Libertarian Editor: No More Classrooms, No More Books, No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks

Do we need teachers anymore?  Can’t computers do the job?

Speaking at Las Vegas Reason Weekend 2013, Reason Magazine editor Katherine Mangu-Ward peeked into the bold libertarian school future.

The question is not whether or not computers can replace people, Mangu-Ward pointed out.  They already do so in innumerable ways, such as ATMs.

For schools, however, the promise of computer-guided education has not been fully realized.  Mangu-Ward did not suggest we replace all teachers with computers, but rather that we employ a cheaper, better, blended model.

Too often, Mangu-Ward argues, the notion that schools are only “warehousing” young people gets a bad rap.  Schools SHOULD warehouse the young, but not necessarily in stark, depressing, dystopic ways.  Kids should stay in school for longer days, and for longer school years.

Computers can help make that feasible.  Mangu-Ward praised some KIPP schools that use computers to change the classroom dynamic.  Instead of twenty students with two teachers, some schools have thirty students with two teachers and fifteen computers.  Large numbers of students can be working on computers at any given time.

The students on the computers will likely be learning more, not less, than their human-led colleagues.  For-profit companies, after all, are producing effective online curricula on a competitive basis.  According to Mangu-Ward, the market will ensure that these curricula will be the best, cheapest options available.

Computers, after all, make great teachers, Mangu-Ward argued. Computers are infinitely patient.  Computers have impeccable memories. Truly great teachers might be able to keep track of all students this way, Mangu-Ward said, but unfortunately, “A lot of teachers really really suck.”

Mangu-Ward ended on an optimistic note.  “There are a lot of ways,” she said, “to choose not to be part of the dysfunctional school system that we have right now, and they are increasingly online.”

Mangu-Ward didn’t mention it, but this sort of tech-topia sounds eerily familiar to educational historians.  As Larry Cuban has demonstrated most convincingly, the history of American schooling has been peppered with plans to replace teachers with one machine or another.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, for example, educational television promised to broadcast the best teaching to students nationwide.  A plane even circled several states in the Midwest, broadcasting programs meant to MOOC their ways into students’ brains.

By the 1970s, those ambitious programs had largely come to naught.  As one disappointed technophile complained, “If something happened tomorrow to wipe out all instructional television, America’s schools and colleges would hardly know it was gone” [quoted in Larry Cuban, Teachers and Machines, pg. 50].

But could our situation now be fundamentally different?

First of all, the internet is different from TV.  Right now, schools and colleges would probably grind to an awkward halt if the internet fizzled suddenly.

Second, educational TV was largely a top-down government enterprise.  The US Congress shelled out $32 million in 1962 to pay for educational TV, for example.

Here, the programs will be both better and cheaper.  The market, Mangu-Ward predicts, will force for-profit companies to produce the best materials for the lowest price.

We’re left with two big questions:  CAN computers replace teachers? . . . and SHOULD they?

For the libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward, the obvious answer to both questions is an emphatic YES.

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