Wednesday, June 23, 2010

What would George Orwell think of iCollege?

Most of you have heard about Governor Gutshot’s idea to replace colleges and universities with a complex web of tubes to just pipe learning into the heads of “students.” Just like as (excuse me; that was a regrettable lapse) Dairy Queen pumps soft serve ice cream into empty cones.

Tim Pawlenty calls it “iCollege,” but the royalties on that would probably exceed any cost savings he imagines. Here’s a little of what John Croman of KARE television wrote about Pawlenty’s description of his idea when he appeared on the Daily Show:

"It wasn't as funny as Daily Show usually is," University of Minnesota political science professor Kathryn Pearson told KARE, "But, nonetheless, I think he portrayed himself as a credible presidential candidate and he stayed on message."

She said he may have taken a hit with college professors around the nation, however, by promoting the notion of replacing traditional college courses with "iCollege" courses that could be downloaded on a portable device, such as an iPhone or iPad.

This would not have seemed like such a hot idea to Plato or Socrates:

In his final self-defense, Plato’s Socrates says that like a gadfly who attaches himself to a horse to sting it, so he attaches himself to the young minds of his polis. In another dialogue, Meno, Socrates is compared to a stingray who strikes his target, numbing it. Both of these passages are puzzling at first reading, but his meaning is plain enough. The stinging may indeed leave its target bewildered, feeling helpless and ignorant, but Socrates wants to provoke: he craves a response, a sign of life, a contradiction, proof of intellectual activity. The essence of the Socratic method, so much beloved by law professors, lies in this–an education that consists of rote learning produces docile products that may serve the interests of the state but are not likely to seek to make society any better than they found it. An education that trains the mind to question, to think critically, also has the potential to advance society, transforming it into something better. Plato’s Socrates challenges his students to describe what they have observed, to expose what they “know,” and to examine the premises of their knowledge. [italics are mine]

That’s Scott Horton, writing on his blog No Comment.

You can put ice cream in the cone, but you can’t make it think. That’s perhaps pushing the metaphor a little far, but it isn’t any sillier than the notion that you can authentically replace the challenge of sitting in a college classroom and interacting with the professor and other students with a telephone.

To me, iCollege is Orwellian. A recent study made the troubling assessment that modern college students are already less empathetic than the generations before. Here’s one of the reasons:

According to one of the lead researchers, Ed O’Brien, “It’s harder for today’s college student to empathize with others because so much of their social lives is done through a computer and not through real life interaction.”

In his Daily Show appearance, Pawlenty apparently joked about college students not wanting to get off their “keisters” (it always makes him feel naughty and hip when he uses that word) and go to class.

If all you want is a cadre of unthinking and uncaring Deltas (careful, don’t trip over the stray Huxley reference), perhaps iCollege is just the ticket, but if you want democracy to be more than just an obedient mob — again, Plato’s words — you’ll shop elsewhere.

UPDATE: Now Pawlenty says he only means iCollege as a supplement to college, not a replacement for it but Rachel Stassen Berger seems skeptical. So am I. Here’s what he said originally on the Daily Show:

Do you really think in 20 years somebody's going to put on their backpack, drive a half hour to the University of Minnesota from the suburbs, haul their keister across campus, and sit and listen to some boring person drone on about Econ 101 or Spanish 101?

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