what Thomas Hardy taught me

A few people have asked me to weigh in on this New Yorker piece on yet-another set of Silicon Valley types, demonstrating the existential hubris of their kind by assuming that the level of thinking that brought you Candy Crush Saga can permanently alter education, a human endeavor that stretches back millennia and which has captured the attention of the greatest minds of human history. Of course, in their culture, that kind of hubris is considered a mark of pride, rather than an embarrassment; nothing signals importance to other thinkfluencer types more potently than pride in one’s own self-regard. In any event, for as much as Rebecca Mead struggles to make it new, representing this year’s flavor of Disruptive Innovation in the Field of Innovative Disruption as something bold and different, it’s the same old stuff: technology will save us from our educational problems. Everything old is new again.

Never mind that the idea of salvation through technology is the hoariest old cliche in the history of education, stretching back to the fear among the educated classes that the invention of the printing press would render education obsolete. Never mind that the radio was sure to change teaching forever, or that the television was too, or that the VCR was, as was the personal computer. Never mind that I still hear people talking about what the internet will surely do for the schools of the future, despite the fact that we had the internet in our classroom when I was in junior high school 21 years ago, the school of the past. Never mind that one of the most easily predicted outcomes in educational research is that a highly-touted educational technology will result in no meaningful difference in learning gains. Nope: it’s the same old shit. We’re better and smarter than those other guys who told you that they were better and smarter than the guys who came before them. Our jargon is newer and better. Gamify the cloud with synergistic flipped classrooms that take an active learning approach to emergent technologies and the internet of things. Our app has flavor crystals. Rinse and repeat, now and for forever.

A piece like this makes you realize the real tragedy of this (profitable, and thus perpetual) fantasy of remaking education is that its progenitors are guilty of precisely what they accuse others of: a complete failure to think of education outside of a narrow, restrictive framework. Mead refers to the educational vision on offer here as utilitarian, and I suppose it’s that. But I would argue that the current orthodoxy about education — which, make no mistake, all these proud free thinkers clearly share — is fundamentally mechanistic. That is, it presumes that there is a basic correspondence between particular inputs to a student’s learning and straightforward and clearly-defined outputs in a student’s outcomes. So you teach a student division, and they’ve learned division, and nothing more; you teach a kid to code (in a language that will be obsolete by the time they reach even undergraduate education) and they learn to code (a skill that will be largely automated by the time they reach middle age) and that’s why you bother to do it. And you don’t teach them to read poetry or to dance a waltz because you can’t get a job troubleshooting Geico’s android app with those skills. Everything is a simple and uncomplicated matter of what you put in and what you put out, and the value and importance of what you get out depends entirely on what’s taken seriously by the staff at Wired magazine.

I want to argue that this notion of how the mind works, how learning works, how human life works, is terribly flawed, that it fails to understand basic realities of what the mind is and does, and that the real failing of the people behind these companies is not that they think they can solve every problem, but that they are so sure they have comprehended what the problems actually are. And I want to argue that everything about their culture militates against them ever perceiving the oceans of understanding that they fail to see out the windows of their Teslas as they speed around Mountain View and Cupertino.

In Latin class with my dear old teacher Mrs. Montgomery, I was paying little attention to my declensions and the travails of Caecilius (and I kind of regret that) and a lot to this old textbook she had dug out for me. We had been chatting about a story and she knew she had it in an old discontinued textbook which was divided into fiction, drama, and poetry. The story was only OK, but the poetry section was magic, and I began to tote the book around to every class, reading from it voraciously. I never gave it back. And that fateful day in Latin II I happened to be reading “The Convergence of the Twain,” a poem about the loss of the Titanic by Thomas Hardy. Here was something I read.

And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue
In shadowy silent distance grew the iceberg too

The effect of this stanza, on me, was profound. If you’ll forgive me, I recognized my mortality. I had never before seen laid out so plainly the fact that the conditions that would someday affect my life were busily being created, far away, and quite indifferent to their eventual impact on the person who seemed, according to the dictates of consciousness and the subjectivity of human life, to be the necessary and inevitable protagonist of reality. I became somewhat obsessed with the idea that the events of my eventual death were being brought into being, though no earthly figure could possibly know that at the time. Maybe the make of car that would someday be involved in the accident that killed me was being planned in some office somewhere, the designers failing to consider a potential for danger. Maybe the person who would cause the collision in which I was killed was currently researching which car to buy. Or maybe that person was about to head out on the supermarket trip which would end in hitting me head on. Maybe, more optimistically, the eventual mother of my children was somewhere sitting in Latin class, too. Who knows where she’s sitting today?

In a very real way that was the moment when I contemplated the world outside of my own subjectivity in a genuine and mature way. And like so many other important ideas, its consequences continue to spool out in my mind for years to come. It multiplied complexity; it introduced patterns of thinking and difficult questions that I had never thought to consider before. It deepened my mind in more ways than I can express. And yet the value of this insight, in any conventional educational assessment you can name — and I say that as an expert — would be nil. This understanding, which has been central to my development as an adult intelligence, would not factor into any assessment of my academic aptitude. We do not have instruments that measure this kind of learning and we never will.

Now: I don’t and can’t represent myself as anyone’s definition of a human success. And I’m not interested in making this about the rigor or quality of my research or my field. But I can say that, by the typical benchmarks of educational success, I have performed well. I graduated from high school, finished a bachelor’s degree, and went on to two graduate degrees. I’ve performed very well on standardized tests, both state-run assessments of educational progress and entrance exams like the SAT and GRE. I’ve been published in major newspapers and magazines. I’ve written a major policy position paper for a respected think tank. I’ve been published in peer reviewed journals. If you want to get neoliberal about it, I’ve gotten jobs and earned something like the median income. Again, this is not about representing myself as some sort of great success story, but rather just to establish that I have had the kind of academic outcomes that policy makers, members of the media, and parents say they want.

Yet on the level of thinking of our Silicon Valley overlords, aspects of my cognitive abilities that are absolutely central to my educational success are taken to have literally no value at all. In educational research, perhaps the greatest danger lies in thinking “that which I cannot measure is not real.” The disruption fetishists have amplified this danger, now evincing the attitude “teaching that cannot be said to lead to the immediate acquisition of rote, mechanical skills has no value.” But absolutely every aspect of my educational journey — as a student, as a teacher, and as a researcher — demonstrates the folly of this approach to learning.

I’ve said it many times, though people never seem to think I’m serious: years studying literary analysis, now widely assumed to be a pointless and wasteful activity, have helped me immensely in acquiring the quantitative, monetizable skills that ed reformers say they want. Again, I don’t represent myself as any symbol of great success in these areas, but I am conversant in statistics, computational linguistics, and research methods, and these competencies are now frequently endorsed as the kind that make one a marketable worker. My ability to closely read a poem has strengthened my ability to acquire these skills, in a way that I cannot possibly prove but that I am entirely sure of. Reading and absorbing literature, and being patiently taught by skilled teachers, has helped me to see the world’s deep and hidden complexities in a way that I have applied to all of my quantitative and specialist knowledge. Hardy was with me when I first struggled to understand overlapping sums of squares; he was with me when I slowly absorbed spec-head movement and C-command in syntax classes; he was with me when I first painstakingly made my way through explanations of latent semantic analysis; he was with me this morning as I slowly pecked out lines of code in R-studio. And, surely, he was there when I wrote for Harper’s and The New York Times. You are free to speculate that, given my inability to distinguish myself in the various arenas of digital competition that play such a large role in the elite imagination these days, my time studying poetry would have been better spent elsewhere. I can only tell you that the notion of a simple, mechanistic relationship between what I was taught and what I can do has proven totally false in my own life.

The point is not that the humanities, or the liberal arts, or the deeper concepts and values of civilization, or whatever only have value because of how they support more narrowly-remunerative skills. The point is that these deeper values and these monetizable skills exist in relationships so deeply intertwined that they are permanently inextricable from one another. And the utter folly of disregarding those traditional aspects of education that can’t be immediately tied to skills you list on your Monster.com profile is one we and our children will pay for, for generations. I have no doubt that we will come in time to learn again the absolute necessity of learning that goes beyond the rote skills we currently perceive to be important, that someday people will learn to again see the utter necessity of humanistic thinking. But such understanding will only come after we have allowed deluded privateers to wring every last dollar out of our educational system as they strip it of all learning that has a function other than training more efficient little capitalists.

Albert Einstein was obsessed with music. Would he have been a better physicist, or a worse one, had he spent the time he devoted to music and the other arts on what we now call “STEM subjects”? It’s an absurd, pointless, unanswerable question. What matters is that Einstein was a full-fledged human being, and enjoyed an education that permitted him to be that, and that took the creation of such full-fledged human beings as its central mission. And if we only have the courage to devote ourselves to that project, too, the rest will sort itself out in time.