Et tu, Paulus?
Ethics and Cognitive Frames

The Pedagogy of the Pixel

Jonathan B. Wight

David Brooks is avowedly a devotee of Adam Smith's moral sentiments model. In today's New York Times he discusses the coming "tsunami" of electronic courses on the Internet. Brooks tackles this question: In the future, what is the role of the physical classroom with a flesh-and-blood person? He notes:

A brain is not a computer. We are not blank hard drives waiting to be filled with data.

And the most important part:

People learn from people they love and remember the things that arouse emotion.

That can certainly happen in on-line courses (think of the television stars you "love"). But some aspects of that interconnection demand a closer proximity. Pixels on a screen are not people.

The link between emotion and pedagogy, by the way, is not only found in Adam Smith's Moral Sentiments, it is also found in the work of Brazilian educator, Paulo Freire (1921-1997). Freire noted that if you want to teach adult sugarcane cuttters to read, don't give them primers on "Dick and Jane." Instead, give them stories that resonate with their experiences and feelings. Freire, a Marxist, might have favored something like: "Look at the lazy patron in the big plantation house with all his food and wealth. The oppressed workers have nothing to lose but their chains…." Education is fundamentally a political act because pedagogy builds on the context of one's life.

The bottom line is that information is rapidly becoming a cheap commodity—which is a good thing. But "learning"—through debate, through writing essays—requires more than information. It is a "complex social and emotional process" (Brooks) in which the ideology of one's world view come into debate with the ideology of science. Parts of this complex learning process can happen well in face-to-face interactions, which is where colleges have a comparative advantage.


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