05 March 2013

Schools and Experts

N. Postman talking Technopoly on BookTV in July 1992.
While chasing down supplementary material on Neil Postman, I happened upon his most excellent graduation speech. Although (to my knowledge) Postman never had an opportunity to recite these words at a commencement ceremony, the sentiment and message rank this as one of the better graduation speeches I've heard or read (DFW's speech at Kenyon is pretty damn moving too). The tone of this speech is similar to the Neil Postman I found in the latter sections of Technopoly -- engaging, encouraging, optimistic (albeit hesitantly). In fact, Postman's speech echoes many of my own interests in asking technological--cultural questions, pursuing a teaching career, etc. Also, it is prefaced by a statement promoting open access -- well ahead of his time with regard to communal knowledge/sharealike/creative commons/etc. "If you think my graduation speech is good, I hereby grant you permission to use it, without further approval from or credit to me, should you be in an appropriate situation." What a great introduction! I wonder if he would have made similar remarks on the occasion of beginning the speech?

Aside from functioning as an inspirational (graduation) speech, the aforementioned piece also encouraged me to rethink Technopoly. This is not to suggest that I did not appreciate the text. In fact, I found it rather engaging and appropriately controversial/thought-provoking. Since my previous  post paid a lot of attention to Postman's outmoded view of the culture-technology relationship, I want to stress how valuable Technopoly (and Postman more generally) is to framing a critique of technology in education. Although I find components of his argument a bit fraught, I appreciate how Postman conceptualizes technology's cultural role. Of particular interest are his thoughts on the controlling capacity of experts and schools.

At great length Postman discusses the dubious role of bureaucracy and expertise in the 20th century. In current and soon-to-come Technopolies, these two phenomena become more prominent and problematic (At the time of publication, Postman saw the US as the only true Technopoly. I wonder which other nations Postman would add to the list in 2013?). In such situations "There is no aspect of human relations that has not been technicalized and therefore relegated to the control of experts." [Well said! This is indeed the veiled truth of 21st century life.] This becomes even more troubling when considering that Technopoly's experts tend to be ignorant about any matter not directly related to their specialized area. Thus experts are not expected to have [even superficial] knowledge beyond their area of expertise. Clearly this must change -- for the betterment of education in particular; for the betterment of civilization in general. Like bureaucracy itself (with which an expert may or may not be connected), Technopoly's experts claim dominion not only over technical matters but also over social, psychological, and moral affairs. Isn't it concerning if the "role of the expert is to concentrate on one field of knowledge, sift through all that is available, eliminate that which has no bearing, and use what is left to assist in solving a problem"? Doesn't everything have (or at least could have) a bearing? Postman explains that this sort of intellectual reductionism "works fairly well in situations where only a technical solution is required and there is no conflict with human purposes...works less well in situations where technical requirements may conflict with human purposes ...and it is disastrous when applied to situations that cannot be solved by technical means and where efficiency is usually irrelevant." Given the experts' lack of breadth, one must worry about their ability to properly direct non-technical matters. In fact, I argue that a lack of breadth makes technical experts poor advisors for technical matters. If experts cannot understand the full complexity of the web into which their technical decision will be introduced, should we rely upon their so-called expertise? Shouldn't expertise involve more a connection-making process? It seems critical for experts to understand how little pieces into larger (and ever-larger) webs. At its core, Postman's analysis of the powerful control of near-sighted and narrowly-focused experts seems a robust argument for cultivating interdisciplinary people and teams.

Further complicating the function of expertise and schooling is the notion of testing. While I do not wish to recap the entire argument here, suffice it to say that these invisible technologies reduce the types and quantities of information admitted to a system. Moreover, tests transform "an abstract and multifaceted meaning into a technical and exact term that leaves out everything of importance." Two prime examples: IQ tests and SATs. There is the implied assumption that IQ tests truly measure an individual's intelligence quotient (or that there is a measurable quotient of the multidimensional concept of intelligence) and that SAT scores actually indicate a student's scholastic aptitude. Nevertheless, we rely upon these invisible technologies to tell us who should have access to knowledge, to what extent we should deify them as experts, etc.

We become so accustomed to these invisible technologies it is an imposing challenge to think of new approaches. How can we measure intelligence without standardized tests? How can we learn without a college course? The answer to these and other questions is often an emphatic, "We can't!" Caught in the momentum of the invisible technology/cultural structure, we aren't only reluctant to change, but we are wholly unaware of that there could be (or in many cases should be) alternative modes of operation.

Invoking his friend Alan Kay (For a quick summary of Alan Kay's critique of technology in education, read this interview from Cult of Mac), Postman suggests that problems schools cannot solve without machines, they cannot solve with them. Yes and no. As Kay and Postman explain, it isn't that technology in education is a bad idea (pencils, paper, and books are all pretty revolutionary educational technologies), but we are failing to use technologies to their full educational potential. Alan Kay is more outspoken on this matter, but Postman conveys similar sentiments regarding the shortcomings of "computer technology" to generate radical and substantive changes in society and/or education.

Postman explains that Technopoly is a sociocultural order and mental state of mind that is based upon the deification of technology. Although certainly disheartening, this is by no means an unescapable condition. More problematic than the mental state are the social institutions that function as control mechanisms
…sometimes they do their work simply by denying people access to information, but principally by directing how much weight and, therefore, value one must give to information
For Postman, the school (at all levels -- primary, secondary, post-secondary) is one of the main social institutions that functions as a mechanism for information control. In summary, the school certifies what students should or should not think about. Relying upon curricula, course descriptions, degree programs, and other standard institutional apparatuses, the school effectively includes and excludes what information/knowledge (I've conflated the two terms here, but would like to return to a discussion of how [if necessary] these concepts are [or should be] differentiated) is accessible to students. Under such systems of information management, educational institutions (and the educational system) define what constitutes legitimate knowledge. Via the regulation and valuation of information/knowledge, educational institutions are effectively enacting and perpetuating theories about the purpose and meaning of education. If at all reliant upon the exclusion of information/knowledge, these theories and subsequent practices are not only detrimental to the educational mission, but also to the development of  engaged 21st century citizens. Indeed, the exclusion of information is a major obstacle for 21st century education (and cultural) reform.

It is important to understand (or at least question) why we do things the way(s) we do them. Only under such inquisitive circumstances can we rethink, revise, reinvent, etc. Alas, it cannot stop after one iteration. This is an endless process of re-creation. We must be a fully attentive culture! Neither immediately dismissive of nor instantly enamored, we must find balance in our approach to technology. Critical consciousness with regard to technology (in education and elsewhere) is absolutely necessary!  We must not grant exorbitant prestige to experts (who are viewed with priestly charisma) armed with technology. So, as we graduate to a new stage of the technology-culture relationship, may the Athenians mightily outnumbered the Visigoths.

For more on Neil Postman, sift through the treasure trove of online texts and interviews. Oh, and be sure to page through his other books. I have a copy of Teaching as a Subversive Activity sitting on my bookshelf, perhaps this is the perfect motivation to pick it up and continue my feverish reading and annotating of N. Postman. Should probably also find copies of Teaching as a Conserving Activity and The End of Education.

Full of greats from Western philosophy and depictions of esteemed knowledge, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino's (aka Raphael) 16th century fresco The School of Athens (or Scuola di Atene), offers a visual reminder of the breadth of knowledge emphasized during Ancient Greece (as updated for the Italian Renaissance. While some modes of ancient knowledge are no longer en vogue and some distinctly contemporary concerns need inclusion for the 21st century update, Raphael's fresco is a fine reminder of the importance of being a Postman Athenian. It isn't easy an ideal to achieve, but it is undeniably important. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.