"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, October 14, 2013

Technologies Foster Conformity

In a college essay circa 1837 on the "pleasures and privileges" of a literary life, Henry David Thoreau begins with a quote out of Horace stating that every writer loves the grove and flees the city...

This love of retiring from the hurry and bustle of the world has, in all ages, closely adhered to those minds most devoted to study and elevated by genius. Such an one "will gladly snatch an hour of retreat, to let his thoughts expatiate at large, and seek for that variety in his own ideas which the objects of sense cannot afford him...." 
It is to a retirement which lasted ten years that we are indebted for that celebrated work by Adam Smith, the "Wealth of Nations." And so of ten thousand others. 
This is pure enjoyment. But this path can only be trodden by the enlightened and cultivated mind — it is folly for him, whose intellect has not been trained to study and meditation, to look for pleasure here; to him the path is dark and dreary, barren and desolate.... 
Innocent and easily procurable pleasures constitute man's most lasting happiness: these are such as literature and imagination are both able and willing to afford. That undefinable misery, that insupportable tediousness, the curse of those who have nothing to do, is inconsistent with that relish for literature and science [a practice of patient observation leading to discovery], which is a source of continual gratification to the mind. He who is dependent upon himself alone for his enjoyments, — who finds all he wants within himself, — is really independent; for to look to others for that which is the object of every man's pursuit, is to live in a state of perpetual trust and reliance. Happy the man who is furnished with all the advantages to relish solitude! he is never alone, and yet may be retired in the midst of a crowd; he holds sweet converse with the sages of antiquity, and gathers wisdom...
I love to spend several weeks, months and even years, with one author, with one book even.  The words are always unfolding for me.  I am in no hurry to be done with them.  And I am in no hurry to get what I need out of them and put that to use.  I commune and imbibe, and something in those words, those thoughts, inhabits me and I become somewhat their progeny.

So am I unique?  Am I unusual?  Am I "elite"?  Or, am I, as a female pundit in The Guardian recently put it--foolishly old fashioned--I will be crushed under the boot of the technologist who learns not the ways of literature and language but instead learns only code.

What I like about Henry's essay is that it's heavy on the "pleasure" of literature.  But just as important is the work of reading and writing--Adam Smith spent a decade on The Wealth of Nations and the pundits among us do not read it but misappropriate one sentence to use Smith to serve their polemics.

We seem forever in a battle that employs only polemics.  Here we can cite statistics, case studies, research that spans cohorts that are local, national and international, and all to serve to bolster a position of interest.  That is, we cite them to no moral purpose.  You are loyal to your brand, we have discovered, though your reasons are always suspect (all reasons are thus).

When it comes to children, that which we label "the future," why do we, who must believe that we ought be do the best we can by them, play only upon polemics and politics?

Because we don't actually believe that we ought to do the best we can by our children.  Because some children count more than others.  Because some children are irrelevant.  Because some are wealthy; because some are poor.  Because some are brown and some are white.  Because some are masters and some are slaves...and masters do not count their slaves among the human, but among the chattel, valuable for the masters' economic benefit.  And if no longer valuable, expendable.

But, and by now we must all see this truth, the wealthy are very wealthy and they are white.  And they are loyal to their brand.  There really is not much more to say than that.  The rest is image/message manipulation on a very large scale.

So, what to do?  No clue, on a very large scale...but maybe on the scale of the township there is a chance to front a human face.

We must stop privileging everything that has brought us to this point, right?  No more obeisance to a state run by wealthy white politicians beholden to wealthy white CEOs.  No more blather about good corporate citizens.  Cities, municipalities, local city councils, local mayors, local school boards--refuse to be ruled by economic threats and be conscientious in the open, in the square!

No more technological fixes for one thing.  It is not equity to ensure all children in 2nd grade have access to iPads; or rather it is...an equity of abuse.

You've got to admit that computers are primarily designed with the assumption that the users will be stupid.  Your kid isn't learning anything of value on an iPad in school.

Ah, value...

Now we're in trouble.

One thing I know, we do not value thinking; and we do not value dissent.  In fact, just as it was in Thoreau's day, so it is in ours; we love conformity.

We love to fit in.  Bring on the iPads.

We will be conformed into slavery and child labor and we will appreciate it and thank our masters, because that's what slaves, with no memory, and no ability to think with words, and no ability to read to any depth, do.

That's what slaves do.


  1. Well, we're not slaves, exactly. We swapped our freedom voluntarily for the promise of ever increasing convenience and pleasure.

    Pleasure ≠ Happiness
    Happiness ≠ Contentment

    I think we got what we wanted.

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  3. A book I was reading this weekend by Sherman Paul, in a piece on Thoreau, says this on "the demands of society."

    "...life in the woods is now often a way of life correlative with the rejection of the society--no the demands of the society--whose bounty one readily takes, whose bounty makes it possible. In Communitas, the Goodmans say of the third paradigm of rural, subsistence living, that it serves the end of freedom: One chooses to live marginally, at the margin, in order to free oneself from the luxury economy and thereby pursue one's own (usually) creative ends. But from what I have seen those who have chosen the marginal life are seldom Thoreaus. To choose a marginal life is not necessarily to choose a life, to have something purposeful to do, and lacking this wouldn't life in the woods lose its attraction and become dismal, as dismal as one's interior landscape? Life in the woods is not an end in itself: You must have a life and want to live it there, knowing that thereby you may have more life. Doesn't the fact that this is not the rule explain resentment, the frequency of gratuitous acts...like when someone smashed [a neighbor's] iron gate?"

    Our lives are "exciting" only when gratuitous...and so we work hard to prize the champions of this mode of being: celebrities!