Rock Island, IL

My spies tell me there’s a New Thing out there that will improve education. It’s an “inexpensive” battery-powered “clicker” that an “innovative teacher” can put into the hands of his or her students. This “clicker” will enable students to register an opinion on a given question; it will then instantaneously display that opinion on a screen in the “learning environment” formerly known as a classroom.

The New Thing can do this because it is “interfaced” with another New Thing, also “inexpensive,” and all that is required of “teachers,” who by default care about student opinions and are interested in “implementing technology in their pedagogies,” is that they be impressed by this New Thing—as, say, small-mouth bass are impressed by every shiny lure that goes spinning by their judicious gaze.

Gone are the days when you can ask for a show of hands, which takes a lot of time and requires a decentralized form of free energy. “Technology” can tell you exactly how many nineteen-year-olds, all of them well versed in the literature, think that “abstinence should be taught alongside ‘conventional birth-control methods’ in sex-education classes.” With only the slightest digital exertion a student paying to be educated can tell you whether he or she believes that “side airbags should be mandatory on all new passenger vehicles.”

At last learning is fun, for the makers of New Things have taught us teachers to “implement high-impact strategies” and to “value student input and opinion.”

Thanks to “technology,” which once meant “a systematic treatment of an art,” the word “opinion,” a noun formed on the verb “to opine ” (which once meant “to judge” or “to think”), is now something like “a feeling,” as in “I feel abstinence should not be taught alongside conventional birth-control methods in sex-education classes because I feel that people are just going to have sex no matter what.” Or “I feel side airbags should be mandatory on all new passenger vehicles because I had a friend who was in a car accident once and I’ve been thinking about this for a long time now.”

And how long would that be, my dear?

“As long as it took me to like push the little button on this little clicker? Which let me just say I love, because now my opinion matters? I feel technology in the classroom is so important, because you can like express your feelings instead of just listening to a boring lecture? On some book you didn’t even need to read anyway?”

Thank you, Mackenzie. Would anyone else, whose opinion is equally valid and valuable, care to respond to that?

William Stafford, in that fine poem titled “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” said, “the darkness around us is deep.” Were he with us today he’d despair of finding the halogen lamp that could cut the thick enveloping darkness.

Perhaps it is naïve of me to say that we’re at a crossroads in education, for it may well be that we came to the crossroads long ago, that we weren’t paying attention, and that now, like Young Goodman Brown, we’re well into the forest of sin and error, where the darkness around us is deep indeed. But if we are at crossroads, I would like to go on record as saying that the most important thing we can do right now is turn resolutely away from any gadget more sophisticated than chalk and insist that students learn at least three languages, one ancient and two modern. Of those modern languages one should be English.

How to do this? It’s pretty hard to say, given the widespread gullibility of teachers duped by clickers and the unassailable ignorance of administrators obsessed with “outcomes,” “assessment,” “diversity,” and “student satisfaction indicators.”

For the truth of the matter is that we’re no longer interested in education. We’ve got a slick racket to maintain, a massively expensive Ponzi scheme to keep going. We’re living paycheck to paycheck, not very wise but clever enough to know that if we prove to be magpies in the classroom we can bankroll our efforts to graduate more magpies.

And that’s really good for the economy, which insists that we chase down every shiny thing we see, including classroom clickers.

But only a passing acquaintance with Greek—nay, a mere willingness to consult a good English dictionary—would tell us that “economy,” presently understood, is essentially another word for permissible theft. A little linguistic awareness would instruct us in a true economy, which we might legitimately call the “technology of housekeeping.” And after careful deliberation—perhaps even without a clicker—we might come to understand that you can’t keep house on a global scale. We might object, on etymological principle, to the “global economy.”

To agree with me, press the blue button; to disagree, press the red one.

I see there is some disagreement. Please go online tonight and discuss this with your classmates. Invite others to join in. Remember to be respectful of other people’s opinions.

I will be told that “meanings change,” that meaning is “conventional,” not “given,” and that magpies are actually very intelligent.

For all I know, magpies are intelligent. Good for magpies. All I’m saying is that we are not. We’re like small-mouth bass, and we’ve swallowed the technological treble hook. Whether we’re being reeled in by a catch-and-release sportsman or by something more sinister is a matter of opinion–that is, of judgment and thought. But make no mistake: we’re being reeled in. My own opinion is that our educators, who ought to know better, are being reeled in by a left-handed fisherman.

And as for meaning: well, we’ve been lied to, and that’s one reason we’ve taken the bait. That meaning changes is certain. That it is conventional is also true. But that it was not at first given will require better demonstration than we’ve had from the magpies. That point is matter for another day, grist for another mill, but for now let us endeavor to know older meanings, even if they too are conventional. There’s value in such knowledge.

Young Goodman Brown wasn’t looking where he was going when he came to the fork in the path. Soon the darkness around him was deep. Hawthorne’s narrator tells us that “they carved no hopeful verse upon his tombstone, for his dying hour was gloom.”

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Jason Peters
Jason Peters professes English at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois. Most of his courses are in Milton, the Catholic novel, Environmental literature, British Romanticism, and American literature prior to 1900.  While in Illinois he pines for the mysterious and musical tea-colored trout streams of his native Michigan, whither he is trying to repatriate full-time in order to raise cattle and chickens, make beer, and scourge the follies of higher ed.  (Read an attempt here.) His work has appeared in such places as the ­Sewanee Review, the South Atlantic Quarterly, English Language Notes, Explicator, American Notes and Queries, Christianity and Literature, Orion, First Principles, University Bookman, and the Journal of Religion and Society. He is also the editor of Wendell Berry: Life and Work (University Press of Kentucky 2007) and Land! The Case for an Agrarian Economy, by John Crowe Ransom (University Press of Notre Dame, 2017). Currently he is building a fly rod and juggling too many writing projects to complete any of them, including an account of his repatriation efforts (tentatively titled Dispatches from Dumb-Ass Acres, by a Dumb Ass), another book on Wendell Berry, another on food (tentatively titled The Culinary Plagiarist: (Mis)Adventures of a Thieving Gourmand), and yet another on that neglected genius, Owen Barfield. He has tried to break life-long debilitating addictions to basketball and golf but has been woefully unsuccessful. Peters visits Rock Island on school days but otherwise lives in Williamston, Michigan, with his longsuffering wife, their three children, and his two arthritic knees. See books written and recommended by Jason Peters.

13 COMMENTS

  1. Beautiful screed, Jason!

    I would like to go on record as saying that the most important thing we can do right now is turn resolutely away from any gadget more sophisticated than chalk

    I’d love to make this my manifesto for the day, or for my career, except that here at Friends U. they keep sending me to classrooms where they’ve removed the chalkboards and instilled the hated white boards, and I have bigger battles to fight–like making sure I’m not assigned to the classrooms with the even-more-hated “smart boards,” in which your ability as a teacher to use the board is dependent upon your prior investment in a whole passel of online doo-dads that are designed to pop up for the students’ viewing pleasure at the barest touch. In such rooms, the possibility that a student question (remember those?) might take the lecture in an unexpected direction, requiring unprepared information be shared on the board, is a thing of the past.

    For the record, clickers are pretty big around here too, and I avoid them like the plague. Also for the record, I like what you have to say about languages, but I dropped that part out of your declaration. I was part of a two-year process that attempted to revise our general education, part of which would have bulked up our language requirements, but it crashed and burned. It’s a sore spot with me.

  2. Well done.

    Dr. Fox said: In such rooms, the possibility that a student question (remember those?) might take the lecture in an unexpected direction, requiring unprepared information be shared on the board, is a thing of the past.

    That is probably still a plausible scenario at university. But what would the unprepared B.Ed’s in the elementary and secondary system speak upon extempore? Glee?

  3. This is not exactly directed at your main point, which is a good one, but I’ve often thought that all internet polls should come with an additional choice: “Y/N This is a stupid question.” Classroom polls probably should, too. Since they don’t have a place for “yes, but” or “I both agree and disagree with the statement” (which is not the same as “moderately agree” or “moderately disagree” or even “neither”) I’m afraid that as a student I’d be a non-participant in some of these exercises.

    On the matter of survey questionnaires, keep in mind that it’s your civic duty to lie to pollsters at least ten percent of the time.

  4. Mr. Fox beat me to the “Smart Board” diatribe. Well said.

    A few years ago “blogs” were all the rage in the comp and creative writing classrooms. Because they were interactive! People from outside the classroom could “engage” with the writing! Teaching systems like Moodle came equipped with electronic blackboards and electronic grade books and fully integrated blogs, and gosh darn it you better use them in your classroom because, well, the hiring committees and the tenure committees all said so.

    One day I suggested that the the learning environment probably needed fewer blogs and more sentence diagramming. I can report that my suggestion was not included in the institution’s new intermodal who-ser-whats-it.

    I gobbled a bottle of Geritol in shame.

  5. Dear Dr. Fox:

    I cannot solve any of the larger issues discussed herein, but I can offer (having successfully mailed a bottle of turpentine to Dr. Peters, who had a terrific wrassle with a tar baby a year or so back), to mail you a can of blackboard paint. With a little primer it should go over the smartboard nicely one spring evening, late, with the blinds drawn, and the children will enjoy helping.

  6. The Click Beetle of family Elateridae uses its segmented carapace to click and hence, catapult away from predators, frequently landing upon its back, thus requiring another click to right itself. Some of these lucky projectiles are also bioluminescent .

    Gregor Samsa was obviously on to something.

    If we could make our eagerly kinetic students both clicking and bioluminescent, well, the classroom would be a swell place…clicking and strobing away and you, Mr. Peters, could go back to mowing fairways in the damned peace and quiet.

    We are going out of our way to enshrine conventional wisdom in a bullet proof box of self-centered esteem. This used to be called narcissism but now it is known as “empowerment”.

  7. As a professional clicker-pusher, I stand accused, tried and convicted. I will write my memoirs from my prison cell (profits given to my victim’s families) entitled, “They asked for proof so I made some up.”

    For it is a tough road to hoe between spending your time doing what you know you should be doing and doing what others demand of you because they have no appreciation for what you actually do. They do not know what college is for. They say, college looks like a hammer, so everyone is blind to a life full of screws.

    Swing away gentlemen, I will dutifully suffer your just blows. Higher Ed, you made your bed, now lie (or lay or get laid out or something) in it.

  8. This is just dumb.

    Yes, the mindless usage of technology, just because it’s *new and shiny*, is likely a waste of time and resources, but this is because of the mindlessness in the application (as in your clicker example) not of the inherent to the fact that technology is used.

    I am taking a Master’s degree program through an online provider. It is in a rather niche field such that there is no comparable program locally and, even if there was, the flexibility of watching the classes online at my convenience creates the capacity for me to access this degree in a manner that would likely be impossible for an in-person alternative, since I have to work full-time as well.

    Further, one may consider MIT’s Opencourseware initiative, where many classes are posted online for free. I have used these tools to teach myself Calculus and Differential Equations. However, since those skills aren’t that closely related to the darning of socks, shearing of sheep or other forms of 19th century manual labor so venerated on this site, I suppose it’s not worth mentioning.

    The point is there’s lots of ways to be ignorant, one is by embracing technology simply because it’s new, but rejecting it because on the same premise suffers from the same mindless fault.

  9. @GingerMan

    The technology has warped, in many cases made impossible, some of the essential elements of education. The issue is not the subject matter’s relevance to agrarian life, nor even that such tools are the Devil’s toychest, but that utility has reduced education beyond recognition into some other animal. If all you want is acquisition of data and the demonstrated mastery of a technique which can be leveraged for economic advantage; then you are correct, we are struck dumb.

  10. “technology has warped, in many cases made impossible, some of the essential elements of education.”

    I don’t buy it.

    My wife teaches English at a liberal arts college. She receives emailed copies of student papers, places comments in the margins electronically, submits grades via an online system, even has (for some classes) used a blog to foster further discussion about coursework outside of the context of class itself. All of these actions utilize technology. Would her effectiveness as an educator be reduced or improved were we to require her to go back to a purely paper-based system analogous to the student experience 50+ years ago (or whenever the age was that technology had not infected our halls of higher learning)?

    In my opinion, it would probably not change her effectiveness at all, since she is an excellent teacher and would succeed in either context. Or stated differently, imagine a professor that thinks that this “clicker” technology is an effective pedagogical tool and uses it liberally within the classroom. Do we imagine that much more effective learning would take place simply by removing that piece of technology from their hands? No, because anyone who would believe this tool is going to further student learning is going to be a terrible instructor with or without the aid of a clicker.

    What we are really talking about here is not the technical tools employed in a classroom, but the putative purpose of a college education and the complaint that nowadays there is too much of a vocational drive within the formation of our collegiate atmosphere, wherein one is assumed to be merely in training for a career, not striving towards a more classically liberal level of erudition, steeped in the Western Canon.

    I am not enough of a student of the sociology of higher learning to know if this is the case or not. Given that we have a far higher percentage of the populace pursuing college learning than we once had, it would not surprise me if this has lent itself to a relative “dumbing down” of the average curriculum. But even granting this is true, it strikes me that in other contexts, a turn towards vocational education would have people round these parts slobbering all over themselves (https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2009/07/an-fpr-symposium-shop-class-as-soul-craft-by-matthew-crawford/).

    Personally, I don’t have a problem with either vocational training or the Western Canon (or even learning how to darn socks, if one is so disposed). But I don’t think the former is necessarily so much the inferior of the latter. Their purposes differ. They are both forms of education, just of a differing kind.

    It may be that, since collegiate costs are rising nearly as fast as healthcare, we will someday (soon?) see the split between programs (or even institutions themselves) serving these differing goals. In such an environment, Mr. Peters would no longer be required to suffer through the papers of undergraduate males who clearly don’t want to be in his classes nor value the education they could obtain there.
    https://www.frontporchrepublic.com/2010/12/bar-jesters-writing-seminar-or-how-to-write-like-the-average-undergraduate-male/

    But it wouldn’t be the end of civilization if such a divorce were to take place. In some ways, I suspect both would probably be better off for it.

  11. Higher Education, in its current manifestation is a double or treble tiered endeavor. By in large, the greatest part of it is engaged in grooming the technocrat for their life of smiling box-checking and harried 30 day billing cycles for an employer that believes a Mission Statement is all that is needed for exciting the senses of their charges. One is debouched out into the “marketplace of ideas” with little more aplomb than a privateer capturing a few indentured pirates for the next foray into a seafaring snatch and grab.

    This takes care of the great majority of our higher educated masses and it is up to them if they wish to acquiesce to the charade or find other inspirations at home, away from the rather mundane exertions of the office.

    Regardless of this rather depauperate state of affairs for our arse-scratching monkey with a brain, we still possess a Higher Education worthy of the name…across the board, from the arts to science and the professions . However, even within the traditionally more rarified precincts, there is a certain mercenary character to it all . Call it Conventional Thinking Squared if you will.

    To paraphrase, “I agree, therefor I am.” Not that DesCartes is worth a fart in a hailstorm mind you.

  12. As a teacher myself, I agree on most everything Mr. Peters has stated.

    As for the comments: while I wish I could absolutely forbid anything in my classroom but a textbook, a notebook, and a pen (as far as what the students bring in is concerned), the white boards and the smart board I have can be a great help. As a history teacher, pulling up maps and being able to draw on them with an electronic pen is a very useful tool.

    The whole idea of “opinion clickers” or whatever is obviously crap.

  13. Yes and no. In the hands of a clever teacher–that is, somebody who is actually concerned about teaching–I can imagine these clickers being marginally useful, although not for opinions. Or maybe for opinions.
    “Class, do you believe Young Goodman Brown only dreamed of a witches meeting or actually went to one? Okay, now one of you who clicked A, tell us why.”
    The clicker does very little beyond the old show of hands, but they could be useful in the hands of a cleverer teacher than me. Are these trinkets a worthwhile use of budget dollars? That’s a completely different question and one that you rightly question.
    The problem with education, it seems to me, is that far too many of the decisions are made by PWGTM (People who go to meetings). At my school, various administrators believe that important things actually happen at meetings. In reality, such rarely occurs. PWGTM don’t like to admit that the business of the school is actually conducted by PWT (People who teach). They resist this notion, because you cannot buy PWT. You can’t go to seminars and see new PWTs demonstrated. Nobody with a nice haircut and an expense account comes to campus trying to sell you the newest PWT. PWTs are SO last century.
    An education technology guy at my school spent several years trying to interest our fish in clickers. To the best of my knowledge, nobody bit on the lure. Hooray for PWT.

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