Saturday, September 6, 2014

Newt Gingrich Does Not Want to Party Like It's 1899

Newt Gingrich, Innovator
by Finbarr Curtis

It's not clear why Newt Gingrich hates the 1890s so much.  Maybe he's still seething over the decade's proliferation of agrarian populists and urban progressives.  Maybe he has been too busy to revise speeches he wrote in the 1990s that employed a familiar rhetorical trope of attacking policies by denouncing them as a century out of date.  Whatever the sources of Gingrich's 1890s loathing, his love letter to innovative education focuses mostly on how much the schools sucked.  As he explains:
Teachers lecture, students sit and some listen. Class happens at the same time, with the same material, and at the same pace for everyone. This is an 1890s model of education -- teaching to the "average" student, rather than the individual.  In an age when most information and knowledge is transmitted digitally and is increasingly personalized—think about how Netflix, Pandora, Twitter and Facebook work— we should be able to do much better than that.
Well, I'm thinking about Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook, and Gingrich has a point that these work nothing like education in the 1890s.  Now that I think about it, they work like no model of education anywhere at anytime because these corporations do not do the difficult work of teaching.  Some of you might object, of course, that a lot of important conversation happens in these spaces.  You could probably get pretty snarky and note that the only reason you are reading this piece right now is that you followed a facebook or twitter link posted by yours truly.  And you'd be right.  People can make all sorts of interesting uses of different media.  What Gingrich cites as worthy of emulation, however, is the most anti-intellectual quality of Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook: the apocalyptic promise of "increasingly personalized" knowledge.  While we have access to more information than in the 1890s, our social media habits sort through all this to help us live at the center of our own mediated worlds.  By using your tastes to shape what you see, networks of surveillance and distribution bring you information in familiar narratives that confirm your biases, assumptions, and prejudices.  The leviathan is you.

My last post on MOOCs discussed how innovation culture thinks about thinking.  I want to use this post to focus on how self-proclaimed innovators talk about time, particularly in reference to techno-futurist promises of an unprecedented new order of things that makes a radical break from the past.  For all of the apocalyptic promises of new knowledge, innovation rhetoric provides little historical data to explain how change actually works.  Instead, the past is conjured up with the amorphous word "tradition."  Gingrich is not always against tradition.  He supports "traditional marriage" (at least as a matter of public policy) and thinks that American politics has strayed too far from the original vision of the constitution's framers.  My point is not that Gingrich is inconsistent.  Apparent contradictions can be resolved when we recognize that techno-futurism and nostalgia are two sides of the same coin.  Tradition here has nothing to do with the past.  Tradition is simply the opposite of whatever the present is imagined to be.  If today is a time of rapid change and social fluidity, the past was fixed and stable.  If kids today (the current term is "millennials") are self-centered individuals, people in the past were socially responsible citizens who followed the rules and respected their elders.

Gingrich is not alone in his cheerleading for new approaches to education that break with tradition. The kindred spirits at MIT issued a report sharing his techno-futurist faith.  As the report promises:
As edX continues to add institutions from around the world, new opportunities for synergies are emerging. Much like a playlist on iTunes, a student could pick and choose the elements of a calculus or biology offered across the exX platform, but for most effective learning, modular units must be integrated into the whole.
In the logic of the report, a playlist on iTunes allows us to "customize our environments, our schedules, and our engagement." For these insights we can thank MIT's history of "pedagogical boldness balanced with deep introspection."  But if we were to do some deep introspecting, we might note that picking and choosing sounds less exciting if instead of "iTunes" we said: "Much like a restaurant menu, a student could pick and choose..." or "Much like a store, a student could pick and choose..." or "Much like deciding whether to study or drink beer, a student could pick and choose..." or "Much like Adam and Eve deciding whether to eat an apple, a student could pick and choose..."

By presenting picking and choosing as if it were an innovative feature of technologies like iTunes, the ad wizards at MIT take a familiar part of human life and package it as if it were a bold new concept.  If I were to pick and choose a passage from an old-fashioned book, I might suggest the authors of the MIT report check out Ecclesiastes 1:9-10:
What has been is what will be, and what is what will be done, there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new?" It has already been, in the ages before us.
For one thing, critics of traditional education often revert to familiar tactics like "speaking with human beings" when they want to sell the very technologies that promise to make such person-to-person engagements obsolete.  Russell McCutcheon, for example, points out the irony of an educational consultant's in-person presentation on MOOCs at the University of Alabama:
At the end of the presentation, I asked: What is it about your material that made this delivery format suitable for you but, according to your presentation, makes it “traditional,” outmoded, and ineffective in the case of my material?  I also asked why, if we agreed with the presentation’s premises, we flew a consultant to town, since it would have been more cost effective to scale it up with a webinar that several thousand, or more, of us just listened to in our offices, while watching the PowerPoints on our computer monitors.
A consultant gave an in-person presentation for the same reason that students who take notes employing the technology of "pens" learn more than students who use laptop computers.  While new technologies allow you to do more things, they are sometimes less efficient than simpler technologies that provide fewer distractions when you are trying to communicate with people.

The preference for in-person education when it really matters stands in stark contrast to the "person" imagined by Gingrich and company.  Their call for personalized knowledge does not justify resources for tried-and-true methods like personal tutoring or smaller class sizes.  When Gingrich cites Netflix, Pandora, Twitter, and Facebook as the four horsemen of personalization, he means that your fate can be prophesied by comparing your choices and preferences to other consumers like you.  You are your algorithm.  As Kate Crawford notes, however, personalization is less likely to make us comfortable than it is to create a sense of anxiety for which the antidote is yet more personalization:
Already, the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us.
Because personalization actually means depersonalization, you are never quite satisfied with the "you" available for purchase.  Rather than situate you comfortably in your self-centered world, your world is never quite personalized enough. Rather than personal fulfillment, the dream of personalized knowledge leads to the nihilistic resignation best described in the song 1999 by the artist known in tradition as Prince:
I was dreamin' when I wrote this
Forgive me if it goes astray
But when I woke up this mornin'
Coulda sworn it was judgment day
The sky was all purple,
There were people runnin' everywhere
Tryin' to run from the destruction,
You know I didn't even care

'Cuz they say two thousand zero zero party over,
Oops out of time
So tonight I'm gonna party like it's 1999
1999's prophetic vision perfectly captures the logic inherent in all market-based solutions: destroy, then party.

This is not to say that things do not change in the ordinary historical sense.  It is to say that we should be suspicious of the vanity of innovators who congratulate themselves on unprecedented techno-apocalyptic promises of a whole new you.  This also doesn't mean that there aren't good reasons to try to change the world and to challenge the social injustices that existed in the 1890s and continue to exist today.  But techno-futurists are not trying to change the world.  They announce that everything has already changed.  It's only our thinking that needs to catch up.  Instead of doing the difficult labor of challenging the world's many inequalities, techno-futurists assure us these mundane social realities have already been eclipsed by technologies of personal fulfillment.    After all, why worry about gender, race, and class when we can all enjoy the luxury to "customize our environments, our schedules, and our engagement?" According to Gingrich and his MIT buds, people who worry about structural inequalities are simply stuck in outmoded thinking. 

Calls to replace traditional education with technologies better suited to "prepare students for today's economy" are, in the end, attempts to protect us from social engagement.  Techno-futurists like Gingrich hope to train students to be consumers in a marketplace in which the ultimate commodity is themselves.  This is antithetical to education.  Education is education when students learn to understand and critique a world that is not of their own invention.  When you go to class "at the same time" and engage "the same material" as other students your education is shaped by people who are not you.  There is a useful lesson here.  It takes more concentration and effort to imagine social change in a world inhabited by other people than it does to retreat to a personalized mediascape.  Admittedly, this work of education is not much of a party.  It takes time.

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