Bullshit, Appropriation, and Technology in Education

A few weeks ago, a former student who’s now a friend asked me to teach him how to bullshit. At first I couldn’t decide whether I was flattered or offended, but then I decided I was more curious than anything. What did he mean by that? And why did he think I’d be a good teacher?

After a bit of back and forth, we agreed that he didn’t mean outright lying, or the indifference to truth that Frankfurter talks about in his book on the subject. What he wanted to learn was how to present things in a way that made the speaker’s preferred outcome seem like the only sensible or desirable choice—how to (in the words of one of my teachers) sacrifice truth for clarity, or (in the words of an ex-girlfriend) how to clarify things for people.

I’m still not sure why he thought I’d be able to teach this, but his request sent me wandering down memory lane. Back in 1989, when I was doing some work for a sociologist in Edinburgh, I occasionally sat in on his group’s seminars. At one, an American researcher talked about her studies of the impact of networked computers on workplace dynamics. (Remember, this was before the Internet: most PCs were still only connected to a printer, not to each other, and even on Unix systems, NFS needed a lot of love and care.) She claimed that networking was democratizing the workplace by allowing people to share information more freely.

She made a plausible case, but then one of the grad students challenged her with a thought experiment. Suppose we’d invented networked computers first, and that mainframes had only come later. Wouldn’t she be arguing that they were a democratizing force—that giving everyone access to the totality of the group’s computing resources was more empowering than allowing everyone a small, fixed fraction of those resources? In fact (he went on, warming to his theme), wouldn’t she be reading meaning into the term “time sharing” in the same way that she had actually emphasized “networking”?

This was where I first heard the term “appropriation” applied to explanations. Today, I see it happening a lot in and around education. Almost everyone claims that new technology will fundamentally disrupt the way we teach. As Audrey Watters pointed out in a recent podcast, though, the big education companies have an incentive to make sure that “disruption” isn’t, and the budgets and connections to neuter any change that might threaten their business models. Simlarly, as much as we might want kids to grow up to be better citizens, teaching them to program won’t automatically make this happen, any more than teaching them addition will automatically make them better at balancing budgets.

In his 2008 essay, “The Winning Ways of a Losing Strategy: Educationalizing Social Problems in the United States”, David Labaree showed how people have increasingly turned to schools to solve social problems, even though schools have repeatedly proven that they are ineffective at doing so. I think it’s equally true that reformers all too often ask technology to solve educational problems, even though it has shown time and time again that it can’t. (I speak as someone who lived through the VCR-in-the-classroom revolution, the PC-in-the-classroom revolution, and the first-generation-Internet revolution. Meet the new class, same as the old class…) Yes, new technologies might enable change, but they will not make that change happen. Only we can do that.