Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Friday, March 2, 2012

Why Red Balloon Must Fail

Craig Bernthal

After reading George Mehaffy’s presentation of Red Balloon in his essay, “Medieval Models, Agrarian Calendars and 21st Century Imperatives,” I had the sense we came from different planets. I found his fundamental assumptions about students, teachers, the moral dimensions of teaching, and education’s role in economic prosperity to be profoundly skewed. What was more disturbing, for being altogether absent, was any sense that the student-teacher relationship had either educational or moral value. (The essay called to mind a C. S. Lewis character named Weston.) 

To illustrate, the word “teacher” is only mentioned once, and then only in a quotation, and then pejoratively, in reference to a hypothetical history teacher. The word “student” appears twice, never in any individual sense, but only as part of a population: “trying to prepare students” and “trying to serve more students.” Mehaffy clearly sees students primarily as consumers of a product that the university offers, and as products of the university as well, a population that must be “prepared”--one might say processed--to fill job slots. Mehaffy’s assumptions about the university are that it is consumerist and utilitarian. His thinking doesn’t go any further. The question he asks is how can we use technology to push this agenda further, faster, and more cheaply.

This is a sadly impoverished view of education, though a familiar one. It fails to see that students get far more than information or job-training from their professors; they also learn a way of life that orients itself to knowledge in ways which are thorough, dedicated, humble, skeptical, exploratory, joyful, productive—in short, students learn a way of being with respect to knowledge, whose aim is to inspire them to pursue knowledge and to sort the wheat from the chaff. The most important thing undergraduate students learn is the art of learning itself, from teachers who are also continually learning through scholarship and research, who belong to learning-communities, who have become experts at learning. This most important dimension of university life cannot be transmitted by TV or computer.

Mehaffy seems to see students as a giant wad, upon which application of the right techniques will produce a more employable wad, making state legislatures happy and the country richer. But students are not raw material. They are individuals, each of whom has his or her own desires, foibles, eccentricities, and weaknesses. They also have their own plans, and Dr. Mehaffy, they don’t necessarily correspond with yours. In fact, the larger the student population becomes, the less likely it is that their plans will correspond with yours. (Some may have plans that are downright larcenous or fraudulent: google “financial aid fraud” sometime, especially in application to community colleges.) Students, finally, can only be taught as individuals. There have always been problems with big classrooms and industrial style teaching—Red Balloon, if implemented, would make them far worse by making learning more solitary and depersonalized than it already is. If it is a sin to see people as objects and to treat them so, it is an educational disaster and a sin to see students as a mass to be molded. They will rebel, Dr. Mehaffy. They will refuse to cooperate. And that is the biggest reason why Red Balloon is a lot of hot air.

Red Balloon assumes that all students can be successfully taught, even against their wills. No matter how unmotivated, unprepared, “disengaged,” the right teaching techniques and motivators will solve the problem. On a practical level, this only shows how naïve and inexperienced Mehaffy is with respect to actual teaching. But on a moral level, it is obtuse. Universities are not here to overbear the student will, and make out of student bodies what administrators and educationists want to make out of them. Universities are here to offer students a choice. Having a choice and making it are part of a human being’s real education. When legislators and administrators decide that retention rates must go higher and that more and more students must be admitted (60% of adult Americans with high-quality degrees or certificates! says the Lumina Foundation, and all by 2025), their goals are predicated on finding some psychological technique for imposing their choices, not just on students, but on the population at large. Do they not see this as fake education? Do they not see a moral problem here? (Those who do not should read Dostoevsky’s The Underground Man. It has some great paragraphs about why people want to throw rocks at crystal palaces.) We can’t expect to get better-educated people without seeing them as people, but Red Balloon is about neither people nor education. It is about training functioning cogs for an economic machine.

Even as a purely utilitarian job-training program, Mehaffy’s model fails. It is impossible to say that granting more and more degrees will lead to either greater individual or collective prosperity. The prosperity of a country depends on a complex array of factors, and degrees are only one. Grover Whitehurst of the Brookings Institution, draws this instructive contrast between Germany and France:
Germany has a stronger economy than France but half the percentage of young adults with a college degree.  Further, France has increased its percentage of young adults with college degrees by 13 percentage points in the last 10 years whereas Germany’s output of college graduates has hardly budged, yet the economic growth rate of Germany has exceeded that of France over this same period.  Obviously increasing educational attainment is not a magic bullet for economic growth.  Education credentials operate within boundaries and possibilities that are set by other characteristics of national economies.  We must attend to these if more education is to translate into more jobs.

A growing body of research suggests that policymakers should pay more attention to the link between job opportunities and what people know and can do, rather than focusing on the blunt instrument of years of schooling or degrees obtained.  In international comparisons, for example, scores on tests of cognitive skills in literacy and mathematics are stronger predictors of economic output than years of schooling.  Within the U.S. there is evidence that for many young adults the receipt of an occupational certificate in a trade that is in demand will yield greater economic returns than the pursuit of a baccalaureate degree in the arts and sciences. (My italics)

For Whitehurst’s article, see this link:

Another of Mehaffy’s bizarre assumptions is that professors are information monopolists from an age of information scarcity. He is wrong on both counts. First of all, no one reading this has ever lived in an age of information scarcity. I was born in 1952, and it’s been information overload ever since: TV, radio, newspapers, movies, theater. Why, when I went to Michigan Tech, and then Michigan State, we even had libraries! My professors did not dole out information to me, like misers. They flooded me with more than I could handle, both in their lectures and in their references to books and articles. Did I think their professional opinions were the only ones? Are you kidding? There was this thing called a library again. Did I swallow their (mainly) ex officio liberal political ideologies? No—I struggled to find an opinion of my own. See, we had editorial pages, which appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines from Ramparts (all editorial page) to National Review (also all editorial page) to Playboy (which also, shall we say, had its own slant on life). No one who lived through the sixties or seventies in the USA was in an information desert.

Are our students now more liberated that they have the Internet? I doubt it. They need professors who are experts more than ever, because the world throws information at them more and more, much of it junk, or for the simple, usual reason, that they need help in understanding what they read. I’ll use myself as a current example of a student. If I had the time and money, I’d go to Berkeley and enroll in the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology and study Thomas Aquinas. Do I now have access to everything on the internet on Aquinas? Yes. Zillions of books? Yes. Do I still need help? Absolutely. I need an expert—not a TA—who has read Aquinas forwards and backwards, and all the secondary stuff, and a lot of other philosophy for context (especially Kant) and who can therefore help and direct me in my study of Aquinas. I’ve had the video lectures (The Learning Company) and they were fine, given I had nothing else. But would I rather have a) a great classroom teacher and enthusiastic fellow students, or b) a computer with video lectures 50% of the time and a super-duper teaching assistant for the rest? I want the expert professor. That is why I'd pay the tuition. If I were in chemistry or math, I'd be in need of that professor even more. 

One last thought on technology and the classroom. I am not an educational Luddite. When I teach Shakespeare, I like to show scenes from plays and often whole plays on DVD. In other classes, I don’t use video at all, but I’m thankful it’s available for Shakespeare. In some classes I use power-point presentations to show the way art keys into literature: for instance, when teaching Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts” it’s nice to show the Pieter Bruegel painting which is its inspiration. I use Blackboard for the documents distribution function, grades, email communication, and sharing student work. But I am the orchestra leader, and I’m continually reworking what I do, and even adapting it, from week to week, depending on the needs of the particular class. If we are mandated to use on-line lecture material for a significant portion of the course—50% is what really excites Mehaffy—who will write the syllabus for that class? Obvious answer: The people who have produced the class’s center-piece, the computer portion. The educators will be in Long Beach, writing programs and putting the course together. Here in the hinterlands, we’ll have TAs or super TAs. How much flexibility will they have, to slow the course down or speed it up? We all know the answer.

Red Balloon will fail because it is out of touch with teachers, students, human beings--with reality. But there is clearly big money in it.  Publishers and software developers must be lining up. The only question in my mind is how much will be spent before the air goes out of Red Balloon, it is given a quiet burial in the graveyard of education fads, and the next boondoggle comes along: Blue Balloon, Gray Rhino, whatever.

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