Digital Education and the “Marching Morons” Problem

Way back in my youth in an anthology I read a story by C.M. Kornbluth written in 1951 called “The Marching Morons.”  In it a man from the past awakes in a distant future shaped by a population problem.  Simply put there was not enough reproduction by those with high IQ’s and overproduction by those with low ones.  This has shaped a future where the few with high intelligence must constantly work to ensure the survival of the society because the vast majority of people are not intelligent enough to do so by themselves. You can read the plot summary here.  I have always been skeptical of the story because I saw it as class based one where those of the upper class resent (fear?) those of the lower classes and interpret them as having lower intelligence.  Perhaps African Americans having been called less intelligent and relegated to this caste for so long, have a special sensitivity here. Nevertheless we are moving toward a bifurcated educational system which will eventually make a two tiered society of a minority who know how to do things and a majority who do not. Education was supposed to be the method that kept this from happening.  It was supposed to spread the skills needed to become productive members of society wide even while reserving the best education for the upper classes.  Scholarships and such were supposed to be the lubricant that allowed the “cream” of the lower classes to move up into the ruling group.  Myths of upward mobility and meritocracy were supposed to gain the non ruling classes’ complicity in this system.

In a sense the public education system has succeeded in doing exactly what it was designed to do: make uncomplaining consumers who accept the status quo.  It continues to produce some who can move on to a better education either at prep schools or at elite colleges. The question is whether that is enough anymore.  The United States is now part of a global economy so that the performance of Americans now has to be compared to others around the world.  It is not just whether we now produce the best students but rather do we produce enough to sustain the global economy.  In the short run we have tried to stave off the crisis by importing skill and talent from other parts of the world to become part of our skilled class and to export more and more of our unskilled jobs.  The inertia of our public education system and the increase in the skills needed to survive have combined to create a “crisis” in education.

Our reaction to that “crisis” is a matter of public policy debate from “No Child Left Behind” to “Waiting for Superman.” No matter one’s stance in that debate digital techniques are going to play a role in that “crisis.” Digital techniques are not a cure; they are tools that can be used to help facilitate whatever course we take.  Like any other tools it will be the solutions we attempt, the skills of the architect/designer and and craft of the maker/builder that determine how well they implement whatever we come up with. Our willingness to change and accept new ideas, methods or techniques in our pedagogies will play a part in whatever is to come.  Some of us have been and continue to be early adopters of the new digital techniques.  Some of us feel we are dogs too old to learn new tricks or that the old “tried and true” have served us for so long that we are afraid to let go. They are left raging at an inevitable change or going off quietly into the night.  Yet it is a combination of the two groups that we need the most:  those with longtime classroom experience and those with new ideas.  We need to experiment with what from the digital world helps us produce the learned that we aspire to create. We are still at the beginning of the digital world of education.  Although there are thousands of well intentioned people involved there are also charlatans, hucksters and those who are only in it to make a buck.

We need to use our growing understanding of the learning process, the learner, the conditions social, financial, cultural, and personal involved in education, to craft better digital education no matter what solutions we embrace.  Digital techniques alone will not produce the education we seek but we need to find its place in whatever future we envision for education to prevent the “Marching Morons” from becoming a reality.

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