Thursday, January 5, 2012

What We Talk About When We Talk About Education


A few nights ago, I was reading the NY Times article, Teachers Resist High-Tech Push in Schools, about Idaho teachers' angst over technology being infused/forced into the state's public schools and I was reminded of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. You might recall the story of two couples who sit in a kitchen drinking copious amounts of gin and talking about love in ways that at best is confusing, as no suitable understanding is ever proffered. All the while, the four characters engage in circuitous exchanges about what love is and isn't--never quite understanding that their illustrations of love are illustrations of self.

In an oddly similar, though less artful manner, the NY Times article offers a similar confusion--not about love, but about education.  Just as Carver's characters' incomplete narratives situate love as narcissitic extensions of self, so too does the newspaper article fail to actually talk about education and instead substitutes a discussion about technology as if it was a ready equivalent.

Beneath both narratives: Carver's and the Times, is the unvoiced story of power. There can be no discussion of love or education, without understanding that such human matters are often tangled with issues of power.


What we talk about when we talk about public education is as confused as Carver's couples' discourse about love: tangential tales that grow murkier as time passes and gin flows. These days we talk about 'technology' as if it was a placeholder for education. In an attempt to be even clearer, we sometimes talk about aspects of technology: interactive white boards, social media, laptops, on-line courses. There are many placeholders, technology being one, that we use to talk about education. What we fail to do over and over again (truly decades now) is to offer clarity about what public education means, to whom, and what we want it to mean.

In the article, I found it interesting that Idaho Governor Otter tells us what he thinks an education is by way of what he sees an education potentially acquiring. Would it be fair to characterize the governor's comments as an aim? Is an aim of education acquisition? He is quoted as saying:
putting technology into students’ hands was the only way to prepare them for the work force. Giving them easy access to a wealth of facts and resources online allows them to develop critical thinking skills, he said, which is what employers want the most.
What are our national aims for public education? If you believe you receive an education or that you compose an education, are the aims potentially different? Is public education a matter of acquisition? Is citizenship passé? Is it even possible to have national aims in a country of red and blue states? Are the divisions about what a public education is--not similar to all of the other social, political, and economic divisions we enact?

What is it that we talk about when we talk about education? When we talk about schools? When we talk about learning?


When Carver opens his story the sun is prominent, high in the sky and the kitchen where the 'action' takes place is flooded with light. By the conclusion, the sun is down and after so many gin-soaked attempts to define love, Nick, the narrator concludes:
I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.

We too have been making a lot of human noise, not one of us moving, not even now when surely the school room, if not the country, has gone dark.

Is it a matter of hearing our hearts?


  1. Love the shadow dance you direct between Carver's story and the "educational" debate. I, too, think that the discussion over what education IS and what employers WANT is becoming a bit too simplistic.

    And man, if you took that picture, you should get behind a camera more often. Beautiful stuff... and SNOW! Here in New England this "winter," snow has been a no-show so far (sigh).

  2. making a lot of human noise... not one of us moving... circuitous exchanges..

    I'm thinking.. not quite what Clay Shirky had in mind as he penned Cognitive Surplus.

    thank you sweet.

  3. If you believe you receive an education or that you compose an education, are the aims potentially different?

    I wrestle with this question, because it feels even more elusive. Is it an acquisition? Is it a creation? Or is it about who you become? Or perhaps, even more dangerously, who you are finally allowed to be?

    Call me simplistic, but it's why I end up going back to garden metaphors. Balance. Roots and rhizomes. Perennials and annuals. Aesthetic and edible. Not achievement, but still noticeable. Based upon growth, perhaps, but also looking dormant and dead at times.

  4. @kenc, thanks for the feedback. It is overly simple isn't it? And yes the image is mine. I spend a fair amount of time behind the lens of a camera.

  5. @Monika, I haven't read Shirky's Cognitive Surplus and now you have me intrigued. Hope all went well with your meet. Looking forward to learning how it went.

  6. @John, I actualy quoted your response in new post. I love the gardening metaphor and think your comment about growth being botceable, AND not being about achievement is brilliant.



Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.