Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education

I was searching Sirius radio for something to listen to last Wednesday while driving from New York City to the small upstate town of Andes. One of the stations I paused at was carrying the New Hampshire education summit. I was ready to move on, but to my surprise I was unable to turn away from the conversation Campbell Brown was having with Carly Fiorina, former CEO of Hewlett-Packard and presidential candidate. Fiorina was making so much sense that I found myself thinking, "she'd make a great Secretary of Education."

Of course there was the obligatory bashing of teachers unions and the glorification of individual choice, a key tenet of conservative ideology. But Fiorina did not endorse charter schools unreservedly; rather than regarding them as goods in themselves, she cautioned against setting them up without adequate planning and oversight, and criticized Texas for doing just that.

Fiorina was similarly nuanced in her assessment of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, the education programs of President George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively. While acknowledging that it is good to have measures and standards, Fiorina decried what she called "standardization," because it too quickly becomes an end in itself and is often the captive of testing companies and large publishing houses. The link with educational aspirations is lost because "what is standardized are not goals, but methods." The imperative is to follow a bureaucratic procedure rather than to advance legitimate pedagogical objectives. As a result, children "learn to the test and the moment the test is over, they forget what they have learned."

Fiorina contrasted this kind of learning with her own childhood experience. "I don't remember," she said, the classroom or the equipment in it. What she remembers is "the teacher standing in front of the classroom inspiring kids to life-long learning," and then she named all her teachers from the second to the fifth grade. "Every single one of them made me love to go to school every day."

In Fiorina's educational vision, the teacher is everything. Asked by Brown what the classroom of the future will be like, she responded by saying that it won't be, or shouldn't be, dominated by technology. She insisted that technology is a tool, not a silver bullet; and it introduces two dangers:

First there is the danger -- courted and celebrated by some techno-utopians -- that the teacher will simply disappear and the interaction will be entirely between the student and a computer program. But, Fiorina demurred, "a kid is not going to learn something by googling it." Information may be gained, but information delivered nakedly without the intervening and guiding perspective of a teacher who is aware of the multiple (and often clashing) contexts that give facts meaning and depth will be as inert as the screen that displays it.

Then there is the danger (already being realized, Fiorina observed) that a technology-dominated classroom -- a classroom focused on programmable skills rather than on messy and ever-changing ideas -- will become the location of job training rather than intellectual exploration. Education's great task, she said, is not to prepare people for jobs, but to "fill children's souls," to make of them the kinds of citizens who can contribute to a participatory democracy. And that task, she insisted, requires exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy -- the very subjects that are currently falling by the wayside in the rush (aided and abetted by computer learning) to elevate the STEM subjects to the be all and end all.

From where I sit, this is just common sense, but it is not the common sense coming from the Obama administration (or the Bush administration before it), and it is certainly not the common sense coming from those whom Evgeny Morozov calls "solutionists," techno-prophets who believe that technology can provide us with "flawless and perfect information" -- information detached from any layered context of actual experience -- on the basis of which we can proceed easily, and by well-defined steps, to illumination and a new Eden. Solutionists love to point out (in disdain) that despite hundreds of years of innovation and technological progress, the 21st century classroom is basically just like the classroom in Plato's dialogues: eager students sitting at the feet of a master teacher. As far as I am concerned, that's the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week.