Glib History of Education and Institutions (Sir Ken Robinson)

I’ve had a few cranky conversations with (name withheld) about experiences with students and institutions. He sent me this, a fast-moving condensation of a lot of ideas about education, institutions, creativity, ADHD,… and so on. I won’t try to sum it up, and there’s plenty to argue with, but I think it’s more thought-provoking than much of what comes my way, and it goes down easy. It comes from a talk by Sir Ken Robinson at the RSA, and animation students (I think) have animated his ideas so that they appear in cartoon form as he speaks. Inability to pay attention is one issue he breezes through, and in some sense, this movie is perfect for an audience that otherwise doesn’t have the attention span to follow a 12 minute train of thought without a movie. In any case, I think it’s twelve minutes well spent.

I’m disturbed by where he ends up, after such a smart introduction to a lot of ideas. When the movie cuts off, he seems to be leading toward familiar ground. In my experience, lowering the bar is usually accompanied by language that reframes cut and paste as collaboration and enthuses about a post-literate society of visual thinkers. Institutions are remodeled to meet the needs of “digital natives,” and in practice, that tends to mean that reading and clear thinking are optional.

According to Sir Ken and a lot of others, we’re due to move beyond a model of education with its roots in the Industrial Revolution, in which students are sorted by “date of manufacture” (age) and forced to ingest irrelevant collections of facts. Often true, yes, and I’ve griped as much as anyone about the dehumanizing effects of educational institutions. (probably more than most, knowing me). His solution is one that’s familiar to me from time served in for-profit universities like Colorado Tech. In this new post-industrial model of education, assembling text entirely by cutting and pasting from the web is a liberation of creativity. Citing sources is a drag. Grammar is for bespectacled schoolmarms (or schooldards).

If we’re talking about art-making, or the juxtaposition of sources to create new meanings, I’m all for it. It’s easy to cite sources, and there’s broad protection for artists’ use of copyrighted material to make new work. That’s not the issue.

The issue lies in the fact that many “digital natives” are unfamiliar with the practice of generating text from scratch. A huge percentage of entering college students literally can not write a coherent sentence or paragraph, and remedial reading and writing programs have become central to university curricula. Plagiarism is routine, and it’s clear that it’s largely become acceptable. This is not liberation. This is crippling, and I’ve got too much experience with it to be convinced otherwise by shrewdly constructed studies.

My sense is that public school teachers have thrown up their hands in despair, and college instructors throw up theirs in turn. A professor can’t single-handedly reverse decades of indifference. The institution sets the standards and the tone.

Shedding academic standards feels great, and (paying) student customers love it. It ignores the fact that in the “knowledge economy” that they’re entering, few things are more important than intellectual property. When companies have borrowed and slightly rephrased other companies’ manuals and and website copy, lawsuit rewards have numbered in the hundreds of millions of dollars. One could say that a student who hires someone to write their papers, rather than stealing from the web, is acting well within the standards of the corporate knowledge economy. If the task is to deliver text of a certain quality, on a certain topic,  it may be that contracting it out is the most efficient use of their time, especially in courses that the student doesn’t see as essential to their field. Or so the logic goes.

It may be true that we’re leaving behind the factory model of education, and online learning and multisensory education have vast uncharted potential. In many ways, the model that’s replacing it in corporate worlds is the model of programming and network engineering. Business and scientific institutions are inconceivably complex, and while managers will continue to devour books on cultivating creativity and motivating employees to become motivated motivators, self-starting, sodden with self-esteem, (and so on), the working world becomes more and more constricted for the average worker. They may well be able to work from home, but more than ever, they’ll be working on a sub-task of a subtask, getting an overview from mindmaps and flowcharts created by people they’ve never met, under pressure, in brief meetings. For lower pay that they’d hoped, in competition with billions of laborers worldwide.

Sorry to say it, but very few of the college freshman that I teach can write a coherent paragraph. If the institution has determined that this group of people is ready for college, then their average ability has to at least be considered “passable.” Who would back me up if I failed 2/3 of a large classroom full of people? I don’t actually think it would be fair to fail most of them – by the standards of the “post-literate” schools they’ve been attending, they’re doing fine. Cut and paste is identical to critical thinking, yes? No? Incoming students are paying customers in a period when money is tight. Lowering standards is not a personal choice. Rather, it’s an uncomfortable professional obligation.

This country is changing rapidly.

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2 replies
  1. Carl Fuermann
    Carl Fuermann says:

    can i have some adderall pleeeeezzzzz ! i like his voice and drawings are nice ! wish there were more squeaks from the marker ’cause i like that sound of the dry erase markers.

    i made it all the way to Oklahoma and then could not think straight and my mind was wandering all over the place. but i am so so tired from lunar solstice sun rise eclipse rituals so nothing really makes sense right now.

    can’t they just make a drug that you take to educate people? that seems a lot easier and super modern concept. homework would be so simple: “did you take your math pill?”

  2. Eric
    Eric says:

    And then there is smart-not-making-sense. Nothing wrong with a freewheeling ramble, especially if you’re also able to settle your mind and speak coherently when you need to. Which you can. The math pill will solve a huge problem. Waldemar Pure & Applied is working on it day and night.

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