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College Quarterly
Summer 2015 - Volume 18 Number 3
On Reflection: An Essay on Technology, Education, and the Status of Thought in the Twenty-first Century
Ellen Rose
Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press, 2013
Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Among the dreary banalities and irksome clichés that are commonly found in book reviews—especially when written by lazy, tired or simply incompetent commentators, the worst may be the claim that this or that volume is a “must read”. Unless the book in question is King Lear, Black’s Law Dictionary, The Origin of Species or The Holy Bible, chances are that at least some students of English Literature, Common Law, Evolutionary Biology and Western Theology can find a niche in their chosen field without undertaking a careful study of the agreed upon “classics” and “standard works”; indeed, an occasional lapse in familiarity with the “canon” can usually be forgiven and no irreparable damage need be done to an academic career—provided, of course, that some other subfield is explored so thoroughly that a counter-claim for some other “must-read” tome can be used as a convenient substitute.

As for the endless inventory of temporarily popular confections and sources of inspiration and revelation that are too often touted as “must-reads” (particularly in such domains as self-help manuals for employment interviews, personal investment strategies, child-rearing competencies, coping with mid-life crises and planning last wills, testaments and estate management directions), the less said the better. Most such drivel should be labelled “must not real,” for they are good mainly for the bank accounts of the inspiration huckster and not for mental, physical or social health of the gullible reader.

That said, I will soften my edge and simply report that Ellen Rose has written a slim 109-page monograph (plus a concise five-page introduction and a twelve pages of notes, bibliography and index) that is worthy of attention from educators in a wide range of professional specialties. I shall stop short of saying that On Reflection should be mandatory reading for anyone striving to find fulfilling employment in postsecondary education or to do their jobs well when such employment is secured. I do not believe that it is absolutely necessary that you purchase it and consume it slowly, thoughtfully, word-by-word; but, you will very likely become a better teacher if you do.

Here’s why.

Ellen Rose has done something that too few of us do. She has thought carefully about what it is to be a teacher. In recent years, a phrase that I have found creeping into the titles of articles that I have written and talks that I have given to academics and educators is this: “Taking [fill in the blank] seriously.” So, I have invited people to “take technology seriously,” to “take the environment seriously,” to “take politics seriously,” and to “take education seriously” and so on. At first glance, such admonitions seem either absurd on their faces or absurdly presumptuous, pompous and pedantic on my part. After all, especially with education, don’t we all spend many waking and at least a few sleeping hours worrying about technology, teaching, curriculum, educational methods, purposes, policies and philosophies? Do we not receive endless messages from various authorities about online learning, technologically mediated education, relations between the classroom and the workplace, the labour market, civil rights and civic responsibilities? Are we not up to our necks or higher in frenetic efforts to be unreservedly committed to technological innovation, vocational relevance and a keen awareness of the needs, demands and paths to success of our students? Of course we are, and that is precisely the point!

Ellen Rose is concerned with what I choose to call educational frenzy. She is a little more cautious in her choice of words, but she is no less committed to her purpose. She accurately observes that our educational practices are too full of activity and that we do not have (or we choose not to pursue) quiet, calm reflection. We are immune to meditation. Moreover, in the absence of thoughtful contemplation, we hollow out our lives as scholars, academics, educators, classroom teachers and ultimately as citizens.

Some years ago, Arthur Kroker (who is head of the Pacific Centre for Technology and Culture at the University of Victoria, which was modeled on Marshall McLuhan’s Centre for Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto) produced with Marilouise Kroker and David Cook an alternately amusing and terrifying book entitled Panic Encyclopedia (1989). A contemporary candidate for inclusion in any update is surely “Panic Education in the Twenty-first Century.” In surly moods, I have been known to refer to AADD—Administrative Attention Deficit Disorder—when annoyed by some managerial initiative; but no one can seriously doubt that everyone in the college system is victimized by hyperattentiveness as well as hyperactivity. We are so consumed with action that we disconnect with the reasons why we are doing what we do in the first place.

Dr. Rose is not, I assure you, merely interested in encouraging people to make time for themselves, to breathe deeply on occasion, to smell the roses (or the decaf coffee). Her analysis and her recommendations are far more profound and much more serious. She is certainly not offering individual therapy for those in danger of “burn-out” (though her thoughts, I am sure, can be therapeutic; instead, she is proposing a full-scale diagnosis, prognosis and course of therapy for an educational system gone hysterical. She, I must hastily add, does not use such inflammatory language. She is, after all, counselling reflection and not issuing a call to arms; still, her essay does not shrink from the major pedagogical, organizational and epistemological problems that we encounter or, better, that envelope us.

On Reflection also succeeds in doing something that few books which “take education seriously” manage to accomplish. She writes calmly and thoughtfully and, although she cites (approvingly or disapprovingly) important works by philosophers and others (Dewey, Ellul, Heidegger, Mumford, Orwell, Piaget, Proust and Shakespeare are companions on her journey), every observation and interpretation she makes comes directly from her experience as a teacher filtered through the thoughts of people she admires or, at least, thinks are worthy of openly debating. She knows how to talk to people, she knows how to read others insightfully and she knows about PowerPoint.

Ellen Rose is able to explain in just a few brief paragraphs how the intellectual capacity for reflection is largely a product of the printed word and how our contemporary immersion in electronic media is having the same effect on us that the written word had on the oral culture that preceded it. She reminds us that Socrates lamented the loss of pre-literacy and the culture that was withering before his eyes (and ears). Socrates, of course, in addition to despising democracy, also hated the notion that people would write down philosophy and, once they began to rely on written texts, would lose their capacity for memory. We know this, of course, because Plato wrote it down ... but that’s another story.

Dr. Rose shows us with equal degrees of force and grace how people in our society are going through a change in cultural communication that is at least as profound and potentially devastating and the transition from the spoken to the written word, and that we are doing so in a matter of a few decades, not many centuries. She seems to accept, in the main, McLuhan’s trenchant critique of electronic communications and is acutely aware of contemporary criticism of the sort advanced by diverse authors of potentially incendiary attacks on technology (Bauerlein, 2008; Carr, 2010; Tufte, 2003). She is not, however, as concerned with criticism herself. After all, reflection does not come out of the barrel of even a metaphorical gun. While she has no time for blended classrooms and Blackberries as educational instruments, she also resists the negativity of critical thinking on the matter. True, she acknowledges that even her own promotion of reflection cannot be neatly severed from her own critical consciousness. True also, she writes approvingly of critical pedagogy as practiced by Neil Postman, Paulo Freire and Henry A. Giroux. Plainly, the theory and practice of a reflective consciousness are connected, but they are also different.

Ellen Rose explains the difference better and more concisely than I can. She also explains why it matters so much to a society like ours that is not only apparently overwhelmed with information, but is also engulfed in a neoliberal ideology, dominated by a political economy that puts extraordinary value on instrumental learning, forced to develop ideas with mainly their potential for “monetization” and “commercialization” highly in mind, and enabled, if not wholly structured, by a technology that prevents real thinking. Dr. Rose patiently but clearly leads us to a point where we can once again take education seriously ... if we can just stop and think. What we choose to do with any bits and shards of wisdom that we may develop upon reflection is pretty much up to us. What forces may be arrayed against us is pretty much up to others. As we confront the political obstacles that will be placed on the path to a liveable future, we will appreciate better Ellen Rose’s suggestion that “reflection, for its own sake, is a habit of mind—indeed a way of being—that is worth preserving if we are to move with integrity and hope toward a livable future.”

Dr. Rose, therefore, does not write a prescription for quietism as a political strategy. She seems to insist that whatever passes for “praxis” in the future be grounded in reflection and open to constant revision and amendment as we proceed. I will try to keep that in mind, hoping that I will not try her patience if I seem overly eager to solicit practical advice from someone whose commitment to “reverie” is too valuable to be wholly disconnected from action.

References

Bauerlein, M. 2008. The dumbest generation: How the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes our future (or, don’t trust anyone under 30. New York, NY: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin.

Carr, N. 2010, The shallows: What the Internet is doing to our brains. New York, NY: W. W. Norton.

Kroker, A., M. Kroker and D. Cook. 1989. Panic encyclopedia. Montréal QC: New World Perspectives.

Tufte, E. 2003. The cognitive style of PowerPoint. Cheshire, CT: Graphics Press.


Howard A. Doughty, teaches Cultural Anthropology and Modern Political Thought at Seneca College in Toronto, Canada. He can be reached at howard_doughty@post.com