Just Soft Machines

Replace “technologies” with “reforms” and “economic” with “educational,” in Paul Krugman’s New York Times column today and he could be writing about our schools and colleges. He claims, “the whole digital era, spanning more than four decades, is looking like a disappointment. New technologies have yielded great headlines, but modest economic results. Why?” He goes on: “writing and talking breathlessly about how technology changes everything might seem harmless, but, in practice, it acts as a distraction from more mundane issues — and an excuse for handling those issues badly.” Exactly.

None of this is new to readers of the Academe blog or of the magazine. Just last week, Hank Reichman quoted Kentaro Toyama: “during the last four decades we have seen an explosion of incredible technologies, but America’s poverty rate hasn’t decreased and inequality has skyrocketed? Any idea that more technology in and of itself cures social ills is obviously flawed. Yet without a good framework for thinking about technology and society, it’s easy to get caught up in hype about new gadgets.”

Yesterday, Martin Kich expressed exasperation with one more attempt by a “reputable scholar”® to justify Massive Open Online Courses (or MOOCs): “I may have been influenced by my recent viewing of the HBO documentary of scientology, but I did actually say out loud to myself, ‘My God, they are now trying to sell MOOCs as L. Ron Hubbard sold Diantetics. Huckster 4.0.’”

In a review of Bill Ferster’s new book, Teaching Machines: Learning from the Intersection of Education and Technology for the May/June issue of the magazine, I wrote that we in education may be putting the cart before the horse in our rush to the digital revolution: “Many colleges have processes certifying teachers in uses of technology, yet I have heard of none that certifies its technologists in the ways of teaching or in educational psychology.”

Technology has long had the ability to dazzle us, but we were once able to walk away from it when it did not really suit our needs. The Edsel really was the car of the future when it appeared in 1958, but it was not a future American car buyers cared to realize. We find it harder and harder, today, to walk away from the images of the future the technologists set before us. Furthermore, as Toyama writes in the article Reichman quotes from here, “More technology only magnifies socioeconomic disparities, and the only way to avoid that is nontechnological: Either resolve the underlying inequities first, or create policies that favor the less advantaged.”

In education today, as elsewhere, we are using technology to help create a bifurcated American society of a sort we’ve never before seen. At the upper end are those whose children are educated in schools short on testing and long on personal interaction, just as their homes are serviced by people, not machines and whose professional lives are assisted by staffs and not computers. While the hype may be toward the machine replacing the human, the status is going to be in having humans do that which, for the masses, machines suffice.

“The people” have become “the consumers,” and “measurable outcomes” have become sufficient for guiding their lives. A friend recently justified the appalling growth in high-stakes standardized testing by saying that it prepares them for the nonsense of the business world. “They’re going to have to learn to deal with this sometime. Why not in school?” Why not, indeed? Before she retired, she was a top manager at a large corporation.

It is people with backgrounds like that of my friend, in fact, who are taking over American education—and not just the lives of American consumers. This should be a concern. As Mark Naison asks, “Do you really want to hand over control of our public schools to people who enriched themselves while living standards for most people deteriorated?” They see no difference between education and business and, for the masses, no difference between the machine and the human. Thoreau writes in Walden, “The mass of men serve the state thus, not as men mainly, but as machines, with their bodies.” That is all people are seen as now—at least, that’s how they are seen by the new elite who are deciding the futures of us others while maintaining the best of the past for themselves.

One thought on “Just Soft Machines

  1. Pingback: Am I Feeling Frustrated? You Betcha | The Academe Blog

Your comments are welcome. They must be relevant to the topic at hand and must not contain advertisements, degrade others, or violate laws or considerations of privacy. We encourage the use of your real name, but do not prohibit pseudonyms as long as you don’t impersonate a real person.