education philosopher

Coming Down From Great Expectations: A Review of Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget”

Posted in Book reviews, Philosophy by KevinCK on February 26, 2010

I’ve just read a really exciting new book by technology (and overall) genius Jaron Lanier. The book is called You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto.” In it, he criticizes the direction of what he calls “internet 2.0” in a way that avoids ludditismThat is, he criticizes the way technology is going, and the way we think about the technology, not necessarily the technology itself. (After all, he did largely create virtual reality!) Below is an extended version of my


The first thing that must be said about Jaron Lanier’s “You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto” is that it a very intricate book, full of several different arguments and lines of thought. It might be best to say that it is a manifesto containing several submanifestos. His arguments against the current directions in “web 2.0” technology are many and multifaceted, taking us through  questions of the effectiveness of capitalism, how culture evolves, whether there can really be “wisdom in crowds,” and even the nature of what “human” is.

If we have to sum up the book into an overall point or argument, here’s how I’d do it: web technology, which was hoped to lead to vigorous innovation and individualization, has done precisely the opposite. On the consumption side, the idea of the “wisdom of crowds” has made the group (Lanier says “hive mind”) more important and more “real” than voices of individuals. On the production side, the internet has led less to innovative production than to the recycling of old ideas in new forms, while making it hard for inventors/pioneers to make a living being creative. (Yes, I know I am missing some things in this description but, as mentioned, Lanier’s work is very hard to sum up with concision.)

Lanier believes that there are two big reasons for this. First, we are not using our conception of humanity to drive how we shape technology so much as we are allowing technology to shape how we define humanity. A shining example is our faith in the “wisdom of crowds” as exemplified by our increasing obsession with all things wiki. Lanier reminds us that, in reality, there is no such “wisdom in crowds” because crowds are simply collections of individuals making individual decisions. (I would also add that “wisdom of crowds” is a literal impossibility as wisdom can only happen embodied in a point-of-view, of which a crowd has none.)

Secondly, Lanier believes that innovation may be lagging behind expectations because of our belief in the “information wants to be free” model. Yes, this has benefits, like offering information in a way that is accessible to…well…most. But it has the disadvantage of removing the incentives provided by markets out of a market. Lanier often uses the example of music and art: it was thought that the internet would allow more artists to make livings off of their art by removing the middle-men and allowing artists direct access to consumers. But with so much free content and exponentially increased competition, it is becoming even harder for artists to (a) get noticed in the milieu and (b) make a living off of their creativity. (more…)

A Defense of Individual Choice in Matters of Curriculum

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, political philosophy, Politics of Education by KevinCK on February 19, 2010

Below is a passage I wrote for a PhD class in curriculum theory. The questions was “Who should decide what students learn?” particularly in regards to whether intelligent design should be taught in science classes. I post it here because I think it is a decent articulation of my view that families, parents, and children (rather than either education experts or democratically elected board members) should have the ultimate authority over what children learn.

The question is: who is to decide whether intelligent design or evolution (or both or neither) should be taught in schools. Of all the readings assigned for this week, my views allign most closely with McClusky. The problem is that we live in a society that is simulteneously liberal and democratic, while also talking about an institution (schools) that, in some sense, has as its role something neither liberal or democratic. As long as these three ideals are in conflict – and I think they are – one must simply choose which authorty they thinks trumps the other two: experts (nondemocratic and nonliberal), the majority (non-liberal and non-authoritarian) or each individual/family (non-democratic and non-authoritarian). I believe the best way to decide the issue is to leave the decisions in the hands of each individual/ family.

But let me first explain why I believe we are dealing with three incompatible ideals. As a liberal society, we are committed to the idea that individuals have a right to conscience. As a democratic republic, we are committed to the idea that disputes are to be settled by appeal to the vote (at least to vote in representatives whose own votes will reflect that of the majority). And, in the case of schools, we are also committed to the idea that there are certain things which SHOULD be conveyed to children regardless of whether they, their parents, or the majority concur. (In other words, we believe that curriculum is too valuable a subject to be left to non-experts.)

These three ideas, then, are in conflict and, I believe, irreducibly so. That is because recognizing the one negates the other two. (By example, leaving curricular matters up to majority vote abridges individuals liberty to decide educational issues for themselves, and also takes a stand against unelected experts deciding them.) Why do I choose liberalism over the other competing values as curricular guides? (more…)

Mortimer Smith and the Diminished Mind (book review)

Posted in Book reviews, Education, Philosophy of by KevinCK on February 3, 2010

One common retort to those who criticize the historical ascendancy and stranglehold of “progressivism” in education is to simply deny the charge. Diane Ravitch, for instance, met just this type of denial when she published Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reform. Critics, generally with an affinity for “progressive” pedagogy, told us that Ravitch’s history was hopelessly biased and a bunch of spin. Progressive ideals, they say, did not fail: they were never really tried.

It is too bad for these critics that books like The Diminished Mind by Mortimer Smith, were published. TDM was written in 1954 as a way to chronicle the educational landscape as it looked at the time. Smith’s verdict?

I do not think anyone will challenge the statement that pragmatism has become the official philosophy of the public education; there may be an occasional maverick scattered her and there but the great majority of the professors of education are committed to this philosophy and they transmit it to the future teachers and administrators whom they train to run the American public school system (Smith 1954, PG78-79).

By “pragmatism,” Smith is referring to “the pedagogical principles which formed the basis of what came to be known as progressive education and is now more commonly referred to as modern education.” (PG78)  The educational pragmatism Smith judged to be the dominant philosophic force in education (ushered in by Dewey; perverted by followers) included the idea that education is to center around the child’s immediate needs and should serve not to convey knowledge but to “reconstruct experience” (which, of course, Dewey was never really clear on what was meant). These ideas manifested themselves in various curricular theories, two of which Smith examines in some detail: education for life adjustment and education for social reconstruction.

Chapters II and III (Adjustment Replaces Education and Adjustment Replaces Education Continued) discuss and thoroughly document the rise of the “life adjustment” theory of curriculum through the public schools. (more…)

Murray Rothbard, Libertarianism, and Why Children Are Not Simply Houseguests

Posted in Education, Philosophy of, political philosophy by KevinCK on February 1, 2010

As a libertarian, it pains me to admit flaws with libertarianism as a philosophy. But one problem in libertarian theory I’ve become increasingly sensitive to is the problem of how children are handled in a libertarian society. I believe I know where the problem stems from, and also why certain existing arguments are flawed, but don’t have much idea on how to rectify these flaws without violating a certain amount of libertarian theory. Oh well. Here is my attempt, at least, to look at one of the more interesting arguments for how libertarian theory should treat kids: Murray Rothbard analogies parent/child relations to house-owner/houseguest relations.

Before getting into that, I want to briefly outline why I think libertarians have such a hard time with the “child problem.” Libertarians, I think, are good at dealing with two different ideas: people (in the sense of autonomous adults) and property. To put it bluntly, children are neither of these and are probably best seen as somewhere in between the two in resemblance. Children resemble, but are not, autonomous adults in certain ways: they are physically autonomous and their brains/minds are not linked to other brains/minds in that they can decide certain things for themselves.  But in other ways, children resemble, but are not, property: parents are legally responsible for taking care of children and children are in some sense ‘acquired’ by choice, children do not have a real choice in who their ‘owners’ are, etc.

But children are neither persons nor property. They are not quite autonomous persons because we – except some libertarians – recognize that children lack the mental ability to make certain decisions on their own or have the type of absolute freedom we grant to adults. Nor are they property because, morally, it strikes us as horrendous to think about parents being able to do anything they would like to their children. Unlike property, children have at least SOME freedoms.

Now, onto the Rothbardian argument, taken from an essay called “Kid Lib” (chapter 7 in the book Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature). (more…)