Recently, a senior administrator at one of our largest urban school districts took it upon herself to teach a lesson personally, enabled by technology. Charged to lead the School District of Philadelphia’s conversion of all curriculum and instruction this fall to be all-remote, with no instruction in school buildings, Tracy Ocasio kept her old job as Chief Academic Officer overseeing Columbus City Schools’s conversion of all curriculum and instruction to be all-remote, with no instruction in school buildings. Alas, the local news found out that the head of curriculum for the 18th largest school district was double dipping salary and benefits from the 95th largest school district, and she got fired. This, though, was the lesson, with applicability to the plans of both Philadelphia and Columbus: never trust anyone or anything you only see over Zoom.
Look around. Does the internet look like an ideal place for kids’ education? I know you (Dear Reader) navigate these storm-tossed waters unharmed, that you set your mental bark against the waves of imbecilic clickbait, shrieking propaganda, fly-by-night scam artists, lurid pornography, bizarre self-exploitation, obsessive fandoms, cybernetic video feeds, algorithmic social media, and in-app purchases, and you trim your sails, steady your mast and come safely home to shore. (As we speak here, anchored safely in port, you but merely rest for a moment between the more worthy and valuable uses- personal, professional, and civic that the internet allows.) But really, look around. You don’t even have to go hunting for the scandal of the day- just log onto YouTube Kids or select the youngest age of free apps on the Apple App Store. There, there be dragons, and hungry ones, too.
This is not to say that the country is not full of parents and kids who are making their best efforts to turn remote school into real school. Eager faces no doubt crowd our nation’s video feeds, muted and waiting with bated breath as Mr. Schmidt shows how to factor equations and Ms. Gonzalez outlines how to write a literary response essay. Parents, too, resolved to be of use, track the next simulcast, reboot the damn internet, stand over the kid while he does the iXL assignment, at least for the first couple weeks. Not all these parents will eventually need to leave, go back to work, put the kid in day care or leave him with a friend. And in any case- the kids are all right, they’ll do their best. Only a cynic would say that this fall, once parents have to leave kids to their own devices, will involve packs of teenagers roaming a blighted urban landscape, scarred by riots, fire, and economic collapse, and occasionally logging into Zoom as “Deez Nuts” to flip off their teacher. Most kids will just keep themselves on mute and watch YouTube in another tab. And besides, Deez Nuts are entitled to an education, too.
I have it on good authority that real, in-person school, as it exists this fall, is its own kind of dystopian- children in masks lining up past electronic temperature scanners and sitting in classrooms where aging teachers ignore the kids in the room to talk into webcams for the benefit of the kids whose parents kept them home. But even dystopian, unpleasant schooling, now as ever, has the benefit that it isn’t fooling anyone. Kids know it sucks when it sucks (and generally are willing to concede it is good when it’s good.) The truth of community, like the truth of family, cannot be separated from it being a pain in the ass to be around other people, to be a body among other bodies, but only rarely is it worth it for that reason to dispense with community and family altogether. Nor does the existence of communicable disease resolve this question either- a widely publicized, tragic death of a young teacher from COVID this week is largely shared by people unaware that she was teaching remotely.
The trend of the internet, as it exists, is not towards greater usefulness, clarity, honesty, efficiency. Instead it is more and more a kind of hall of mirrors that people can’t tell from the real thing, a forest where shadows wait with malicious intent, a maze of traps. It may be in some sense true that remote learning trains children for the adult world, as adults increasingly spend both their days and nights glued to screens. But the adult world is not becoming more sane, rational, honest, efficient as adults spend more and more time online. Soon it may be that online interactions will be not just with other users, or with the iterative algorithms that learn your preferences in the current clumsy way of many social media sites, but with bots trained specifically to emulate a personality that will maximize your engagement so as to manipulate you best. As one friend put it, reacting to a person’s account of “pink-pilled” internet subcultures devoted to convincing people that they are transgender, “the internet is more and more becoming a sort of mythological dreamscape in which dragons and genies and offended goddesses are all real.” It may be that over time venturing online will be as dangerous as sharing a needle.
Such issues cannot be resolved solely by teaching young people or adults self-control, if such a thing is fully possible, or by imposing greater restrictions, censorship, and control over these aspects of the internet, since surely any centralized authority can, will, and already is using these same tools, for its own purposes that are just as if not more suspect as those of individual private actors. Many centralized authorities in our world are more than fine with abandoning real life schooling not merely for budgetary reasons but because real life, dealing with real people as they really are, constrains the fantasies that you can offer and the claims you- and they- can make. The line between education and mandated deceit always comes down to whether you think you are teaching the truth. As Titus Techera said in our podcast together:
And another thing I thought about, especially because of this example you gave: every day in every way, some kind of new fantasy theory of education has to be imposed. I think it’s partly just because teachers get bored or maybe they will have some progressive idealistic illusions that they don’t want to shatter. But I fear that in a way it’s worse because it comes from elites who are just trying in their desperate way to deal with the fact that they know now, or they believe they know that most people are never going to be enlightened. What you need is to fill their heads with fantasies that are helpful, fantasies that are salutary socially, and that above all that justify the leaders we already have.
And that’s just crazy. I mean, if there’s one thing worse than insisting on knowledge for kids who haven’t gotten there yet, is insisting on fantasies, which they’re fully capable of doing by themselves already. You know, how is any theory of education going to compete with the actual fantasies available to kids in pop music or on their screens: that is never going to work, right? It is even worse than the bureaucratic rationality, it’s limiting their awareness of their own nature. And maybe everybody’s awareness of the fact that human beings have a nature of their own, and you have to look for its individuation. To what extent this kid is like the other end, to what extent they’re not, and how are we going to deal with that.
But for both children and adults, the path through this hall of mirrors, this maze of traps, this forest of shadows, must involve developing habits of honesty, realism, and justified trust, of learning to live among other people and seeing them for who they are, and that’s something that can’t happen over Zoom.