School of Teaching Without Teaching

In her novella Wise Blood, Flannery O’Connor has character Hazel Motes create the Church of Christ Without Christ. Thomas Friedman has apparently joined its contemporary offshoot, the School of Teaching Without Teaching. Certainly, he sounds like a true believer.

Friedman, and all those people at Stanford, MIT and Harvard (to mention just a few) who are touting new technological platforms that can offer “courses” to something like 100,000 people at a time also believe that they are seeing (and participating in) something new. In terms of education that can reach huge audiences, we’ve had a means for years: books. Though books alone have rarely proven sufficient for education, they have certainly been the sole tools in many cases–just as these online “courses” can be. In terms of technology, all that’s being done here is creating digitally what experimental psychologists were creating half a century ago–but those today are doing it without the knowledge the psychologists were bringing to their projects and (more importantly) without having looked back to try to understand why those psychologists, almost to a person, abandoned the idea of focusing education primarily on teaching machines and programmed instruction. They didn’t give them up completely, but learned that education requires a great deal more than technology. For most of us, it requires teaching–not just the “learning” that someone can do through books or computers.

One is not teaching when talking to a camera or when preparing a series of assignments and evaluations. One is abdicating from the hard work that is necessary on one side of the education equation. One comes to believe that technology alone is sufficient.

In my 2008 book Blogging America: The New Public Sphere, I wrote:

The point is that technology alone has no impact. It needs understanding, acceptance, and a place in a plant towards a goal.

It almost seemed, though, that the nation came to believe after the war that technology alone could solve any problem. But many, even in the fifties, of course, did recognize the weaknesses of this view, and understood that industrial might alone would not prove sufficient (something else many Americans had come to believe in the wake of World War II) to improve the world. Among these was Philip K. Dick, whose 1963 novel The Man in the High Castle contains within it pieces of a science-fiction novel by a character created by Dick. One of those passages goes like this:

“Only Yankee know-how and the mass-production system–Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, the magic names!–could have done the trick, send that ceaseless and almost witlessly noble flood of cheap one-dollar (the China Dollar, the trade dollar) television kits to every village and backwater of the Orient. And when the kit had been assembled by some gaunt, feverish-minded youth in the village, starved for a chance, of that which the generous Americans held out to him, that tinny little instrument with its built-in power supply no larger than a marble began to received. And what did it receive? Crouching before the screen, the youths of the village–and often the elders as well–saw words. Instructions. How to read, first. Then the rest. How to dig a deeper well. Plow a deeper furrow. How to purify their water, heal their sick. Overhead, the American artificial moon wheeled, distributing the signal, carrying it everywhere […] to all the waiting, avid masses of the East.”

Today, there are still people who have such idealistic visions… such as Nicholas Negroponte, with his One Laptop Per Child project. They forget that it is not technology alone that drives cultural change or creates new worlds, but the interaction between the old and the new–or between, to use the image created by Henry Adams, the dynamo and the virgin. (119-120)

Friedman titles his piece “Come the Revolution.” A better title might be “These Aren’t the Droids You’re Looking For.”

[I added a second part to this after arriving at school. It can be found here.]

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