Death to Teachers!

The other day, I came across this:

School teachers…. will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile.

It’s from a speech by Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, called “Informing Ourselves to Death,” delivered in 1990.

Postman felt he was speaking realistically, not optimistically, that he was simply describing what was sure to come to pass. No expert on education, he did not understand the importance of the personal relationship in education, of the need for motivation that only a teacher can provide. (By 1990, one would have thought he would have seen that it would not be television, but the computer—which is usurping so much from television—that would be the culprit, but that’s another story). Nor did he see (no one did) that the push towards obsolescence would not come from technology, but from society itself.

We’ve set out to marginalize teachers, to demean the profession intellectually, in operation, and financially. Through evaluation based on student “performance” on standardized tests, we’ve effectively taken the art of teaching from them making them into test-prep devices. By focusing on the mechanics of teaching (the “lesson plan” has become more important than the learning), we have made them replaceable cogs. By keeping their pay low, we are insuring that theirs is a pass-through occupation, something to do while in search of something else.

Most everyone who has achieved any measure of success in almost any field can remember one teacher who sparked their interest, who motivated them to look beyond the necessary. This only works, generally, if there is family helping do the same thing, but it is an important contribution to success.

It is based on individuality, and on respect for the student’s own individuality. It’s not something that can be replaced. And the teacher who is responsible for cannot be replaced the way a spark-plug in a car is replaced—though that’s what our education administrators, our politicians, and those pushing for privatized (read “education on an industrial model”) would like us to believe.

Some years ago, I taught briefly for an online university, one of those for-profit schools that claims it can get you a degree quickly and painlessly. The teachers weren’t teachers but “facilitators” (a corruption of the sort of facilitation Paolo Freire advocated—but, again, that’s another story). The curriculum had been designed elsewhere and was standardized across the college, no matter who was responsible for the particular section. I found, to my horror, that this had been done so that the teaching did not require specialization (almost any Masters degree would do) and that any teacher could be replaced by another at any time during the course. And the pay was such that, to even attempt to do a good job, one would only work there out of desperation.

What I did not understand was that such teaching was not a dead-end, but a way-station on the road to the elimination of teachers completely. The idea, from industry, that costs can be controlled best through mechanization has taken hold.’

People have said this before, of course, and will again. And scholars have shown, again and again, that the best education comes through face-to-face interaction between students and teachers, and in situations flexible enough to accommodate individual student needs.

Last night, on Daily Kos, a blogger called “Teacherken” posted a piece on the new movie Race to Nowhere. Follow the link: he makes the argument for teaching much better than I do here.