On the “banking” and “problem-posing” concepts of education

This is my post for Week 1 of MOOC MOOC: Critical Pedagogy.

In Pedagogy of the Oppressed Paulo Freire defines and contrast two concepts of education, the “banking concept” and the “problem-posing concept.” The two cannot coexist. Moreover, it is the political situation which determines which is present. Democratic and revolutionary regimes uphold the problem-posing concept of education. Illiberal regimes, on the other hand, almost by definition insist on the banking concept, for a problem-posing education would cause the student to become aware of, and to question, the oppressive nature of the government.

Under which concept does the United States operate? Our fetish for standardized testing and for assessment puts us firmly in the realm of the banking concept. So too does our focus on education as a means of gaining job skills, rather than critical faculties. It seems to me that many people oppose standardized testing. Yet fewer are bothered by a focus on job skills, even while they would insist that educating the critical faculties is essential to education.

So a truly problem-posing concept of education, designed to promote those critical faculties, is something to be found only in rare cases. An example might be Shimer College. Yet the only reason I’m aware of Shimer is that it’s been in the news lately because it was ranked the worst college in America on a scale based on quantitative assessment.

In the United States, then, we strongly tend towards enacting a banking concept of education, even while pretending we follow a problem-posing concept. This dissonance is possible because our society’s deployment of the banking concept is far more sophisticated that that postulated by Freire. Remember that Freire was writing in the aftermath of the Brazilian military coup in 1964. Our country is not so undemocratic. Instead, minds are policed in more subtle ways. Consider Noam Chomsky’s observation on the role of the media and debate in neoliberal society:

The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum – even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.

I’ll end by proposing that just as our media and our political establishment allow an appearance of critical inquiry but restrict it in practice to a narrow range of views, so too does our educational establishment allow a seemingly problem-posing education to conceal its true base as a banking concept of education. The difference is that instead of pouring facts into student’s heads (though some want to return to just that) we force them to meet predetermined learning outcomes.

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On SUNY, branding, and internal competition

John Quiggin writes in “Brands of Nonsense” about the ideology behind the current “branding” craze among college administrators:

First there is the emphasis on image without any reference to an underlying reality. Second there is the assumption that the university should be viewed as a corporate institution rather than as a community. Third there is the desire to subordinate the efforts of individual scholars in research, extension, and community engagement to the enhancement of the corporate image. And finally there is the emphasis on distinctiveness and separateness. The University of Florida does not want to seem part of a global community of higher education, but rather as a competitor in a crowded marketplace.

It’s absurd and destructive when the University of Florida sees a Georgia or Michigan as, first and foremost, competitors. And it’s even more senseless when the same relation is assumed among colleges within a single state university system. That’s the case with SUNY, with its eleven “comprehensive colleges” and four research universities not working in concert, but each pitted against the others for students and their tuition dollars.

For an unsavory business-world parallel, look at the corporate structure within fading retailer Sears:

Many of its troubles can be traced to an organizational model the chairman implemented five years ago, an idea he has said will save the company. Lampert runs Sears like a hedge fund portfolio, with dozens of autonomous businesses competing for his attention and money. An outspoken advocate of free-market economics and fan of the novelist Ayn Rand, he created the model because he expected the invisible hand of the market to drive better results. If the company’s leaders were told to act selfishly, he argued, they would run their divisions in a rational manner, boosting overall performance.

Instead, the divisions turned against each other—and Sears and Kmart, the overarching brands, suffered.

Developing Scientific Womanpower: Gender and the Cold War-Era Science Fair

This is the paper that Ellen Adams (@ellensemple) and I presented at the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in Toronto on 24 May 2014. The paper was part of the panel “Women on the Cutting Edge: Gender, Science, and Technology in the Era of Containment.” Thanks to our co-panelists, Sarah McLennan and Kim Mann, our chair, Amy Sue Bix, our commentator, Amy Slaton, and to our most engaged and inquisitive audience!

Please do not cite without permission. Contact the authors via email.

When the newest issue of Life magazine appeared on newsstands on October 21, 1957, probably few people were surprised that the cover image depicted three (male) scientists tracking the orbit of Sputnik. A little more than two weeks earlier, the Soviet Union had launched Sputnik, the first artificial earth satellite, and now Americans were asking, in the words of Life’s headline, “Why Reds got it first” and “What happens next.” The magazine reported extensively on the science behind Sputnik, what new information it had revealed about space, and the opinions of prominent scientists and statesmen on the reasons behind the Americans’ failure to be first. At the same time, Life’s authors reassured readers that the United States was certainly capable of launching its own satellite, but doing so would depend on a change of attitude among the American people regarding the importance of science and particularly of the scientific education of young people.

Although Sputnik represented a new and unexpected moment of crisis, one necessitating more bright young scientists ready to match and surpass the Soviets, American science had dealt with such threats before. After the outbreak of WWII, existing networks of science clubs and fairs had been nationalized in the form of the Science Talent Search, its goal not simply to promote knowledge of science but to identify and nurture the young men–and women–who would keep American science ahead of its competitors in the years to come.

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Against preliminary bibliographies

A student tonight was searching for sources for a two-page bibliography. She didn’t have a paper to write, at least not yet — just that list of sources. She didn’t care whether she had books or articles or YouTube videos; she was just assigned to find two pages’ worth of sources on a topic and damned if she wasn’t going to do just that.

This sort of long bibliography at the start of a project is, I think, a waste of time. In practice, any researcher will discover half or more of their sources when they’re writing anyway. And the early bibliography assignment encourages students to build up a list of books and articles without actually reading them. They don’t engage the material, which means they can’t develop their preliminary ideas.

Here’s an alternative: instead of starting with a bibliography, require students to hand in “drafts” frequently, every week or two. They’ll be simple at the beginning. Start in week 1 with a “first draft” that’s no more than a summary of a couple of encyclopedia articles. But in writing the students will have to engage the material. Maybe the encyclopedia glossed over something that sounds interesting. The next week, read a secondary source and add detail that fleshes out that point. Keep going back and forth between reading and writing, adding new details and cutting away what no longer fits. At the end of the year they’ll have a paper written and revised over the course of months, not days. They’ll be researchers.

The “French Traveller,” Patrick Henry, and the Contagion of Liberty

This is the paper I presented at the Virginia Forum, Lexington, VA, March 26, 2011.

Please do not cite without permission. Contact the author at jfbeatty@gmail.com.

Thanks to my co-panelists, Jon Kukla and Kevin Hardwick; to Del Moore for invaluable research help; and to the Gilder Lehrman Foundation for funding the research trip that made this paper possible.

Abstract: In 1921 the American Historical Review published the journal of a “French traveller” describing his trip to Britain’s North American colonies in 1765. From the West Indies, the traveler sailed north to the North Carolina coast and journeyed overland to New York. Over those nine months he broke bread and drank wine with a cross-section of the colonies’ wealthiest and most powerful men. The journal is unusual in two ways. First, it was written in English and yet found in a French naval archive. With its detailed descriptions of colonial port cities and their defenses, the journal was apparently written by a spy for Britain’s greatest rival. Second, it contains the only extant eyewitness account of the debates in Virginia’s House of Burgesses over the Stamp Act. These debates and the set of resolves that emerged served as a spark for resistance to the Stamp Act throughout Britain’s North American colonies — and yet we know little about the drama played out in the Capitol that day. The traveler never revealed his identity within the pages of the journal. Neither the editor of the AHR copy nor later historians could connect the journal to a known historical figure. This paper, then, will reveal the identity of the “French Traveller,” reevaluate what the journal tells us in light of the author’s identity, and examine the implications on our understanding of how the Virginia House of Burgesses and their resolves ignited colonial resistance to the Stamp Act.

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Library, Inc.? Not exactly

A friend — an academic historian — asked me what I thought of Daniel Goldstein’s “Library, Inc.” essay in the Chronicle. This was my response:

I wholly agree with Goldstein that universities have become too corporate in their culture, but I don’t agree that libraries are leading the trend. Perhaps we are more so than, say, English departments, but certainly the hard sciences and law, medical, and business schools are in cahoots with the business world much more than we are.

Beyond that I find Goldstein’s examples incomplete or misleading. It’s true that librarians negotiate with corporate database vendors and that these vendors — and the publishing industry in general — have become a terrible problem. The model of renting journals is an awful one. (I’m actually very interested in the history of the process by which these database vendors — EBSCO and their ilk — came to dominate; I don’t think anything has been written on it.)

But librarians are wholly aware of these issues, and do more than anyone else in the academy to devise alternatives. They’re advocates for open access. They build institutional repositories as an alternate means of hosting published work. And I find the accusation that access services librarians are neglecting metadata and declaring incomplete records to be good enough to be, well, bizarre. Cataloguers and metadata specialists are, without exception, detail-oriented and precise people — tending, if anything, to perfectionism rather than the opposite.

Goldstein sees public services as a second problem area. I think he has a point about students’ tendency towards sloppy research. Too often they grab the first few articles they find that seem to be related to their topic. But, really, was there a golden age when the majority of students did their research thoroughly? This summer when I was trying to organize the archives of a professor from the 1930s-60s I found plenty of student research papers. Some were good. But some were crap too, in which the student had clearly just pulled five random books on eastern Europe off the library shelf and paraphrased. The only way to get around the problem is to make sure students only have access to the best sources. And that defeats the point of a research assignment.

Again, librarians are very aware of this problem. He wholly ignores the other half of public services: instruction. Instruction is probably bigger and hotter than reference right now. And instruction librarians are very much focused on concrete issues like helping students find the best possible sources. Some schools have independent one-credit library classes and all do individual instruction sessions for courses across the college. And we try to get the professor to give us a specific assignment to work towards so the students have to do the work themselves rather than just listening and forgetting.

In short, I just don’t think “Library, Inc.” holds up very well in light of actual library practice.

Historical Documents in a Digital Library: OCR, Metadata, and Crowdsourcing

This was originally written as a paper for Chris Tomer’s graduate class on Digital Libraries at the University of Pittsburgh this past spring. It’s my attempt to articulate some ideas about what makes online historical documents usable — or not usable — for researchers. Comments and criticism are welcome!

Over the past decade, a vast number of historical materials from the past three centuries have been digitized and placed on the Internet. The majority of these have been printed sources — newspapers and books. Some have been digitized as part of a proprietary system (for example, Readex’s Early American Imprints.) Others have been made publicly accessible (Google Books, or projects from the Library of Congress under American Memory.) The grand hope of all of these was to provide searchable full text online. This would be done through the magic of optical character recognition software. Surely, librarians might have thought ten or fifteen years ago, software quality and processing power would improve rapidly, soon permitting quick and accurate reproduction of any text.

The promise of OCR has gone largely unfulfilled. While modern printed sources are easily read, older ones are not. This should lead us to reconsider how we think about these documents — how we categorize them. In a pre-digital world, there is not much difference between the modern newspaper and the eighteenth-century one. Both are opened and easily skimmed, column by column. Contrast that to a manuscript — a letter or diary — which is much harder to read.

But in the digital age, if images and computer-generated text are available over the web, the older newspapers have more in common with manuscripts than they do with newer printed materials. The latter are searchable; the former are not.

For a researcher, to profitably use a big digital collection of historic materials, he or she needs to be able to search the contents, to winnow down centuries of text. In other words he or she needs either quality OCR or quality metadata. For a large corpus, if you have a collection that is well-OCR’d, then you can get by without robust metadata. But if you have a collection that is poorly OCR’d, text search will not work — you need to have robust metadata for the library to be useful at all.

An example of the latter is the old microprint edition of Early American Imprints. The documents were in physical form and thus, not searchable at all. But the makers had created robust metadata — and this meant that, when libraries began using digital catalogs, the metadata could be ported into that catalog. Early American Imprints would be searchable along with the rest of the library’s holdings.

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