“Processing Content”

Crabby thinks about the new paradigm for education…

This year’s NACAC conference takes place in the wake of tonight’s presidential debate in Denver. Of course, they are not so much debates as thoroughly rehearsed talking points designed less to address one’s opponent than to reiterate one’s own position. Well, OK. Crabby doesn’t expect much of substance; people will be looking for “gaffes” and hoping the Romney will at least appear somewhat human.

Whether he does or not, and whatever either candidate says, we face the prospect that education in the U.S. is becoming less and less of a priority for governments, no matter what politicians say. Increasingly starved of money and increasingly privatized and controlled by wealthy individuals and corporations, public schools are less and less able to adequately educate our citizens, especially those who need it most.

Crabby sees this situation every day when he talks with African American, Latino, and other underserved students from CPS and charter schools in Chicago. Unfortunately, he sees them on the verge of their senior year of high school as they consider college, when it’s too late to undo the many injuries they’ve suffered in the educational system.

The most frustrating cases are those students who are clearly bright and eager to learn something, anything, yet who have never had the opportunity to do so. Starving for some intellectual nourishment, they have instead been fed a gruel of test prep and regimentation. The result has been a withering of the ability to think widely, to use language, calculate, and derive pleasure from discovering new ideas and concepts. Forget “enrichment;” it’s the fundamentals that are lacking.

When the time comes for college, these students are caught in a sad spiral: They have enough intelligence to consider competitive institutions, but none of the numbers that would get them a real look by admission officers. Many have been told by their schools how extraordinary they are, yet in the grand scheme of college admissions, they are nowhere near the level they need to be for competitive college admission. Even if they are admitted, it’s a struggle to get through academically, never mind culturally.

Many of the students Crabby works with do indeed make it to competitive colleges and do well. But they are a tiny minority of students who go through the Chicago school system and Crabby’s work involves providing those students with extensive support so they can make it. They are the lucky ones: What about those who don’t get the help they need?

The Republican vision of America seems to be one of a “winner take all” society that has no real responsibility to those who don’t “win.” It has no idea what it takes to succeed when you’re coming from way behind, financially, socially, or culturally. It talks about “education” as if it were mere “training” for a job, not something more fundamental to a democratic society. This is the real danger of the Republican outlook: It’s not interested in creating thoughtful citizens, only compliant workers.

If that is the case, it’s not that important to teach non-white, non-well off students to think, doubt, and dig deeply into ideas and propositions. It becomes OK to focus on test prep because that requires an almost Pavlovian response to stimuli instead of careful consideration of issues or answers. So even when those students get good scores (and sometimes even good grades) they still haven’t learned enough to make them decent college candidates.

It’s tragic to imagine generations of students who will never have the opportunity to be stimulated by books, ideas, equations, and all the other things that lay the foundation for active participation in one’s own society. Without these things one is forever trapped in the tiny circumference of one’s own assumptions and certainties, which is why there can be a “creationism” museum that has humans and dinosaurs co-existing or continued shouts about keeping government hands off Medicare.

As Crabby heads to Denver to meet with college admission deans and high school counselors, he’d like to imagine that colleges could speak up more about the dismal state of affairs affecting their prospective students. He’d like to think that they might get fed up with being made to shoulder the burden of doing what K-12 education should have done, especially as it affects those not fortunate enough to have been born affluent and educated.

Crabby would like to see colleges reject NCLB and “races to the top” as being damaging to students. He’d like to see them oppose privatization of schooling in favor of a national rededication to American education as a whole, despite all the political and cultural potholes that would cause. He’d like to see colleges speak out against treating students as “consumers” or as minds to be “programmed” as if they were computers. (How many times have you heard about someone “processing information” rather than “thinking?” It’s how many teachers talk about things now, and, make no mistake, it encourages a very particular and very shallow way of thinking about “education.”)

In his book You Are Not a Gadget, Jaron Lanier writes, “‘What is a person?'” If I knew the answer to that, I might be able to program an artificial person in a computer, But I can’t. Being a person is not a pat formula, but a quest, a mystery, a leap of faith.” He postulates that technology, specifically computer and Internet technology, isn’t simply something we use, but something that has changed the ways we look at ourselves, making us think that people can be “programmed” the way computers can.

So far our reaction to this situation has been to add more technology and encourage the greater commodification of “information” through things such as online for-profit “colleges” and Wikipedia. But to maintain the vitality of the individual mind, we need to be sure we don’t succumb to technology even as we depend on it more and more. Lanier writes, “When developers of digital technologies design a program that requires you to interact with a computer as if it were a person, they ask you to accept in some corner of your brain that you might also be conceived of as a program.” It’s all too easy for this idea to flow into our everyday thoughts. It gives Crabby the creeps.

Crabby isn’t too optimistic about getting more “content” to the already underserved, but he believes that if the “end users” of the American education system, its colleges and universities, put more time and effort to helping it gain a sense of humanity, thing might look better for everyone. As helpful and powerful as technology is (any technology changes our worldview, after all), colleges need to continue reinforcing ideas about the liberal arts, the power of the individual mind, and the primacy of the democratic ideal. Otherwise we’ll have simply achieved what technology wants for us and not the reverse.

Note: Crabby will be a panelist in the session “Rapid Fire Discussion on Trending Topics” at the Denver NACAC conference, Saturday, Sept. 6th, 10-11:15 am. Ten topics in 75 minutes!

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About Will Dix

I am currently writing a book about college admission. I'm interested in the intersection of the college process and American culture. I attended Amherst College in the 1970s, taught high school English and theater at The Hill School in the '80s, returned to Amherst in the '90s as an admission dean, and began the '00s as a college counselor at the University of Chicago Laboratory School. I then joined Chicago Scholars as Program Director. Currently, I blog about college admission for Forbes.com. I also help community organizations serving low income students understand the college admission process so more students can consider gaining access to higher education. I have a few private college counseling clients that I take by referral only. The views expressed in this blog are mine alone.
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