Stanley Fish on One End of a Log and Carly Fiorina on the Other: Can Schooling Get Any Better Than That?

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Stanley Fish recently made a tongue-in-cheek endorsement of Carly Fiorina for Secretary of Education. OMG! Strange bedfellows indeed -- a philosopher, detached from the real world and an entrepreneurial opportunist thoroughly immersed in it.

Fish takes on the people he calls "Solutionists" who decry 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 -- a condition he fully endorses: "As far as I am concerned, that's the good news and it is news Carly Fiorina was broadcasting last week."

Alas, the good old days that Fish yearns for existed only as a Platonic ideal. They were anything but good -- a two-tiered authoritarian structure based on business-like management models which emphasized testing and grades, were cluttered with irrelevant curricula, emphasized rote learning and grill and drill, and had as its central mission, the sorting and classification of children by class for a future dead-end role in society.

Forina, who knows firsthand about jobs, having played a major role in destroying large numbers of them, nobly states that education's great task 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.

Agreed, the purpose of education in a Democracy is not to elevate the quality of Boeing or Microsoft personnel, enhance our GNP, or better allow us to compete in the world. Its true purpose is to help the individual person act more effectively as an autonomous center of power and responsibility; to help her to be more creatively engaged, and to assist her in learning how to best use the gifts with which she has been blessed. It teaches her how to act not only better towards herself but towards others, helping her in her spiritual development so she night better act in accord with moral purpose. That is the tripartite purpose of education -- hopefully resulting in a free, autonomous, responsible, and moral being. Knowledge is understood for what it is, a means towards those ends, not an end unto itself.

But one does not "fill children's souls." That speaks of "pouring it on or in," or what noted educator Paolo Freire called "jug to mug education," whereby the teacher pours from his jug to the student's mug. Come examination time, the student returns the favor.

Might they better follow Freire, rejecting the traditional banking approach -- the staple of traditional education whereby inert material is simply deposited into the student's account, replacing it with a process that is mutual and dialogical, one in which students continually question and take meaning from everything they learn.

In the process, students learn how to think democratically and to take control over their own education and their own life, developing an elevated personal, political and social consciousness, whereby they became the subjects, rather than objects, of the world.

It's easy enough to single out standardized testing as a villain in the piece. Everyone knows the excesses of same and the preoccupation, if not obsession, with quantifiably verifiable indices of success. And the havoc such obsession is wracking on contemporary education.

But cool your jets on the issue of technology. Agreed, there is a misplaced faith in technology that it can somehow deliver us to the promised land of enlightenment. But let's not throw the baby out with the bath water or become a Luddite on the subject.

Ironically, the very technology generally regarded as cold and impersonal, also offers the best opportunity for re-humanization of the culture. It has the potential to return learning to the learner. By recognizing his unique identity and personal interests, it can assist him in addressing his primary concern: liberation, affirmation, and acceptance of self, helping him to regain the right to determine his own experience.

This does not mean a diminished role for the teacher, but a new one. No longer will the teacher be relied on as the source and primary transmitter of data. Employing the new technology, the student instead will have the ability to access information faster and more accurately through his own efforts. This, in turn, allows the teacher to redefine himself -- to embrace a new role as mentor and catalyst, guiding the student in an intelligent application of his knowledge and helping him explore new connective principles.

Technology also puts up for grabs the very concept of school as a building. Transcending time and space, technology frees educational thinking from the impersonality of constrictive brick and mortar structures. Technology does all of this... and more.

What technology does not do, however, is provide the conceptual framework for its employment and the values which inform its use. Technology can be put to whatever use we want. Rather than being employed to insure greater compliance with mandates from Madison and Pennsylvania Avenues; its services can be employed on behalf of a higher calling.

Why not enlist it on behalf of the regeneration of intimacy and redefinition of community we so sorely miss? This very same technology which puts us each into our own individual orbit, dividing and setting us apart, which personalizes our buying habits and identifies us as good consumers -- also offers the best hope for bringing us together. We first need, however, to affirm those values loudly and clearly, lest that same technology become yet another set of tools for our enslavement, rather than our liberation.

What is missing most from the Fiorina-Fish vision is an examination of the larger questions which go to the heart of the educational process and the most basic assumptions on which the entire superstructure rests.

  • What social and moral imperatives should guide the learning process? Education for whom; for what; towards what end; for what purpose?

  • How might our own educational history and past efforts at reform inform our current efforts?
  • What role do the larger social, political, economic, and technological forces play in shaping our schools? How do they help or inhibit our efforts to create a more just and humane educational system?
  • What are the alternatives to what presently exists? What are its essential components?
  • Neither Fiorina nor Fish makes mention of social justice, the meritocratic ethos which dominates to the exclusion of children of color and those who are less advantaged or the failure of our schools to meet their needs.

    We're all for greater exposure to music, literature, art and philosophy -- the very subjects identified as victims of the current infatuation with computer learning and the STEM subjects. As for ideas, indeed -- but not simply ideas for ideas sake. .

    This has led to an intellectual bias in the educational process which falls most heavily and discriminates most greatly against children of color and of disadvantaged.

    Why don't they mention how our schools might instead consider identifying and nurturing skills, talents, and mindsets that have more influence on adult success than does IQ? What of creativity and independent thinking? What of emotional and social intelligence? -- enhanced self-awareness and self-control, how intellect and emotion might work in tandem, political and social consciousness/conscience, the capacity for working with others and helping them work more effectively?

    We believe that the classics, including Plato, can play an important part in the educational process. But not as ends unto themselves, not as interesting relics of sorts, received by students as antiquated pieces of history, divorced from their most basic concerns.

    Our job as educators is to make the classics, and the questions they pose, relevant to the times and to the lives of our students. Creating a relevant curriculum means developing a coherent framework of study which might aid our students in their struggle for identity. It is one that speaks to them directly and to the times in which they live.

    Education would then be not apart from the world but a part of it. At its most effective, it would be transformative for both the learner and the society.

    I'm not sure that's what either Carly Fiorina or Stanley Fish had in mind.

    Think about the world you want to live and work in.
    What do you need to know to build that world?
    Demand that your teachers teach you that.
    -- Prince Peter Kropotkin

    More from Larry Paros on education:

    Larry Paros is a former high-school math and social-studies teacher. He was at the forefront of educational reform in the 1960s and '70s, during which time he directed a unique project for talented underprivileged students at Yale and created and directed two urban experimental schools, cited by the U.S. Office of Education as "exemplary" and later replicated at more than 125 sites nationwide.