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The Neverending Education Crisis and the False Promise of the Information Age
By Ivelin Sardamov
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2016 Ivelin Sardamov
All rights reserved.
The End of Education Revisited
This is the story of how I solved a mystery — the mystery of the neverending education crisis. Not that I have found any ultimate solution or set of policy and pedagogical fixes for it — that would be too much to ask. Rather, I believe I have come to understand why so much hope and hype, effort, and resources invested in education and educational reforms have failed to produce generations of better prepared high school and college students — not just in the United States, but also in many other countries. And why, as they have adapted to a harsh and dynamic socio-technological environment, growing numbers of students seem unimpressed by the ideas and the larger social world they are required to study (despite occasional bouts of enthusiasm like the wave of youthful support for American presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders or other causes).
Alas, I have come to the conclusion that the most "we"— those apprehensive about the sociotechnological challenges I will describe — can hardly turn the tide. The most we can do is try to construct small-scale sanctuaries for ourselves, our students, and our children. This must be a depressing conclusion, but it seems unavoidable (to me at least) given the societal and technological pressure cooker in which we live — and in which we need to raise our children.
To reach this conclusion, I have stood on the shoulders of countless neuroscientists and other scholars — and perhaps stepped on the toes of many. I have also benefited from observing my own mental Galapagos (or Antarctica) — the assortment of students I have taught at the American University in Bulgaria over the past 18 years. For the better part of these years, I have been puzzled by a central paradox. As I have worked to become a better college teacher, I have seen growing numbers of my students struggle to grasp the main points in course readings, and to accumulate knowledge and connect the dots as they take various courses. And I have observed growing estrangement from larger social issues and ideas, and confusion even about simple administrative policies and requirements.
Of course, these concerns are not entirely new. "The Crisis in Education" was, in fact, the title famed political philosopher Hannah Arendt chose for an article she published over six decades ago. It offered a somewhat alarmist analysis at a time which some traditionalists still see as a period of solid learning in American schools and colleges. By the 1950s, however, perceptions of a far-reaching crisis in American education had already become conventional wisdom. Seeking an explanation and a way forward, Arendt lamented what she saw as the crass instrumentalization of education — its reduction mostly to a tool for achieving other goals. She thought that approach was counterproductive, even when pursued with an ostensibly noble purpose — the cultivation of engaged and responsible citizens.
Arendt wrote about the area of education which was closest to her heart (and resonates most in mine) — the teaching of political ideas. But the problems she addressed ran much deeper. As a political philosopher, Arendt understood well the need to place these problems in a broader social and intellectual context. She was concerned that the problematic approach to education she was criticizing in fact reflected and was reinforcing a more comprehensive crisis of modern society — a society which needs to find a balance between attachment to healthy traditions and the demands of the future.
Arendt's criticisms were directed not only at the still predominant "factory" model of education. She also believed the "progressive" educational theories and practices (associated with John Dewey and other educational reformers) overturned too radically all pedagogical tradition. The 1960s, however, saw the explosive growth of ever more "progressive" educational models. One of the many to welcome the ostensibly subversive promise of this trend was media and education guru Neil Postman. In the late 1970s, however, he already saw a need for teaching to become a "conserving activity." He hoped such an approach could counteract disturbing cultural and technological trends, and a potentially debilitating unbalancing of the information environment.
Postman was initially most concerned with the ubiquity of television, the predominance of visual imagery, and the danger of "amusing ourselves to death ... in the age of show business." The spread of personal computers later convinced him that the allure of visual images could have fatal cultural and educational consequences even outside their use in conventional entertainment. In the mid-1990s he was already lamenting "the end of education,"marked by the demise of the grand narratives that could endow education with a larger purpose. Both Arendt and Postman hoped that the troubling trends they had identified could be corrected — by returning to a less utilitarian model or the spread of some "noble lies" regarding the larger goals of education.
I am afraid my own vision is not as cautiously optimistic as theirs — or as good humored as Postman's. Worse, my skepticism has been reinforced by a torrent of books which have offered a spirited defense of liberal education and the role of the humanities in it, increasingly seen as facing a grim future. At the same time, many hard-headed reformists have gone in the opposite direction in primary and secondary education. Unburdened by any larger philosophical perspective, they have often focused on classroom techniques, educational technologies, and algorithmic data analysis. They have also designed strategies for taking over the commanding (and conceptual) heights of education from the old guard. Of course, this game plan reflects precisely the instrumentalist fallacy Arendt once sought to expose in the sphere of education and beyond.
These debates have been focused not only on educational practices but also on wars of ideas and political projects. From my perspective, both the philosophical probings of humanistic educators and educational theorists and the no-nonsense recipes of their utilitarian opponents miss a vital dimension. They do not sufficiently take into proper consideration the intricate ways in which the social and mental lives of children and adults are enmeshed with some basic neural and physiological processes. This statement will probably evoke an instant rebuttal pointing to the recent mushrooming of neuroeducation, alongside many other neuro-branded fields of research. From my investigations, however, I have concluded that these undertakings have some serious limitations.
Neuroscience has certainly produced captivating images of the human brain and many curious findings regarding the neural "correlates" of mental processes. These results have been supplemented by clever experiments in "social neuroscience" demonstrating that the configurations of neural networks, in their turn, can be influenced by specific stimuli within our social and technological environment. Most neuroscientists, though, have sought to produce fairly mechanistic explanations identifying causal relationships between isolated neural and behavioral or environmental variables. They therefore open themselves to the accusation that they offer reductionist and deterministic accounts. The larger concern about neuroscientific causal models is that, once disseminated in simplified form by science journalists, they can undermine our indispensable faith in free will and personal responsibility.
Such worries may have a point. But my sense is that notions of free will and individual agency have been undermined not by irresponsible theorizing but rather by much larger social and technological forces — which have also twisted the objectives and outcomes of education at all levels. I suspect that ignoring these forces, and seeking to bracket the potentially troubling implications of some recent findings in neuroscience (the "let's pretend" strategy), can create its own problems. It can inspire misplaced faith in different varieties of intellectual or moral proselytizing, to say nothing of the wishful thinking underlying the growing reliance on dubious abstract models and technical solutions — from the unyielding devotion of economists to the alleged efficiency of financial markets and the commodification of public services and spaces, to the recent avalanche of distance learning start-ups and schemes.
My own approach will, no doubt, provoke accusations both of crass reductionism and of making willful inferences unsupported by reliable experimental or empirical data. I am not sure I can do much to dispel such doubts. My strategy in confronting them will be to offer a broad picture that weaves together the complex patterns of interplay between processes at the level of neural and other cells, the skull- and skin-bound human organism, and the human anthill — including the increasingly pervasive presence of information and other technologies in our lives.
Alas, this is easier said than done. No matter how complex and nuanced the picture that emerges from my musings, it is bound to have many deficiencies and blind spots. The extensive references I provide may also appear less than convincing to critics with a very different mindset and selection bias. I do anticipate such criticisms since I am very much aware that the picture I draw will be influenced by some personal and cultural idiosyncrasies. For starters, I grew up in Bulgaria — a country proclaimed by The Economist as the unhappiest place on Earth as proportionate to its GDP per capita (a distinction it has achieved in many other surveys of self-reported happiness or life satisfaction). I later went on to earn an American Ph.D. in political science, but resisted the pursuit of scientific rigor which had come to dominate the discipline. Instead, I have become deeply influenced by some broader Western intellectual traditions. I have also followed selectively the intellectual debates covered by quality publications aimed at the American liberal intelligentsia (like The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and a few others).
Exposure to this very different existential and intellectual ether has helped me put in perspective my somewhat fatalistic Bulgarian dispositions. But I have been unable, and partly unwilling, to completely overcome these. Speaking at an academic conference on political science education, I once referred (in the conventional self-deprecating way) to the strong pessimistic streak in Bulgarian culture. I did this because I felt like the designated Cassandra on a panel brimming with enthusiasm for innovative approaches involving experiential and distance learning. The chair of the panel commended me half-jokingly for being a great representative of my country — and I almost took it as a compliment.
Trying to perhaps make a virtue out of necessity, I have sometimes compared my own predicament to that of Alexis de Tocqueville. He was well aware of his own aristocratic biases, but could not quite escape their grip. In a letter he wrote as he was traveling around the United States, he confessed as much:
Bound to the royalists as I am by a few common principles and a thousand family ties, I find myself in a way chained to a party whose conduct often strikes me as dishonorable and almost always extravagant. I can't help taking their faults deeply to heart, even as I condemn them with all my might.
There was maybe one peculiar reason why Tocqueville did not seek to fully transcend the narrow-mindedness of the French aristocracy. He recognized that this point of departure opened his senses to some social, cultural and psychological dimensions of American life in which the natives were swimming like the proverbial fish in water. He believed there were "certain truths which the Americans can learn only from strangers," and he gladly took this role of a prophet dispatched to a foreign land.
Tocqueville's ambition, however, was much broader. He sought to identify in American society aspects of what he saw as the future shape and character of the civilized world, once deep class divisions had become obsolete. The "equality of condition" he observed in the United States impressed him as a clear improvement on the staleness and injustices of France's semimedieval society. Yet he observed some troubling tendencies in American society which would soon have larger implications for the social upheaval sweeping across Europe.
I am well aware that the American reading public must be sick and tired of Tocqueville epigones like French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and British literary theorist Terry Eagleton. So I would not claim that I can in any way approach Tocqueville's intellectual stature and perceptiveness. Rather, I look up to him as a cultural hero and a source of inspiration. Of course, a degree of experiential dissonance is not a straightforward avenue to illumination. I have now very much resigned myself to being stranded between two very different social, cultural, and intellectual worlds I inhabit. I also recognize that many of the conclusions I reach departing from this existential posture may come across as awkward.
This impression will probably be reinforced by my writing style. Part of its peculiarity comes from the fact that I am not a native speaker. Though I have mastered the basics of English grammar and syntax, I can never mimic the narrative flair of a Joseph Conrad or even a Joseph Brodsky. Recognizing these limitations, I have sought to avoid complex syntax and any attempts at literary flourish. If my text still comes across as somewhat dense and unwieldy, this in itself may convey a poetic truth. In fact, I would not mind sounding like a somewhat morose and didactic Eastern European intellectual bent on sweeping generalizations — as long as I can avoid any immediate association with Slavoj Zizek.
In addition to some broader influences, I do bring into my investigation a degree of personal and intellectual eccentricity. I have always had some brooding tendencies which may seem a bit excessive even by Bulgarian standards. My inclination to usually see the glass as half-empty and to hear (and ring) cultural alarm bells should thus be taken with a grain of salt. On the other hand, a dour outlook may have some unexpected upsides. Depressive predilections have recently been associated with flashes of creative insight and an ability to associate issues and ideas which seem unrelated. So I do not display much false modesty when I am occasionally praised for my "lateral thinking." I have in fact come to consider this as my intellectual "comparative advantage." This is, in fact, the self-flattering justification I have embraced for shunning empirical research and drawing instead on the hard work of others — unless some of the associations I draw are, indeed, overly far-fetched.
These detailed, slightly defensive self-revelations may appear as overly self-absorbed in the introduction to a book trying to set heftier issues in a broader context. I did feel a need, however, to include them as a caveat at the outset of what is a deeply personal account of the way in which I have moved from one insight to the next, reaching some unsettling conclusions. I suspect I may have lost a few readers at this point. Nor am I sure how many will be willing to remain plugged into the mental matrix I seek to weave to the end. My overall skepticism has helped dispel any illusions that I can win over throngs of converts and help make the world a better place.
In fact, I seriously doubt that I can convince anyone who, when they place their hand on their heart and look around and into the eyes of children and adolescents, does not share at least part of my anxieties and premonitions. There is much recent research which indicates that the extent to which we embrace ideas, political platforms, and even political candidates depends largely on some unconscious emotional responses, which then trigger trains of rationalizations. If this is the case, I should not harbor the illusion that I can win over those who do not cringe as easily at the cultural and technological developments I will describe.
With this in mind, I have chosen to address my argument to the small subset of potential readers for whom my observations may have some emotional resonance. This means that my book is bound to lack broad commercial appeal. It is also devoid of strict "scientific" pretensions. And though I have strong confidence in my overall conclusions, I am willing to entertain criticisms.
With these caveats regarding my intellectual, cultural, and personal perspective, I now stand ready to present my theory of the perennial crisis in education. It could initially be summarized in three main points: 1) chronic dopamine overload (induced by technological saturation and sensory overstimulation), which has contributed to 2) warped brain plasticity, and thus 3) a crisis of curiosity, motivation, and implicit learning in the majority of students, and growing utilitarian detachment in "the best and the brightest."
Excerpted from Mental Penguins by Ivelin Sardamov. Copyright © 2016 Ivelin Sardamov. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The End of Education Revisited 1
2 College Teaching and Its Discontents 11
3 Neuroscience Rides to the Rescue 22
4 The Limits of "Neuroeducation" 29
5 The End of Authority 39
6 My Stroke of insight 51
7 A Well-Tempered Brain 54
8 A Fatal Attraction 66
9 Dumb and Dumber 77
10 …or a Neurosomatic Crisis? 88
11 The Pursuit of Overstimulation 98
12 …and Existential Disconnect 112
13 Unenlightened 129
14 Toward Edutopia? 142
15 The Last Oasis 161