Friday, December 30, 2011

The god of Technology

Occasionally on this blog I will quote authors at length without much commentary. Neil Postman, author of The End of Education, is just such an author. One of the topics he treats in this profound work is the topic of technology. He writes: “But nowhere do you find more enthusiasm for the god of Technology than among educators.” But, a god? What does he mean? Let me quote Postman at length.

“As the discussion proceeds, important distinctions are made among different meanings of “belief,” but as some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology—in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it, that they are delighted when that are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that , in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is?”

Postman is not against technology; he’s simply making the case that people unthinkingly adopt technology without really thinking about its impact. Certainly, the computer and the internet have drastically altered human life. But, as Postman argues,

“Like all important technologies of the past, they are Faustian bargains, giving and taking away, sometimes in equal measure, sometimes more in one way than the other. It is strange—indeed, shocking—that with the twenty first century so close on our heels, we can still talk of new technologies as if they were unmixed blessings, gifts, as it were, from the gods.”

The problem, says Postman, with much of our technology in the information age is that students are overwhelmed by information. It’s not that they don’t have access to enough information. That problem was solved about a century ago. The problem is that our students are inundated, like a watery abyss falling from the skies, with data. Postmas uses the example of “little Eva.”

“For Little Eva’s problem is not how to get access to a well-structured algebra lesson, but what to do with all the information available to her during the day, as well as during sleepless nights. Perhaps this is why she couldn’t sleep in the first place. Little Eva, like the rest of us, is overwhelmed by information. She lives in a culture which has 260,000 billboards [Postman is writing over a decade ago], 17,000 newspapers, 12,ooo periodicals, 27,000 video outlets for renting tapes [does anybody have current stats for Netflix?], 400 million television sets, and well over 500 million radios, not including those in automobiles.”

Postman, I believe, would agree with Tim Keller, pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Chruch in New York City, who said, “The internet is the friend of information but the enemy of thought.” Keller, as one of the few genuine cultural leaders in the Christian movement, tries to stay away from the internet as much as possible, and read books, whole books, instead.
Postman is not arguing against computers in schools, but he is arguing against the “sleepwalking attitudes toward it, against allowing it to distract us from more important things, against making a god of it.”

Postman cites Alan Kay, who is widely associated with the invention of the personal computer. “He has repeatedly said that any problems the schools cannot solve without computers, they cannot solve with computers.” Perhaps this is the reason that many of the sons and daughters of today’s Silicon valley moguls working at places like Google send their kids to a Waldorf school where kids don’t have any computers until 8th grade.

What we really need is technology education – learning about how technology affects the human person and surrounding society. This seems to be the best way to guard against the favorite god of educators – the god of technology.

A Cantankerous Professor

I just finished reading James Kittleson’s classic biography of Martin Luther over Christmas break. Honestly, I was shocked by Luther’s life. Cantankerous and contentious doesn’t even come close to describing the real Luther. Having grown up under Lutheran pastors who more closely resembled Mr. Rogers than any of the reformers, learning about Luther’s exploits, condemning nearly everybody who disagreed with him (often with the most colorful language), made me think twice about the reformation.

Although the book was excellently written and well-researched, I couldn’t help but feel heavy about Luther’s life. First, I should say that I radically admire his courage. Luther took on the entire structure of medieval life and thought in the Catholic Church. From his criticism of the selling of indulgences to his insistence that men are justified only by God’s grace, and not by any works of “love,” he quickly made some powerful enemies. The pope and his emissaries quickly tried to silence this noisy Augustinian monk. But Luther’s conscience was bound to defend the faith as he understood it based on the Scriptures – and he was protected by a powerful German prince which ensured his teaching would continue. Moreover, as a “doctor of the church,” he took his vow to proclaim the truth and expose falsehood seriously. He feared literally no one, and no consequence. From peasant to emperor, if they spoke against the truth of God’s Word, all were fair game. His pen was one of the mightiest forces in Europe.

Having said this, Luther was reckless, arrogant, rude, and often a crushingly negative force, not just to enemies, but even to friends. Take the example of the Sacramentarian Controversy. The controversy was about Jesus’ words “This is my body” in reference to the Lord’s supper. Was his body really present in the bread and wine, or was it merely symbolic? Luther took the view that it was really Christ’s body, while other reformers like Zwingli believed it to be symbolic. Not only were reformers like Zwingli “false brethren” but they were also Satan’s followers. They replied to Luther “These are the words of an angry man.”

This is a fitting summary of Luther: an angry man. He engaged in the most extreme polemics, not only regularly calling the pope the Anti-Christ, but also accusing the mild-mannered and like-minded critic of Rome Erasmus of not even being a Christian because he didn’t agree with Luther on the issue of the freedom o f the will. From the despised catholic hierarchy to the Anabaptists, all were subject to name-calling and public defamation. He didn’t reserve his invective pamphlets for only those who sold indulgences like Tetzel – any and everyone who contradicted Luther has subject to the force of his criticism.

Two things astound me about Luther. First, how was he so sure he was right? How could any one man take on nearly the whole world and be astounded that anybody disagreed? He was once asked by one of his opponents, “Are you alone wise?” If he were alive today, I would ask him the same thing.

Second, was Luther not one of the most divisive forces in the history of the church? As a protestant myself, it’s tough to ask this question. His reforms, I believe, needed to happen. But Luther almost single-handedly tore Christendom apart. German princes pounced on the opportunity to declare independence from the Roman Church and Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor. And in the decades that followed, Protestants and Catholics fought bloody wars, culminating with the Thirty Years War. And even during Luther’s life, the Turks were marching up the Danube and threatening both Protestants and Catholics. While Protestants and Catholics take up arms against each other over the issue of Jesus’ location the Eucharist, Muslims were sweeping through Europe.

Luther was brilliant. He was insanely productive nearly his entire life. His works have endured the ages, and the political reforms that followed his life changed the West forever. And anybody who reads his life must respect his courage for acting on his conscience, even at risk of his life. But Luther engaged such violent polemics, it’s difficult for a 21st century observer, living in an age of pluralism (and well aware of the perspectival nature of knowledge), to not raise objections to his life. Toward the end of Luther’s life, he wrote that the pope was

“the head of the damned church of the very worst knaves on earth; vicar of the devil; and enemy of God; and opponent of Christ; and a destroyer of the church of Christ; a teacher of all lies, blasphemy, and idolatries; an archthief of the church and robber of the keys-all the goods of both the church and and the secular lords; a murderer of kings and inciter of all sorts of bloodshed; a brothel-keeper above all brother-keepers…”

Well, whatever your thoughts on Luther, since this is a blog about education and Christianity, it’s at least worth mentioning that Luther was first and foremost a professor. His reforms began in the study, and they spread first to the centers of learning and then the church. Luther himself believed that if the universities could be reformed, the church would follow. He certainly wasn’t right about everything. But this cantankerous professor was certainly right about where reform must take root in order to grow. Change the centers of thought, and you can change the world.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Frederick Emmons Terman

Interested in a turning a school around? Consider the case of Frederick Emmons Terman, provost at Stanford University in the 1960s. A Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT, Terman is often credited with making Stanford what it is today. Under his leadership, it went from a top 20 university to being consistently ranked in the top 3. How did Terman make Stanford the elite school of the West? There are at least three clues to his success.

First, Terman understood the times. In a post World War II environment, government was starting to invest major money in scientific research at the world’s best universities. While many university presidents of the East were lamenting government “intrusion” in academic life, Terman saw an opportunity. He decided the sciences were the place to begin building the future of the American research university. He focused building programs in core science, social science, and especially medical science. Under his tenure, he moved the Stanford Medical School from its San Francisco campus to its current location in Palo Alto, much to the chagrin of many doctors in the bay area. But Terman saw an opportunity in scientific research, and investment from organizations such as the National Institute of Health soon numbered in the millions. Terman saw a potential partnership between the university and industry that many traditionally-minded academics scoffed at. Today, those partnerships are the norm in the American research university.

Second, he was obsessed with recruiting the very best faculty. Beginning in the sciences, Terman systematically recruited some of the nations all-stars and rising stars. For example, when balloting took place for election into the prestigious National Academy of Science, he looked at those who just missed the cut. He recruited them, betting that they would be the future stars in science (and also knowing that they wouldn’t be nearly as expensive as current members). He was also obsessed with quantification of teaching and research merit. He devised complex and often times brutally rigorous methods for evaluating future faculty members, as well as current faculty members. He also combined quantification with an extensive peer review system. When recruiting new faculty members, he would scour the country for experts in each field, and ask who was leading the way in research. He also brought prospective faculty members to campus for short periods of time for current faculty members to “look them over” and evaluate their potential merit. Finally, he would often recruit en masse. Although this was expensive, he knew that bringing 3 or 4 top faculty members at a time brought excitement – and rapid prestige to Stanford.

Third, he built what Jonathon Cole, author of The Great American University, called “steeples of excellence.” Terman knew that he couldn’t make Stanford a great university all at once. He had to choose what departments on which to focus his energy. Initially, he chose science. He committed to making science at Stanford a “steeple of excellence.” Because Stanford already had a competitive advantage in science, he started there and built the program until it was one of the best in the country. The idea was simple: quality breeds quality. Build one program great, and it will attract attention, and allow the university to improve other programs with an almost cascading effect. And it worked. As the hard sciences became the core of Stanford, the social sciences, and eventually the humanities, followed suit. Top scholars were enticed by other top scholars to make the move to Palo Alto. Resources followed renown, and soon major donations and the nation’s best students all flocked to the Pacific. Stanford raised, metaphorically and literally, steeples of excellence.

Jonathon Cole wrote this about Terman:

“He was obsessed with quality and recruiting productive, highly esteemed faculty members; he was committed to expanding the research base by attracting government financing; and he knew that having the best faculty would enable the university to draw the best students. He looked for the resources necessary to build highly competitive physical facilities. He maximized the value of Stanford’s location. In short, he provided the leadership necessary to build a critical mass of academic talent in the fields where Stanford had an advantage in recruiting stars or potential stars.”

Want a recipe for turning a school around? Know the times, recruit the best faculty, and focus on your strategic advantages. As simple as it sounds, this is the stuff of great educational leadership.

Monday, December 5, 2011

The Problem with Excellence

The Denver Post ran a headlining story this last week about a local Christian high school accused of illegally recruiting athletes to their sports teams. This particular school, one of the three wealthy, large Christian private high schools in Denver, has won numerous state championships in its first years of existence. And many rival high school coaches have been infuriated that some of their best athletes have left to attend this school. Reportedly, after this school’s one (and only) track meet, the illegal recruiting was so obvious they were banned from having any more. After hearing such accusations, the head of school pleaded not-guilty, delcaring, “We are not apologetic. It’s good for Colorado.”

Whether or not these accusations are true is not my interest. What is of interest to me is their school motto: influence through excellence. This motto has raised a $90 million dollar campus in only a few years, recruited nearly 1000 new students…and made schools across the state furious with their recruiting practices. It has also caused several parents and coaches from neighboring schools to question this school’s “Christian morals.” My question is this: is “influence through excellence” a genuinely Christian idea?

The argument for “excellence” as a Christian idea generally goes something like this: loving God with all your heart, strength and soul means doing everything with excellence. We ought to be “first-in-class” in our service to God. Now, apparently the idea of “influence through excellence” means that if we are excellent in what we do, from the classroom to the football field, other people will take a look at our religion and take note. Therefore, we need the very best football team, buildings, and college entrance scores. This will convince people of the truth of our cause.

I don’t think this is true. Let me mention at least two reasons, both stemming from the nature of “excellence.” First, excellence in inherently competitive. For me to be excellent, that means I have to be better than you. If there is no comparison, then there can be no “excellence.” This competitiveness implies I, or my tribe, will excel, and we will be superior to you. It implies a climbing of the societal ladder to the top rungs, whereby we will be “on top” through our achievement.

Second, the motto “influence through excellence” suggests that when we get to the top (excellence), we will be able to have influence on the powerful people in society, whether in government, business, media or education. The strategy is simple: excel, and then influence important people.

The Christian gospel moves in directly the opposite direction.

Consider the incarnation. Jesus, the high King of heaven, the one “who did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,” took on the very nature of a servant. The “Great I am,” the Alpha and the Omega, humbled himself and took on human flesh. It was the very opposite of “moving up the ranks;” it was the great “moving down.” The Creator himself became a baby.

Moreover, when Jesus was on earth, he did not choose to live among the rich and the powerful. He lived with a poor, Galilean family. Even to the end of his life, he had no property, no treasure, and not even a proper home. Instead of seeking accommodation with the rich and powerful, he confronted the power structures of his day by exposing their evil on the cross.

The Christian gospel suggests a fundamentally different way of interacting with people than that suggested by “influence through excellence.” One is competitive, seeking superiority over others. The other is inherently cooperative, seeking the good of others. One moves its way up in society; the other moves down for the sake of the poor, hungry, and oppressed. One is the way of the world, getting my own. One is the way of grace, giving all as has been given to me.

The idea that real influence comes when we get to the top of the game is deeply flawed. Real influence, according to the gospel, comes when we move to the bottom of the game, leave our own ambitions behind, and start living for the good of others.

This is not to say that the gospel suggests we should do things poorly. On the contrary, we should do everything as if we were working for Christ himself (Col. 3:22-23). Hard work in service of Christ should be the norm. Providing an “excellent” quality of education should be the goal of all schools (as it is a part of my own school’s goals). But the heart of competition, I would argue, is bitter envy and selfish ambition, a worldly wisdom that comes from below (James 3:14-15). And the fruit of this wisdom is “disorder and every evil practice” (James 3:16). Perhaps “every evil practice” might even include take star athletes from other schools.

A good friend of mine preached this past Sunday on Mary’s Song, known as the Magnificat. Mary, the servant of the Lord, burst into song upon hearing God would give her a son: “He [God] has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:51-52). It is a terrible thing to be filled with pride before the Lord of Hosts; but it is a joyful thing to be in need of grace, and to be not to be a ruler, but a servant.

There is a problem with the ethic of excellence for Christians. Christ knows service, not ambition; he knows love of others, not the honor of human kings. Christ is surely a mighty king - but he reigns from a cross.

There will be a great test in the coming weeks. The temptation will be for other Christian schools to glory in the bad press of this particular school. After all, they’ve all lost students, parents, and even teachers, to this school. The test will be in Jesus’ words: “Love your enemies, and pray for those who mistreat you.” In doing this will Christians find true distinction.