Thursday, August 11, 2011

What do students really need to learn?

Michael Wesch asks a question I, too, am always pondering:  What do students really need to learn?  He says he's not interested in figuring out what information or skill sets are needed; "skills and information alone do not help us lead happier, healthier, richer, more ethical and more meaningful lives."  He thinks we need "a vision for who we are and our students need to be - not just what we should know."  In other words, he's seeking a metaphysical answer.  TS Eliot, writing in 1932, would say he's on the right track:  "Education which fails to clarify our central convictions is mere training or indulgence.  For it is our central convictions that are in disorder, and, as long as the present anti-metaphysical temper persists, the disorder will grow worse.  Education, far from ranking as man’s greatest resource, will then be an agent of destruction."

So who are we and what do our students need be?  Wesch looks back to 1991, before the Internet, to figure out, he says, who we were. His references to Charles Taylor sent me to reread Malaise of Modernity.  (I had to move away from my computer, shut down my twitter stream, RSS feed, email and text notifications.  Reading philosophy is a little like deciding to cook a meal from scratch - fast food and packaged shortcuts are just so easy and still fill you up.  But what a different "filling up" it is!)  Taylor reminds us, as Wesch says, that what we consider the "effects of the web" are not new at all, and in fact are, as Taylor says, the effects, rather, of modernity.  (TS Eliot, too, was concerned about the effects of modern life.)  Taylor identifies three "malaises":  the first, loss of meaning.  The individualism that defines modern life is a result of the dismantling of the old orders, which, while restricting freedom, nonetheless gave meaning to life.  (In education, our continued desire to "personalize" learning is driven by this value.)  The second malaise, the eclipse of ends, occurred as a result of the vacuum left behind after the old orders were swept away.  Instrumental reason became the yardstick to measure happiness: everything is calculated in terms of maximum efficiency and profit.  (We feel this deeply in education; we determine our success on graphs and data points. We decide what we teach by economic measure - how important those skills and that information are in the job market.)  Finally, a consequence of individualism and instrumental reason is the third malaise:  loss of freedom.  Political liberty is at risk, for the “institutions and structures of industrial-technological society severely restrict our choices”.  In a society in which people prefer to stay home and be private, “few will want to participate actively in self-government."  This “atomism of the self-absorbed individual” creates a sort of “soft” despotism: government runs things in a paternalistic way, which, without vigorous political culture, leaves people with little control.  The result is a kind of powerlessness of the citizen against the vast bureaucracy of state.  (In education, we feel this as well: we shrug our shoulders and "do our own thing" in classrooms, rather than "participate" in bureaucratic hoop-jumping.)

Where to from here?  The Internet has provided a vehicle for changing the last - the loss of freedom.  We now have the capacity to participate in ways we never had before.  We can connect with our community - become writers, newsmakers, change agents.  As Clay Shirky writes, in Cognitive Surplus, even 14 year old girls in Korea can change government policy (their protests led to a ban on imports of American beef). 

But just participating, surely isn't enough.  Just being passionate about something isn't sufficient.  The young men in Vancouver and in London are passionate, too, and participated in droves to loot and riot in the streets.  And it isn't enough to dismiss the rioters as mere thugs.  It isn't enough to argue that an economic fix (jobs) would solve the violence.  Or better parenting.  Or less TV, Internet, pornography, video-games - name your poison.   I'm afraid is connected to who we are.  I'm wondering if it is the effect of the first two "malaises": a lack of meaning in their lives, something to live for and love beyond their own self and a lack of a way to measure their worth and actions beyond a pay cheque.  Because then, of course, one is nothing without a job.    

So what do students need to be to participate meaningfully in their community to enrich their own lives and that of others? 

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