Tag Archives: Education

Military education is to education as military music is to music

A few years ago, my daughter got me the book Absolutely American: Four Years at West Point. The amazon.com blurb describes it as “a thrilling portrait of a unique institution and those who make up its ranks,” which is actually not too wildly overstated– at least, it’s a very good book. In classic New Journalism style, the author rents a house near the West Point campus and follows a group of cadets (a small group, but they seem representative) through their whole time there. Also in classic style, the author starts out a hardened wise-guy/big city cynic, and ends up really, really liking the young people he meets. He’s impressed at how demanding the education is, how many challenges the cadets overome, and how fundamentally decent they are to one another. He’s also impressed at how they grow up in the course of their time there.

Now, we’re a pretty unmilitary family, and the only person I know who’s gone to a service academy is my ex-brother-in-law, who got kicked out after one semester at the Merchant Marine Academy. But like most everyone else, we’re suckers for young-people-growing-up-and-meeting-challenges narratives and for stories about the romantic, “unique institutions” that make the growing-up happen– whether it’s Rugby School, LA’s Garfield High School, or Hogwarts. West Point fits right into the series, making Absolutely a seriously feel-good read.

At least until you start thinking about the details of West Point education, and then you start to realize something weird: these young people barely have time for the washroom, let alone for any thinking about whatever it is they’re learning. Basically, they’re up before dawn (6 am), then running non-stop from class to class, activity to activity until bedtime. There are two or three hours of free time in the course of the day, but mostly that gets used up on sports, room cleaning, and other kinds of prep work. Maybe some of these kids find time in there for getting excited about a weird novel or writing project, or talking about ideas– but they’re much more likely to use their few spare minutes on pure escapism. Anyway, with “almost every facet of life being graded” (in the words of a recent cadet), there’s not much payoff in unstructured activity.

I assume the concept is,  when West Point graduates are out fighting our enemies, they’re not going to have time for random reflection or enriching reading. They’ll have to think and decide fast, without the benefit of a good night’s sleep or a research library, and the West Point atmosphere of constant busy-ness is supposed to prepare them for that. Of course they’ll also have to be physically fit, and West Point’s sports requirement (everybody has to play some organized sport) prepares them for that too.

It sounds convincing, but is it really a good idea to have military leaders who’ve basically never had the experience of thinking seriously about something? By which I mean partly unhurried thinking, with time to argue things out and pursue loose ends. At least for the last fifty years, the think-fast-not-deep thing just hasn’t worked very well– as I’ve pointed out before, the American military is on a long losing streak, despite having more firepower than the rest of the world combined.

That’s bad in itself, but it seems to me the real reason for worry is that this West-Point approach is seeping out beyond the military itself, into American society at large. On the one hand, our military leaders aren’t content with the military domain any more; instead they turn up in high civic offices, running the CIA and the like, and in the media, where they hold forth about the state of the world and what we should do about it. Even David Petraeus has recently returned to advice-offering, pushing for various strategies in dealing with ISIS. According to CNN, “many in the foreign policy establishment still seek out his views, so his proposal will no doubt be taken seriously.”

Meanwhile our education reformers sound eager to bring some of the West Point spirit to our beleaguered schools. We hear about is the need for frequent testing and clear goals, for both students and teachers; unstructured activity can only derail those objectives. Every so often there’s even a push to bring back school uniforms, though thankfully that seems to have died down for the moment.  What hasn’t died down is the sense that young people need to pack in more activities, and whatever gets in the way of those is just an obstacle to good education.

So my suggestion is, thinking about our sorry military score-card isn’t just for military historians or policy geeks. All those wars we’ve lost against weaker opponents suggest that West Point-ism doesn’t even work on the battlefields it was designed for. Why would we expect it to work elsewhere in society? Why are we making students’ lives more constantly busy, rather than less?

Do humanities professors dream of electric sheep?

Over the weekend, our graduate students put on a fantastic one-day conference, and it included a faculty roundtable discussing the digital humanities. The line-up included one super-enthusiast, two moderates, and me as the designated Mr. Negative– which in itself tells you where the window of debate is now located. I mean, I blog, I occasionally tweet, I push my students to consult Wikipedia for the background facts on what we’re studying. Take away digital photography, and I wouldn’t last a week in the archives; take away my morning dose of internet news, and I’m a wreck. The digital revolution has gone awfully far if someone like me gets cast as the voice of caution and doubt.

In the Teaching section here and on my Academia.edu site, I’ll post a cleaned-up version of my formal comments. Here I’ll offer a short version of those, mixed with some thoughts that came to me during the (outstanding) discussion that followed the panel’s presentations.

I won’t go on much about my own super-enthusiast side, except to say it’s real. As it happens, my particular weakness as a scholar coincides with some dramatic strengths of the new digital resources. I’ve always had trouble getting dates and details exactly right, and the old printed reference bibliographies have always just left me depressed and listless– anyway the specialized resources I usually need aren’t even available in the universities where I’ve taught. Think of it as my kinky version (not my only version, I hasten to add…) of a thrill we’re all experiencing these days: suddenly I’ve got a cheap, easy electronic solution to a dark, secret, personal weakness.

But the storm warnings also seem to impress me more than most of my colleagues. For the PG-13, super-scary version, check out the philosopher Tim Mulligan’s Ethics for a Broken World: Imagining Philosophy After Catastrophe. Among many other issues, Mulligan thinks seriously about the reality we all know lurks behind the digital wonderland– namely, it could go poof at any moment, because of a war, a breakdown of the electrical system, evil-super-hackers, an NSA Stuxnet-type operation gone wrong, or dozens of other altogether-possible scenarios

So Mulligan imagines his post-catastrophe philosophers having to make do with what he calls the Princeton Codex– scrambled bits and pieces of Princeton University’s paper library that survived climate change and its attendant disasters, in roughly the same messed-up way as ancient European literature survived the Dark Ages.

Except for one big difference. Everything from the ancient world at least had a fighting chance of making it through the bad times, and a lot was waiting there for people like Thomas Aquinas and Copernicus to sort through and build on when the dust settled. In 2015 we’re probably already beyond that point. A steadily greater percentage of our knowledge is now preserved only up there in the cloud, and pretty soon it will be most of our knowledge; if it goes, it’s gone for good.

So that’s the Total-Catastrophe worry, but there’s also the Right-Here-Right-Now worry: digital knowledge reshuffles the sociology of knowledge, in some ways for the better, in others for the worse. At this point we don’t know how much worse, but maybe quite a bit.

On the plus side, the digital world gives new reality to old ideals of equality and fraternity. Like everyone else, I now connect directly and easily with scholars all over the world, people I would never have encountered in the old days. And I get to publish my thoughts in places like this without awaiting the approval of editors or reviewers. Sure, the hierarchies and barriers still exist, but they’re way weaker than they used to be.

But as Alexis de Tocqueville explained long ago, the third element in the great French trinity doesn’t necessarily play well with the other two– and Tocqueville would have loved thinking about liberty’s tormented place in the new digital regime. “Tormented,” because our online doings are watched 24/7, by governments, insurance companies, angry teens, employers, and all sorts of others. Real havoc regularly ensues–health coverage rejected, jobs lost, visas denied, legal trouble, personal humiliations.

In the nature of things, life in this new panopticon entails controlling what we say and do, and even what we learn– multiple authorities now monitor our visits to informational websites. It’s the most effective kind of censorship, the kind where we do the real work ourselves, each of us monitoring our own utterances.

That seems to be part of a larger problem, which we’ve barely started wrestling with: digital culture binds us extra-intensely to our late-capitalist social order, not only because the individual bonds are so strong, but also because there are so many of them. Of course we rely on the corporations that supply our computers, browsers, storage, electricity, etc etc etc. But we also find ourselves slotted into mini-capitalist-entrpreneur roles– each of us bloggers now worries about generating traffic, attracting readers, speaking to our audience; nowadays we’re all minor-league versions of the hustlers who produce the Big Bang Theory.

Higher up the food chain, the resemblance gets even creepier. Here’s the former director of a major digital humanities project, a well-established project at a great public university, speaking some years ago about his job: “A main part of Thomas’s role as Director is to write grants, as well as to seek out appropriate public and private agencies, whose interests match the VCDH’s projects. He compares it to finding funds for a venture capital firm.”

So in this world of surveillance, audience-seeking, entrepreneurship, and venture capital, what happens to the humanists’ trouble-making functions, our capacity to raise harsh questions and social criticism?

My own answer is, so far, so good. Anyone who reads these posts will understand how liberating I’ve found the new media. But the storm clouds are there, and they may get very dark, very fast.


Tough times– some more thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

These are tough times for those of us who love France. The Charlie Hebdo shootings would have destabilized any society, but they carry an extra punch in one that’s usually as peaceful and orderly as France. An extra punch also because of the historical context: ethnic and cultural tensions have been rising there for years, and authoritarian voices have been getting louder. The Charlie events are sure to speed up those trends.

But in some ways it’s the response of France’s governing elites that’s been the most depressing part of the story, and that raises the biggest questions.

You probably already know about the craziest example. Three days after France’s president led millions of marchers honoring free speech, his government arrested the comedian Dieudonné for “glorifying terrorism” in a Facebook post. The post? “Je suis Charlie Coulibaly”– not exactly a call to holy war or ethnic hatred. I don’t know what Dieudonné himself had in mind, but I read his post mainly as an expression of empathy for the dead.

Dieudonné’s only the highest-profile arrest over the past week. As of Tuesday the police had already hauled in thirty-six others for “glorifying terrorism” and seventeen for “threatening” it; by Wednesday noon, the total had reached sixty-nine, and it was expected to keep rising. The perps include a drunk driver who shouted about the Charlie gunmen while being arrested, a twenty-one year old who expressed his endorsement of the killings while riding the streetcar (for that, he’s already been sentenced to ten months in jail), and two teenage girls who threatened a streetcar conductor.

The French government is also going heavy on the military option, sending a nuclear powered aircraft carrier toward Iraq, where it will help the US bomb ISIS. As it happens, it’s the Charles de Gaulle, named in honor of the French president that Charlie Hebdo’s title also commemorates– de Gaulle had closed down the magazine’s previous incarnation, and the editors used his name for their new venture just to piss him off.

So to sum up: France has arrested a comedian, some drunks, and two teenagers, and it’s started bombing another Muslim country. Does anyone believe these efforts will make the country safer or heal its internal divisions? Could the ISIS PR department imagine a response that would better validate its claims about the West?

Of course we Americans expect these kinds of moves from our own leadership. Since 2001, we’ve bombed a long list of Muslim countries. We don’t normally arrest people for statements like Dieudonné’s, but we do fire them, as in the Stephen Salaita case.

I expected better of France. Not a better level of political ethics– French states-persons have always prided themselves on their toughness and readiness to ignore political pieties– but more serious thought about what’s going on in the world and how to respond to it.

My faith rested on the defining qualities of those French elites I mentioned at the start. For the last century or so, France has made a sincere attempt to create a meritocratic society, in which the smartest and the hardest-working run things. Pretty much from day 1, French kids take a long series of competitive examinations. Those who do well move through a series of high-intensity schools, and eventually end up in top positions all through society. There are no legacy admissions or athletics scholarships in French higher education, no extra points for volunteer work.

The state plays a big role in the process. It sets the standards and provides the schooling, more or less for free, right through the French equivalents of Harvard Business School and MIT. Among top students, government service is an expected, widely admired career path, and so also is a certain breadth of humanistic culture. A few years ago, the famously abrasive, business-friendly Nicolas (“President Bling Bling”) Sarkozy created a minor scandal by describing his school-boy dislike of the seventeenth-century novelist Madame de Lafayette.

It goes without saying that there’s always been plenty of corruption mixed in with the meritocracy– cheesy deal-making, self-interested definitions of merit, big privileges, revolving doors.

But both ideals and practical arrangements in France encourage something better. French leaders aren’t expected to be lowest-common-denominator, NASCAR-watching regular guys basking in their ignorance. They’re supposed to have been tops in their classes at the best institutions; they read real books and travel, and they know foreign languages. Many hold lifetime civil service positions, so they’re not thinking about next year’s reelection campaign or about careers as lobbyists.

So what does it mean that when the going gets tough, these smart, cultivated, cosmopolitan leaders act pretty much the same as their yahoo American analogues?

There’s a range of possible answers, some of which eerily track the standard explanations of Islamic radicalism. There’s the possibility of outside influences: maybe Americanism really has taken over the western world, to the point that France has now adopted our political reflexes, just as in the 1950s it adopted our Coca-Cola. Or there’s the “it’s-baked-into-the-culture” explanation: maybe the universalistic, Enlightenment beliefs that are so central to Frenchness bring with them intolerance of alternatives, just as critics have charged for years.

Or it may be that intelligence, study, and cultivation just doesn’t count for as much as we professors like to think. When the big social and political forces hit, maybe the best and brightest are just as lost as the rest of us. Maybe the guidance has to come from other sources, from fundamental ethical and political commitments.  When those weaken, maybe intelligence, study, and cultivation don’t help.

Like I say, tough times.

More thoughts about Bill Gates and Big History

My last post commented on the enthusiasm and money that Bill Gates has been pouring into Big History, a way of teaching history that focuses on very, very long-term processes of change. There I mostly talked about the institutional sides of the story– what it means to have one not-very-well-informed rich guy making decisions about what everyone else should learn.

Here I want to talk content. I want to ask about the messages conveyed in a Big History approach to the past and the background assumptions that it seems to embody.

But before going any farther, readers should probably glance back at the consumer warning that’s at the top of this Opinions section. It explains that the opinions here are just that, opinions, not scholarship or value-neutral reporting, and that’s double extra true when it comes to Big History. I haven’t read up on the details or tried to see all the arguments in its favor. I haven’t looked into the pedagogy side either. It may be that Big History works great in classrooms full of teenagers– we’d still want to know whether it was worth teaching in the first place.

So today we’re skipping the nuances and subtleties, and getting straight to Big History’s Big Implications. What would it mean to make a Big History perspective the foundation of young people’s understanding of the past? David Christian, whose ideas so inspired Bill Gates, describes the intent as providing “a clear vision of humanity as a whole.” In a Guardian article, Gates himself is quoted as saying that the approach will help students “understand what it means to be human.” So what kind of answer is he funding?

One answer is, it’s a vision in which human beings don’t count for too much. In the Gates-funded version of Big History, we’re a speed bump on a long highway. We humans only showed up recently; relatively speaking, we’re not going to be here much longer, and the rest of the universe will get along just fine after we’re gone.

We also don’t have too much influence while we’re here, because so much of “what it means to be human” was fixed long ago: first by the geology, chemistry, and biology of the earth we inhabit, then by our earliest neuro-wiring as humans, for things like language and community life.

Within those parameters, there’s not much room for difference or transformation– the gaps separating us 21st-century Americans from, say, ancient Egyptians count for much less than the basics we share. Seen within the 250,000-year history of humanity, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Amy Heckerling might as well be the same person. Ditto for Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Rosalind Franklin.

You get my drift: Big History sure sounds like a training in resignation to all the inevitabilities that have built up over the last few hundred thousand years, not to mention the millions of years before we humans arrived. The changes that matter are bound up with enormous processes that we can’t do much about, and whatever we humans can achieve doesn’t match up against all that we can’t change. Bringing fast food workers’ wages up to $15 from the current $8?  Does that issue really amount to a hill of beans from the Big History perspective? Workers and activists should save themselves a lot of heartbreak and just accept the world as it is.

Is it unkind to suggest that a billionaire in today’s America might think that’s a great lesson to teach?



Billionaire History Man

Talk about weird news: last weekend, the New York Times reported that Bill Gates has developed an enthuasism for history. Not just as bedtime reading, either. Through his foundation, he’s begun pouring money into history teaching, in the hope of making history classes more interesting and more useful to America’s high schoolers. It’s all part of a bigger plan, apparently. More interested students will be better students, they’ll stay in school, get good jobs, not sink into drugs and despair, and help bring back the productive middle-class America that Gates grew up in.

The lightbulb moment apparently came during an early morning home treadmill session. Not wanting to waste that time, Gates likes to absorb improving material while he jogs, and this morning it was a Teaching Company lecture about “Big History,” by an Australian history professor named David Christian. Gates was blown away. Meetings followed, lesson plans were developed, financing was promised, and now Big History is being taught at a growing number of high schools, public and private alike.

Here I won’t say much about the substance of Big History. The key thing seems to be that it divides all time into eight stages, with the appearance of homo sapiens constituting stage 6 and the invention of agriculture stage 7. That leaves for stage 8 everything we usually think of as “history”– you know, Greeks and Romans, Confucius, the rise of Islam, slavery, industrial revolutions, African empires, American, French, Haitian, Russian, Chinese, and Vietnamese revolutions, the American Civil War, the Holocaust, that kind of thing. Fitting all that into one-eighth of a high school semester (about ten days, by my count) must make for some lively teaching.

So Big History’s content is plenty worth discussing, but for now I want just to say a little about Bill Gates’s involvement in it.

I’ll start with the obvious stuff. First, schools need money, and it’s a Good Thing that a billionaire wants to give it to them. Second, it’s Not A Good Thing that one billionaire gets to decide what millions of children learn, with add-on implications for hundreds of thousands of future teachers. Because if millions of high schoolers have to learn Gates’s version of history, an awful lot of college students will have to do the same if they want careers in education.

Third, it’s bad news that a semi-retired billionaire is getting his ideas about history from DVD lectures and TED talks. The whole story would still be creepy, but at least it would have been comforting to learn that Gates’s flash of insight came from a summer spent reading Edward Gibbon, Fernand Braudel, Natalie Davis, Jonathan Spence, and William Cronon. If billionaires are going to redesign American education, can’t they at least do some homework? Have real books become that difficult for them?

So there’s plenty here to get someone like me riled up. But there’s another angle to the story that deserves some thought, and that’s the strange spectacle of a billionaire tech oligarch concerning himself with history in the first place. Of course there are the obvious explanations, and they pop up often in the comments on the Times website. There’s the warm-hearted philanthrophy explanation: American schools aren’t doing all that well, and Gates is at least trying to fix them. And there’s the capitalism explanation: there’s money to be made in the education business, from selling books, programs, and other gear to a vast captive market. (Believers in the second hypothesis will note that the story itself comes from Andrew Ross Sorkin, a Times business writer who runs their semi-independent Dealbook blog, and who has on occasion served as a conduit for big-business opinion. The Times apparently didn’t involve its education writers in the story, and Professor Christian is the only living historian that it quotes.)

But maybe the particular motives don’t matter very much in a case like this– maybe the big fact is just the depth of Gates’s involvement in what is basically a cultural debate. He’s not just giving money or selling gadgets to schools– he’s pushing one vision of history and criticizing others, using philanthropy to shape what does and doesn’t count as history knowledge; and because of the big dollars involved, his intervention doesn’t just concern the target audience of high school students–it’s about teachers, potential teachers, and their teachers too.

We historians often worry that what we do is irrelevant to society at large, but Bill Gates is here to teach us otherwise– apparently power players are thinking about our enterprise. Big History at least has that Big Message for us.