Friday, November 13, 2020

This Could Be the Best Educated Generation in History

Before the start of my freshman year at university, I was required to sit down with my advisor, a professor in my chosen field of study who was there to help me navigate my academic life. I rarely spoke with him over the course of the next four years. I don't even remember his name, but among the tips he gave me during that first meeting was to consider enrolling in a course called Use of the Library. It sounded like an easy A.

As it turns out, it was by far the most useful class I ever took. The internet was a decade away, so if we needed answers beyond the encyclopedia sets on our parent's bookshelves, libraries were our only option. Of course, I'd been to my local library to pick out books, but now I had access to a major university library. The class was taught by a librarian who taught us how to ask and then answer our own questions, something I didn't know I didn't know. We spent most of our time amongst the reference shelves, a place I'd never been, digging through indexes, tracking down academic articles, tracing trains of thought through esoteric books and journals that were either kept bound, organized by volume numbers, or, in the case of older material, compressed onto what was called microfiche, a flat piece of film that we read using a special light box type machine. 

Few things in my previous educational experience had prepared me for this. Yes, I'd occasionally used my high school library to write papers, but that had typically involved settling for the limited resources available, which is probably why my essays on the Spanish-American War or the causes of schizophrenia read very much like everyone else's. Besides, I'd learned a long time ago that when it came to school, you got your best grades by simply repeating what the teacher said in class, so I usually just skipped the library altogether. But now, I found that I could research without end, going deeper and deeper until I was having thoughts and ideas that were my own rather than the simply the "right" answers I'd previously sought. I'd thought that could only happen outside of school, but this class with its prosaic sounding title had shown me, perhaps for the first time, how to stand on the shoulders of those who came before me and see a little farther. 

The advent of the internet has placed this opportunity at the finger tips of (almost) every American. The opportunity to ask and answer our own questions has never been greater, yet most people have no idea how to go about wading through the entertainment, propaganda, click-bait headlines, and misinformation.  They don't know what they don't know. The crap is right there from the moment we turn on our machines, easy to find, superficial, and liable to repeat itself over and over. The internet has the potential to be the most important educational tool since the advent of the printing press, yet we're wasting it by simply not understanding how to use it.

There is a great deal of hand-wringing over our children who are falling behind because of the coronavirus pandemic. I'm intentionally not linking to any articles, but every leading media outlet has run pieces quoting education "experts" who worry that our children won't be able to pass their tests according the arbitrary timetable they've created for kids to "know" the arbitrary stuff that represents what they call "education" or "knowledge" or "wisdom" or "thinking." Let me assure you that falling behind is not a real thing. It's a cruel click-bait headline designed to play on the fears of parents. It's propaganda for the curriculum and testing industry. It's misinformation of the most dangerous kind.

What if, instead of trying recreate classrooms through video chat platforms, we use this pandemic as an opportunity to set our children free by teaching them not what we think they ought to know according to an arbitrary timeline, but rather by giving them the skills to ask and answer their own questions, to dig beneath the banal surface layer, to educate themselves, and to think their own thoughts? Every child has a passion. Most have many. Instead of saying to them, "This is what you need to know," we can instead ask, "What do you want to know?" then support them in the art and science of the "Use of the Internet."

Of course, most adults don't know how to properly dig into the internet any more than I knew how to dig into a library as a college freshman. There's more to it than just typing key words into a search engine. The people best positioned to help educators learn this are librarians, professionals who are trained to help us ask and answer our own questions, to seek the truth behind the noise. And just think how that could change our classrooms when we finally return to in-person teaching and these impassioned learners begin to teach one another.

This could be, should be, the best educated generation in history, one that learns how to educate itself. This is our opportunity, if only we will take it. 


Teacher Tom's Second Book is now available in Australia and New Zealand as well as the US, Canada, the UK, Iceland, and Europe. And if you missed it, Teacher Tom's First Book is back in print as well. 

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