Thursday, February 2, 2012

Technology of School and Expanding Choices

As I mentioned in my last post, I am currently reading Kevin Kelly's new book What Technology Wants. In this book he goes through a fascinating deep look at the relative value and/or virtue of limiting technology use. This is particularly true in two chapters, one about the Unibomber and the other about the Amish. Kelly notes a curious fact that it is only in western civilization where intentionally minimalist cultures exist. Sure, there are plenty of people in places like Laos or sub-Saharan Africa who live lives with very little technology but for the most part these are not intentional lifestyle choices. Given the choice to have more technology most would welcome it with open arms. Only in the developed western world are there entire groups of people like the Amish or Mennonites who live within a technologically advanced country but live without much technology by choice. Kelly argues that technology gives us choices and among these choices is always the choice not to use. And, it is our choices that help to define us.
"the number of technologies to choose from so far exceeds our capacity to use them all that these days we define ourselves more by the technologies we don't use than by those we do." Kelly
The Amish and Mennonites can only exist as a minimalist group because they are part of a larger civilization that embraces the technologies they reject.
"If the Amish had to generate all their own energy, grow all their clothing fibers, mine all metal, harvest and mill all lumber, they would not be Amish at all because they would be running large machines, dangerous factories, and other types of industry that would not sit well in their backyards." Kelly
Technological advances generate more and more choices and always present among them is the choice not to adopt. Perhaps this is the most important among the choices that technology enables. Kelly also notes that in the history of technology we have at times imposed prohibitions against certain types of technology but those prohibitions rarely last very long. Eventually technology wins out and is permitted to exist as a choice. While we may argue about the value or ethics of prohibition and passing restrictive laws and regulations can cause people to get upset, no prohibition is ever as disruptive as prohibiting the choice not to adopt. Prohibition of a new technology is a repressive measure, forced adoption is an oppressive measure.

If we take the broad definition of technology then school itself is a technology, so are grades, standardized tests, and curriculum. Deny a student the choice not to adopt any of these and our act is an act of oppression. In Instead of Education, about the nature of schooling John Holt (1976) states:
"Education, with its supporting system of compulsory and competitive schooling, all its carrots and sticks, its grades, diplomas, and credentials, now seem to me perhaps the most authoritarian and dangerous of all social inventions of mankind." Holt
Holt clearly saw formal education as a technology and saw compulsory schooling as oppressive. Holt eventually gave up trying to "fix schools" and instead worked to free people from them.
"My concern is not to improve 'education' but to do away with it, to end the ugly and antihuman business of people-shaping and let people shape themselves." Holt
Like Holt, John Taylor Gatto views schooling and all its trappings as a technology. Here are just a few quotes from his most recent book, Weapons of Mass Instruction:
"H. H. Goddard, chairman of psychology at Princeton...believed that standardized test scores used as a signal for privileged treatment would cause the lower classes to come face to face with their biological inferiority. It would be like wearing a public dunce cap. Exactly the function 'special education' delivers today." Gatto

"Sick of Amish rejection of it's schools, Wisconsin sought to compel Amish compliance with its secular schooling laws through its police power. The Amish resisted on these grounds: they said government schooling was built on the principle of the mechanical milk separator. It whirled the young mind about until both the social structure of the Amish community, and the structure of private family life, were fragmented beyond repair." Gatto

It doesn't matter how many different types of school choices we have. We can have traditional public schools, charter schools, private schools, online schools, project-based schools, Montessori schools, etc. and they may all be fine technologies but if we take away the choice not to adopt, the choice not to go, then we do all of these options a huge disservice. As long as schooling is compulsory it is oppression. As long as standardized tests are compulsory their use is oppression. As long as schools require teachers to issue grades it is oppression.
"I need you to question your own schooling and the price you paid for it; I need you to dig behind the illusions of education schooling produces; I need you to recognize how its imperial energy drives your understanding long after the classroom door seems to have closed forever." Gatto
And, about the value of the choice not to adopt Kevin Kelly says:
"Voluntary simplicity is a possibility, an option, a choice that one should experience for at least part of one's life." Kelly
I worry that this blog post is starting to sound like a rallying call to convince people to drop out of school. It is not. I do believe in a school's ability to help someone improve their life. I do believe that schools can be places of real and important learning. And, for most, schools are a necessary choice to prepare for life in a democratic society and to make one employable. However, the only way that works is if it is a choice. Mandating attendance, as Obama suggested states do in last week's State of the Union address, takes the power of choice away from students and their families. As long as I have a choice, and as long as those choices include a choice not to attend, I am in control of my own education. If I am forced to choose only among choices that do not include "none of the above" any choice becomes schooling, not education. It is our choice that empowers us as learners. That choice is a necessary component for learning. Now, what is the purpose of school? The only way the answer to that question is "student learning" is if school is something we choose.

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