"Our world is now so complex, our technology and science so powerful, and our problems so global and interconnected that we have come to the limits of individual human intelligence and individual expertise.” James Paul Gee

Readers have been asking this question for some time: where does the anti-intellectual spirit come from? 

With brief pockets of cynicism and frequent moments of humor, American educator, James Paul Gee describes the anti-intellectual spirit of our times in his 2013 book, The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning.

James Paul Gee

It’s a dark, scary, space with truth, goodness, and beauty nowhere to be found.

So how did we get here?

  • The rhetorical theorist, Kenneth Burke suggests the factory model of compulsory education is to blame.
  • The contemporary author, Nicholas Carr blames the internet for making us stupid or at the very least, changing the way we think.
  • The English professor, Mark Edmundson calls the prevalence of the consumer attitude among students the culprit.  

James Paul Gee points his finger at everything from weak metaphors to faulty memories as he searches for narratives to contextualize the trauma of contemporary education. He looks to the collective “we” and to the systems we’ve constructed, but unlike Nicholas Carr, he doesn’t blame our tools.

Hidden beneath the surface of his message is the same sentiment that Jesper Juuls echoes in The Art of Failure: if we want to change our contemporary cultural moment then we must change our perspective.

In light of that, I suspect our best course of action is to reorient our ship. 

So many educators see technology as a problem to be solved instead of a sign that students long for connection. What if we shift our energy toward what James Paul Gee describes as synchronized intelligence, embracing our tools instead of fighting against them?

Instead of seeing the current state of education as a problem to be solved, we might want to consider how this longing for something more might spur us on to create something new and potentially beautiful. 

Perhaps our desire for change and our longing to be surrounded by visionaries is something to treasure.

The American writer, Rebecca Solnit, intuits this exact thing in her eloquent work, A Field Guide to Getting Lost:    

We treat desire as a problem to be solved, address what desire is for and focus on that something and how to acquire it rather than on the nature and the sensation of desire, though often it is the distance between us and the object of desire that fills the space in between with the blue of longing.

I wonder sometimes whether with a slight adjustment of perspective it could be cherished as a sensation on its own terms, since it is as inherent to the human condition as blue is to distance?

If you can look across the distance without wanting to close it up, if you can own your longing in the same way that you own the beauty of that blue that can never be possessed? 

For something of this longing will, like the blue of distance, only be relocated, not assuaged, by acquisition and arrival, just as the mountains cease to be blue when you arrive among them and the blue instead tints the next beyond.

Somewhere in this is the mystery of why tragedies are more beautiful than comedies and why we take a huge pleasure in the sadness of certain songs and stories.

Something is always far away.

Rebecca Solnit, A Field Guide to Getting Lost

James Paul Gee echoes this sentiment:

“Art is about perspectives, how things can be viewed in order to open up new possibilities, cause emotions, or get people committed to new lines of action or ways of living their lives. So, too, is language as we use it in our everyday lives.” James Paul Gee, The Anti-Education Era

James Paul Gee elaborates,

“We paint on the canvas of people’s minds using language as the paint. Like Monet we play with perspective, with “light” and “shadows” (foregrounding some things, and backgrounding others), in order to get others to see things differently, sometimes anew.” James Paul Gee, The Anti-Education Era

Some things we have only as long as they remain lost, some things are not lost only so long as they are distant.

To educate, to lead out, is to embrace the blue of distance that so beautifully brings texture to our lives.

Education is not a problem to be solved.

It’s a passion to be pursued.

We can expand our options by expanding our language and our thinking. 

James Paul Gee Describes the Transforming Power of Perspective in Education