But the first ones must educate themselves!
And for these I write.
R, an old hand, and V, a newbie, talk about A Place to Study and its place in education. . . .
R 1 — Hi. Thanks for stopping by. First time?
V 2 — Yeah. A friend told me to check it out. I like your motto up there — Nietzsche. He's on. I've had it with being told what to do. Call me V.
R 3 — Glad to clue you in a bit. I'm R. Here we work to strengthen cultural activities that social media are disrupting.
V 4 — What don't they disrupt?
R 5 — Not much. Here persons strive to form themselves, learning liberally with free, comprehensive resources in the digital commons.
V 6 — Hmm. . . . The bits about free resources and the digital commons aside, you sound like a college admissions officer.
R 7 — In a way, I guess. But higher education is loosing its touch, over-packaged, and as I said, we strengthen things the new media disrupt—humane culture, the liberal arts, a sense of justice, the courage to face intractable problems together. Throughout history, persons have pursued self-formation and liberal learning, humanizing life as best they could. Innovative disruptions won't stop that. Not even a pandemic! To the disrupters' motto, "Move fast and break things," we say, "Not so fast! Move slow and mend things."
V 8 — Got it. Don't expect viral novelty, here. But in opposing cultural disruption, what do you do here? I catch that you do some educative work online, but as I understand it, educators have been busy with computers for decades without much by way of major improvements. Then the pandemic forced everyone in education to try it out. Haven't heard many huzzas, have you?
R 9 — Fewer and fewer. I've spent 40 years trying to improve schools and universities — formal educational efforts — with networked multimedia. It's grown disappointing.
V 10 — Sorry, but what else would you have done? The digital — not plastics — that's where the action's been.
R 11 — True. And certainly educational systems need improvement. If persons working in them see ways to get it using A Place to Study, that's great! They should go to it! But we're really trying something else.
V 12 — Something else? You're losing me a bit. What else is there —, unh, what else do you have in mind?
R 13 — It's not obvious, I understand. To put it bluntly, we don't want to work on, in, or through the educational system.
V 14 — I hear those words, but don't understand what they mean. Where is this place outside the educational system?
R 15 — It isn't just over there waiting for us to notice it. It is a possible place, one we want to construct. What people are calling "education" doesn't exhaust the possibilities. We seek to construct a place for an alternative mode of education.
V 16 — I'm beginning to catch on, but you need to fill out this alternative kind of education before I can really grasp what you are saying. "Alternative" isn't a new word in educational talk.
R 17 — Fair enough. First, we find the dehumanization of education that's taken place in modern history revolting. Institutions like schools and colleges aren't "education," and no amount of testing and prepping will educate statistical abstractions like age cohorts to be better at math or reading or anything else. Every person, each person — persons acquire their education, for each a unique one, in their lived experience through the course of life.
V 18 — OK, I get it that we're going to talk a lot about persons and engage in activities here as persons, not as roles — pupils, teachers, adolescents, and so on. But I'm still not clear how you want to use digital technologies outside of existing educational systems. Don't you have to deal with institutions, curricula, programs of study, assessment — all the stuff that the system comprises?
R 19 — In a way, our way, the proper way. In the circumstances within which each person's educational experience takes place, each of us copes with instantiations of all the abstractions that constitute "the educational system." We cope as persons with the "system" that we experience as circumstances — conditions, facilitations, impediments, distractions, advantages, limitations, blockages, accidents of many sorts. We deal with them as important parts of the conditions impinging on our personal formative effort.
V 20 — But as part of our circumstances, the system seems formidable. It's comprehensive, detailed, exacting. Getting an education requires absorbing fully the influences its exerts. Don't we have to cope with it on its terms? If we don't measure up well enough at the many junctures in it, we find our life choices narrowing. Many never learn to work the system, and end up among "the poorly educated" — spiraling down, another in the doomed assemblage of the under-employed, the voiceless, the deaths of despair.
R 21 — It seems that way. And the more we think it is that way, the more we create a pedagogical monoculture. As we let the system spread everywhere, it gets culturally dangerous. But persons are alive. We are not mere objects — entries in a grade book, registrants for a test, names on a degree. We are vital agents, capable of intentional action. Our lives are not free of constraints, but as living entities, we act in and on our conditions, our circumstances, we use the constraints to maintain, to fulfill ourselves through intentional effort as best we can.
V 22 — Isn't that what engaged, active students do within the educational system? Why do you want to go outside it?
R 23 — Sure. Everyone copes in their way, and certainly some do so with sustained vigor, attention, imagination, and curiosity. But let's not be naïve. Lots of students coast through the system, developing themselves a good deal less than they might. And consistently, many persons find the system hard to use and out of sync with their purposes and seem unable to use it well. Should they feel it fair that the system blows them off, like it or lump it?
V 24 — Well. . . . But isn't it the case that they didn't do well?
R 25 — Yes. But why do you ask that? Why not ask whether the system did well? It failed them. They're living proof it isn't what it is supposed to be, the source of a sound basic education for all.
V 26 — Is that the danger of the pedagogical monoculture you mentioned?
R 27 — Yes, a part of it. But it's part of a larger question. If the system won't pay attention to those it clearly serves poorly, how will it come to grips with whether it is serving everyone together well enough to meet the challenges emerging in the fullness of our lives?
V 28 — Hmm. I sense you're asking something I'd never paid much attention to.
R 29 — Well, we infer a lot about the character and capacity of persons by how well they succeed in the educational system. Does that tell us much about the adequacy of the system? If it fails those who do poorly, might it also be failing those who do well?
V 30 — You're asking what happens if the educational system leaves, not only those who do poorly, but everyone unable to keep up with the scale and complexities of life itself. You're acknowledging all the worries that human prodigality is undercutting the global capacity to sustain a humane way of life, or at the extreme, the possibility of life on earth itself — Global warming, resource depletion, unexpected pandemics, the spread of authoritarianism and the politics of resentment, things like that? But isn't that laying a heavy load on the educational system? Ah! But, I see. That's the monoculture problem! There's only one system; and if it's failing, we're up the creek.
R 31 — Yeah. We're saying that that is the need that had better mother invention. It's not only on inner city streets that dysfunction appears.
V 32 — OK. But need will mother invention only where it's possible. How are you going to use digital technologies as you put it, "outside of existing educational systems?"
R 33 — That's the question! But don't ask me for solutions to those problems just yet — the demand for solutions pulls us into the monoculture. We need to look elsewhere.
V 34 — OK. No solutions... for now. But we've got to know where to try starting. Where's the elsewhere?
R 35 — To answer, don't think first about "new media in education" or anything like that. Think about the familiar technologies that you and your peers, all of us, used as we climbed up the ladder in the current systems of instructional institutions. Think historically about persons comprising preceding generations and ask how they and their educators took advantage of the technological resources that then were relatively new to get us where we are now? What former "new technologies" enabled the present educational system to function as it does? Start with that question.
V 36 — Hmm. OK. I haven't paid much attention to that. But come to think of it, they're pretty obvious. Over preceding centuries, printing, bureaucratic organization, standardized classification, managing activity by the clock, motorized transportation were all transformative technological developments that have been essential to constructing the current educational system. People built existing educational systems by steadily finding pedagogical uses for all that. How's that?
R 37 — Right on. We needn't rehearse details here, but we should now push our questioning a step further back. Before those technologies enabled persons to build the big systems of formal instruction, how did most people get educated?
V 38 — Hunh! Beats me, but let me try. If I ever asked myself, I sort of assumed people then went to schools, only not for very long and not to very good schools. But I suspect you're going to tell a different story.
R 39 — I'd say that a few schools existed, and some of those were pretty good. But very few persons would then have gone to something you might call a school, good or bad. Instead, most people, in distinctive variations according to where they fit in the hierarchy of power and status, got their education through a mix of live-in apprenticeship in household communities, enriched with religion, superstition, storytellers, folklore, and the life skills appropriate to their given station. In those situations, one usually learned as one could from whoever was around, sometimes structured for the wealthier kids by an accompanying tutor. Life within household workplaces, ranging across peasant granges, guild ateliers, and aristocratic courts, initiated most persons into work and to leisure in pre-modern life. You get glimpses of it sprinkled through literary depictions of life across cultures and eras.
V 40 — OK. Should of thought of that. Let me guess your next point. You want to suggest that the builders of our formal instructional systems did not apply their printing, bureaucratic organization, standardized classification, time management by the clock, motorized transportation — all their technological innovations — to those dominant educational activities of their time, all that apprenticing and storytelling in the school of life. Instead, they used their transformative technologies to unlock the potentialities of the few miserable schools — the pedagogical weeds among the households, workshops, and courts of the culture. In a sense, they created the centralized educational institutions of post-traditional modernity from out of left field.
R 41 — That is the narrative. Of course, you won't often hear it told with quite that arc. Nevertheless, the rise of formal systems of instruction from what prior informal systems scarcely did at all suggests the narrative we want to use in prototyping the construction of postmodern education. We can do it best leaving formal systems alone, concentrating on the educational situations largely ignored in the highly developed apparatus of formal instruction. Exactly how that is happening is not yet clear — the mists of uncertainty always shroud origins until what they gave rise to has clearly emerged. But we think, better, we are wagering our effort, acting as if a place to study, perhaps this one, A Place to Study, or perhaps some others, will be a central component of what is taking place.
V 42 — Whoa! A million questions! Many doubts! Both fears and hopes, anticipation! My friend was right, you're doing something worth checking out, a lot to ponder. It's going to take a while. I'm psyched!
R 43 — Sounds that way. Take it slower.
V 44 — I see and feel the mists of uncertainty. Something new sometimes seems familiar, triggering a knee-jerk dismissal or misunderstanding. Or strange enough to make us blind to it. Hey! Something just got clear!
R 45 — What's that?
V 46 — Last year, I tried hard to make sense of how John Keats, the romantic poet, talked about the importance of negative capability. He wrote of it in a short, slap-dash letter, a fuzzy thought about important possibilities. The gist — the path to great things often entails not making your mind up too quickly — seemed evident, but I left off, frustrated, because I hadn't grappled with an intrinsically important and complex possibility, something big and difficult at stake that made me feel that I needed to hold my judgment open, long and hard, until I became ready and able to address it fully in my actions. Now, I've stumbled into a place where I sense I should use negative capability, persevering in uncertainty, to see and judge rightly what might be at stake here. It'll take a while and I'll keep coming back until I can make up my own mind about whether you are going to be able to use digital technologies outside instructional systems in an educationally meaningful way.
R 47 — Great. That's what we hope for. It's the key to self-formation and learning liberally. As you check things out, you'll hear and see stuff that seems a lot like what you've heard and seen before, but don't infer from the apparent familiarity that you know immediately where it's leading. Get the whole picture of what can and should take place here. It's a place, not an idea, a place where study, the verb, a form of activity, takes place. Don't idolize the objects, the texts, the images, ideas, and structures stored in memory and represented on the screen. We study, not these, but the human activity that we can make evident in association with the objects.
V 48 — I hear what you say and sort of grasp it and look forward to understanding fully what you mean. But I must say, I'm still puzzled by this idea, "outside the existing systems." That's the place you're seeking, but I don't see it or understand how we might conjure it forth.
- The Portable Nietzsche (New York: Penguin Books, 1968) p. 50, Walter Kaufmann, trans.
- Usually, educational histories present the rise of formal instruction as filling a void, or evolving from a prior base of schooling that has been anachronistically inflated in importance.