All That’s Wrong With Education In One Picture

Okay, not “all,” but here is an image that captures much of what is wrong in the world of education.

You can read more about this school, called (without irony we are to assume) Carpe Diem, here.

When I first saw the image, I wondered, for a fleeting moment, if this were a parody or a fictional school set in some dreary, soul-numbing dystopian future. No such luck. Thinking beyond my initial visceral response, one question came to mind: What do you have to believe about the human person, knowledge, and education to think that this is a good model for how children should learn?

That question was followed by another, more cynical query: What business model do you have to buy into?

But let’s return to the first question for a moment. In numerous contexts, the philosopher James K.A. Smith has observed that every pedagogy assumes an anthropology. That is to say that every theory and practice of education assumes a certain view of the human person. Needless to say, this view is not always explicit, nor can it always be articulated by those who take it for granted. Nonetheless, when someone sets out to educate children they do so based on some understanding of what it means to flourish as a human being, the goal of education, what counts as knowledge, and how children learn.

So, again, what do you have to believe in order to conclude that this cubicle based model of education is the way to go? At the very least, I’d say that you’d have to discount both the embodied and social dimensions of learning. Hook your brain up to the screen, forget you have a body or that the body has much to do with how we come to learn about the world, and download the data. Never mind interpersonal relationships that fuel the desire to learn, never mind models and mentors, never mind the knowledge that can only be gained in conversation with peers and teachers.

You would also have to assume that education was merely a matter of transferring discreet bits of information from one receptacle, the computer, to another, the human mind. In other words, you would have to assume an impoverished account of both what it is to be a human being and of knowledge itself.

I would suggest that this impoverished view of the human person and of knowledge has become plausible because the computer has become a master metaphor ordering our thinking about knowledge and minds. Having understood the computer by analogy to the mind, we have now reversed the direction of the analogy and have come to understand the mind by analogy to the computer.

In fact, though, a similar trajectory was already discernible much earlier when “the machine” became our master metaphor. Consider this French cartoon from the late nineteenth century.

I’d suggest the image above finds its fulfillment in the image of the Carpe Diem school with which we began.

A few years ago, I touched on related matters from another angle. I wrote then of a similar “unspoken assumption” about learning: “that knowledge is merely aggregated data and its mode of acquisition does nothing to alter its status. But what if this were a rather blinkered view of knowledge? And what if the acquisition of knowledge, however understood, was itself only a means to other more important ends?

If the work of learning is ultimately subordinate to becoming a certain kind of person, then it matters very much how we go about learning. In some sense, it may matter more than what we learn. This is because  the manner in which we go about acquiring knowledge constitutes a kind of practice that over the long haul shapes our character and disposition in non-trivial ways. Acquiring knowledge through apprenticeship, for example, shapes people in a certain way, acquiring knowledge through extensive print reading in another, and through web based learning in still another. The practice which constitutes our learning, if we are to learn by it, will instill certain habits, virtues, and, potentially, vices — it will shape the kind of person we are becoming.”

If this is the case, then what sort of formation is taking place given the practice of learning embodied by the Carpe Diem school?

Let me reiterate, though: the Carpe Diem model is just a more extreme example of practices and assumptions that are widely distributed throughout the world of education, where, regrettably, the siren song of the next revolutionary educational technology often proves too hard to resist no matter how many times it has shipwrecked those who heed it.


arendt seminar

Yes, I know we can’t all sit around the seminar table with the likes of Hannah Arendt. Nonetheless, in my view, there is an ideal to strive for here.

12 thoughts on “All That’s Wrong With Education In One Picture

  1. But then the standard lecture model is a bored teacher and tuned out students. At least these kids are interacting and moving at their own pace – and pace is everything. If it is too fast, you lose the slow ones, too slow and you lose the fast ones.

    People learn differently. Some through their ears, some through their eyes. Some through static sources like texts and manuals, some through walk-through videos, like YouTube. Some through all of these things and some through none of these things.

    My boss always wanted to send me to school because he wanted to maintain his education budget, It was hideously expensive and an utter waste of time. All I needed to learn was a problem and a manual.

  2. Another necessary and insightful post, Michael. As a teacher myself, I continue to find a number of my own concerns about technology and education reflected in your writing. To the issues you enumerate here, I would add the question: who is it, ultimately, who will control content in this “intensive education” model? It is, after all, being mainlined to these students’ brains without the buffering mediation of another thinking human — surely a siren call to any enterprising social engineer with sufficient resources.

    To Almost Iowa I would say, that, while I don’t doubt your experience, my own tends to contradict it, and I would question your characterization of the “standard lecture model.” In my own years of post-secondary education (biochemistry and veterinary medicine) and much continuing education, I benefited from the efforts of many engaged and engaging professors, whose experience was vast, and whose lectures were revelatory. They advanced my understanding in ways I feel I could never have achieved on my own, at least in the same amount of time.

  3. Thanks. People actually learn by doing in communities of shared interest. Some of our educational dilemmas arise because we try to force everyone to avail themselves of the same opportunities. You could stick me into most gym classes and I would be a failure unless some kind teacher decided I had tried hard enough.

  4. “I would suggest that this impoverished view of the human person and of knowledge has become plausible because the computer has become a master metaphor ordering our thinking about knowledge and minds. Having understood the computer by analogy to the mind, we have now reversed the direction of the analogy and have come to understand the mind by analogy to the computer.”

    I think this the nub of the problem (and I’m a lifetime geek, but I was taught by inspirational humans, not unfortunately Arendt)

    And the French cartoon is extraordinary (headphones in the lat 19th Century?).

  5. Admittedly, a) that picture looks grim, and b) the view that education is the transmission of discrete bits of information is wrong. However, imagine you found out that the people in the class were aspiring pilots about to perform missions in a flight simulator. That would be a pretty attractive approach, no? So, while it is true that in many, many cases computers are used to implement bad old educational models, it doesn’t follow education on a computer necessarily entail bad pedagogy.

  6. Michael, thanks for this interesting piece which has been turning over in my mind since I read it. Could you please point me to the James K Smith work that you referenced? The observation was, to me, profound.

  7. As a teacher myself I find it difficult to imagine teaching without the eye contact that is so essential in my view between the teacher and the student. Interesting to see the girls at the back fidgeting.

  8. Hello, the article is insightful. However I believe that there should be a model similar to that in education that allows each individual to be able to be independent from external influences. For example in a classroom dealing with self-confidence will be overcome easily because people respond to questions on a computer without having to fear telling the wrong answer. Thank you for the good read.

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