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The Death of the Teacher

Then Socrates sat down, and “How fine it would be, Agathon,” he said, “if wisdom were a sort of thing that could flow out of the one of us who is fuller into him who is emptier, by our mere contact with each other, as water will flow through wool from the fuller cup into the emptier. If such is indeed the case with wisdom, I set a great value on my sitting next to you.

– Plato, Symposium

The de-naturalization, or alienation, of our humanity by the enveloping darkness of technology is now even reaching into the most humane of environments, education.  The current unrest in schools around the world is not only about the neoliberal drive to privatize education, it is about the survival of teaching itself.

The most recent setback in this struggle has taken place in Ontario, Canada. The new fascist government, which refers to itself as “FordNation,” announced on March 15th, 2019 that all high school students will be required to complete fourmandatory online credits. The Education Critic Marit Stiles of the Social Democratic, “New Democrat Party” in Canada (NDP), has said that the long-term goal of “FordNation” is to “shuffle teachers out of classrooms and replace them with online classes.”

But teaching is dead once it’s setting in a human relationship is removed. From Plato to Freud educational theorists have argued that the development of rapport between student and teacher, and the management of disruptions in this relationship, is the teacher’s key “method.”

Ironically, it is so-called “conservative” politicians who are ready to ignore such traditional wisdom, and recklessly kick the scala amoris out from under the feet of today’s student. It will build student “resiliency” exclaimed Ontario’s Education Minister Lisa Thompson, parroting the words of American Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, (if it does not crush them, one is tempted to add).

According to the Toronto Star, Ontario is breaking new ground on this issue: “Requiring four online courses for graduation would be a first in North America.” Following Michigan’s lead in 2006, Florida in 2011, Virginia in 2012, and Arkansas in 2013 also introduced online learning requirements. More recently Alabama joined the group and now requires that all students complete one online/technology enhanced course or experience prior to graduation.

Other states, including Georgia, New Mexico, Massachusetts, and West Virginia, have passed rules or legislation encouraging but not requiring online learning. In addition, some schools and districts in Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Idaho have created online learning requirements.

According to the Atlantic, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has touted this trend toward virtual schooling as a particularly ripe area for expansion, emphasizing its flexibility and potential to offer courses that a student’s traditional school might not have. But what she and other pro-market reformers in the education field are really interested in is the fact that most online (virtual) schools, are privately run, for-profit, and lucrative.

They use the same funding mechanism as charter schools — the operators get public funds for each child who signs up—but they do not have to maintain buildings, provide transportation, or pay for full staffs. One teacher can follow scores, even hundreds, of students as they tap their way through digital lessons on their own computers.

The fact that the evidence is strong that these “virtual schools,”deliver significantly lower academic results than public schools with face-to-face educators seems to be of no concern to FordNation or Devos. For example, according to the Hechinger Report, researchers from Stanford University have found that “online-only schools tend to attract and harm the most vulnerable students. Ohio students with low test scores who enroll in online-only schools tend to fall even further behind. High-performing students fare better, but they still do worse than they would have done if they had not enrolled in a virtual school.”

It was also found that students attending “virtual schools” in Ohio, “do worse in both reading and math – far worse in math – than other schools. It is as if students at online charters in Ohio skipped 47 days of reading classes in a year and 136 days of math classes.”

Of course, the fact that just 9 percent of virtual charters are currently unionized may not concern Betsy Devos, but it does concern the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teacher’s union in the United States. The NEA supports the use of online education but is “concerned about the growth of “cyber-charters,” because they are “run by for-profit businesses.”

Similarly, the Ontario Secondary School Teacher’s Federation (OSSTF), has taken a stand against any conception of education that does not recognize the critical role of relationships:

“OSSTF/FEESO has supported the effective use of technology to support teaching and learning. However, education is a human centric activity and cannot be replaced by technology; only enhanced by it. According to Dr. James Comer, “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.” Human interaction is critical for success in developing all cognitive areas and not just in the delivery of facts and knowledge; the path to learning is highly individualized and can only be mapped from the real-time interaction between people.”

It should be pointed out that the relationship issue is not just about academic achievement, it is also about mental health. Computerizing education will only intensify the alienation of teachers and students already suffering high levels of anxiety and depression because of neo-liberal competitive pressures eg., standardized testing, mark inflation, school closures etc…

An apt comparison may be with the early modern weavers who felt so threatened by new stocking frame technologies they became “Luddites,” and machine-breakers; will teachers have to turn to raids on “virtual schools,” and “computer-smashing,” in order to survive?

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Paul Bentley holds an MSc. (Econ) in International Relations from the London School of Economics, and an Ed. D. in the History and Philosophy of Education from the University of Toronto. He has worked as a History Teacher and Head of Department in Ontario High Schools for over 25 years. He is the author of Strange Journey: John R. Friedeberg Seeley and the Quest for Mental Health — Academic Studies Press.

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