Pop the Balloon

Of binary sound bites.

Leon Botstein is the President of Bard College. You probably knew that already, because he has been President of Bard College since 1975. That’s 46 years for the math challenged. He has done extraordinary work there, moving Bard into prominence and international renown. As if that wasn’t enough, among his many accomplishments, he is the Director of the American Symphony Orchestra. He is also outspoken, and when he speaks, many people listen.

Today, I want to examine some of his words from a recent interview in The Chronicle of Higher Education.1 It pertains to this middle place we are in right now, betwixt and between the (seemingly never-ending) pandemic and what we in education have learned from it (so far). For starters, he said this, and it gives you a good idea of his point of view right off the bat:

What the pandemic has shown, more than anything else, is the enormous value of teaching and learning - in real time and real space.

Of course, there is little debate about that, and it is always good to start a rant by beginning with a statement we can all agree on. Teaching and learning that takes place when we are together physically does have enormous value. But you can see where this is going, can’t you?

The really great teaching that goes in in any institution of any size is between people in real time.

Hmmm. There are a few things problematic about that statement. First, what is “real time?” Does this include a Zoom session where everyone is together, but not in the same physical space? I think that is not what he means, since he uses the term “real time and real space” just before this. So he means, it seems, “really great teaching” cannot happen on Zoom. Readers of this newsletter will not be surprised that I disagree with this statement. And further, it seems to gloss over the troublesome fact that there is really poor teaching that takes place in “real time and real space” in most institutions, perhaps even Bard. He goes on:

The same goes for politics. Virtual communication is a breeding ground for tyranny and autocracy, not democracy. Real polities requires real-time, real-place interaction. If we’re going to communicate with people who don’t agree with us, who are different from us, it can’t be done virtually, through social media.

I want to agree with Mr. Botstein on this, I really do. Social media has indeed caused us to be more polarized, and it is crucial that we as a society, as a democracy, figure out how to manage this. But it has also done good things for us. And do we really mean to suggest that the yelling and screaming that has been going on in city council meetings around the country between the anti-vaxxers/maskers is democracy at its best? In what way is that better just because it was in person? Will we definitely get a better democracy that way?

The pandemic taught us that what we took for granted is absolutely indispensable - the significance of making contact with students, of teaching well, of human community.

No disagreement there. But again, he uses a common device of persuasion, which is to precede something he really wants to say with something we all agree on. Here is what he really wants to say:

We lived through a decade of utopian hot air about how all of this - classrooms, university buildings - was a complete irrelevancy, out of date, the horse and buggy of education. That turned out to be fraudulent.

There’s nothing quite like a setting up a straw man argument and then crushing it. It feels good, and it can be cathartic. But it’s cheap.

What Mr. Botstein calls “utopian hot air” was mostly years of suggestions, methods, and solutions that together argued we could use technology to innovate in education. It was - to my reading - rarely suggested that we didn’t need classrooms or that getting together in physical space was wholly irrelevant. What he does not note is this: those who offered suggestions for improvement mostly ran up against a brick wall made of lack of interest and maintenance of the status quo. And then the pandemic hit, and the ones who wanted everything to stay the same were caught off guard, and unprepared. It didn’t look good, and in my view, University leaders should be humble about that, and working on improving it.

Finally, Mr. Botstein gets around to popping his own balloon with these words:

The second major lesson, though, is that the technology can be wildly helpful. It doesn’t offer a utopian alternative, but we learned how to use it better.

Ah, yes. If the “technology can be wildly helpful” then… there must be a role for it in a hybrid future, right? We can do both - be in classrooms together, and be together online. THAT is the “utopian alternative” we have been talking about. Let’s be in conversation about that, instead of calling “fraudulent” on each other.

I appreciate that the Chronicle has deadlines and needs to fill space. I appreciate that Mr. Botstein is well-respected, and eminently quotable. But from the vaunted perch of The Chronicle, and from the longest serving President of an eminent private University, we should be talking about more.

Letters of Recommendation

To help us change the conversation, today I am recommending a book about hybrid teaching and learning environments: The Perfect Blend, A Practical Guide to Designing Student-Centered Learning Outcomes, by Michele Eaton. Ms. Eaton is Director of Virtual and Blended Learning in Indianapolis public schools, and offers many useable suggestions about how to integrate teaching and learning that is “virtual” and “in-person.”

Q of the Week

The Q of the Week this week is a Question:

What do you think about what Mr. Botstein said in the Chronicle? Please leave a comment below with your thoughts.

Leave a comment


Hat tip to Professor Richard Polt, Xavier University in a post on his blog, here.