Invasion of the Metacrats

One of my favorite comic scenes takes place in Annie Hall, when Alvy Singer asks an attractive, well-coiffed couple about the secret to their happy relationship. The woman responds that she is “very shallow and empty…(has) no ideas and nothing interesting to say,”  to which the man adds, “And I’m exactly the same way.”

I recall that scene anytime I hear someone brandishing the word meta. There’s an enormous contradiction in self-consciously proclaiming one’s meta-tude,  a lack of self-awareness that Allen’s couple, who could pass for hipsters in today’s Manhattan, ironically has in droves.

My distrust for the word, however, has more to do with its sinister appropriation in corporatized education, where the ability to self-regulate has become a quickie route for educrats to violate personal privacy at the deepest level.

Take so-called cognitive reading strategies, among them “think alouds,” where students are told to verbalize their responses to a text while another student sits by and labels those thoughts from a predetermined list of categories. If the kid expresses boredom, he isn’t really bored, he’s “monitoring.” If he or she relates to a character, it’s not identification but “adopting an alignment.” Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?

Yet so-called literacy experts dare to tout these strategies as ways to help students become better readers, when such strategies force students to take what are most likely complex thoughts about a text, and filter them through awkward third grade phrasing: “What this means to me is…or…a golden line for me is…(note the emphasis on me, whereas most might argue that literature is a way to understand the other). It presupposes a lack of complexity in the students’ thinking, ignoring overlap, tearing out ambiguities, and forcing consensus on what kids might actually be taking from the text, dismissing entirely, as Jaron Lanier argues in You Are Not a Gadget, “the mystery of human existence.”

Lanier describes the elevation of the meta as a kind of digital Maoism, the mash-up being more powerful than the sources who are mashed, and in education this attempt  to label and compartmentalize each and every thought further devalues the humanities as a mere utility for a phony form of self-actualization.

Imagine if the genome project simply stopped at the last gene, attempting to diagnose every physical trait and disease, while ignoring the discovery that complex proteins play just as large a role in our biology. This is what so-called education experts wish to do. Only they’ve given those genes such ugly names, and they have no view as to how they work together.
Forcing students to sift their thoughts into categories such as monitoring, visualizing, and reflection — the latter a popular form of behavior modification in today’s ed schools —  denies a person’s individuality, his or her ability to think in manifold and complex ways of which we’re not anywhere near an understanding.

It’s a violation of our right to privacy and our right to name the terms of our relationship with the authors we read, and even more, it will backfire, because the educrats, having little understanding of the value of literature, and thus not a very good understanding of human beings, haven’t thought to factor in performance.

They will not be accessing young people’s thoughts, nor coming to a greater understanding of how to improve literacy, they will simply be instilling a kind of defensive performativity in their subjects, that denied a quality curriculum and the room to think, might translate to the real aim of all of this: conformity.

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