Dissemination, Indoctrination, Analytics:The School And The ‘Net
Ivan Illich, "Learning Webs," in Deschooling Society (1970)
A few nights ago, on an Internet list service to which I subscribe, a message was posted, suggesting that President Clinton had already, or was about to, sign an executive order outlawing the stockpiling of food in the United States and its territories. The posting included an electronic version of what the person posting the message claimed was the text of the executive order, and an analysis which suggested that this executive order was yet another compelling bit of evidence that certain dark forces, including but not limited to the US government, the UN and the former Soviet Union, were putting into action a comprehensive plan for world government: the capital-N New capital-W World capital-O Order.
In the hours and days that followed, other postings to the list provided more evidence in support of the NWO conspiracy: the use of smart card technology in banking, the monitoring of Internet traffic by the National Security Agency, grocery store chains' promotion of loyalty cards, bar code stickers on the backs of road signs, strange lights in the sky over the Nevada desert, flurries of activity within various Mormon communities (who, it was asserted, are both food stockpilers and doctrinally opposed to the NWO). The religious right appeared several times, posting snatches of Revelations related to the Number of the Beast. UFO abductees chimed in, indicating that this was all part of the aliens' plan for us, and we should (a) recognize the NWO for the higher truth that it was or (b) load our weapons and blow straight to hell the first little grey big-eyed four-fingered creatures we clapped eyes on. A few folks who believe themselves to have been Atlanteans in a former life offered various sorts of cosmic interpretations of the executive order and the NWO conspiracy in general.
Some of the material contributed to this process was offered as empirical fact, with evidence: the electronic version of Clinton’s alleged executive order was not the only official-looking piece of evidence posted. Some was offered as anecdote -- Mormons seen in grocery stores, buying cling peaches and bottled water in bulk. Some was offered as mere rumor: someone told someone that....
Watching the construction of this body of evidence -- body of knowledge, I want to call it -- was for me a compelling, and a frightening, experience. I found it compelling because this kind of construction -- what theorists call annealing -- is what computer-mediated communications is supposed to be about: small-d democratic collaboration across time and space, connection between like-minded souls, deep and intensely human communication building, from discourse, knowledge. This is what the ‘Net is, why it is so powerful, so essentially good for us. In the midst of planetary chaos, 50 or so people had woven a complex narrative in which every element contributed to the mix made sense, connected to and reinforced its neighbor -- in which the center held.
And frightening. I have no idea how people who see monsters in the inventory tracking stickers on road signs and cabals in the supermarket checkout scanner make it through a day on this planet. I have no idea whether the executive order posted to this list was bogus or real. I have no idea whether the person posting the original message believed what he said or was creating a e-vent. I have no idea how many people -- members of the list or people browsing its online archives -- believe that what was created that night was the truth: something that described a fundamental reality. And finally, I have no idea how to refute such utter nonsense in a way that will erase the discussion, undo the knowledge that was created in the frenetic, conspiratorial heat of that night's work, prevent the damage it will undoubtedly do to other of my fellow creatures whose hold on the fundamental realities of life -- among which, I believe, is an axiom which says that there is no center, no place from which to direct the actions of others with effect, no place from which anyone or anything can successfully conspire for long -- are as tenuous as those of the list service contributors, or stop it from being reconstructed somewhere else, in an even more potent form.
Frightening, too, because I don't know where these people met and whispered together before they had the 'Net, but I am certain that whatever mechanisms they used to network and collaborate were nowhere near as ubiquitous and effective as the 'Net. And I know, for certain, that before the 'Net I would never have stumbled upon their meeting place, never heard the whispers or seen the secret handshakes exchanged, never had the opportunity to participate.
In a very real sense, this deliberately outlandish anecdote is emblematic of the 'Net in its essence. What the 'Net does is create the possibility for all sorts of knowledge to be constructed, collaboratively, and published for the planet to consume, augment, refine, traduce and coopt. The 'Net does not judge, and in fact it cannot judge; it has no mechanism in place to stamp certain discourses spurious and others genuine. The 'Net has no canon, or rather it immediately elevates everything it carries to canonical status, erasing distinctions of origin, rules of evidence, and in many cases the dictates of logic itself. All things are equally true or false, but are assuredly equal. As the saying has it, information wants to be free, and the 'Net's job is to facilitate that freedom. The 'Net is a perfect dissemination mechanism, allowing good, bad and wanton knowledge in equal and unfiltered doses to flow and flood.
The question I want to ask, in light of this, is deceptively simple: what does the increasing ubiquity of 'Net access mean to educational institutions, particularly to colleges and universities? President Clinton has announced his administration's intention to connect America's entire educational infrastructure to the Information Superhighway by the end of the century, underlining Everyman's general sense that technology is a good thing when mixed with schooling. PCs are disappearing off furniture store shelves faster than TV sets or automatic breadmakers and the e-literacy of the average 10 year old surpasses that of the two generations that precede her. The ‘Net is, or will be soon, a part of primary and secondary schooling throughout the US, and so, then, will be the thousand hole-and-corner conversations that produce the kind of wanton knowledge described above, as well as the thousands of conversations that produce knowledge less wanton and more useful.
Education as Dissemination
One popular model of education is the education-as-dissemination-mechanism, a model in which a teacher plays the role of factory tour leader, and the goal of education is transfer: out of the head of the teacher and the shelves of the library and the pages of the textbook into the head -- and the behavior -- of the student. When full, cap and graduate. This is clearly the model that underpins most community college and technical school educational paradigms, as well as the huge commercial education market. In this model, all the epistemological and philosophical difficulties associated with knowledge of any kind -- how it gets built, how we know it's true, how to use it well -- are erased, and education is a series of transactions: students pay for knowledge, digest it, move on to other transactions. The model is quite old, dating back to at last the middle of the 19th century, when Matthew Arnold and other proponents of ‘culture’ began to cast the minds and bodies of human beings as empty vessels in need of fulfillment: cultural plenitude, sweetness and light. It is a model amenable to simple capitalist models; the School as a factory, producing students the quality of whom we can judge by means of their degrees.
The metaphor under which the ‘Net appears in this model is two-fold: as library (source of information) and as means of production. As a library, the ‘Net can extend and presumably supplant traditional concentrated sources of “raw” information. And as the means of production, the ‘Net can do away with the distribution mechanisms of the traditional dissemination machinery: campuses, dorm rooms, lecture halls. In other words, within this primarily economic model of education, the ‘Net appears as an efficiency mechanism, a cost-reduction strategy.
Education As Indoctrination
Another popular model of education is the education-as-system-of-indoctrination, a la Illich and others. In this model, education is the machinery that produces optimal citizens, consumers, and viewers: what the machine needs to keep itself going. This is clearly the model against which the home-schooling and parochial schooling movements define themselves: they offer a wholesome, family-values, God-and-country alternative to the godless humanism of the public school system. This is also the model, to some extent, against which classic liberal arts institutions define themselves: as a healthy, no-preservatives alternative to the mindless discipline of the business school and the engineering college.
Turns out, when you examine the literature of the various education-as-indoctrination movements, you discover that no one can agree on who is served by the indoctrination machine. Liberal humanists believe the school is the tool of the right, and increasingly, the religious right. The right believes the school has been always the bastion of godless humanism. The only thing the various camps seem to agree on is that the machine exists, for some dark purpose, controlled by some shadowy but well-organized cabal that not only uses the school as its indoctrination mechanism, but erases all traces of its presence.
The ‘Net appears in this model as the antidote to indoctrination, as the source of a kind of education that, as the Illich quote with which I began this note suggests, undoes indoctrination. Now, the notion of a space outside indoctrination -- a space outside ideology -- where one breathes the pure air of authentic self-awareness and truth is a compelling notion, but not one any human being is likely to experience. History suggests pretty plainly that the antidote to any indoctrination, any ideology, is a different indoctrination, a new ideology -- and one that works in large measure by defining itself against what it is attempting to supplant.
Education as Analytics
The final model in play is the model of education-as-training-in-analysis, somewhat analogous to Freudian notions of the training analysis. When I was in undergraduate school, this model, very much talked of, went under the rubric "critical thinking." This notion, as I understood it and was subjected to it, was that it didn't much matter what the subject of a class or a course was: what mattered was that the students be able to "think critically" about the subject, evaluate it, shape it, value it, accept, reject or accept and ultimately make use of it. Later, in graduate school, "critical thinking" became analysis and interpretation -- the ability to take apart an argument, a text, an entire body of knowledge, poke at its springs and gears, reassemble it differently, show how and why it worked as it did was the object of the educational experience.
I do not find the ‘Net discussed much among proponents of this model, except as a bugbear: a target for self-confessed Luddites who see all things digital as the death of something or other that they value, and therefore as evil. I believe this is so for the same reason that “critical thinking” is discredited in educational circles: because all too often "critical thinking" was really "left wing, traditionally cultured, liberalish thinking.”
Models Dictate Methods
What the 'Net means -- its promise and its peril -- to education depends ultimately, I would argue, on one's fundamental model of education.
If education is fundamentally about disseminating a defined body of knowledge -- a canon, however arrived at -- through a series of transactions in the interest of creating better minds (whether better is defined by a waiting commercial sector or the doyens of cultural literacy), then the 'Net will bury the School. The 'Net is a superior dissemination mechanism in every respect imaginable. One does not have to pay a teacher or a school, attend or pass classes, or take degrees except as these are needed for certification purposes for jobs or other roles in society at large. The ‘Net can hold more, make more accessible, organize and communicate more than any educational institution, in less time, at lower cost. Competing with the ‘Net in the education-as-dissemination game is simply bad economics.
If education is fundamentally, as Illich and others have suggested, about indoctrination -- about disseminating a canon deliberately arrived at by some group of people who hold power and have some purpose -- then the 'Net will break the School because the ‘Net creates cognitive dissonance: because it will bring to bear against the School’s canon kinds of information that will undermine the indoctrination effort. It is not for nothing that the PRC has decided to cut its populace off from the ‘Net proper and maintain a kind of maoist e-fantasy land behind a cultural firewall. If, as Holocaust revisionists argue, the Holocaust is a myth, a piece of propaganda deliberately constructed and disseminated through the historical canon, then the 'Net will deliver, to plenty of students, the truth according to the Holocaust Revisionists. If the planet is really run by the Illuminati, or the Freemasons, or the Trilateral Commission -- each of which, presumably, uses the educational system to bury all traces of itself -- the 'Net will deliver up the real story, from Lyndon LaRouche if from no one else. If Nikolai Tesla was hounded and eventually killed by corporate agents dead-set on preventing ultra high-frequency energy or perpetual motion machines from taking hold, the 'Net will expose the truth. If the US government is keeping colonies of aliens alive in the Nevada desert, the truth will out. And all attempts to keep the 'Net from doing this will fail, just as attempts to stifle the press have always, ultimately, failed.
But if education is fundamentally about preparing analysts, about teaching students hermeneutics, the art of interpretation -- how to absorb, evaluate, synthesize, use and, yes, reject out of hand the petabytes of data clamoring to be admitted to consciousness -- then the School can make use of the 'Net for its purposes, survive and perhaps even prosper in more or less its traditional form. This is the case because the virtue of the ‘Net -- its inability to deal with questions of veracity -- is also its fundamental weakness. The ‘Net cannot rank or value what it disseminates; it cannot mark certain kinds of information as suspect, or as having ethical ramifications, or as being hazardous to one’s moral health. Yet some kinds of knowledge are, undoubtedly, just wrong, and some kinds of knowledge are pure poison : true or otherwise, such knowledge cannot be admitted to individual or collective consciousness without a loss so great that there is no recovering from it.
Enter the School as a training ground for analysts who will have to live and work in an electronic environment with no in-built epistemological framework, in an e-world where any datum may or may not be true in the empirical sense, valuable in the moral sense, or safe in the cultural sense. A world in short without any system or road signs to tell us when we have entered a discourse that may be hazardous enough to kill us or sublime enough to reveal the fundamental truth of the universe. How will netizens ten years from now navigate in such an environment? Only, I would argue, by being incredibly versatile analysts, capable of treating every argument, every datum with sympathy, capable of tearing down and rebuilding any argument, capable to seeing how it is that a discourse works, how it does its master’s bidding and refuses to do so, all at the same time.
A balanced set of hermeneutic objectives -- balanced in that truth is recognized as being social, as being constructed in a social context, and as always coming only at some cost that has to be calculated before the truth is constructed or unleashed -- is the antidote to wanton knowledge and to the 'Net as unfilterable dissemination mechanism. If the School can recast its mission as one centered around producing analysts -- perhaps I should say producing navigators -- then the ‘Net becomes the most fertile psychosocial case study imaginable. In my list server example is an entire semester’s worth of study.
This is not meant to be a left-handed reinstatement of the idea of a canon. The deconstruction of the literary canon -- the works of dead white men -- and more recently of the classical historical canon -- the lives and acts of dead white men -- are sufficient to demonstrate the truth of the proposition that we cannot teach valuation and interpretation by restricting the texts on which interpretation acts, and the truth of the proposition that, by pre-selecting and filtering knowledges into two categories -- in and out -- we do material damage to people's senses of themselves, their histories and their potential.
This may be a suggestion that there is a meta-canon -- one or a few good (not right, but productive) ways of interpretation -- that we must teach and teach sooner rather than later if we are going to prevent the endless splintering of what was a unitary canon of knowledge into a few billion private fantasies constructed from the flotsam and jetsam floating out there in the e-ther.
As it stands, with educational leaders blindly embracing, blindly rejecting and blindly pawing at the ‘Net, we are facing in my view the possibility of massive intellectual autism in the next generation: for every person, his or her own private and privately-constructed reality, where the Illuminati may or may not reign, where the New World Order is or is not a threat, where the Holocaust did or did not happen, where cold fusion does or does not work. Because the ‘Net is so rich, it is probably the case that every person’s private reality -- their history of themselves and what has come before them -- will be richer than previous generations, more copious in detail, more multifarious, more complicated. And with this complexity comes the very real possibility that, as our own versions of the universe develop, they will diverge, perhaps diverge so far that we can no longer converse because our vocabularies and our notions of reality have become, as the neo-pragmatists like to say, incommensurate.
To say that we need, therefore, to teach from a common reality in order to ensure a commensurate vocabulary among the people who will run the planet 10 or 20 years from now is to bring back the canon disguised as vocabulary. What I think we have to say instead is that, if there is any fundamental reality to be had, reasonable people applying reasonable analytical tools will discover enough of that reality to reach consensus and move on, and to discard as useless or dangerous the petabytes of wanton knowledge that is wrong or is poisonous to the community. If that is not true, then nothing will help us push back the coming disintegration.
In my view, the mission of the School in the digital age is to discover and teach those analytic methods to reasonable people -- to produce navigators -- and to use the ‘Net as both teaching and proving ground. To do otherwise would be to make the School obsolete, and to usher in, on the back of the ‘Net, the Age of Autism.
The authoritative source of this document is http://www.noumenal.com/marc/educate1.html