Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Why Twitter Can't Save Education

In the age—not too far gone now—when industrialism reigned supreme, education tended toward specialization and efficiency. In the post-industrial age in which we live now educators have begun to embrace an approach that assumes new goals driven by computers, the Internet, social media and electronic media in general. This swaying with the current cultural winds is ultimately destructive of schools and students. The enduring quality of classical, Christian education is that it is designed for human beings in all times and all places. A classical, Christian approach to education, where it was preserved, provided unity in a time of fragmented specialization that was the industrial period, and it will provide coherence in our current time of pathless diversity.

The industrial mindset gravitated toward the assumptions of industrial production: standardization and uniformity of repetitious processes. The education of the time reflected this. It strove for assembly-line efficiency, with standardized curricula of basic information delivered (and later marketed) to mass audiences of students who were thought of in terms of the schools’ “products”. National tests were developed to ensure quality control of the process. People with this inherent industrial bias reached for the tools of the age thinking, naturally, that this was the solution to all problems, including the education problem.

The trouble was that this wasn’t education at all, it was mere training in the assumptions of the time in order to produce the easily-placed workers and consumers the age thought it needed. True education—the formation of thinking, wise, eloquent human beings who love and serve the living God—nevertheless continued in some places during this massive shift to factory-style education. The classical tradition wasn’t broken entirely, but the goal of education had moved significantly in the larger culture. From the industrialist and educational specialist to the average citizen with children, most assumed that education (and everything else for that matter) was best served by efficient, “scientific” processes. In schools this meant the production of masses of children in possession of some basic facts, or at least with usable job skills. Efficiency and utility were the guiding lights of the time.

With the end of industrial dominance and the rise of the post-industrial, electronic and computer age, there has been a change in what ends and what processes are assumed to be best. The trouble now is that the post-modernist education reformers, while recognizing the emptiness and ultimate failure of industrial education, have made the same mistake as the previous age in their drive to reform education. Multiple books and articles on the subject draw similar conclusions: we no longer live in an age where preparing workers is adequate; children live in a time of electronic, instant media and information available on a variety of devices, coming from all over the world, in a variety of forms—video, music, texts short and (occasionally) long, etc. Information is not delivered at a uniform pace in a logical progression, as it might have been done even earlier in the electronic age when the few television networks gave out the days’ “news” in predigested form. What students need today, these reformers say, is to learn how to sift through this tidal wave of distracting, often contradictory, information that sweeps over us, all crying out for our time and attention. Surely, they say, the old education is not up to the task.

Up to a point, I largely agree with them. What they are identifying is that the goal of education adopted in the industrial age is no longer adequate. (I would argue that it was not adequate then, either.) While I disagree that the great educational challenge of our time is to help students to be discerning users of information, (the “new literacy”) this is not necessarily my main problem with their program, since one of the results of classical education is the formation of wise, discerning people who are able to understand, interpret, and evaluate the flood of ideas that confront a 21st-century person.

My issue is not that educators must move from thinking that they are supposed to be producing workers to developing thinkers—so far so good—but that the contemporary reformers then make the fatal error of their 19th century predecessors, who also thought they saw a problem and wanted to solve it. To solve the problem they reached instinctively, reflexively for the tools of their time—as the saying goes, to a man with a hammer every thing looks like nail. And the current crop of reformers are doing much the same thing. Faced with the problem of helping children think about information they, astoundingly, promote the wide-spread integration of computers, electronic media, and social and interactive media sites (Twitter, Wikipedia, etc.) into the classroom. Their argument, in general, is that these are needed to get children interested in our subjects, or that these processes represent the future and so must be used. Sometimes it is even claim that students just think differently now. But these things are the very tools and artifacts of the age that children must learn to think discerningly about, the use of which is a result of, and a continuing contributing factor to, the shape of the contemporary person’s way of thinking.

Teaching students to be more thoughtful (no doubt a desirable outcome) by using social media is like trying to produce hand-crafted furniture on an assembly line. The tool is not appropriate to the job, and in fact requires a way of proceeding that is inherently contradictory to the desired result. The very process itself shapes the mind, assumes and validates certain behaviors and views of the world. The content, then, is not really the issue. This isn’t about furniture or Facebook. It is about the hidden, unconscious ways of thinking and being that the process brings with it to the user who thinks it a very familiar thing, but is completely unaware of how it is shaping his approach to reality. Only by stepping away, as much as possible, from the tools, and the assumptions implicit in the tools, can we truly evaluate their impact.

C.S. Lewis recommended that one ought to read one old book for every new one. The purpose was to help the reader avoid the chronological blindness that comes with hearing only the voices of one’s own time. Education, in general, ought to act the same way. Neil Postman wrote that education ought to be thermostatic—keeping the “temperature in balance by countering the prevailing climate” in the words of Gene Veith (‘Postmodern Times’). Veith summarizes Postman: “in a visual television-oriented environment, schools more than ever need to stress reading and writing”. Contemporary computer, internet and electronic media value the immediate, transitory, participatory and maleable, that which is, ultimately, under the control of the user. The formation of virtue and wisdom, however, requires the patient accommodation to someone else’s words and agenda, the sustained and thoughtful meditation upon immutable truths, and the acceptance of an authority beyond one’s one creativity.

Education, then, is the cultivation of wisdom, virtue and godliness, and the development of an eloquence that serves these characteristics. This education is accomplished primarily through words—spoken and written. Discussion, reading, writing are the means to achieving a God-honoring education, in addition to being skills needed for a life time of learning and expression. God has given his truth in words, spoken and written. God himself presented written documents to Moses, and the command to write the words of God appears from the prophets to Revelation, which ends with warnings not to tamper with the words in the book. The assumptions and values that printing and reading create are surely not a surprise to the Creator. And while schools ought to consider all useful tools that are available—Veritas, for example, maintains a Facebook page for alumni contact and is considering communicating with parents through Twitter—these tools need to be picked up with care and discernment, for while all tools may be lawful, they are not all equally helpful. Some may even be inherently counterproductive for the job at hand. The primary, defining tools of classical, Christian education have been—and must be—the written and spoken word.