24 October 2011

Class War at The New York Times

The New York Times continues to pursue their war against American kids. Oh not all kids, of course. The Times wouldn't put the children of their editorial staff or of their big advertisers at risk, just the poor kids, the kind of kids they so happily sent to Iraq in 2003 with their phony reporting of Dick Cheney's propaganda, the kind of kids who attend all the schools in New York City that Times reporters would never consider entering.

Real kids. Our kids.

This month The Times is in the middle of one more of their dreary series of attacks on contemporary technology in education. This group by a guy named Matt Richtel who is famous for proving the provably untrue in a series of Times pieces about multitasking.1 I always wonder if their need to do this somehow coincides with their inability to make money from their website, but, that's for their Mexican creditors to determine, not me.

Sunday's piece, A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, set a new standard for this Times meme, and indicated the depth of the newspaper's commitment to class war.

Rich kids. If they are up-to-date, just the two encyclopedias on the shelves in the
foreground cost more than a set of 20 tablets or netbooks, plus wireless access
points, would have cost. (
New York Times photo by Jim Wilson)
Jonathan Martin, a Waldorf School parent, already wrote a fabulous response to The Times, and I won't go over all the he covers, but I do have a few things to say...

As Martin indicates, "this is not journalism that belongs on the front page of the Sunday New York Times. I think it is a very disappointing bit of snarky journalism that informs readers, a little bit, about Waldorf practices, condescendingly, but has as its primary purpose a not-so covert agenda to advance the paper’s ongoing attack on the use of computers in learning." Furthermore, he points out the absurdity of the piece which describes a school used by a handful of uber-rich technology execs (just outside the single most expensive college town in America) - "an anecdotal and almost entirely meaningless report: after all, every industry has among its many employees a wide diversity of educational philosophy" - as representing anything of significance, about Waldorf education (and its controversies), or anything else."When Richtel and his Grading the Digital School series discusses schools with technology that don’t raise performance on standardized tests, standardized testing is treated as a near absolute be-all, end-all of educational success," Martin continues, "but when celebrating a school approach without technology (serving then the anti-tech agenda), the importance of standardized testing success is happily set aside.  This is not journalism, this is hatchet work."

I think those are $50.00+ pencil sets, all looking brand new.
But this is not an article, or a series, about education. It is part of a class war on those not wealthy enough to be part of 'The World of The New York Times.' The Times, after all, is hardly against technology in education. Times folks send their kids to some of the most wired schools in the nation, from Scarsdale, New York public schools to Green Farms, from St. Bernard's to Stuyvesant High at Battery Park City, or from elementary schools in Larchmont or Greenwich Village. What The New York Times is against is for anyone to think that spending public money on "technology" for "our" kids makes any sense.

Why would they be against that? Simply because they want nothing in place which might even begin to tilt that infamous educational playing field toward anything close to level. If "our" kids... not the 99% of Occupy Wall Street, but the 95% of those outside the social circles of New York Times editors and executives, get anything close to an equal opportunity, they might challenge the children and the grandchildren of Times executives and friends for both places in elite universities, and then, maybe even, for jobs. So, The New York Times, the standard-bearer for American wealth, cannot allow that to happen.

And thus, they send a reporter with a Pulitzer Prize in suspect use of data out to find the kind of "proof" that school boards and state legislators can embrace. "If Google execs (well, at least one of them) send their kids to a school without computers, we surely shouldn't be buying them for poor kids."

And so tech for the poor gets cut, which means they lose all access to global information, to accessibility, to open communication. All the kids at the Waldorf School of the Peninsula go home to houses filled with technology and families that travel with them and buy them whatever supports they need. Waldorf schools traditionally "pass" on kids with disabilities and tuition usually keeps the poor away, so, the biggest issue, according to Richtel, is parental disinterest. "The students say they can become frustrated when their parents and relatives get so wrapped up in phones and other devices." But in schools which cannot buy new Britannicas every other year at $2,700.00, which cannot afford hundreds of hundred dollar skeins of yarn for each student or $54.96 boxes of pencils, issues of connectivity and knowledge base may indeed come up. So might issues of differing capabilities, issues of home resources, issues of up-to-date texts, etc.

But The Times is making a sale here, which you can see reflected in comments made just outside New York City, where the City School District of New Rochelle is trying to equip its most disconnected, impoverished students with 4G laptops for school and home. "None of them has Internet access at home," the article points out. "Pierre [one student] leaned over from a neighboring seat to add, "I'm going to take good care of it. I'm going to play math games and use it for reading and writing."' But the commenters, mostly from New Rochelle's New York Times-reading wealthier "North End" (think Dick Van Dyke or Ragtime), see it The Times' way: "games and circuses. Put a monitor on 99% of these "free" computers, and you'll find that 99% of the usage will be entertainment and game-related." "Let's see how many of these computers will be usable after one school year, or come back at all. many will "disappear."'

Jefferson Elementary School (New Rochelle, NY) students being branded by Verizon,
but also getting access to information and communication
in school and at home. (
Journal-News photo by Carucha L. Meuse)
I, having been one of those "wrong end of town" kids long ago in that city, tried to fight back, even including William Alcott's 1842 quote about the "new technology" which Richtel's Waldorf School does embrace, "Slates are as necessary as black boards, and even more so. But they are so liable to be broken, it will be said, as to render it expensive to parents to keep their children supplied with them." But The Times is having its effect, the idea that, "I fundamentally reject the notion you need technology aids in grammar school,” Richtel quotes one of Eric Schmidt's speechwriters as saying. And Richtel finds Dr. Paul Thomas of Furman University (a long reach from Silicon Valley but you've got to hunt the supporting quotes down), who says, "Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy and critical thinking.”

So, projects like what New Rochelle is trying to do in their poorer elementary schools, will remain rare, and the children of The New York Times family will continue blissfully without real competition.

In creating this vision - denying to the poor what the rich already have - The Times depends on the essential cluelessness of the population, and unfortunately also way too much of the educational community, about what "technology" is.

"Technology," to quote (nervously, because he was pretty much a Nazi) Heidegger, is the "art of manipulating the world." A "physical book" is one way of manipulating information and getting it into your head. A print newspaper is another. So is a telegraph key, or a black-board. For me, none of those work well. OK, I was good at Morse Code at one point, but I've never done well with the others, because I'm just not good at reading alphabetic text. Sorry, call me illiterate or stupid or brain-damaged, as people have, but its the way God (or genetics) made me. So, I need different tools to manipulate that information world: Film, for example - I like to share how NWP's Paul Oh and I both seem to have learned the art of writing dialogue by watching Channel 9's Million Dollar Movie back in New York. Or audio, whether LP, or cassette, or TTS.

When Alcott wrote his book, he found that the key to kids manipulating the world for writing lay in the slate. With the slate erasing was easy so making mistakes was easy (same argument made regarding computers by Englert, Manalo, and Zhao (2004)) and so kids did better with spelling, grammar, and composition. For some kids telling a video story is the way (this is easier now than in the days of Super 8 film - cheaper, faster, way better for editing, although, yeah, I did Super 8 stuff). For others, yup, a pencil and a blank book is what its all about.

But it is important for Messers Richtel, Eagle (of Google), and Thomas to know is that, despite their claims, the old technology is neither superior nor more natural than anything which has come after. For years now I've had to point out that every time new ways of "manipulating the world" appear, those who hold power tend to oppose them. Socrates opposed both writing and literacy. The Catholic Church opposed Gutenberg's printing press. Alcott had to beg those funding Common Schools to install black-boards and give kids slates, even though the private schools of the wealthy and places like West Point had had them for years.

When different tools for manipulating the world appear, different people are given the chance to succeed, and when different people are given the chance to succeed, those in power are always threatened.

And none are threatened more than a group which has derived its status from being able to perform certain tasks which others cannot. So teachers and education profs and newspaper editors - the "always gotten As" kids who thrived on reading and writing faster than the rest of us, who thrived on memorization and correct spelling and understanding the Dewey Decimal System - they fear for their status if I can listen to a book, or dictate a letter, or use spellcheck, or use Google.

In a Waldorf School like the one Mr. Richtel and The New York Times celebrates, I was no threat, nor are millions of other kids. But if they let us have the technology, we might get to college, we might write books, hell, we might get elected Governor.

So, The Times front page Sunday wasn't about education, or "technology," or Waldorf Schools. It was about power. It was another shot in the class war being waged daily in America.

- Ira Socol

1 - I sure don't advocate texting while drive, but despite vehicle miles traveled increasing by over 20% since mobile phones became widely available, fatal auto accidents have dropped by over 17% in the 15 years between 1995 and 2009. These actual statistics directly contradict Richtel's claims about distracted driving. http://www-fars.nhtsa.dot.gov/Main/index.aspx

1 comment:

Carla silver said...

yes. Another great post about this topic. I wanted to write another blog about how this is just not even a conversation for some schools that simply look at that kind of access to technology as an impossible reach.

Thanks for this addition to the dialogue.
Carla Silver