Gasping for Reason
After getting a prescription from my doctor for a sinus infection that has triggered asthma, I find myself wheezing in line at the pharmacy, where they tell my insurance refuses to pay for that prescription. Not having anticipated paying $80 for a vial of pills, I reach for my credit card. Not there. Not to worry, I pull out the emergency check I carry in my wallet.
When I take a pen to fill it out, the clerk says, “Oh, no. We put it through the machine.” Some sort of whoop-de-doop electronic check processing system. The only problem is it won’t accept my check. The clerk tells me this is because the check had been folded (well, only folded in my wallet for ten years or so).
The clerk kept struggling with the machine. I kept standing there wheezing. Finally the clerk calls for another clerk, somebody, she assures me, is really good at getting the machine to accept nonstandardized checks. Wheezing, I’m frantically rummaging in my purse to see how much money I can come up with—and looking for something I might offer as security—since I know I’m nowhere near $80. And I think about those old stories that you could write a check on anything—even a watermelon. And now you can’t even write a check—on a check.
Wheezing increases. I’m gasping.
The folded-check expert struggles with the whoop-de-doop technological marvel of a check processing system. FINALLY, he announces I can fill out the check the old-fashioned way, you know, by taking a pen and writing the amount ?
I’m dumbfounded. Why didn’t I think of that? Why did I stand there and passively obey the demands of technology?
I hate to think that in the presence of whoop-de-doop technological processing systems I lost my ability to think, but isn’t that exactly what’s happening in schools? In the old days of computer punch cards there were these big warning signs: Do Not Fold, Bend, Spindle or Mutilate. The cards became a symbol of overweening bureaucracy, of alienation. And now the punch cards are long gone and the hyper-streamlined data systems are touted by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the U. S. Department of Education as the saviors of education.
I was struck by the whoop-de-doop technology celebrated in a recent piece appearing on “Impatient Optimists,” the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation blog whose subtitle is Social Media for Social Good. In How Social Media Saves the Day for One Teacher, we how technology gives a middle school teacher the ability to assess the grammar performance of 140 students and give “prompt, personalized feedback,” which seems to mean that that computer spits out a graph of test results.
I would suggest that “personalized” is a far distant creature from “personal.”
Later at a faculty meeting, teachers applaud a system that allows them to correct essays via an online rubric.
People become so enamored with the wizardry of it all that they can’t see the forest for the trees. They ignore the fact that the wheezing asthmatic needs her meds. Or that overwhelming research shows that teaching and testing grammar skills is the least effective way of helping students attain what is known as standard English. Or that putting rubrics online doesn’t make them any less suspect. There is no doubt that technology can relieve teachers of much needless paperwork. But technology should serve pedagogy, not the other way around.
Today the New York Times has a big front-page story titled Data Barns in a Farm Town, Gobbling Power and Flexing Muscle. It is mostly about the Microsoft’s voracious appetite for electricity to run its data barns and the dangers this poses to the surrounding area. I wait for the day the media expose how the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is gobbling up pedagogy, without any thought of the very real danger this poses.