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The Best of Critiques; The Worst of Critiques

Friday, April 10, 2015 12:19
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Megan Erickson’s article on techo-fixes for education (“Edutopia“) in the March issue of Jacobin is an excellent critique of corporate-driven education “reform” efforts like those of the Gates Foundation and IDEO. As a critique of attempts to build an alternative educational model around decentralizing technology in general, it’s… not so excellent.

The immediate object of her analysis is Design Thinking for Educators, an 81-page manual put out by IDEO. IDEO has close ties to the Gates Foundation and Capella University; its CEO is a TED-talker who frequents Davos. And Erickson is entirely correct about the neoliberal agenda pushed by such companies. I’ve had uniformly negative things to say about the Gates Foundation, Core Curriculum and charterization, so I think she and I are pretty much on the same page here.

As Erickson describes it Design Thinking is, from beginning to end, the kind of shallow fusion of techno-optimism and corporate neoliberalism we normally associate with Newt Gingrich.

Design Thinking for Educators is full of strikingly drawn graphic organizers and questions like, “How might we create a twenty-first century learning experience at school?” with single paragraph answers. “Responsibility” is used three times in the text, always in reference to teachers’ need to brainstorm fixes for problems together and develop “an evolved perspective.” (The word “funding” is not used at all — nor is the word “demand.”)

We’re told faculty at one school embarked on a “design journey” and came to an approach they call “Investigative Learning,” which addresses students “not as receivers of information, but as shapers of knowledge,” without further detail on how exactly this was accomplished….

Like all modern managerial philosophies that stake their name on innovation, “design thinking” has been framed by creative-class acolytes as a new way to solve old, persistent challenges — but its ideas are not actually new….

What design thinking ultimately offers is not evolution, but the look and feel of progress — great graphics, aesthetically interesting configurations of furniture and space — paired with the familiar, gratifying illusion of efficiency….

Design Thinking for Educators urges teachers to be optimistic without saying why, and to simply believe the future will be better. The toolkit instructs teachers to have an “abundance mentality,” as if problem-solving is a habit of mind. “Why not start with ‘What if?’ instead of ‘What’s wrong?’” they ask.

And Erickson is entirely correct that their dismissals of asking “What’s wrong?” are self-serving. Focusing on technological issues without regard for the questions of power, or who benefits, means that whatever liberal “reforms” are adopted will be designed to serve the needs of the existing system of power.

The only people who benefit from the “build now, think later” strategy are those who are empowered by the social relations of the present.

The problem is, she seems to conflate this kind of argle-bargle with educational models based on liberatory technology as such. That conflation is quite prevalent on the establishment Left (and even more so on the center-left). It’s Thomas Frank’s bread-and-butter, for example; for Frank, anything remotely smacking of networks, horizontalism or decentralization is just a proxy for right-wing techno-utopianism of the Gingrich sort. Even Doug Henwood, in an exchange with me on Twitter, defended copyright as some kind of “progressive” line of defense of creative workers’ rights, and dismissed the open-source movement and peer-production as sounding like some kind of corporate-speak out of the ’90s dotcom boom. When you’re so mired in the mid-20th century mass-production model of the Old Left that you can’t tell the difference between Bill Gates and Richard Stallman, you’ve pretty well admitted to being incompetent to talk about contemporary technology.

But there are a lot of genuinely radical movements out there organized around the idea of using networked technology, free culture and peer production to build genuinely libertarian educational counter-institutions outside the unholy alliance between the state education establishment and corporate HR departments.They are closely related to similar movements like the “exodus” model promoted by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt in Commonwealth, as well as other Marxists who likewise see commons-based peer production as the kernel of a post-scarcity communist society.

The kind of stuff being pushed by the Gates Foundation and the whole corporate educational “reform” complex is simply an attempt to co-opt the liberatory technology within a neoliberal framework. Their goal is still to process human resources for corporate employers to meet their needs for “competitiveness in today’s global economy.”

It’s not that Erickson is unaware of, or even unappreciative of, alternative educational models.

Of course, the idea of engaging students as experienced co-teachers in their own education isn’t novel, nor is it an innovation that sprang forth from a single group of teachers using graphic organizers to brainstorm and chart solutions.

Marxist educator Paulo Freire developed his critique of the “banking model” of education — in which students’ minds are regarded as passive receptacles for teachers to toss facts into like coins — while teaching poor Brazilian adults how to read in the 1960s and ’70s. His book Pedagogy of the Oppressed helped reignite the progressive education movement during that era, and his collaborative approach to learning remains influential in American schools of education today.

The problem is that she downplays the extent to which networked communications technology and the knowledge commons, in particular, can further such an educational model. And at the same time she seems to dismiss as irrelevant any libertarian model of education that doesn’t operate within the existing institutional framework.

Either student-centered, self-directed learning and computer technology will be integrated into the hierarchical, high-overhead, bureaucratic educational dinosaur establishment we have today, or it will simply be a right-wing trojan horse.

Yet, here we are, a “nation at risk,” with lower test scores than our international peers and children still arriving at school every day without breakfast….

If structural and institutional problems can be solved through nothing more than brainstorming, then it’s possible for macro-level inputs (textbooks, teacher salaries) to remain the same, while outputs (test scores, customer service) improve. From the perspective of capitalism, this is the only alchemy that matters.

And while she recognizes that new technology opens up new possibilities, those possibilities all presuppose the existing institutional model and  its goals — in other words, to some extent Erickson is guilty of the same one-sided approach as the corporate “reformers.”

When we think about the classrooms of the future, we have to ask what (as Marshall McLuhan has put it) technologies like radio and television can do that the present classroom can’t. That means asking: what’s futuristic about the future? And equally important, whom will it belong to?

Technology offers real possibilities for positively changing the way we relate to each other as human beings. For example, adaptive technology for children with special needs gives us the potential to integrate even children with severe disabilities into general-education classrooms.

But this totally ignores the real promise of new technology for creating new, fundamentally democratic and self-organized institutional models, and undermining existing power relations.

In fact Erickson explicitly denies that technology can alter the power structure as such.

But one laptop per child can’t lift communities out of poverty, because technology is not an alternative to wealth redistribution from the top 1 percent to the bottom 99. There is a disconnect between what we imagine technology and education can do, and what they actually do.

This is absolute nonsense. It ignores the role that particular technological models played in facilitating the upward distribution of wealth to the top 1 percent, and creating the factory and wage systems, in the first place. And it ignores the potential offered by alternative educational models to undermine the material rationale of the factory and wage systems, and to impede rent extraction by the top 1 percent.

The factory system, coupled with wage employment, came about in America because of a shift in production technology from individually affordable craft tools to extremely expensive machinery that only very rich investors could afford to purchase, and hire poor people to work for them. Even when electrical power threatened to destroy the material rationale for factory production, by making small-scale electrical machinery affordable for craft production by individuals and small cooperative shops (much like today’s Emilia-Romagna model), the state in league with the capitalists stepped in and made sure this new, potentially liberatory technology was instead coopted into a mass-production industrial framework.

And this mass-production corporate industry was just one part of a larger complex of interlocking high-overhead, hierarchical institutions, including not only big business but the state, universities, large charitable foundations — and public school systems. All these institutions, as components of a larger, mutually-supporting system, were organized along managerialist, mass-production lines.

Any technological innovation (like open-source table-top CNC machine tools or Permaculture, or desktop publishing and open-source software) that makes the means of production and subsistence affordable to individuals and small groups, is a blow to the structure of power by which the 1% have extracted wealth from us. And anything that enables the transfer of knowledge over long distances at zero marginal cost, likewise, destroys the material rationale for transporting human beings to a centralized processing facility and training them to work in factories owned by the 1%.

Further — Erickson, in evaluating tech entirely based on whether it can be integrated into existing classrooms to boost those test scores, is oblivious to the fact that the “progressive” public educational system was created from the beginning as an adjunct to the corporate economy. It has functioned ever since as part of the system of corporate power. The first state education systems were set up in New England because mill owners needed minimally educated workers who could be counted on to show up on time every day and take orders from authority figures without backtalk. And teaching Betas and Deltas to be satisfied with their lot in the brave new corporate world has been the education system’s main function ever since. The writing of Joel Spring and John Taylor Gatto is a rich source of quotes to that effect from public educationist intellectuals in the Progressive Era.

Material production, increasingly, will be something done through p2p networks and small cooperative shops, or through self-provisioning in the informal and household economies. And because we can meet our own consumption needs on small amounts of land and with minimal capital outlays, we will keep our full labor product ourselves. Meanwhile, as household production and self-managed neighborhood garage factories replace the old corporate employers, education and credentialing requirements will become something we negotiate socially with each other, and we will organize the transmission of knowledge on a horizontal basis through institutions of our own making.

New, liberatory technologies are new wine. Groups like IDEO and the Gates Foundation that want to incorporate them into a corporate framework, and people like Erickson who want to incorporate them into the legacy education establishment, are equally trying to put the new wine in old bottles.

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