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The Age of Stupid: Intrepid Teaching in a World on Speed

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Today, the notion of the “learning society”—and its cognates, the “learning organization,” the “learning city”—has made its way into corporate boardrooms and the policy dens of governing elites. We have become increasingly self-conscious that we are some sort of learning society; that a learning organization is a hopeful kind of enterprise; that something good might happen if we think of our cities as learning cities.

What is that our troubled global society is trying to name, to discover, to accomplish? Is the learning age rhetoric just one more desperate gasp at breathing life and hope into our world of terrorism, financial meltdown, global pandemics, celebrities and mayhem?

The absence of solidity in our age of fluidity and speed stripped us down to a core or elemental understanding that our most precious resource, symbolizing hope that if we can only find the right pedagogical procedures and suitable organizational modalities, we would be able to confront the many problems before us in our ever-shrinking world. Our Species has the intelligence to combine our intelligence and solve seemingly intractable problems.

It is clear, however, that learning which is lifelong, lifewide and just has many forces aligned against its realization. Powerful people and organizations in our world (in economic, political and cultural systems) skew learning processes and substance in particular directions. Corporate leaders can use learning organization rhetoric to mobilize learning resources to learn how to dominate marketplaces, and not how to create well-being in their own organizations.

The lovely language of empowerment may mask practices that do the opposite. Governments scheme and connive to maintain their power. They choose not to mobilize energy to create the suitable forms for participatory democracy, even when the technological capacities make new ways of learning citizenship possible.

The mainstream media fosters an in-your-face win at all cost, anti-intellectual “culture of cruelty.” It is also evident that our scientific and technological acumen is not matched by our moral and ethical achievements. Our knowledge does not always translate into wisdom. One British filmmaker has even suggested that, when future citizens look back at our time, they will call it The Age of Stupid (F. Armstrong [Director]. The Age of Stupid [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Spanner Films, 2008).

Thus, the complacent idea that we have been propelled into a shiny, new, bright learning society and that “it’s all good” must be challenged. Human learning is not free from the entanglements of interest and power. In fact, one might argue that modern human history has been pulled along by the tug of war between the money-code and the life code.

Human learning is pulled between the Money-code and the Life-code

At its most elemental, human learning can be in the service of these two modes, and one, the money code, has in our time captured the lion’s share of human motivational resources, intelligence and energy. But our learning capacities also can be impelled by compassion and desire to alleviate the suffering of all creatures. The just learning society does not just happen. It must be intentionally designed.

Many theorists of our postmodern time of discontent have pointed out that we live more and more in virtual, simulated worlds that bombard us with endless entertainment and propaganda for commodities. As a result, we are often deeply disconnected from the sources of our lives, and can easily imagine that we are the center of the world, accessible at the tap of a key. We can also press the button releasing bombs without being able to even consider what awaits the poor folks below.

Within the framework of our ambiguous learning society, several questions suggest themselves: How do universities recraft their traditional role of fostering deep critical reflection on the meaning of our time? What does it now mean to live and work well? In a world harnessed to the money code and driven by technical/instrumental rationality, how can universities reimagine themselves as moral and ethical enterprises?

Intrepid teaching in a world on speed

We have to be intrepid teachers in a world on speed. Let me highlight some of the challenges we face if we going to be able to enable our students to acquire the knowledge, skill, sensibility and attitudes to hold their heads high and speak with clear voices in our confusing and anguished world of too much information and too little wisdom.

Our world on speed encourages us to surf, skip lightly, bounce distractedly and lose concentration. Winifred Gallagher, in her book, Rapt: attention and the focused life (2009), suggests that we may be experiencing a new moral panic: the attention-deficit panic. Professors report that their students are often tired, insanely busy, distracted and unfocused. “Paying attention”—the mind’s cognitive currency—is a diminishing process.

I have been tutoring Educational Studies courses at Athabasca University for ten years. What I notice is that the quick, flippant and breezy style of the social media has seeped into the communication that some, not all, of my students use when they write me.

My students seem rushed, almost breathless sometimes, as they scamper to complete assignments. The ethos of surfing, inability to live with silence and constant battering by aggressive media (social and other) makes it difficult for my students to concentrate, and to really dig into topics. Far too many of my students make assertions without evidence, accept conventional, media-imposed and politically correct narratives, and have little sense of what it means to sustain an argument.

Few have acquired the composition skills of respectful dialogue with other writers. Few seem to want to probe deeply into a subject, to read and think widely, to arrive at the “best argument.” Even fewer pay attention to the proper citation of sources.

Schools should build cultures of critical discourse

Thus, our task as university educators is not just about making knowledge resources, packaged in lovely self-directed modules, accessible to men and women. We are inducting them into a “community of practice” that contradicts the frenetic worlds of the social and conventional media. University study ought to slow us down and teach us to concentrate. Students should be nurtured to read widely and slowly, to never settle for any easy answers.

We ought to build a “culture of critical discourse, a phrase used by the late maverick sociologist, Alvin Gouldner (The Future of Intellectuals and the Rise of the New Class [1979]). The university as a “community of practice” ought to counterpoint the restless, monkey mind that is fermented by our information age. We need to figure out how to encourage our students to focus their minds for extended periods of time. This means switching off other inputs; it means being absorbed in our work of discovery and articulation.

In an age of info glut and instant information, we educators must help our students to not only slow down, but also acquire the interpretive frameworks for making sense of the world. They need to learn the skill of discernment, how to assess the authority of the countless sources present to us. A quick glance at a Wikipedia entry on Locke’s philosophy just won’t do.

Universities could be islands of clear and deep thinking

Universities can be islands of clear, rigorous, deep thinking in a glossy sea of flitting information and endless propaganda. But we will have to teach courageously for this to happen. The art of discernment, I believe, is intimately linked to understanding the reasons why we think the way we do and how we justify our actions in the world.

In his polemical book, Empire of Illusion: the End of Literacy and the Triumph of the Spectacle (2009), Chris Hedges stated bluntly, “To train someone to manage an account for Goldman Sachs is to educate him or her in a skill. To train them to debate stoic, existential, theological and humanist ways of grappling with reality is to educate them in values and morals. A culture that does not grasp the vital interplay between morality and power, which mistakes management techniques for wisdom, not its speed or ability to consume, condemns itself to death” (p. 103).

Antonio Gramsci (Unsigned, Piedmont Edition of Avanti!, 24 December 1916, under the banner “Socialists and education”), the Italian revolutionary who rotted to death in Mussolini’s prison, believed that the educational process ought not “to become incubators of little monsters, aridly trained for a job, with no general ideas, no general culture, no intellectual stimulation, bit only an infallible eye and a firm hand.”

Gramsci and Hedges underscore the fact that learning must be directed by a strong moral and ethical framework. We must know why we are doing what we doing. We must also know whether the doing brings well-being to many and not more misery. We cannot become, as Richard Hoggart said, “blinkered ponies” (as cited in Hedges [2009]).

All of society is a vast school

The profound realization that “all of society is a vast school,” as Gramsci (The Prison Notebooks [1971]) once observed, enables educators in all learning sites to bear witness for all citizens to become aware of the nature of learning that is occurring in their workplaces, civil society domains and public spheres. The intellectual breakthroughs accomplished by critical learning theorists have made it possible to see how societies actually work as learning societies.

This means, for one thing, that educational visionaries can enable people who are actually teaching adults that they are actually doing so. For another, this means that we must bear testimony to the way learning is structured and organized to either block or open up possibilities for human cognitive, moral, ethical and spiritual development in the interest of well-being for all creatures.

Our task as educators, then, is to play the role of visionary midwife; to make the ambiguous learning society aware of itself as a learning society in the first place, and then to press it beyond its present form toward a just learning society.

Dr. Michael Welton is a professor at the University of Athabasca. He is the author of Designing the Just Learning Society: a Critical Inquiry.

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