How many times in the course of a week do we take the mouse in hand, move the cursor over an underlined word, and click on a link without so much as a second thought? Hypertext has given us the gift of intellectual liberation and the joy of perpetual distraction. Once upon a time in the dark and declining years of the late 20th Century, people who wanted to read for information were forced to limit their attention spans to one artifact at a time – on paper nonetheless. In those primitive days, prior to the Age of the Internet, human brains were shackled by the inability to focus upon more than a single idea at a time. Many young people today cannot even imagine the horror of being required to think critically about a single topic in depth. Now, however, like our children, we are blessed to live in a technical paradise where every individual awareness is able to buzz around cultural ideas with the freedom, curiosity, and intellectual acumen of bees in a field of infinite flowers. So much “cognitive” honey comes from our technically-advanced ability to gather the sweet random nectar of informational blurbs that we ought to live in perpetual gratitude that – like our friends the bees – humans can sustain themselves indefinitely on sugar and need never fear any disease that could theoretically arise from the ceaseless ingestion of sweets.
I have heard the whining of doubters and naysayers, Luddites from an obsolete era, who bemoan the “sacrifice of substance over style” and who remain fettered to their antiquated belief that knowledge without understanding is vacuous. These frumpy curmudgeons like to hide behind their rich vocabularies, their extensive life-experience, and their astute perspectives as though expertise should matter more than the popular opinions of wealthy corporations, bribed legislators, or bemused consumers. Anyone who wants to argue that the sustained contemplation of significant subjects is more important than the immediate digestion of poorly-considered sentiments has no place in either modern education or on Facebook.
Teachers today have it so much easier than their counterparts had it in that long ago era of ten or so years ago. Back then, instructors had no choice but to rely up a competent understanding of their disciplines; those teachers of that bygone age did not enjoy the modern luxury of a checklist of factoids that students need only memorize without having to go to all the bother of learning the context that would make it meaningful. As a society, we have come so far so quickly that it's easy to forget that it was only a few years back when teachers were charged with inspiring enthusiasm for their subjects and stimulating intellectual curiosity among their students rather than galvanizing them with fear for the next round of high stakes tests. Today's teachers are freed from the anxiety of authentic assessment (say by getting to know each student as an individual through their written responses or their classroom responses), and need only worry about constructing the mounds of evidence their administrators require to demonstrate they have methodically, robotically, and tirelessly covered their checklist of generica (otherwise known as their “state standards.”) Contemporary teachers have been freed from the burden of even the need of having to like their subject matter or their students; to demonstrate success as a teacher today, practitioners need only manufacture small mountains of paperwork proving that everything that must be taught has been taught. Teachers who have been able to adapt to these current mandates can be as sympathetic as headstones as long as they can provide evidence they have been force-feeding students nothing but the isolated and disconnected details off their state-mandated checklists.
The ubiquity of the internet allows us instant access to an endless flow of delightfully insubstantial and ill-considered postulations. Let us all be grateful then that there is more to life than wisdom and significance. Because consumers are trained by wildly entertaining advertisements to ignore the duplicitousness of marketers, it is more than a wonderful coincidence that corporations have taken over the curriculum now provided to public school teachers. If, as in days gone by, teachers were allowed to motivate students to go beyond the platitudes of facile compliance and encourage students to investigate the complexities of their subjects (rather than mouth the rote material that will allow them to demonstrate the competence of their test-taking abilities), students might find themselves in the uncomfortable and scary position of actually questioning the thinking behind what they are being told. Many well-intentioned corporations are paying legislators good money to insure that state departments of education lean on local administrators to prevent any nonconformity among their teaching staff in allowing any original or unauthorized student work to be considered as evidence of “learning.” Anyone who believes teachers should be allowed to offer their own opinions on the competence of their students should be driven out of town on the horse and buggy they came in on. The only fair way to insure that every student is being programmed to mindlessly accept the philanthropic generosity of our corporate overseers is by not allowing teachers to value any student output that will not be covered on their standardized tests.
In order for the corporations to maximize their profits from the production of standardized tests, they need to be able to rely upon the steady stream of income that comes from selling remediation materials to the same students who end up flunking their tests. Without these profits, corporations would not be able to be so openhanded in their support of state legislatures. Because of the campaign contributions that many legislators receive from the testing corporations, it clearly would appear as a conflict of interest to them if they were to subvert corporate profits away from their benefactors by allowing schools to determine for themselves who should or should not graduate from high school. By taking financing from corporations to assist them in their ability to govern, legislators have an ethical obligation to see that the children of their state do not develop the ability to question the credibility of the ceaseless deluge of useless, random, and questionable information that mollifies them on their smartphones and laptops.
Our children deserve a happy life of mindless acceptance of corporate propaganda because in the perfect democracy of the internet, all opinions are welcome and the best opinions come with coupons for inexpensive pizza. Anyone who insists that real education is difficult and students are better off studying the complexities of academic life should take a break from being such a know-it-all and go enjoy some pictures of cats with hilariously misspelled captions. Grumpy cat agrees with me on this one. (Oh, by the way, I submitted my retirement application this week).
Keep thinking rhetorically, and I'll be back next week.