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In their book, Lowering Higher Education: The Rise of Corporate Universities and the Fall of Liberal Education (2011), Western University sociologists James Coté and Anton Allahar concluded that unless some broad-based social paradigm shift occurs, university degrees will soon become little more than expensive “fishing licenses” for fished-out lakes, rivers, and streams. While the universities themselves have just become another business for selling loans.

Online Schooling from Home

After completing my doctorate at the University of California and working in hospital staff development for a couple of years in the early eighties, my first full-time professorial job was with Canada’s only national distance education university at the time, Athabasca University in Alberta. Most if not all of our students worked from home at their own kitchen tables, or from whatever furniture they could rig together in fire halls, police stations, hospital cafeterias, union halls, prison stalls, teachers’ lounges, and the like.

I’ve seen online education both work and fail for more than 30 years. In my view, now’s not the time for repeating a lot of the same mistakes—like the evangelical techno-weenie subculture’s coup that’s reduced our chances of profiting from this stay-safe-at-home lockdown. This is what we used to call a “teachable moment.”

The time to teach nuclear physics and waste management, to my mind, was during the April 26, 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Not necessarily from 10-11:50 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursdays. Now’s not the time to teach only medical science, technology, and statistics—but to integrate that mix to form a more complete picture through engagement with the humanities, ethics, logic, and aesthetics for starters.

I read in the local newspapers this week about Toronto parents feeling torn between competing roles as teachers and caregivers, while staying at home with their kids during the pandemic. One parent said, “The math ain’t working and the English ain’t working. But you know what, [my daughter] can play the keyboard. That’s a real-life skill—music.” To which she added she wanted to take advantage of this “unique opportunity,” to connect and be closer to her daughter in a way they might not have been in the past.

This got me thinking. Instead of hopelessly trying to duplicate an already flawed and disappointing school system for many bright and enterprising students—why not try something new for a change? Well, not new exactly. Something from the 18th century Enlightenment period, that’s been ignored or largely forgotten of late. Confluent Education. Human teaching for human learning, which encompasses fields as diverse as modern dance, existential psychology, group dynamics, Gestalt therapy, contemporary theatre, art, athletics, and more.

I’m not a math teacher, but if I were I’d teach history.

History, like all synoptic disciplines in the humanities pull a lot of subject areas together. It’s not merely one subject among many. Every discipline has its own history and epistemology. Those lives and social events that underlie the discovery and development of all other disciplines, such as mathematics, philosophy, art, music, literature, sport, and physics, for example.

Now, if I were to teach mathematics—which I haven’t tried to do since my own children were in grade school—I would start with an open discussion about which realms of practice my kids were interested in applying a knowledge of math to? Astrophysics, the 1918 pandemic? Or keeping score of the profit margins on their curbside sales of firewood, second-hand clothes and sports equipment? Then I’d gather relevant source material.

Next, If I were tasked with teaching mathematics to anyone right this moment I wouldn’t be teaching from textbooks or programmed manuals’ modules—so much as presenting the biographies of great mathematicians both great and flawed, and high-tech entrepreneurs without whom the math would only be numbers.

Preferably people whose life’s work had something to do with shaping these times and shapes of things to come—like the solutions to super-wicked dilemmas we’re facing. The lives, triumphs, and tragedies of people such as Ada King-Noel, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852), Dr. Christine Darden (born 1942), or Dr. Alan Turing (1912-1954), might inspire someone to study algebra and symbolic logic, for starters.

Ada Lovelace, for example, was born during the brief marriage of poet George Gordon, Lord Byron and Anne Milbanke, Lady Wentworth. Ada’s mother encouraged her interest in mathematics, and music. As a teenager, Ada’s notes for a calculating machine called the Analytical Engine—now considered a precursor to the modern computer—helped Cambridge professor Charles Babbage envision the idea of computer-generated music, among other things. That’s something I imagine my kids would have taken an interest in.

There have been undoubtably great successes in modern times in terms of technological science. These have come in many forms; including medicine, biochemistry, electronic engineering, astrophysics, and so forth. Thus attaching to the great banner of science an awesome measure of authority. In the 19th and 20th centuries laid the hope that the assumptions and procedures of natural science might be applied to the social world as well. This hope—myself, my colleagues and others have since concluded—has at times proved both misguided and illusory. Rarely spot on.

People today tend to equate technological innovation with human progress. In fact, the dominant technopoly depends on our believing we’re at our best when acting like machines. Among the implications of these beliefs is a loss of confidence in human judgment and subjectivity.

We have devalued our capacity to see things whole and have replaced this faith with faith in the powers of technical calculation—on the technical process of communication, rather than the substance of it. As some of us still recognize, it is possible to write well without a word processor—as it is to write poorly with one. It’s important to remember what can be done without computers and what may be lost when we do choose to use them.

Education, Huh! Yeah, What is It Good For? …Absolutely nothing. Sing it again, y’all. —Edwin Starr, “War” singer/songwriter

Tools and technologies are certainly indispensable to any culture, but we must first understand how to control their use in the context of larger human goals and social values. Nowadays we are to a great extent being led by the yoke of huge corporate machinery—to believe we can improve the education of our citizens by improving what are called “learning technologies.” Many people go so far as look to some standardized science to provide them with an unimpeachable source of vague moral authority. When all else fails us, we look to our masters. Cowards. Them or us?

At the moment, many consider it absolutely necessary to provide internet access in every classroom and lab. (At UNC Chapel Hill we had a wifi “kill switch” on the professors’ podium.) Why should we provide the internet in every classroom? The answer is always the same, lame response: “To make learning more efficient.”

Is this what learning and teaching are for? Efficiency? That’s the technical answer about means, I suppose. What about the entire, overall purpose of education to begin with? Can live, real time inspiration be replaced by the internet the same way it’s supplanted the library?

If we’d asked Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Rousseau, or Jefferson—or jump ahead to Carl Rogers, George I. Brown, John Holt or Neil Postman et al—each believed there were some transcendent political, spiritual, or social ideals that must be advanced through education. (No one other than US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos or Ontario Minister of Education Stephen Lecce ever mentions efficiencies.)

Ancient Roman stoic philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero argued that education must free the student from tyranny. John Dewey’s aims were to help us to function in a world of constant change without certainty, and with how to deal with wicked, puzzling ambiguities and solve them. Confluent educator George I. Brown and his colleagues at Harvard, the Esalen Institute, and UCSB, made a serious attempt in the sixties and seventies to renew and re-establish one of the oldest and soundest traditions in Western civilization—education for the whole person—using Gestalt psychology and Gestalt therapy in conjunction with the full-spectrum of realms of meaning.

Involving the emotions, spirit, and society of human being, as well as education for the mind and physical body all taken together. Exactly as they occur in reality. Duh!

Confluent Education: Human Teaching for Human Learning

Each of the innovative humanistic educators of the past half-century have had their own reasons shaped by a well-established, common language and narratives that governed their view of the world. In a sense, a story of human history that gives meaning to the past, explains the present, and provides guidance for the future. Maria Montessori, for example, considered her work “scientific pedagogy”—calling not just for observation and measurement, but for the development of new methods which would transform them.

In our technologically dominated world at the moment however, one is rarely asked what we believe education is for. Its meaning and purpose. Is it still meant to be a battery system for storing the latent energy of our culture’s traditions? Or are we using it indiscriminately—driven out of consciousness by the tyranny of efficiency, comfort, and convenience—or to destroy having any more use for tradition at all?

As far as I’ve been able to see since I was a teenage rebel—all that high-tech high school prom, bourgeoise consumer outlook to vocational education appears to me like a colossal, unbending set-up—for the manufacture, distribution, and consumption of flashy objects. Including the manufacture of employees through repetitive training and odious socialization.

Why is that so important? In my view, an economic struggle to have more things—more jobs, more fantasy homes by the sea, more yachts, more cars, more clothes—only amounts to starving to get more than enough of what you really don’t need to begin with. Is consumerism an inspiring purpose? You tell me. This narrative I’m repeating suggests we’re not a culture so much as an economy. That’s pathetic, οικτρός, in Greek.

Neither Plato or Aristotle thought an education was for the purpose of making craftsmen and guardians more efficient—but rather for enabling we noble citizens to engage in grand endeavors we might make of our leisure.

Here we are in the years…

Everyone alive today can relate to the reality and concept of “crisis.” In English the expression crisis denotes a turning point, from the Greek krisis. Throughout history, dramatic crises have produced lessons of fortitude and renewal that still retains the power to capture our attention, and our concern. Most of us gain reassurance and resolve from hearing tales about how certain crises—even those ending in failure—do not condemn one to failure, but may offer new hope.

Now won’t be the time to squander a great opportunity we have to advance—rather than allow ourselves to be pliantly pulled-back into yet another historical, socio-economic riptide. Even with our backs to the abyss we are still standing at a new threshold. Simultaneously emerging in the time of the James Webb Space Telescope Mission looking outwards to the beginning of time—and the CERN Large Hadron Collider particle accelerator blasting away in the other direction, to the end of time.

As well as—in the meantime—further explorations into a broadened, subjective human consciousness and realization of our true social potential. That is, once we’re through making nonsense of our “illusory certainties.”

To re-iterate for the pro-literate, the real process of teaching and learning—whether at home, on campus, or on the dark side of the Moon—should recognize the ways in which we can and can’t teach or learn any idea, process, or relevant skill. In confluent ed., understanding and applying the ways in which the affective domain and the cognitive domain flow together is fundamental.

Like the confluence of The Forks in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where the Assiniboine and Red Rivers merge as one. The Forks—a historic green space and meeting site for aboriginal peoples for at least 6,000 years—things only become relevant when they are made personally meaningful. When fully integrated into group learning and social behaviour; when we have feelings about it. Whatever “it” may be for each individual lifelong student like you and me. Let’s find out.

Also refer to: The Surrender of Education and Culture to Technology: 21st Century Leviathans, Volume 2—on choosing the appropriate media channels, media ecology, internet peek-a-boo addictions, and encroaching technopoly—for which there is no opting-out of.

Amor fati,

Peter Chiaramonté, PhD CPRA President

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