Teachers Are Smarter than Elon Musk

Here’s a Sunday-morning challenge for you: How is it possible that the smartest people in the world aren’t able to figure out something that has been public knowledge for hundreds of years and that every good teacher figures out quick? As Professor Zeynep Tufekci brilliantly argued last week, the Elon Musks, Bill Gateses, and Mark Zuckerbergs of the world can’t fix schools. And though Prof. Tufekci makes a great case, it’s not new.

elon musk submarine

Elon Musk power-tube to the rescue!

Tufekci builds her case on Elon Musk’s petulant performance in Thailand. Like many of us, Musk was fascinated by the story of the trapped soccer team in Thailand. Unlike many of us, Musk has billions of dollars and twenty-two million Twitter followers. So Musk directed some lackeys to build a fancy new submarine-machine to rescue the soccer players. When local rescuers rejected Musk’s help, Musk complained on Twitter. Musk seemed unable to recognize that there was a better way to approach this problem.

As Prof. Tufekci wrote,

The Silicon Valley model for doing things is a mix of can-do optimism, a faith that expertise in one domain can be transferred seamlessly to another and a preference for rapid, flashy, high-profile action. But what got the kids and their coach out of the cave was a different model: a slower, more methodical, more narrowly specialized approach to problems, one that has turned many risky enterprises into safe endeavors — commercial airline travel, for example, or rock climbing, both of which have extensive protocols and safety procedures that have taken years to develop.

This “safety culture” model is neither stilted nor uncreative. On the contrary, deep expertise, lengthy training and the ability to learn from experience (and to incorporate the lessons of those experiences into future practices) is a valuable form of ingenuity.

Musk and his ilk do not limit their can-do arrogance to Thai cave rescues. As Tufekci argues, in public schooling as well, Silicon Valley richies tend to think they can plunk down their money, dig out incompetence, and fix schools in one fell swoop.

The Musks and Zuckerbergs of the world might be forgiven if we were in brand-new territory. But we’re not. As the late David Tyack and Larry Cuban argued so brilliantly over twenty years ago, school reformers have always tried to fix complicated educational problems with poorly prepared prescriptions.

Telegraph with numerals sketch

The technological solution to bad schools, c. 1805.

Time and time again, as Tyack and Cuban relate in Tinkering Toward Utopia, outside “experts” swoop in to fix schools with The Big New Thing. Closed-circuit television, market-based evaluation models, computerized personalized learning systems…all have been vaunted as the new solution. In every case, veteran teachers look for the good and reject the useless. In every case, teachers use the parts of the new system that help them do the real work of education, while quietly packing away the useless bits in a hallway closet.

And as I’m arguing in my new book about the historic roots of urban school reform, the Musk/Zuckerberg fallacy goes back to the very beginning. Back in the early 1800s, a young educational entrepreneur in London thought he had the solution to urban poverty. Joseph Lancaster promised that his elaborate new system—replete with cutting edge technology—would allow one school master to educate hundreds of low-income urban kids.

It didn’t work. But perhaps Lancaster can be forgiven, since his assumptions were fairly new and untested. The Musks of today have no such excuse. As Professor Tufekci concludes,

Education is a complex topic, and making a lot of money in tech is not a qualification for solving educational problems.

It’s something we have known for centuries. It is something that every teacher figures out right away. Why can’t our tech gurus see it?

Advertisements

From the Archives: Emily Post at Evangelical U

What were evangelical colleges for? As I argue in my new book, evangelical and fundamentalist schools promised to do lots of things at once. Thanks to alert SAGLRROILYBYGTH DW, we have new evidence of two of those things from Indiana Wesleyan University.Marion COllege rules c 1946 1

As DW discovered on a recent campus visit, Indiana Wesleyan (former Marion College) recently posted these dining-hall rules from 1946. They are more than just a nostalgic goof, though. As did the interdenominational conservative evangelical colleges I focused on in my book, back in 1946 Marion’s leaders were trying to accomplish two deadly serious goals in their dining hall.

First, many evangelical colleges needed to introduce their students to middle-class social norms and aspirations, as I note in my book. As one student at Chicago’s Moody Bible Institute remembered, back in the 1920s many MBI students

were raw farm boys, you know, and so on and so forth. If you’d had a smattering of education: fully high school or not, never mind, as long as you were really on fire for Christ, you know. And some who didn’t know very much about etiquette and that kind of thing.

For many evangelical students, especially Bible-institute students, the middle-class norms expected of college graduates had to be taught explicitly and enforced rigorously. Clearly, at Marion College, some students needed reminders, as rule number 9 points out,

It is considered proper courtesy for the gentleman to allow the lady at his right to serve herself before he serves himself; the lady in turn should receive this courtesy with lady-like appreciation.

Plus, at all evangelical colleges in the period, and in fact at almost all colleges in the period, social interactions between men and women were rigidly policed. Administrators needed to be able to assure parents that no hanky-panky would be going on. marion college rules c 1946 2

Mealtimes, at most schools, offered students a rare opportunity to interact with the opposite sex, and all college administrators worked to prevent students from taking advantage. That’s why the final rule on this list is very clear:

All men are expected to leav [sic] the dormitory immediately following the meal excepting after the evening meal when they may stay in the parlor on Wed. evenings until 7:30 and on Friday evenings until 10:30.

These rules might seem like quaint relics these days, but they are more than mere quirks. They show us how higher education combined many functions. In addition to academic instruction, students were supposed to pick up religious zeal and upward social mobility, all while being rigidly controlled. At the time, parents expected college students to learn more than just a profession; at conservative religious colleges especially, parents wanted children to learn how to mingle in society politely, and above all, safely.

Thanks, DW!

Papal Fundamentalism

It’s not what they meant to happen, but it seems to be happening a lot these days. As we heard from recent King’s College graduate Christian McGuire, some smart young evangelicals are turning to the Catholic Church. Evangelical-watchers have been seeing it lately everywhere we look. Thanks a tip from a SAGLRROILYBYGTH, for example, I ran across these charismatic folks who are enamored with Catholic tradition. It might feel like a new trend, but this “papal fundamentalism” has been predicted since the 1920s.

RollinLyndeHartt

Called it.

Rollin Lynde Hartt called it in 1925. Hartt may not be a household name today, but during the 1920s he was considered a leading expert on fundamentalism in the popular press. The Rev. Hartt was a liberal Congregational minister, dedicated to puncturing what he saw as the profoundly negative implications of the surging fundamentalist movement among his fellow Protestants. He hoped fundamentalism would wither and die away, but he feared (correctly) that fundamentalism wasn’t going anywhere.

When Hartt predicted the coming-together of the fundamentalist movement and the Catholic Church—what he derided as “Papal Fundamentalism”—he meant it as an insult. Hartt thought fundamentalism shared Catholicism’s un-Christian fetish for merely human authority. As Hartt put it in a 1925 magazine article,[1]

there is something essentially Catholic about the Fundamentalists’ demand for reliance upon authority; and in temperament every good Fundamentalist is a good Catholic.

HT: DW

[1] Rollin Lynde Hartt, “The Disruption of Protestantism,” Forum 74 (November 1925): 680-683.

From the Archives: The Past Was Creeeeepy

Historian Rule #1: Don’t let your present hang-ups dictate how you view the past. Fine. But sometimes the past seems so gross it’s hard to ignore. Yesterday in the archives, for example, as I read through boxes of letters to and from Joseph Lancaster for my new book, I came across this 19th-century weirdness:my choice young friend

“My Choice Young Friend?” Why not just “Dear Betsy?” I’m thinking the letter-writer was perfectly sincere. She wanted her young friend to know that she was loved. Still, I can’t seem to get this salutation out of the “haunted doll” category.

creepy dolls

My other “Choice Young Friends”

From the Archives: Look at Me When I’m Talking to You!

SAGLRROILYBYGTH know I’m spending my summer nerdily buried in the archives researching my new book. Some of the language oozing out of 1804 sounds depressingly similar to twenty-first century school talk.

In these pages, we’ve talked at length about schools and social justice. Can we yell at students to make them be better citizens? Is it unhealthy if schools for low-income students have them sit silently at lunch, march militarily down halls, and chant rote answers to repetitive test-driven curricula?

At New York’s famous Success Academies, for example, students are famously dictated to for their own good. Teachers and students follow a scripted set of behavioral norms. Students are directed to sit with their hands folded properly, their backs straight, and their eyes always on the teacher. As the New York Times exposed a few years ago, the tone could sometimes get creepy.

In this vision of good public education, students are thought to need intense behavioral control for their own good. Silent lunches, single-file marching in silence from class to class, and instant obedience are the hallmarks of the “no-excuses” approach. As Joan Goodman of the University of Pennsylvania has argued, the goal is submission. As Dr. Goodman put it,

To reach these objectives, these schools have developed very elaborate behavioral regimes that they insist all children follow, starting in kindergarten. Submission, obedience, and self-control are very large values. They want kids to submit. You can’t really do this kind of instruction if you don’t have very submissive children who are capable of high levels of inhibition and do whatever they’re told.

In New York and other big cities these days, this approach is often touted as the latest thing, a new idea to help low-income students overcome unfair social hurdles to achieve academic success. As I’m finding in the archives, however, it’s the oldest approach in the books.

LOOK AT ME

Notes from 1804…or is it 2016?

In an 1804 note, for example, school reformer Joseph Lancaster clarified the proper way schools must exert total control over students from low-income homes. As Lancaster argued,

That whenever they are spoken to they give a respectful attention by looking at those who address them make the necessary reply without delay or hesitation but always be careful to speak consistently with their knowledge and to express themselves in as few comprehensive words as they are able.

Way back then, urban schools in Philadelphia, New York, Baltimore, Albany, and elsewhere were already forcing low-income students to endure the rigors of a no-excuses approach. As Lancaster went on,

That they forbear talking to each other at meals—school hours or reading unless there be sufficient occasion. That they avoid running in the house but walk uprightly and take care to shut all doors after them (that they know out to be) with as little noise as possible.

Seems sad but true: When it comes to using schools to help children from low-income families, the answers have always involved creepy amounts of control and discipline. I can’t help but wonder: Do children from affluent families ever have to experience this sort of brow-beating and dictation?

The Death of College: We’ve Been Here Before

Ask anyone with a PhD in history, English, or philosophy. They’ll tell you: It’s not just a tough career path, there IS NO career path. Most universities rely on non-tenure-track teachers these days. In the new Atlantic Adam Harris reviews the bleak future of higher education. As my current research is showing me, we’ve been here before.

As Harris writes, Bryan Alexander’s predictions seem to be coming true. There just aren’t as many college students as there used to be. Enrollments are down and they will continue to slide. As Harris explains,

Why is the dip in enrollment such a big deal? Well, quite plainly, the business model for a lot of colleges is dependent on enrollment. If enrollments decline, revenues decline, and colleges have less money for facilities, faculty, and programs. That creates a sort of death spiral in which colleges are getting rid of programs, which in turn makes it harder to attract students, and so on.

No one ever asks the historians, but in this case we do have a strong precedent. Two hundred years ago, the systems we think of as K-12 education began to evolve into something close to their current form. It was a jagged and slow process, spread out over thirty or more years.

composition class John C Mee Oct 5 1835 Phila

Someone always has to read all the essays…

Our current system of mostly public education didn’t simply grow in an empty field. It pushed out several existing educational systems. The biggest losers in this evolution were the so-called “school masters” of the old system. As public schools took on their current form (more or less), the masters slowly lost their positions as the snobbish titans of education. Their experiences in the antebellum years could serve as a preview to the current state of tenure-track university faculty.

It’s not that the masters didn’t know what was happening. Their anxiety is palpable in every page of the letters and reports I’m reading these days in Joseph Lancaster’s papers.

For example, as one of Lancaster’s former pupils advised Lancaster in 1822, it would be better to get some students in the door immediately at Lancaster’s new school in Philadelphia. Enrollment was key to paying all the bills. As this pupil told Lancaster,

I think it would be well to admit a number of pupils at an easier rate than you have done, for you will be able to manage a greater number well organized in your own excellent mode, than a few on the imperfect plan hitherto pursued in the Institute. I think further, on this ground, could you fill your classes but respectably and get early and frequent exhibitions a short time would raise you in great and exalted honor high very high above your present inconvenient situation and engagement.

In the old system, school “Masters” experienced the dizzying shifts that today’s tenure-track faculty are experiencing. When their schools filled their enrollments, they were happy. When their schools faltered, masters suffered. Always, always, they lived in a state of continual uncertainty about the future. Would enough students come to full the school? Would they need to move to a different school, or maybe strike out on their own?

Sound familiar?

By the 1840s, the masters’ schools were tottering. As Bill Reese has described so compellingly, common-school reformers like Horace Mann toppled the Master system in Massachusetts with a set of new standardized tests.

What does this history tell us about today’s higher-ed situation? We don’t want to be too glib in our predictions, but the obvious guess would be this: We are facing a generation-long transition to a different sort of higher education. Instead of relying on effete experts for instructors, colleges will increasingly rely on a professionalized teaching force with little or no expectation of research and publication. Students will be expected more and more to prove their success with adequate performance on new sets of standardized tests.

The death of college is a death long foretold.

From the Archives: I Love Computers

Okay, so I’ll admit it: Reading these old letters all day in the research for my new book makes me love word processing. I know it’s more fashionable to be a little nostalgic and faintly Luddish and etc.backwards ps writing

But look at the kooky permutations people used to resort to. In this excerpt, the letter writer wanted to add in a postscript. Instead of just moving his cursor and clicking, he had to cram in the PS upside down and backwards in between the lines of his original letter!

No thank you.

What Was School Like in 1831?

For education historians, finding out what actually went on in classrooms is tricky. It’s easy enough to find old textbooks, old curricular standards, etc. But in order to find out what regular students did on any given regular school day it tough.

John F Taggart May 19 1831 SAMPLE OF STUDENT WORK in 1831

I wonder if this boring work led the students to murmur…?

I stumbled across a clue from May 19, 1831 in the archives yesterday. I’m working with the papers of Joseph Lancaster for my new book, and it turns out someone used the backsides of old school worksheets to make records of Lancaster’s correspondence.

So, by mere chance, we can know what John Taggart did for at least part of his school day, May 19, 1831. We can even see the one time he forgot a “y.”

Hello, Worcester!

Things might get a little quiet around the ILYBYGTH International offices for a few weeks. I’m off in scenic Worcester, Massachusetts, studying at the American Antiquarian Society. Thanks to the AAS, I’ve got a generous Alstott Morgan fellowship to support me here for a full month.

AAS reading room

My nerdy new home away from home…

I’m excited. The AAS has seventeen boxes of papers from Joseph Lancaster. [For more about this research, see here.] I can’t wait to dive in. Why, oh why, did Lancaster believe his “system” could solve urban poverty in one generation? And why did so many otherwise intelligent people believe him?

I’ll see if his papers hold the clue.

From the Archives IV: The Handwriting Is Off the Wall

Do you miss handwriting? I thought I did, but my research experience this week has me wondering. As I dug through the Philadelphia archives working on my new book, I’ve been confounded by the arcane art of penmanship.peanuts.1967.04.25

Most of my archive work over the past decade or so has been in twentieth-century collections. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH might recall, I’ve enjoyed leafing through old pages of type-written correspondence. I feel an acute nostalgia for the days of elaborate letterhead.

What I never had to wrestle with, though, is page after page of hand-written correspondence. Some of it is absolutely gorgeous. I have no idea how long it would take to write this way. Some of it is terrible and impossible to read—Charlie Brown level penmanship.

I’ll share a few of the most elaborate bits here for your Sunday morning delectation.

random handwritig 1random handwriting 2random handwriting 3random handwriting 4random handwriting 5