©Rattus Scribus 8 Oct 2010
David Brooks, one of my favorite Op-Ed columnists, has an interesting piece on the new movie "The Social Network," about Mark Zuckerberg, the genius who created facebook. Ironically, Zuckerberg has little social and moral skills himself, yet creates the global online social networking revolution. In so doing, the character study suggests, he creates with his intellect a "medium he understands to conquer a medium he doesn't."
I find this interesting as it comes right at the time my wife (8 years now a 4th grade public school teacher) tells me daily how increasingly difficult it is to "teach" this generation of young people. These are the "natives" of the social network revolution, their day marked by constant interruptions of task-switching (not "multi-tasking," which is impossible) usually connected to on-the-grid time, and bred to be the consumers par excellence.
Most of the people reading this (if you are anything close to my age) are what sociologists term "immigrants" in this online technological world. The natives have the advantage of familiarity of this culture that is as second nature as the language acquisition of the country of one's birth. Older immigrants who finished with their formal education before this revolution and may even be already in their professions are constantly having to acquire new knowledge and cultural skills as if in a foreign land. On the other hand older immigrants have the advantage of knowing that other worlds have existed before this one, and other cultural options and directions are possible and maybe even preferable to the current cultural directions.
Discussions about education in this country are political footballs that ultimately lay the increasing burden of all the problems that need to be overcome on the shoulders of teachers. Witness the documentary "Waiting for Superman" and the flurry of articles it has spawned: the single most important factor in the educational success of America's children is teachers (professional, quality teachers), not more money, not better technology, not social location, etc.
That is actually old news. Only someone who is not a teacher or who has long forgotten what it was like can come up with something so obvious to we who actually teach, and make it sound like a new discovery.
But here is something you will not hear much about. Few politicians or anyone for that matter want to discuss America's cultural problems, only one of which is the emergence of a culture that sees itself as customer (who is always right) and education/school (indeed, everything) as but another product for consumption, the purpose of which is to help them fulfill (you guessed it) their programming for consumption. Add to this the Zuckerberg factor (the trend in the lack of social and moral skills as a cultural norm) and one may begin to see what teachers are up against, especially at the primary and secondary school grades, but even at the college level.
While I agree that teachers are a critical factor in the educational success of students, it is simply unrealistic to expect that every teacher everywhere will be able overcome the tidal wave of American cultural values, assumptions and habits that young people bring with them into the classroom of the type that are largely not conducive to a learning attitude and overall environment. And by the way, the very term "success" (which goes to the very purpose of education) itself needs much critique.
Another problem I'm having with the "all roads lead to the teacher" argument is that it is often lip service, at least in practice. The powers that be still lay off teachers even as they spend gobs of money on Promethean Boards, and subscribe to the "build it and they will come" corporate model, which, for all the arguments used to justify it, never adequately addresses how any of this is GOOD PEDAGOGY FOR THE SPECIFIC EDUCATIONAL GOALS the school has in mind.
The new Promethean Boards in the midst of layoffs is a particularly instructive example at the public school where my wife teaches. The remaining overworked, consumer student and parent (e)valuated teacher-baby-sitters certainly have more bells and whistles to up the entertainment value of education. But nowhere in the training of the use of this technology (so my wife tells me) are the teachers told how more magic boards make for better pedagogy in the face of challenges like larger student to teacher ratios, and "I'm the consumer" student attitudes. (Indeed, such technology only feeds that attitude.)
Here's a thought. Instead of catering to the cultural trends of young people (who, contrary to their own view, do not always know what's best, and in the case of the people who market products to them, may not even care as long as their quarterly statements get fatter), maybe in certain instances Resistance is Better Pedagogy (RBP).
Instead of bowing to the tyranny of technological and consumer trends, maybe RBP. Instead of accommodating the cultural assumptions where everything is ultimately judged by "the bottom line," maybe RBP. Maybe RBP is a way to address the current trend in the lack of moral and leadership skills of the next generation who are nevertheless next in line to run things.
David Brooks concludes his article by saying, "The character gaps that propel some people [like Zuckerberg] to do something remarkable can’t be overcome simply because they have managed to change the world." I think if we want anything like a positive moral outcome to America's educational enterprise, and not just more cultural reproduction, we should seriously consider RBP.