Robo-Children

robot-baby

All the various news media have been full of stories about the sad state of our US educational system. I heard a report yesterday on NPR that besides the terrible performance of our poor kids in school, the middle class students were not much better. We lag the rest of our peer nations in math, science, and other subjects. I am finishing Jonathan Kozol’s screed, The Shame of the Nation, about how we educate out poor minorities, particularly black children. The book is one of the sources for a course I am taking. Tom Friedman keeps writing about the need to turn our children into blue collar technicians so that they can work in the factories of the future. In contradiction, David Brooks warns colleges that their resident programs cannot compete with MOOC (massive open online courses) that will soon provide the technical skills needed by white-collar workers of the future. Colleges should start focusing more on the practical skills their graduates will need. This quote from his column suggests what he is referring to.

Now I could give you a theory about how universities can transmit this sort of practical moral wisdom, but let’s save that. Let’s focus on practical wisdom in the modern workplace… Think about Sheryl Sandberg’s recent book, “Lean In.” Put aside the debate about the challenges facing women in society. Focus on the tasks she describes as being important for anybody who wants to rise in this economy: the ability to be assertive in a meeting; to disagree pleasantly; to know when to interrupt and when not to; to understand the flow of discussion and how to change people’s minds; to attract mentors; to understand situations; to discern what can change and what can’t.

Kozol tells of the turn to regimentation of the classroom and the curriculum. Canned programs, provided by corporate sources, are being foisted upon teachers who are increasingly limited in how they can teach. Performance on standardized tests is the dominant subject. In the poorer urban schools, it is almost the only subject. Gym, recess, art, music and other subjects not covered in the tests have been sacrificed. The teachers, like the students in their classes, are being commoditized. His book title is apt. I am ashamed for myself and my country.

Nowhere here and elsewhere can I find much said about the critical ability to think clearly, to be able to create the context for solving life’s problems at work and elsewhere. Friedman should stop for a minute and ask himself if he would be writing for the New York Times with the kind of education he is recommending for today’s school children. The inalienable rights promised in our Declaration of Independence seem hollowed out, especially the pursuit of happiness.

Can robots be happy? I do not think so even though I read stories about robots becoming ever more like human beings. But isn’t that what Friedman and others imply. For what ends? To be able to compete with other nations whose records on human rights we condemn. Sorry, Mr. Friedman and others, we cannot have it both ways. We either have to educate our young to be full-fledged human beings and try to stay on a high moral plane or give in to the forces of economic “reality” and allow the current intolerable inequality continue to grow and fester. It’s about time to rid ourselves of our shame instead of taking on what we say are shameful conditions in the rest of the world. All this talk of fiscal problems is so hypocritical as to make me sick. The weekly take of the barons of the financial world could go along way to clean up the mess in our city schools.

If I am ranting today, I am. While out on an errand this morning I was listening to Garrison Keillor doing his “The Writer’s Almanac” bit. As he often does, he finished by reading a poem. It was not, IMHO, a great poem, but it struck me how important it is to happiness and flourishing to be able to listen to and appreciate poetry (and literature and art and music and trees and people and …) It is not only shameful that we are leaving many of our young children without even the knowledge that such things are part of their inalienable rights; it is immoral.

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