About the Blog

I will post a new entry every few weeks. Some will be new writing and some will be past work that has relevance today. The writing will deal in some way with the themes that have been part of my teaching and writing life for decades:

•teaching and learning;
•educational opportunity;
•the importance of public education in a democracy;
•definitions of intelligence and the many manifestations of intelligence in school, work, and everyday life; and
•the creation of a robust and humane philosophy of education.

If I had to sum up the philosophical thread that runs through my work, it would be this: A deep belief in the ability of the common person, a commitment to educational, occupational, and cultural opportunity to develop that ability, and an affirmation of public institutions and the public sphere as vehicles for nurturing and expressing that ability.

My hope is that this blog will foster an online community that brings people together to continue the discussion.


Google Groups
Email Me Blog Updates
Visit this group

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

“If You Feel Better, Press 1” A Miniature from Our Time

            So I’m in my home talking with my friend of many years, Ed Frankel, a seasoned writing teacher and a beautiful poet. I just read to him a few pages on how the harmful tendencies in education policy and reform (from the over-reliance on standardized testing to rule-focused and routinized training and evaluation of teachers) are legitimized and given a cutting-edge gloss by the technocratic spirit of our time—a spirit that has influenced so much of our lives, from health care to the pursuit of happiness. This is the kind of thing Ed and I talk about. Visit me and I’ll make you a cocktail and subject you to something I’m trying to think through.

            Ed’s got a quietly stern poker face. I’m seated; he’s leaning against my couch, silent. You don’t want silence from Ed. “But,” he finally says, “school’s been like that for a long time, hasn’t it? Like, maybe always? Rote learning? Tests? Formulaic lessons? Man, I was bored to death in school, and that was in the 1950’s,” he says flatly.

            Ed’s right, of course. There is no golden age of schooling. But there were times in our past when other ideas about education were in the air—other ways to think about it and define its purpose. “What I’m saying, Eddie, is that our rapture with high tech and ‘innovation’ and ‘disruption’ and quantifying everything provides a kind of caché for tired, one-dimensional ideas about how to measure and improve a deeply complex human endeavor like education.”

            Suddenly, my telephone rings, and Ed and I are jolted back onto terra firma, a good six feet apart. I get up from my chair and walk slowly to the phone.


Interlude: Why walk slowly…?

            The rest of this small story requires that I take you back a few days before I read those pages to Ed, which will also explain why he’s in my home.

            I had abdominal surgery on February 25, 2021 to correct a chronic problem that worsened during the last week of November 2020. This physical distraction, by the way, is my excuse for infrequent postings on this blog. (In comparison, Diane Ravitch had a knee replacement several years ago, and kept her blog going daily.) Ed came down from Northern California to shepherd me through the surgery and Netflix-infused recovery. Saint Eddie.

Close Interlude


            It’s a robo-call. From the hospital that discharged me two days earlier. A woman’s voice, youngish, upbeat, even sunny, begins by identifying the hospital and noting my recent stay and hoping I am doing well, because “We at ____ care.”

Then the voice says it has six questions for me:

If you feel better, press 1.

If not, press 2.


If you understand how to take your medications, press 1,

If you have questions, press 2.

You get the idea. Question #6 asks if you have any comments on the quality of your stay. Patient satisfaction. The call ends with “Have a nice day.”

Ed and I look at each other in disbelief. The call itself was laughable, though it hurts to laugh. But, as if on cue, we were served up with an example of the point I was trying to make with my friend: That we have gotten so used to substituting technological efficiency for real and messy human experience that a prerecorded call proclaiming care and checking on sick people’s well-being didn’t strike anyone at a prestigious health-care network as odd. Consider, too the number of people receiving this call who are much sicker, more distraught, and significantly less advantaged than I am.

I understand the context here. Hospital administrators are under immense strain: COVID, financial loss, understaffing, legal and political pressure, and more. This robo-call is an expedient and efficient way to single out recently discharged patients who might need help. I assume a medical professional of some type would make a follow-up call to those who press 2. If I were a hospital administrator in the middle of a long, packed day, I’d probably be all in with the plan.

But what I don’t want us to lose sight of is how commonplace this kind of human interaction is becoming—a representative slice of our time—and how accepting of it we have become. This digitizing of emotion. The automation of care. One parallel in education is the reduction of the rich human experience of learning and discovery to tests and benchmarks and rankings, to scripts and routines that yield an immensely consequential but largely procedural institutional rite of passage. The journey exhausts everyone involved, but it’s hard to get a clear fix on it until something pops us out of the everyday flow of events.

To learn something new, press 1…

You can share this blog post on Facebook, Twitter, or Google Reader through the "share" function located at the top left-hand corner of the blog.