My (Often Painful) Online Education

No, I have not been taking part in a MOOC or signed up for an online degree because an NFL player has been hired to promote it.

I am here to discuss my online education over the past couple years since I have committed fully to Twitter and now maintain my own blog, both of which have over 3000 followers each (thank you, thank you, thank you, kind followers). That modest presence I have built in the New Media has taught me some valuable and often painful lessons I believe deserve some consideration as I approach the end of two years blogging original pieces at this site.

Let me offer first that I entered education over 30 years ago to change the way children are taught. In that context, one of the most painful lessons I have learned is that the educational reformers with power have cavalierly discounted me as “anti-reform.” Both factually untrue and, yes, painful.

Also, I have titled my blog “the becoming radical” because I spend a great deal of time and energy blogging and creating public work (instead of traditional scholarly work, which I still do) as both my activism and part of that becoming toward radicalism that speaks against what I view as the utter failure of traditional/conservative and progressive ideologies [1].

So, what have I learned?

Tone shouldn’t matter, but tone matters—at least tone matters when those in power want it to. Calling someone out for tone is both a common ploy by those without credibility, and an effective one. The cousin of this lesson is that a handy and often misused tactic is to cry ad hominem even when the person isn’t being attacked. That too is effective. Trying to steer any public discussion to how credible are the claims and how credible is the person making the claims is nearly impossible because in the education reform debate, power and influence trump all types of credibility.

Political leaders, the media, and the public have little regard for evidence. This is likely the most painful lesson of all. Many scholars work within the range of evidence-based claims, and as such, the public reaction to evidence is incredibly frustrating because a typical response is like this one: “I myself have little respect for the ‘studies’ that might be quoted by the self-appointed ‘authorities’ in these matters.” Let me, then, dwell on this lesson a moment.

The great obstacle to evidence-based public discussions is the media. Journalists and a wide range of media forms exist within an environment that requires the appearance of balance, almost always a for-and-against simplicity that both distorts complex issues and misrepresents the weight of evidence. Members of the media are also trapped within a culture of reporting that suggests journalists do not need any sort of discipline-specific expertise to examine a topic; and thus, I am constantly amazed that when I interact with journalists, they find positions relatively typical in a field to be incredible—things they have never heard and thus claims they find hard to believe.

They say things like “Your opinion is really unusual” or “I’ve never heard that before”—even and especially when I am not expressing my opinion, but simply relaying the current research conclusions on the issue (see this and this, for example). This problem with the media and the public has been most distinct over the past few months while I have addressed grade retention and corporal punishment—two heavily researched areas (40 years of research on retention and 60 years of research on corporal punishment) that have very clear positions (both on balance are harmful to children and should be avoided) among the leading professionals in disciplines spanning medical doctors, psychologists, sociologists, and educators. [Read the comments on the corporal punishment piece, for example.]

Those in power win, no matter what. Power associated with status, wealth, or celebrity brings both volume and frequency to anyone’s voice, regardless (see above) of credibility. And thus, in public discussions of education and education reform, power goes first, the powerless respond, and then power always wins. Two very ugly examples of this have occurred recently, in fact.

A mainstream publication and a national alternative teacher (actually, leadership) organization have both demonstrated how their toxic and misleading claims and agendas speak to and perpetuate their power even and especially when they are publicly refuted. Every time credible points are raised against the publication or the organization, both gain even more public exposure—thus, winning.

People rarely listen, and almost never change their minds. Make a public claim, and many who refute you will demonstrate that they haven’t actually understood or considered your point (state that grade retention hurts children, and have people rant about social promotion). Make a public claim against what people believe, and expect everything from the nasty to the condescending.

And with this—since I see my public work as an extension of my work as a teacher—I am deeply discouraged. It is a bitter lesson, but my recent life in the virtual world and in public discourse has revealed that commentary attracts those who already agree with you and simply inflames those who do not.

*sigh*

And finally, silence by those with whom you believed yourself to be in solidarity is worse than all the hateful responses combined. This is the hardest lesson, but the fate of all writers, who above all else seek an audience. Those days when one feels as if she/he has been shouting down an empty well …

So what now?—you may be asking, especially since the lessons above are quite negative, and my refrain has been “discouragement.”

Discouragement does not equal defeated, I must state here quite clearly: discouragement does not equal defeated.

Because the greatest lesson of all has been that my online education has confirmed my initial urge toward radicalism: We must have radical change of the larger social structures in order to achieve the individual opportunities toward equity, I believe, many of us are seeking.

I remain committed to my support for universal public education and a critical free press.

Currently, neither is being achieved by the existing versions of both, regretfully—a reality that builds a monumental wall against our efforts to achieve either.

And thus, even when discouraged, we must continue to tear down that wall in order to build anew. And words that lead to action can be powerful sledgehammers if we are patient and true.

[1] Howard Zinn (1994), You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: “From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical….The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.”

8 comments

  1. Russ Walsh

    Thanks for this Paul. As a regular reader and a fellow blogger i found much truth in what you said here. Soldier on we must. Silence is approval and we can’t reward the corporate education reformers with silence no matter how discouraged we might become.

  2. Joan Kramer

    And this was truly significant to me: “And finally, silence by those with whom you believed yourself to be in solidarity is worse than all the hateful responses combined. This is the hardest lesson, but the fate of all writers, who above all else seek an audience. Those days when one feels as if she/he has been shouting down an empty well …” because I read this to mean that those with whom I am in solidarity DON’T agree with what I said, but don’t know what to say or aren’t comfortable with my position. Many of your topics are so timely and so critical and I do find whispers elsewhere – that we can’t talk about that, or we can’t take a position on that. And why not? I thank you for always taking a stand!

  3. hechternacht

    Just reading your post and blog for the first time. I do disagree with you on one thing- people Do change their minds🙂 All the time. It’s a slow change, very gradual but before you know it, boom! I know because MY mind was changed when I got online years ago and started to dig deeper into the world of education.

  4. Jill Reifschneider

    I didn’t want to leave you with silence on my end, so I am responding. I found you blog a little over a week ago. How? Through a network – a network of people with the strength to hope for better and do what we can as individuals. I will rarely comment, but know that you are adding to the wealth of truth necessary to fuel opposition to the current corporate takeover of our public education system and our political process. My hope is young people becoming active, and rising from their oppression, their apathy, their disenfranchisement. Keep at it, and thank you.

  5. Mike Booth

    Don’t give up, Thomas. The education of children is too important. People will believe anything you tell them before the age of seven. That’s what’s wrong with that country. The wrong people call the shots for your kids

  6. Pingback: The “Favorite Writer” Experiment | ammar mian

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s