The movie Idiocracy, written and directed by Mike Judge (Beavis & Butthead, Office Space) is not very good. It plays the same note over and over again. However, despite being a comedic film, it's a mournful note, a minor chord that resonates with our perception that public discourse is dumb and getting dumber. It's a weak movie, but a great conversation piece.
When an average American (played by Luke Wilson) wakes up 500 years into the future, he discovers endless mounds of garbage spilling out from every house. The national language has eroded into some combination of surfer speak and Ebonics, and the most popular show on television is called "Ow, My Balls!" The president is a professional wrestler, and anyone who strings together an intelligent sentence is derided as a "fag."
When Wilson's character points out that water, and not Gatorade, should be used to water the crops, he becomes a hero and a sage. He becomes, in fact, a teacher. It takes a teacher to explain the obvious and derail students from their well-worn, erroneous paths.
This brings me to our present day Idiocracy, and the threat that certain new models of education might pose to teachers. A recent Wall Street Journal article titled "My Teacher is an App," summarizes the situation:
In a radical rethinking of what it means to go to school, states and districts nationwide are launching online public schools that let students from kindergarten to 12th grade take some—or all—of their classes from their bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens. Other states and districts are bringing students into brick-and-mortar schools for instruction that is largely computer-based and self-directed.
The article follows one student who takes an English class with 126 other 9th graders by listening to lectures from his bedroom. This is not, incidentally, the flipped model or the blended model, both of which actually have the potential to create more one-on-one time by allowing students to listen to lectures at home and then interact more directly in a live classroom. Instead, this student seems to be entirely responsible for consuming (a key word) content and then spitting it back out.
Technology is not being used to enhance the traditional classroom, but instead phase it out in favor of a kind of slightly-more-synchronous form of correspondence class. "Virtual School," then, becomes a fitting label, since there appears to be an absence of real learning, unless we've been convinced by NCLB that real learning is synonymous with regurgitation, submitting quizzes on time, and microtasking.
The challenge has become time management, which is no challenge at all; instead, it's a game designed to make compliant workers and busy-bodies, clicking away all day, safely removed from the one person needed to point out the obvious and force students out of their closed loops. We have, it seems, wandered too far from our Socratic roots and mistaken the mere acquisition of knowledge for education.
All of this is shamefully conducted under the guise of "self-directed" learning, as if 126 high school freshman could be capable of a trait I find to be extremely rare even among college freshman. Heck, rare even among college upperclassmen and honors students. True self-motivation, inner-drive, or whatever you want to call it does not simply appear when you give a student a flexible schedule and the opportunity to head to the refrigerator whenever he feels like it (see the article).
Self-directed does not mean getting your homework done without a teacher or parent breathing down your neck. That's the opposite of self-directed. That is being compliant. There is no point in being a self-starter if what you start can be be finished, uploaded, and plugged into a rubric without the slightest challenge to your mental operating system.
This is the basic scam. And some well-meaning people are getting swept up in it. When you start to hear the cry of "Free the student from the system! Let them direct their own learning!" you need to pull back the curtain and see whose interest are being served.
Of course, who will pull back the curtain? Not the self-directed learner who is too busy completing their quizzes and consuming their educational content to notice the obvious mistakes they've made. Their bulletin boards and brains are littered with gold stars. Stars, but no galaxies.
The hive mind is buzzing, but unaware that winter is upon us. Too busy buzzing to notice.
It's the Occupy Wall Street model of education. The protesters are exceptional at converging and communicating with each other, but utterly incapable of constructing a message or a mission that gains traction with the public or the politicians, and totally incapable of taking a step back and putting the pieces together.
But they keep drumming away. And amplifying their voices. A chorus in an echo chamber. Less a fugue and more a cut-up, postmodern noise machine. They have developed an intricate set of hand signals a chimpanzee could learn in three hours. Their discourse has been heightened just enough to keep them busy while they squat.
They lack leadership, a fact touted by so many who should know better as a virtue, as some kind of profound new model of organization based on de-centralized what-nots and....well, self-directed autonomous actors who work really hard to build consensus without progress. Progress might, man, hurt someone's feelings, because we're just trying to come together and let our incoherent message be misunderstood.
Consensus without coherency.
Getting things done without progress.
Self-direction without developing the self.
Autonomy without purpose.
Surface connections without any depth.
Everyone gets a turn; around and around the closed circuit we go.
Watering plants with Gatorade.
.....it's the Occupy Wall Street way. It's also the new, dangerous model for education. Socrates would have hated it. You should, too.
If you want to study a genuine social movement, read Martin Luther King's Letter from Birmingham Jail. (Socrates is in there, too.) Then, please, tell me you don't need a real leader. Tell me you can get by without a teacher. Tell me you're content with third-rate speeches amplified by a microphone of mere humanity.
Unless you're content with your inner-drive merely spinning its wheels?