Chasing the Laser Pointer Dot

If I may, I would like to urge all Christians interested in the future of education reform to continue their hot pursuit of said reform, but not to do so like a kitten pursuing a laser pointer dot on the rug.

We live in exciting pedagogical times, and the arrival of many more options in distance learning via the Internet really is exciting — and promising. At the same time, people are still the same as they always were, and one of the things that people have always done with new technologies is draw false inferences. Sometimes the next big thing isn’t, as those with vintage 8-track collections might be able to tell you.

First adapters can be visionaries or idiots, and it is sometimes hard to tell. I say all this as a preface to some cautionary notes about our newest boom town in education. And please keep in mind that I am saying all this, not as a critic, but as a participant. Okay, if you want, you could make that a participating critic, or a critical participant.

In any case, in the middle of this start-up educational reformation, there is a lot of nonsense being spouted about the history of education, and we are unlikely to get the future right if we insist on getting the past all wrong. One of the ways to tell the visionaries from the chumps is to look carefully at how carefully connected to the past it all is.

Southwest Airlines burst onto the scene the way it did because it was not really competing with the established airlines. Their business model was to compete with the Greyhound bus — to go after a clientele that had never flown before. The explosion of e-readers is turning out not to be the competitor of the book, but rather of the paperback. And . . . wait for it . . . distance learning of our modern, souped-up variety competes, not with genuine schools, but rather with libraries.

Lose you? Think of it this way. We have always had distance learning — that’s what a letter is, or a book. The original book of Ephesians was an example of divinely-inspired distance learning. For the Ephesians themselves, it was geographical distance, and for us in this generation it is geographical, chronological, linguistic, and cultural distance. There is a lot of distance between my thoughts and Paul’s as we contemplate together what is meant by all spiritual blessings in the heavenly places — and an enormous amount of blessing has crossed that distance nonetheless. So, in this sense, three cheers for distance learning. God loves it. But as He loves it, He knows what it is.

Not only have we always had such letters, books, and libraries, we have always had bookworm nerds who needed to get out of those libraries, and blink in the sunshine for a bit. They needed to go out to the sandlot with the other boys (other boys? what’s that?) and get clocked on the forehead with a sweet line drive. Do that boy a world of good. This is because community — the blessing of other people — is not something that can ever be dragged and dropped.

So let us think like adults, not children. Community means people nearby, and that means people needing to be organized. And organization in community is a mark of good discipline, not a mark of capitulation to Enlightenment categories. I have seen a goodly amount of recent chatter that equates any kind of age-segregated classroom learning with the Prussian model of education, where we make all the little children sit in straight-line rows, so that they can be made to sit still while our robotic educative arm pours knowledge into their wee heads. And seriously, the Prussians were pretty bad, while the early American education johnnies who wanted to be like them were really bad too. But God’s covenant people have had classrooms since the Jews established their first schools after the Babylonian exile, and Jesus graduated from Nazareth High. Every synagogue had as one of its officers a schoolmaster –a chazzan (Luke 4:20)– and for all these many centuries all of these covenant folks had only a passing knowledge of things Prussian.

The Prussians, being both modernists and Germans, a bad combination, tried to turn all classrooms into knowledge factories, and that was bad. But they didn’t invent the classroom from scratch, for pity’s sake. They didn’t invent kids learning how to stand in a line — and if they did, good for them.

If you sign up for one of the online classes that Logos Press is offering this fall (as indeed, I hope you do), everything hinges on what you are comparing it to. Is that class a wonderful, interactive textbook, or is it a two-dimensional classroom? If the former, it is really cool. If the latter, then it is a great temptation.

One of the central reasons it presents such a temptation is that it is really convenient — and one of the great blessings of community is that it is so inconvenient. Seriously. Your child has to be at the school by eight in the morning, even though he is not a morning person, didn’t have time for a balanced breakfast, and has to deal with other kids who are not as sweet to him as his mother is. That is why it is so good for him. There is a macro-lesson underneath all the other lessons when it comes to working inside the framework of an established school. That macro-lesson is that life is not all about you.

Is your car a really fast chariot, or a really slow airplane? When we make adult evaluations of education delivery platforms, we always must ask the basic question, “compared to what?” When I have to travel without my wife, today I can stay far more connected to her than I could do when traveling thirty years ago, for which I render thanks for the technology . . . but traveling without her is still for the birds. Compared to what?

Those who are using technology wisely are those who are using it to help them eventually connect with other people, in real time, on the ground. The goal is life together, and that means breathing the same air in the same room. It may take a while to get there, but that should always be the goal. In the meantime, I would much rather have my grandchildren studying in a good online course of study than in a bad brick and mortar school. This is for the same reason that I would rather have them go to a good library than to a bad school. Of course again. Remember, compared to what?

But anybody who might reverse this, walking away from a good school in order to chase knowledge “in the cloud” has already got his head in that cloud. He would rather read a book in the great cyber-library of the sky, especially if the book vigorously denounces Gnosticism, than to go out and deal with actual people on a daily basis — which necessarily elicits from us this thing called love.

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