“I don’t need your civil war.”

All us historians let out a loud sigh when we read that story about Republican Senator Ron Johnson wanting to replace us all with Ken Burns videos. It’s an incredibly stupid argument, of course, but it’s also sadly typical of everyone who has no idea what history professors actually do all day. “Leave it to someone from a party led by a reality TV star to confuse videotape with the learning experience of a classroom,” explained Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers:

“What Ron Johnson doesn’t get is that education happens when teachers can listen to students and engage them to think for themselves ― and that can include using Ken Burns’ masterful work. But this is typical for a party with an education agenda as out of date as Johnson’s Blockbuster Video card.”

We all know she’s right, but I’m afraid that simply ridiculing the Johnson position isn’t going to be enough to prevent de-skilling and automation in education at all levels.

Perhaps you saw that Ken Burns – God bless him – tweeted in response to Johnson that, “I’m here to support teachers, not replace them.” Unfortunately, Ken Burns doesn’t control the means of educational production in this country. In other words, Ron Johnson and his ilk could replace every history teacher in this country with a Ken Burns video and Ken Burns couldn’t do anything about it. Neither could those teachers themselves, especially non-union secondary school teachers and faculty off the tenure track, because their jobs are so precarious. Better to be the ones inserting the video cassette and administering the multiple choice test after the tape ends than not to have any job at all.

I understand the difference between engagement and watching videos all day. Ron Johnson doesn’t understand the difference. Unfortunately, an awful lot of college professors (the ones who rely primarily on lectures to convey the information that accompanies the skills of their respective disciplines) don’t understand the difference either. The issue here is not how best to use videos in instructional settings, this is actually a debate about what education is.

Yes, I know that some lectures are better than others. Before I gave up lecturing entirely, I took great pains to engage with and watch the faces of the students in my audience. I once had a political science professor back in college who could only lecture staring up at the ceiling. It drove me crazy because I might as well not have been there at all. You could easily have replaced him with the poli-sci equivalent of a Ken Burns video. But, then again, the same thing is true of all us good lecturers too. In my case I think it would have hurt the quality of education in my classroom, but the sad truth is that people like Ron Johnson don’t care about educational quality.

To be honest, I’m not particularly fond of Ken Burns’ work. I don’t need “The Civil War.”* The first twenty minutes or so of “Baseball” are truly mind-blowing, but I have lots of problems with the rest of that documentary.** I liked “Prohibition,” but you probably don’t care what I think about those videos. Neither does Johnson and that’s exactly the problem. The attack on our teaching methods isn’t really economic (as Johnson seems to think). It’s ideological. As a good book review that showed up in my Twitter feed the other day (and which started with the Johnson story) put it:

It’s a common complaint among conservatives that many tenured professors “radicalize” students with Marx and gender theory while living royally off of state funding and federal student loans. Online and competency-based education will fix both, according to critics like Johnson and Scott Walker, by limiting professors’ unchecked power and improving efficiency with market-based solutions.

Replacing all us professors with video, or robots, or even robots showing videos won’t save anyone any money, but it will do a great job at preventing us from “radicalizing” anybody.

All the way back in 2012, Cathy Davidson declared quite famously that every professor who could be replaced by a computer should be. I know she meant well, but the people who have the power to replace professors with computers don’t mean well at all. If educational technology is itself neutral, the companies that push it and the audiences they push it towards aren’t neutral at all. To put it another way, video didn’t kill the radio star. Video companies did. That’s why we have to have a better defense for idiotic arguments like Johnson’s than just calling it an idiotic argument. Otherwise we all run the risk of winning the argument, but still ending up unemployed.

To prevent that from happening, faculty need to choose and control their own technological tools – tools that promote engagement rather than tools that turn college into a video game or a Ken Burns film festival.*** If we suffer from a failure to communicate our true aims – or worse yet, a civil war – the consequences will be dire not just for faculty, but also for society as a whole.

* This isn’t the place to get into why, but it involves WAAAAAY too much Shelby Foote.

** For example, the almost complete absence of the oldest franchise in the National League.

*** That’s why my friend Jonathan and I have written a book about how faculty can take control of their own electronic future. If it’s not out now where you live, it will be available there very, very soon. You might consider buying it.

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