The cartoon was originally run to satirize many professors’ narrow view of doctoral students as receptacles of information–note I did not say knowledge–whose single purpose in life was doing research. The student as information processing unit (IPU). If one aim of satire is to get people to laugh and then get them to think by inquiring further about what they are laughing about, then the cartoon fits–especially if I broaden its target to include K-12 schools and replace “most professors” with “most school reformers.”
Ardent reformers, including the current and past U.S. Presidents and their appointees, are determined in getting U.S. schools to produce engineers, scientists, and mathematicians who can successfully compete with Asian graduates. The high-tech enthusiasts among them believe that online instruction will “customize” schooling to the degree that the bricks-and-mortar schools that we have known for two centuries will diminish and, if luck would have it, eventually disappear. Online instruction as a “disruptive innovation” will mean that teaching and learning will occur in homes, community centers, at work, on rooftops and cellars–not necessarily in places called schools. National leaders, hedge fund founders, social entrepreneurs, and philanthropists–policy elites–see online instruction in K-12 schools as the virtual salvation of U.S. education and its role in boosting innovation and economic growth. These policy elites, in pressing for more and more online instruction in K-12 wear blinders–like the cartoonish professor above–because they reduce the social and political purposes for schools in a democracy to stuffing information into children, oops!, brains on sticks or IPUs.*
Sometimes it takes a dramatic example to make this important point.
Can you imagine a city where elderly residents of a retirement home lined the sidewalk and clapped, even cheered, high school students arriving for the first day of school?
The city is Joplin, Missouri. On May 22, 2011 a tornado swept a path of carnage through one-third of the city of 50,000 destroying thousands of homes and killing 160 people. Six of its 18 schools were so badly damaged that they had to demolished. Within 55 days, using space undamaged by the tornado, schools re-opened. In extreme situations, what gets taken for granted is stripped bare and the truth of the moment reveals itself.
Civic joy in Joplin at the re-opening of its schools after storm-inflicted devastation less than three months earlier shows clearly how important public schools are in the life of a community beyond the ABCs, AP Calculus, and handing out diplomas every June. Sure, these are important tasks schools perform. Public schools, however, do far more in every community big or small. They transmit social, political, and cultural values to young children and youth; they encourage groups to mingle in ways that segregated neighborhoods and gated communities cannot. They help children and youth grow emotionally and socially. You get the picture of where I am heading. I do not have to spell it out.
I am not naive nor entranced with a golden age of public schools that never existed. I know of too many suburban, rural, and urban schools, past and present, that failed (and fail) to help the next generation become responsible, civically engaged adults, who with a sense of personal well-being are prepared to enter the workplace with marketable skills. It is, however, when natural catastrophes occur that the social, political, economic, and individual purposes of schools become clear as communities as disparate as New Orleans and Joplin work hard at school recovery.
Which brings me back to the popular mantras of “disruptive innovations,” “customizing” learning, and “blended”schools. Online instruction will continue to spread among adults and in K-12 schools. Incentives to increase students taking online courses and establish hybrids of blended and regular school schedules are plentiful now with cuts in district budgets and increasingly sophisticated technologies. The undeniable fact is that delivering online courses is far less costly than providing live teachers to students. But the hype and hullabaloo surrounding online instruction’s steady advance as a learning and cost-cutting tool cannot substitute for the role that public schools with its multiple (and, yes, competing purposes) play in a democracy. Students are more than “brains on a stick” and schools are more than bricks-and-mortar.
*I do believe it is fair to ask how much customized online instruction during the school day ardent reformers such as Bill and Melinda Gates, Michelle Rhee,Whitney Tilson, and Eli Broad would accept as reasonable–if at all–for their children and grand-children.