Infinite results and the humanity of education

Goff Justice announces a $20 million expansion of nursing education programs

Subtitle for Gayle Green’s new book Immeasurable Output: Teaching Shakespeare in the Age of the Algorithm Readers may be left with the impression that this is a very specialized work; Instead, they will do well to advocate for a sincerely humanistic approach to teaching and learning. Rather than being a guide to teaching Shakespeare, Greene probes questions about the larger purpose of education itself and how the answers to these questions are implemented in everyday life in the classroom.

“The impetus for this book was anger,” Green opens, “but that turned into something much sadder because I saw how much ground the liberal arts had lost, what a beating we had taken.” Green has spent more than fifty years teaching, a large portion of which has been in the Scripps CollegeA women’s liberal arts college that is part of the Claremont College Consortium in California, it makes a case for the liberal arts in an increasingly undervalued world.

In a phone interview, she expressed concern about a “humanities crisis” fueled by high-stakes standardized testing in K-12 schools. Students have been trained to follow algorithms and rules that “tell them everything,” giving rise to “rotten fantasies.” Education, she said, is “about human development, not workforce preparation,” and that book discusses the human touch in education rather than “context-free math and reading skills devoid of any purpose other than test passing.”

Teaching and learning are things that are done with people, by people, for people, and depend on trust and goodwill, the presence, the participation, and the response of humans.

The book outlines the forces Greene sees arrayed against the human heart of education, and the crudely reductive, brutal nature of the attempt to cram the complex processes of human thought and growth into numbers and classifications. She advocates reading, speaking of such things as “delightful enlightenment through textual engagement” even as she admits that “technocrats hate it when we speak that way.”

Greene explains carefully and in well-chosen detail how this works in her classroom, and how teaching can be “an art, not an algorithm.” The subject she chooses is Shakespeare, so we get a lot of that in the book, though not necessarily for traditional classics-oriented reasons (“It makes us feel good about being human”).

Green shows, as vividly as any writer, the many balls a teacher juggles as she teaches them. Greene guides us through some of the class sessions, taking us through the ideas she tries to explore with her students even as she tracks the reactions and interactions of the students themselves. It’s a great experience in terms of capturing a very complex process on a page.

Green calls the book “very outdated,” and in viewing teaching as a human interaction that only needs “a teacher and tables and chairs and students in a room,” she may be correct. But it makes a compelling case for finding the core of education not in spreadsheets or data points, but in the hearts and minds of the people in that room.

Follow me Twitter.