Sugata Mitra and the Last Teachers

Caspar David Friedrich - not the Last ManProfessor Sugata Mitra is one of the great spokespeople for the strange movement in education that is hostile to the very notion of teaching. Education is good. Learning is fantastic, especially when it involves individuals and small groups pursuing their own interests, preferably searching for information on the internet. Teaching, though, is something we need to be very, very wary of. Unless we are very, very careful to adopt a minimal, low-key, hands-off approach to this piping hot potato of pedagogy we will be guilty of indoctrination.

Sugata Mitra’s hole in the wall project provides an inspiring image for the anti-teacher teachers: a teacherless space in which children learn on their own (surfing the web). Of course there is still a need for teachers to set this space up and to supervise what takes place there, but this will be “minimally invasive teaching”. Mitra’s term is interesting. It implies that all teaching is “invasive” – a word full of negative connotations. Teaching is prima facie bad. The best that can be hoped for in teaching is to keep that badness to a minimum.

What is really bad according to this scheme of things is anything that smacks of an old-fashioned moral education. However, what sometimes seems to go unnoticed is that this movement spreads a moral message that is at least as powerful as the message once proclaimed by maximally invasive teachers. The message goes out to the students that as far as our notions of the Good are concerned, there really is nothing to get very worked up about. For instance, Mitra wants to make rational thinking one of the three planks of primary education (the others being reading comprehension and information search skills). Now one could get quite passionate about the Age of Reason and start to think of oneself as a descendent of Descartes, obliged to carry on the unfinished project of the Enlightenment, sweeping away once and for all the remnants of the Dark Ages (horoscopes, theism, genuflection before gurus, all forms of fetishism, all advertising that does not just stick to the facts, etc., etc.) and (after reading Henri de Saint-Simon) perhaps arguing that henceforth all shirts should have buttons up the back. But, no, that would be terrible. It would be far, far too invasive.

To keep things suitably minimal the teacher would have to appear neutral, letting the students find their own set of values. Some might turn to anarchism, others to scientology, and yet others to Buddhism. The minimally rationalist teacher will doubtless prompt the students to defend their chosen value systems, but will avoid creating the impression that more educated members of society believe that some value systems are better than others lest the minimally invasive outdoctrination slip back into nasty old indoctrination.

In this way, students receive a very specific and utterly unambiguous moral education. They get the message that there is nothing to get excited about. There is certainly nothing to fight for or die for. We have our personal beliefs, but we shouldn’t get too worked up about them because as far as society is concerned there is absolutely no way to prove that one ethical framework is any better than another. The overriding principles are: Relax, take it easy, live and let live.

Although the anti-teacher teachers present their approach as something of a revolution, the fundamental moral message that ends up being passed on to students fits in very nicely with the sort of moral inertia already established by the culture industry, especially by TV. The form of TV broadcasting (irrespective of any particular content) creates the perfect impression that nothing really matters. When every story shown on television can be interrupted to run an advert for toilet cleaner, everyone gets the message.

In fact, because of TV and other influences in the world beyond school, the attack on teaching has come a bit too late. As attacks go, it is all rather futile. If the attempt is to pull the teacher off her pedastal, that collapsed decades ago, at least in the West, when critics like Neil Postman were writing nice books with titles like “Entertaining Ourselves to Death.” By the time children get to secondary school and the teachers might feel that at last they can discuss the serious moral issues in all seriousness, it is too late, the unspoken lesson of the culture industry that nothing really matters has already sunk in to the very pit of their being, and any overly serious moralising from teachers surely fails to penetrate the wall of indifference.

The anti-teacher teachers, with all their aparent moral minimalism, say a very maximal “Yes” to that wall of indifference.

Nietzsche said: “Behold I show you the Last Men.” These are (to update the description slightly) basically happy people for whom there is nothing to strive for any longer, apart from perhaps more things that will make life more comfortable, more entertaining, more pleasant – people for whom history has effectively ended, for whom the all-important contentment is perceived to be within reach – people who no longer say: “It was mediocre,” but, “It was OK” – people who want to accept themselves as they are, to be at peace – people who would seek out a therapist if they felt they were starting to feel disgust for something – people for whom the desert is only attractive as something seen from a jeep or from the back of a camel led by a tour guide – people for whom the idea of going out into the desert alone for forty days and forty nights in the hope of catching a glimpse of something utterly higher and other than the chatter of the town ceases to be comprehensible. Why would anyone do such a thing?

The hideous type described by Nietzsche is now seen to be the dominant type in online pedagogy – a type that therefore could be called the Last Teacher.

The Last People - Duane Hanson

Picture info:
Caspar David Friedrich – Wanderer above the Mist
Duane Hanson – Couple with Shopping Bags

written by Torn Halves on April 23, 2014 in Edtech and pedagogy and Sugata Mitra with 4 comments