With President Obama throwing down the gauntlet daring Congress to pass his American Jobs Act legislation, including $30 billion allocated for the repair and refurbishing of American schools, I decided it was time for me to weigh in on the subject. More specifically, the school buildings of the American education system. Back to that in a moment.
I’ve been thinking about this topic for a number of months.
The American Education Revolution of 1916
The title of this post is nearly 100 years old. It wasn’t a book written by John Dewey (1859-1952), who led the progressives to reform education in America, and is still widely read by students and scholars of education. No, this was the title of a small work by his contemporary, Abraham Flexner (1866-1959).
A Modern School was published in 1916, and had a major influence on the huge revolution taking place at the time in our nation’s education from the top to the bottom. Flexner argued, and successfully for that matter, that the Classics as The Foundation of education were out of date. He foresaw the United States as a growing economic power, that despite the huge emphasis on manufacturing and industry fueling the national economy that propelled us through WWI and later WWII, the country was inexorably moving toward an urban and white collar world. He was largely right; the Classics never really recovered as the core of the nation’s curriculum and we indeed became financially the most powerful nation on earth. He stated,
It follows from the way in which the child is made, and from constitution and appeal of modern society, that instruction in objects and in phenomena will at one time or another play a very prominent part in the Modern School. It is, however, clear that mere knowledge of phenomena, our mere ability to understand or to produce objects falls short of the ultimate purpose of a liberal education. Such knowledge and such ability indubitably have…great value in themselves; and they imply such functioning of the senses as promises a rich fund of observation and experience. But in the end, if the Modern School is to be adequate to the need of modern life, this concrete training must produce sheer intellectual power. Abstract thinking has perhaps never before played so important a part in life as in this materialistic and scientific world of ours,—this world of railroads, automobiles, wireless telegraphy, and international relationships. Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power. Source: Abraham Flexner, “A Modern School,” American Review of Reviews 53 (1916): 465–474.
Flexner’s day, however, has come and gone (and Dewey’s, too, but Flexner’s vision has truly run it’s course). There is an emergent paradigm for which America’s youth must be educated. It is my opinion as an educator, however, that they will not receive that essential new pedagogical foundation. In fact, we are already at least twenty years behind. If you think that the key to education is still, “Our problems involve indeed concrete data and present themselves in concrete forms; but, back of the concrete details, lie difficult and involved intellectual processes. Hence the realistic education we propose must eventuate in intellectual power,” you haven’t yet switched paradigms, either.
Why such a radical breaking with these giants of American educational history? Bits. Simply put, the virtual reality created by cyber-bits has dissolved, for all intents and purposes, the structures and pedagogical foundations of American education, of global education, really. I would submit that we aren’t teaching our children how to live and work in this new reality, and will go so far as to say we don’t for the most part even know how to teach them what they will need to know this afternoon let alone tomorrow or next year. Flexner’s world dominated by “intellectual power” has evaporated like so many quarks into the quantum foam.
The Building is the Curriculum
It is said art imitates life. In the same vein, schools imitate reality. Their architectural design imitates the work place. Their schedules imitate the daily routine of the nation. Their curricula imitate, since Flexner and others, America as the urban and financial powerhouse of the world. That world is crumbling before our eyes at an astonishing speed.
So, I am pondering the question, should we really refurbish and rebuild our schools in the way President Obama envisions? I support passage of the AJA. I strongly support students having school buildings that are safe, enhance the learning process, are energy efficient, etc., etc., but will that $30 billion be trying to repair that which can no longer serve these functions in this new paradigm?
Consider that the school building is a teacher, too. As a manifestation of the Flexner paradigm, our schools are far past retirement. Add the way we teach our teachers, to the degree our teacher education conforms to the Flexner model, we are preparing them exclusively to teach in those outmoded buildings. They will not know how not to teach in those schools. Teaching in a sparkling new building with the most up-to-date technology money can buy will make no difference in the alternate universe of the emergent digital paradigm.
What if we did the most radical thing imaginable: Tear down all those worn out schools and design new ones to reflect the new paradigm that is ruled by the bit, the byte, where those who command the power of Virtuality have truly been educated in “A Modern School.”