Industrial Education in the Information Age

“And when science proposes to art besides that peace-full sea
I’ll be that cat with a ring on a pillow shouting finally”

Aesop Rock – “Water

Seth Godin’s clarion call for education reform recognizes the need to create students who are knowledge-able and not simply regurgitors of the status quo. His critique of the standard education in k-12 and beyond in the United States adopts a global perspective concerning the status of US education next to other developed competitors. Sitting next to Dan Edelstein’s article concerning innovation and the liberal arts, it’s clear that the death of our collective power to innovate and adapt in the next fifty years is inscribed in our inability to understand the role of the liberal arts as the foundation of technical and social knowledge. Simply stated, the inability to reason beyond given structures is stymied by a myopic view of technical knowledge as the only goal of education. STEM education threatens the ability of the liberal arts to exist thus destabilizing a cornerstone of democracy itself by transforming educational systems into productive mechanisms narrowly focused on economic applicability. Ironically, the loss of the liberal arts and humanities within the vision of education is supported by broader philosophical initiatives to make the study of philosophy a luxury of the rich at best and a waste of time for the poor at worst.

Parker Palmer  grapples with ethical issues involved in collective action problems in an institutional context. The growth of massive bureaucracies as tools of governance in private and public sectors signals the need for understanding the individual in relation to the collective and the ethical problems that may arise from this social arrangement. Palmer calls for more students to develop an ethical sensibility that they can carry into their work lives as they assume positions within larger organizations that harness the collective power of individuals for larger purposes. The modern firm, however, has the power to reshape the globe through its reach and requires those working within it to understand their place and responsibility within it. This sensibility is best cultivated by a liberal arts education that stresses open-ended inquiry. Creating an ethical and philosophical sensibility is difficult. It does not fit well on multiple choice exams, it’s not easy to quantify and ethical questions are rarely “answered” full stop.

Philosophy, for example, is not full of “facts” that one can put on a test and the skills developed in a philosophical education require the close attention of skilled teachers who push and challenge students to think harder about the basics of their existence. While these skills aren’t the best for building widgets, they are part and parcel of humanistic education that develops a well-rounded reasoner and community participant. Philosophical inquiry requires creativity and carefully articulated views that promote innovative thinking.

Technical, widget-centric education has its place but the delivery method is outdated. Rote memorization, standardized testing, and sage on the stage lecturing does not engage the fundamental skills required to be knowledge-able and thus deprives students of the practice needed to connect the dots. The writing is on the wall. The labor market itself is changing as we escape the mental cage constructed by an education system designed to stamp out compliant and quiescent industrial workers. Employers are seeing the strength of a liberal arts education as automation threatens those with market-reactive, technical degrees. The power to innovate comes from an ability to understand the status quo and improve upon existing information to bring something new into the world.

Our culture is ill-equipped to understand the power of ideas favoring instead a materialistic vision of innovation through gadgets predicated on an economic normativity governed by efficiency. Smaller, faster, more accessible and more arms on the information age Swiss Army Knife conforms to the techno-utopian desire to be free from bondage and inconvenience but the question remains whether we’re actually better off with each successive technological advancement. Innovation seen in this way does not advance the human race beyond its immaterial confines that draw the limits of our collective understanding. We’re little more than apes with gadgets and this presents a dangerous situation as we fail to understand the ramifications of our technological advancement. The middle of the 20th century saw humanity invent the possibility of our collective destruction and we huberistically proclaimed that we had mastered the atom. Today, we can pluck information out of the air and communicate at light speed through a global network. This new capability brings new responsibilities and we need to first understand our selves in relation to our technology before we crack on toward the next new thing. This understanding will require the careful cultivation of students who have outgrown the sage on the stage classroom.

We cannot continue to rob children of the opportunity to buck the status quo by asking why one study is more useful than another. Technical knowledge needs to be interpreted and contextualized. The liberal arts are up to this task. The reverse is also true: the liberal arts need to understand the impact technology has on the world if we’re going to understand the advancement of our social being. Students can and should specialize and become excellent at one thing or another. Conceptually, however, the well rounded student will have a foundation in both the arts and sciences. The segmentation and funneling of students into vocational education that ignores the arts while touting itself as higher education is a farce. We cannot let one vision obliterate the other and say that our view is stereoscopic.

Against the Neocons: Industrial Knowledge Production and the New Workforce

I start every semester, regardless of the class I’m facilitating with an announcement. The reason I teach is to help produce people capable of handling the responsibilities of democratic citizenship. Democracy is based on notions of self-rule, the citizen as the reservoir of sovereignty, and egalitarian principles of equality balanced by liberty. Citizens must be capable of critically reflecting on their environment (informational, social, political, cultural, and etc.,.) in order to flesh out demands ideally reflective of their desires that then populate a deliberative process aimed at creating a community bound by the rule of law. The deliberative process is critical in creating a just society and is an extension of the deliberative capacities of  the parties involved. The United States has a long history of excluding groups from the deliberative arena. Some tactics have been a denial of voting rights, Jim Crow voting regulations, poll taxes, exclusive spaces in which political discussions took place, and the regulation and control of education. The most recent example of the latter is a discourse advanced by the American right that higher education should be responsible for workforce training and only workforce training as the country transitions into the new informational economy.

The information economy requires knowledge workers – people who are technically trained in producing and handling information products such as patents, and infrastructural technicians who can further and optimize the expanding technical infrastructure necessary for the dissemination and de-centralized production of knowledge products. Subsequently, this shift from the industrial production of physical products (such as cars) to the industrial production of knowledge products requires an expansion of higher education and an influx of students who will serve in emerging industries associated with knowledge production. The millennial generation is now the most highly educated (in terms of years spent in formal education) generation in US history because of the demands for knowledge workers in the new economy. This scares the hell out of top ranking neoconservatives.

The neocon ideology emerged out of the tumultuous student demonstrations of the 1960’s and early 1970’s. Many of it’s founding members, such as Irving Kristol, were disturbed by the flurry of student action resisting the Vietnam War. The US “defeat” in Vietnam was not determined by personnel losses or even tactical military mistakes but by a defeat suffered at home. Vietnam Syndrome  as a fear, has haunted neoconservative circles since the realization that the US suffered its first major military loss since the war of 1812 because the American public was not willing to engage in strong, imperial military interventionism. Lefty-commie sympathizers bore the blame for spreading seditious ideology through university campuses that mobilized students to fight against the imperial ambitions of hawkish politicians, and for the civil rights of African-Americans and women. The memory of the defeat at home has had such lingering effects that George H.W. Bush, at the threshold of the first Gulf War assured his audience that “this will not be another Vietnam.” Bush spoke to both the neocon architects of that war and to an American public who had since seen no direct military commitment against a foreign nation apart from the discourse of Reagan’s “War on Drugs” and the subsequent campaigns against Colombia, Nicaragua and Chile.

Between Vietnam and the Gulf War neoconservative ideology hit its stride and crystallized from diffuse network of like-minded scholars, to a fully articulated and politically enfranchised movement. Neoconservative thinkers founded think-tanks and educational apparatuses parallel to places of higher learning while also assuming positions within prestigious private universities.  Leo Strauss is one of the more enigmatic contributors to neoconservative ideology and helped train cadre after cadre of powerful apparatchiks who advanced neoconservative agendas through the Republican party (Paul Wolfowitz being one of his more illustrious students). Part of the neoconservative ideology calls for the training of elite, well-to-do young men in the fine arts of government while harboring a general distrust for mass political enfranchisement. Part of the necon mission is to guide the nation in a paternalistic (ideally benevolent) fashion that molds both economy and civic morality. Above all, the public are not to be informed of matters of state, especially foreign policy, unless absolutely necessary for maintaining social control. The wisdom of the neoconservative disciple is derived from their specialization in the higher truths of government through a robust liberal arts education while supported through elite networks that assure their seat at the table. Elitism is a foundational element of neoconservative thought.

In a rare slip-up, the Texas Republican party announced in 2012 that critical thinking should not be included within the public school curriculum. More recently, GOP lawmakers have linked higher education to a discourse of workforce development while pundits, activists and talking heads have repeatedly attacked higher education as fake and universities as controlled by social justice warriors who indoctrinate students under the guise of offering an education. Vocational training has become part of the discourse around higher education as the nation looks to universities for the American dream of upward social mobility. This discursive shift has deep affinities with neoconservative ideology as workforce training narrowly focuses the mission of higher education away from producing democratic citizens broadly educated in the liberal arts to a labor market demanding specialized workers capable of producing and sustaining industrialized knowledge production.  Shifts away from producing democratic citizens capable of critically handling information to workers capable of handling critical information furthers the neocon ideological project by industrializing the production of human capital almost exclusively concerned with competing in a labor market. University doors are now things one passes through to receive workforce accreditation and the educational process has been trivialized as a credentialing performance.

Viewing education merely as something one goes through on the way to a job harms the body politic as easily quantifiable markers dominate administrative metrics of student success and return on investment. Uni-dimensional visions of what a “successful” student is reinforce the banking theory of education as measurement is dominated by GPA and post-graduation income. The banking theory of pedagogy offers an easy view of the student as an empty vessel receptive to knowledge rather than an active participant in its construction. The construction of knowledge requires a critical and innovative handling of information similar to the ideal deliberative process of mass democracy. The environment that conditions the demands placed on higher education, with its narrow focus on productivity and immediate workplace application of technical skills, myopically defines knowledge in terms of usefulness to a given industrial purpose. Industrial interests and trends within markets thus direct the development and dissemination of knowledge without recognizing the democratic potential of education in the fullest sense of fostering the development of citizens.

Freire’s recognition that the banking theory reinforces an existing and unquestioned ontology of knowledge about the relationship of knower to known is repeated in the discourse of workforce training and higher education as the student is alienated further from the process of handling information. The relationships of student-to-teacher, teacher-to-information and information-to-student within the banking model impose an understanding of how to handle information that casts the student as receiver and teacher as transmitter. The call and response evaluative metrics of standardized testing and closed right-and-wrong questions frame information as dead and in need of careful preservation thus promoting an inflexible relationship between the student and knowledge. Credentialing grounded in rote memorization of facts echos industrial applications of knowledge in terms of problem-and-answer mentalities that rarely question the system in which the problem arises. The uni-dimensional view of education advanced by the banking theory promotes neither innovative thinking about technical problems, nor advanced critical thinking about the broader informational ecology of democratic society.  As the US transitions from an industrial economy to modes of decentralized industrial knowledge production, we cannot sacrifice the democratic identity of higher education for the uni-dimensional mentality of the market. The banking theory of pedagogy must be dispensed with – even if it upsets the apple cart of some still stuck in mentalities of centralized industrial society. Above all, we must worry about what a society populated by automota that serve only their machines can become when democratic identity is lost.

Grand Theft Education

The readings this week extended our notion of learning environment. Jean Lacoste’s teaching statement shifts the focus from a generic one-size-fits-all approach to a customizable learning experience that uses the Web as a part of the classroom infrastructure. I was struck by how his teaching philosophy attempts to create personalized experiences within large-lecture classrooms. My worry is that his video lectures nullify the need of face-to-face interactions if his classroom management style is still heavily reliant on lecturing. If his lectures were to be more about Q&A, then he’d  still be doing the work of video lecturing but without the feedback of a live audience.

Talbert recognizes that the lecture format may have outlived its place in the classroom as a method of content delivery. I couldn’t help but notice that the context setting function of lectures is still critical for guiding students through lessons and plays an important role in the learning process. The PBS video highlighted how learning can be “smuggled in” through games and reorganizes the classroom through student-produced content. Following Paul Gee’s chapter, I wonder if games themselves can be used as instruments for facilitating learning without the need to set context. Learners may be better able to to determine what the game means to them without being guided through a context setting lecture. If Gee’s optimism is to be taken seriously, then lecturing might be detrimental to learners because the context in which the information is presented and interpreted is still largely set by the professor which limits how much ambiguity is involved in the initial process of meaning-making. Carnes, however,  focuses the conversation on the power that games can have to carry the classroom into other spaces. Games can inspire when used correctly and if we’re supposed to foster the creative spark in each individual, the pedagogical potential of games cannot be overestimated.

Reflecting on my own experiences, it’s clear that the games that grabbed me as a kid told me something about myself. Mathblaster and Simcity at FEA summer camp just didn’t get their hooks in me quite like Deus Ex or Way of the Samurai. Maybe I should’ve known that I would study politics and not engineering because the games I loved reflected the open-ended nature of the questions I’d become interested in as I got older. Maybe the hours spent in front of the screen playing Fallout before it was an FPS or the openness of Bethesda Studio’s digital worlds indicated something I already knew about myself.  Maybe I can tell my folks that those hours of Tony Hawk’s Pro-skater were hours spent in the classroom as it challenged me to have better timing and put together more fantastic combinations against the tyranny of the clock. Or maybe education should focus on developing the interests and talents that students already hold rather than stamping out another basic unit to be yoked to the industrial process. But will the Boomers who still won’t get the hell out of politics understand that? Will we be stuck waiting for an enlightened Gen Xer to grasp the nature of learning outside of the factory education? Or is it going to take someone from the digital generation before we see any real change?