Reliance on information technology is stunting meaningful liberal education

By Kyle Hayden and A.J. Newberry, The Miami Student

About three months ago you could spot  first-years pretty easily. Whether they had on a tie-dye shirt, messy haircut or they were simply making a lot of noise, it was charming to see so much personality on our perfectly manicured campus.

But what happened when the dust settled, when these students were wrested into groups and classrooms and given a list of courses they “must” take?

Miami University has an art school (in fact we have two): the College of Arts and Science and the College of Creative Arts. The two include majors such as  theater,  professional writing, sociology and media & culture, majors that teach production practices for the various media we consume. In graphic design, the majors even get a special studio where they also have class. In spite of popular opinion that STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) are far more valuable for the digital economy, the humanities are holding strong at Miami.

Enter Apple.

When you see people walking around campus they either have a six-inch supercomputer in their hand or headphones connected to the one hidden in their pocket. Students in all majors work on MacBook Pros and search Google for answers rather
than read books.

This year, the university library access services department released a report indicating for the 2015-16 fiscal year, 119,622 “items” were checked out. Among the items checked out, 39,000 were of electronic materials (tablets, chargers laptops, etc.). Only 29,000 books were checked out for the whole of the fiscal year. That calculates to less than two books for every student.

The problem with these electronics, a problem that all students now have, is a limited worldview. A worldview that is predetermined and pre-packaged, then sold to them as original and exciting.

Former President Hodge’s  Year of Creativity and Innovation passed over us with little in the way of creativity. That’s because creativity is measured today by one’s ability to “add value” to a company. The measurement of success and worth is now determined exclusively in the market and not in the life of the mind.

The biggest anxiety about a liberal arts degree is the fear that one’s skill will not provide a steady means of living. Miami’s own institutional data reveals a decline of fine arts majors and an increase in Interactive Media Studies (IMS) majors. The former takes time and a lot of hard work and the latter is multifaceted, and serves the STEM world. Both have freedoms, but the newer major — the one that boasts “$2 million Worth of Cutting-Edge Equipment” — actually has less.

Compare for a second IMS to a major like photography. Now, you might say Oxford isn’t the most exciting place, certainly not as diverse as the San Francisco or the Internet, but photography students learn early that images and stories are everywhere. Art and photography at base are disciplines that urge students to go outside and observe the goings-on and interpret them with the lens, with the canvas. IMS, which offers infinite creativity in a virtual sense, does not encourage students to work entirely experimental. The camera operates under the behaviors of its holder, the computer demands you play by its rules.

This fall, Peg Faimon, the former dean of the College of Creative Arts (CCA) took a job as the inaugural dean of Indiana University’s School of Art and Design. In her tenure at Miami, Faimon developed innovative ways to combine the arts with emerging technology, while still running a one-person design firm and writing books such as “The Business of Design.” One could say she was a careerist.

But perhaps the biggest event of Faimon’s career was the acceptance of a $14.7 million gift to CCA from Mike Armstrong in 2008. This donation went to the Interactive Media Studies program (IMS), and if you haven’t done your homework on Armstrong’s career, this is where it gets scary. Armstrong is the retired chairman of Comcast Corporation and former chairman and CEO of AT&T. Though Proctor and Gamble created the program a decade ago, the new money comes as an obvious business investment, which begs the question: can Fine Arts make a good return?

The gift also endowed an Armstrong Chair in the business school to complement the Armstrong Chair of Network Technology and Management. Glenn Platt, the director of IMS is actually a marketing professor at FSB with a Ph.D in Economics.

In a 2015 TEDx talk titled “Higher Education is not in the business you think it is,” Platt shares his ideas about information by comparing academic curriculum to the blueprints of Tesla cars and supply chain network-apps like Uber. Platt invents a fantasyland arbitrarily called “mesh education” wherein professors’ main role is to integrate disciplines (with computer networks, of course), likening the administration of an academic institution to the moderation of users in the virtual game “Minecraft.” His idea is absurd save for the part where a room full of people communicating should be indistinct from a business or classroom, but fails to mention how Miami is working toward that goal.

It’s not the business we think it is, but it’s
still a business.

We are a school of production, learning a specialized craft primarily through interaction with an isolated device. Sure, we’re promoted to innovate, but only within the confines of certain systems. Canvas, the submission module Miami uses for file uploads and group discussions, centers around a serial form of communication, where thoughts are formed with the comfort and detachment of internet comments. Unlike face-to-face conversation, Canvas interaction is more cryptic and calculated, removing things like embarrassment and awe: emotions that can make for engaging learning experiences.

In Oxford there is no art store, no legitimate book store and no movie theater. The most common pastime is to go Uptown and swallow alcoholic pisswater and energy-drink infused liquordeath until you feel nothing. We ask our peers: if this is the greatest place on Earth, why do you have to go out and numb yourselves three nights a week or more?

Our peers say there is nothing else to do in Oxford, yet we are surrounded by people who are constantly “busy.” Students express a desire to “relax” from the stresses of school acellerated by the reach of digital technologies. We have to relax from our day with constant “social media breaks.” College life has been digitized and standardized; after all, who has time to slow down and enjoy anything?

We’ve emptied out the real world, made it as worthless and quick as possible: “Subs so fast you’ll FREAK” and “Rapid Fired” pizza (who has time to cook anyway, I have class in the middle of lunch hour!) All the while investing our time and energy into a digital facsimile of all the features and texture we just schemed so dilligently to destruct.

Inside the computer, the “cyberspace” world is limiting. It is a narrow frame through which mythical, virtual narratives are created, destroyed and passed around without reference to reality. Today, Apple takes away the headphone port, and everyone obliges by purchasing wireless headphones or an expensive adapter. They think they are free and emboldened by this new and fast form of information processing and retrieval. We aim to show the inverse is true.

But real sources of wisdom do not come from amassing amounts of information. We live with the illusion that technologies make us free and provide opportunities for us, but they are cheap substitutes for common sense and wisdom. Mimicking the logical processes of information technologies is not any way to run a classroom and it is certainly not freedom. We have to make that clear if we want to have a sincere and reasonable place for learning. We can refuse. But today, our institution implicitly derides anything refusing to latch onto this narrative of technological progress and innovation.

As students, our goal used to be to learn new things; think about complex issues; develop meaning and purpose in our lives. But lately we have seen an institutionally mandated shift toward specific things: careers, resumé fondling, developing a “professional persona” and a “brand” as the end in itself. You’ve seen the banners: 1,300 CEOs got their start here! “Best return on investment!” College, most understand, is about job training. Our value is measurable only in the marketplace, or so the story goes.

Today, the common areas are subdued. At the tables and walkways in our student center, white-coated wires from earbuds and headphones are draped from the heads of students. Everyone is
looking down.

The elements of our refusal lie in reclaiming learning as a fun and hopeful activity for creating a future worth caring about. Intention and clarity of thought cannot be purchased. You will not find them in a screen, in a comment section or in lines of code.

The next time you download a rubric for an assignment, consider ignoring it. Propose to your instructor an alternate assignment, something more heuristic, more tactile. If your laptop dies, wing it. You may discover that you are still able to have an independent thought.