tenure Ain’t One,” Vitae, January 21, 2014, https://chroniclevitae.com/news/283-99-problems-but-tenure-ain-t-one; Ella Delany, “Part-Timers Crowd Academic Hiring,” New York Times, December 22, 2013, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/23/world/europe/part-timers-crowd-academic-hiring.html; Sydni Dunn, “Visiting Professorships Take On New Uses in Changing Market,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 4, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Visiting-Professorships-How/136953/; Billie Hara, “How Do You, NTT Faculty, Pay Your Rent?” Chronicle of Higher Education, March 23, 2012, http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-do-you-ntt-faculty-pay-your-rent/39146; Aaron R. Hanlon, “Are PhD Students Irrational?” Los Angeles Review of Books, August 24, 2016, https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/phd-students-irrational/; Keith Hoeller, “The Wal-Mart-ization of higher education: How young professors are getting screwed,” Salon, February 16, 2014, http://www.salon.com/2014/02/16/the_wal_mart_ization_of_higher_education_how_young_professors_are_getting_screwed/; Sarah Kendzior, “Zero opportunity employers,” Al Jazeera, September 23, 2013, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/09/2013923101543956539.html; Diana Lambert and Phillip Reese, “CSU using more part-time faculty than full-time professors,” Sacramento Bee, January 31, 2015, http://www.sacbee.com/news/local/education/article8875895.html; Mark Oppenheimer, “For Duquesne Professors, a Union Fight That Transcends Religion,” New York Times, June 22, 2012, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/education/for-professors-at-duquesne-university-union-fight-transcends-religion.html; Stacey Patton, “The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps,” Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/From-Graduate-School-to/131795/; Stacey Patton, “‘I Fully Expect to Die With This Debt’,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 15, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/I-Fully-Expect-to-Die-With/138507/; Claudio Sanchez, “The Sad Death Of An Adjunct Professor Sparks A Labor Debate,” National Public Radio, September 22, 2013, http://www.npr.org/2013/09/22/224946206/adjunct-professor-dies-destitute-then-sparks-debate;
  15. [15]Eric Johnson, “Business Can Pay to Train Its Own Work Force,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 22, 2016, http://chronicle.com/article/Business-Can-Pay-to-Train-Its/231015/
  16. [16]Mark Keierleber, “Obama Ramps Up Federal Focus on Job Training,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/Obama-Ramps-Up-Federal-Focus/144357/
  17. [17]Lesley Clark, “Obama sends personal apology to art historian for snub; Rubio calls it ‘pathetic’,” McClatchy, February 19, 2014, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/02/19/218671/obama-apologizes-to-art-historians.html; Scott Jaschik, “Obama becomes latest politician to criticize a liberal arts discipline,” Inside Higher Ed, January 31, 2014, http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2014/01/31/obama-becomes-latest-politician-criticize-liberal-arts-discipline; Tom Kludt, “Marco Rubio Thinks It’s ‘Pathetic’ That Obama Apologized To Art History Majors,” Talking Points Memo, February 19, 2014, http://talkingpointsmemo.com/livewire/obama-rubio-art-history-majors-apology-pathetic; Marco Rubio, microblog post, Twitter, February 19, 2014, https://twitter.com/marcorubio/statuses/436153864627429376; Beckie Supiano, “No Laughing Matter: President’s Quip About Art History Pricks Some Ears,” Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2014, http://chronicle.com/article/No-Laughing-Matter-/144327/
  18. [18]Edwin Lyngar, “The right’s fear of education: What I learned as a (former) conservative military man,” Salon, February 26, 2015, http://www.salon.com/2015/02/26/the_rights_fear_of_education_what_i_learned_as_a_former_conservative_military_man/
  19. [19]Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities: Children in America’s Schools (New York: HarperPerennial, 1991), 216.
  20. [20]Martha C. Nussbaum, Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2011).

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