Response to “The Most Open University" Netta Ahituv, Haaretz Weekend Edition 21/09/2012

For the English edition, we provide this interview <> with Professor Ken Robinson for reference

When neoliberals speak about improving and developing the education system, there are two main claims that they never fail to repeat. The first is the need for a technological revolution in education, while the second is to dismantle age-based instruction. To make these neoliberal proposals more attractive, they’ll always remind us of the supposedly free online information, along with the ideas of Professor Ken Robinson ( on creativity.

I’ll begin by saying that while I do agree with some of the arguments below, that their attempts to convince us that the neoliberal paradise can give us opportunities for a better education for our children is based on a number of errors and misunderstandings.

Let’s take a look at these.

The First Error: Social Context

Any discussion about education or pedagogy which ignores the social context in which it takes place is deliberately ignoring reality while inventing an alternative reality whose purpose is to hide the facts. Discourse on technology or a change in present classroom structure that is devoid of social context leads directly to an affirmation of the existing social order. In today’s world, and in Israel in particular, there is a clear trend of trying to destroy public education and replace it with privatized alternatives. Over the past two decades, the Israeli government, as well as the governments of most Western countries, have begun to gradually replace the public education system with private initiatives of corporations and middle-class households, whose intention is to provide a proper education for their children and communities only.

If one of the familiar paradigms of modernity is that public education system as a key tool for the development of human capital, the paradigm of neo-liberal education reformers is firmly opposed. To these reformers, increased spending on public education is unnecessary because it comprises a only a burden on the state budget, or because its inefficient, or because the government bureaucracy is bloated or because the teachers are ineffective, and so on.

There is only one savior: the free market. The free market, they claim, is more economical, not afraid to make changes like the stodgy bureaucrats, and implements everything with the fanciest new technologies. This argument is only fully presented at the end of the article; first they present a their vision for a perfect world, saving the privatization argument for later. Of course these arguments rely on the public's short-term memory. Did they not say twenty years ago that privatization will save education? They speak to us as if we have forgotten that the Ministry of Education has been operating under privatization for twenty years!

This was the first failure of the article. The issue here is not the potential contribution of technology, although we should challenge this sacred cow as well. What we are talking here is this: who will fund this technology? What’s going to happen when local authorities who have no rich donors and who don’t enjoy massive income from municipal taxes, or wealthy constituents to solicit for funds? What happens now, in the not-so distant future, when technological gaps grow at alarming rates between children of the elite and the public schools located in the social periphery? It is clear that solutions are available in the free but where will the funding come from in the impoverished public education system?

Technology, it seems, rather than shrinking the gap between the center and periphery, has expanded it. The gap between center and periphery is the widest it’s ever been in this country. For this reason, the discourse on technology is not disconnected from social relations and how they are reflected in the resources available to specific schools in specific communities. Note that all the Israeli spokesmen in the article ignored this pivotal issue. They promised us an educational paradise, but only for those who can afford to purchase technology.

The Second Error: Knowledge is Power

No one disputes the fact that the internet and the recent technological advancements described in the article challenge traditional teaching methods. What the article fails to acknowledge, however, is that access and exposure to knowledge, especially academic knowledge, depends on three main factors that influence one other: the learner’s self-image, their capacity for autonomous learning, and the learner’s cultural capital. The decision of what to learn is not a free one: we choose knowledge, especially academic knowledge, only if we have prior knowledge (cultural capital), when we believe that we have the ability to choose the correct and suitable course (autonomy of learning), and when we have accumulated enough cultural capital to have the self-confidence to manage and respond to the tasks expected of us in the learning process.

In today’s social context, at a time when most children in Israel’s social periphery are not eligible for matriculation exams, when they consistently fail to pass international tests, and when the technological gap between center and pierphery continues to grow, we are obligated to raise some questions. Are these children able to choose autonomously? Do they believe in themselves? Do they have a knowledge base that would allow them understand what they would be learning online? The answer is clearly that they do not. To access and learn online, a person must possess basic tools beyond computer literacy. Disadvantaged communities lack this foundation. Hence, when we speak of free access, we really mean free access for a minority of the world population, provided they are sufficiently educated to benefit from it.

In light of the yawning educational disparaties, the number one priority is to focus on closing those gaps before we begin praising technology and implementating technology in school settings. The most cynical thing about the article is that it speaks on behalf of the majority of children, when its conception conception of knowledge and accessibility is clearly that of an exclusive elite minority. For the majority, there is little or no connection between the ability to operate various technological gadgets and the capacity to actively select knowledge. At most, there is growing use of addictive, simple programs, a paradise for manufacturers of technological garbage.

Note the internal contradiction in the article. On the one hand there is the argument of Professor Robinson backed by US statistics that illustrate that we do not need college degrees in order to find work. Mr. Hecht strengthens this claim, by adding that children naturally present and express their own strengths. Why, then, are we discussing online science lectures? There are actually two parallel claims here. One is for the elite, those who can use the online lectures,while the second is for the rest of the population. Didn’t do so well in school? That’s ok, American statistics and Mr. Hecht will show you that you followed your “strengths” and that you actually don’t need higher education. These arguments, apart from being outright lies, strengthen the present social division of knowledge.

The statistical claim presented in the articie is a lie because it doesn’t prove a thing. The fact that Professor Robinson challenges the way existing knowledge is presently organized does not extend to a critique of social mobility and access to higher education. A known statistic in Israel is that a parents' education unequivocally determines the family’s standard of living. The more uneducated the parents, the lower the family’s income.

Hecht's claims are misleading because they talk about the strengths of children without providing context. The ambitions of a child’s dream in the majority of cases match where he lives, who his parents are, what sort of student he is and what socio-economic class he belongs to. A child's dream is a vision dependent on and resulting from the expectations of parents, teachers and the surrounding environment. Therefore, as an educator, I have a significant opportunity to open channels that allow a child to dream outside of a context of disempowerment. What we need to do is to provide the channels that will enable success in the formal education system. One thing is clear – Hecht and his statistics serve the interest of the elite who wish to hide the unfortunate fact that our society cuts down the dreams of most children.

The Third Error: Learning and Privatization

Professor Robinson continuously reminds us that the school building is itself an expression of the industrial revolution. He is correct, of course He continues to argue that our outdated methods of learning must change and conform to new ideas of knowledge and revolutions in technology. He is right about that as well. However, Hecht fails to recognize that his critique and claims belong to the first world, the Western world, and the social elite of that world. This world continues to enjoy the continuing plunder of the third world and the labor of millions of human beings in slavery conditions. The industrial world has not disappeared, it has just moved elsewhere – to the third world and developing nations. Second, today's technological world is controlled by a dictatorship of several international monopolies, who possess a specific set of rights that cannot be appealed. This is the real world in which we live, apropos our discussion of knowledge. Professor Robinson and the other folks interviewed clearly demonstrate how their thinking disconnects the social reality and the educational revolutions they praise

The arguments presented by Professor Robinson and his Israeli respondents are a justified response to the shallowness of age based classroom structure, overcrowded schools, lack of creativity, and so on. However, what they fail to recognize is that in order to reform the ills of the education system, we must overcome our two main opponents: the government and social elite. The government, is working to reduce the amount of investment in education, meaning that it will stringently refuse any reforms that whose purpose is to reduce classroom size. The social elite will resist any reform because these would cancel out the competitive advantage of its sons and daughters in the academic context. The social elite don’t care which method is used to secure their children’s place academia, whether it’s through the current system, individual education, democratic education or any other scheme. The revolutions discussed in this article are intended solely for the middle and upper classes who can access and afford them and who can provide their children with appropriate tools, like creative and advanced technology.

Consequently, everyone mentioned in the article,i Professor Robinson included, are promoting an additional neoliberal privatization plan-- “special” schools, such as those established by Hecht, where the children of the elite can enjoy improved learning conditions. It’s not like the state is going to pay for it, right?.

In conclusion, nice-sounding ideas can be a trojan horse to undermine the basis of equality in schooling and public education. Any attempt to market these educational critiques and proposals as neutral is a service to neoliberal policies, to continuing privatization while harming the interests of children of the rest of us.

This article was translated from Hebrew by Maya Azran and Itamar Haritan