Aaron Schwartz on education

Aaron Schwartz has a short piece today ("Individuals in a World of Science") on what I consider a rhetorical problem--finding an acceptable balance between individual (agency) and synthesized (agency). This seemed to be the driving question at a number of panels I attended last week. From Byron Hawk's discussion of the Texas, Arlington tradition (drawing from Randall Collins' work) to Nathaniel A. Rivers' discussion on American psychological disorders emerging in China, there was an emphasis on non-human forms of agency, the importance of our surroudings as something more agentic than mere backdrops for human action, and on the power of location. In our field, given the current movements, there's the question of how we recognize contextual contigency as something more than mere accidental background noise. In Aaron's post, the question is how--as (mass) science strips individual power, we find a way to balance individual agency against mass directives.

Aaron's post directly concerns another important topic at CCCC's this year: the increase in standardized forms of assessment. And I largely agree with his position; while we need a system that promotes accountability and identifies poor teachers, we also need to ensure that in constructing such a system we don't drain spontaneity, creativity, and joy out of learning. In Florida, administrators have failed to strike that balance. Our secondary education system is a Kaplan-ian dream of test after test, accompanied by a day-to-day scripted curriculum.

Here's Schwartz's final two paragraphs:

The other alternative is to put your trust in teachers, to assume they can tell the difference between a class that’s learning and a class that isn’t, and then give them a chance to do better. Take them to some of the best-run classes in the world and let them absorb the lessons for themselves. Have them meet regularly with their fellow teachers and discuss how they can make their teaching better. This is the humane response to those who want to reduce teaching to a rote question of merely reading off a script (no joke—this is literally what happens in the most test-driven schools…because, after all, science shows the script is best for test scores).

In both cases, I sympathize with the humane aims: I don’t want doctors to become shills for pharmaceutical companies, I don’t want poor kids to grow up unable to read. But I blanch at the inhumane means proposed to carry them out. As Seeing Like a State describes, the history of high modernist utopian projects has not been a pretty one. The quest for policy designers, then, is how to promote huge positive changes without crushing the individuals involved underfoot.

Of course, as those of us in education know, this alternative is quite expensive compared to rote drilling and testing. Like anything else requiring personal care, quality education is expensive. Increasingly, despite NCLB rhetoric, we see an aversion to education's expense. We need to construct better rhetorical talking points for the future of education--and we need to make sure that rhetoric directly confronts the "assessment driven" mantras--as if the link between quantifiable assessment and quality education holds absolute causality.

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