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- Published on Amazon.com
The Anti-Education Era is James Gee's attempt to describe "what would constitute a proper education for a person who wants to be a producer and not just a consumer, a participant and not just a spectator, an agent and not a victim in a world full of ideology, risk, fear, and uncertainty" (p. xii). The book's title, failing as it does to hint at Gee's grand vision for education, is either very modest or just plain off-target.
The big ideas:
Effective learning comprises a 'circuit of reflective action' involving observation, hypothesis testing, action in the world, modification of one's knowledge, observation, hypothesis testing, and on and on. Essentially the scientific method applied to all learning with the goal of seeking the truth.
The problem, according to Gee, is that there are so many ways for human beings to be stupid (his word), that this ideal is rarely attained. For example, people tell themselves 'mental comfort stories' that make them feel better but don't explain anything; they imagine their memories work like video cameras, faithfully recording the past; they try (or are made) to learn with inadequate context or experience; they isolate themselves in 'imagined kin groups' or in 'lonely groups of one'; and they believe pseudo-empirical stories such as creationism. People's failure to base their learning in an empirically-based circuit of reflective action has led to inequality and poverty, financial crises, environmental destruction, and many other ills.
Gee's most important insight is that the world is now so complex that it is time to realize we have "come to the limits of individual human intelligence and individual expertise" (p. 170). He argues that humans work best when they are connected to tools, and that they can use each others' minds as tools. "What if human beings are not meant to be individuals," he asks, "but rather, are meant to be parts of a bigger whole?" (p. 152) When human minds are integrated in the pursuit of a solution, what emerges is "a mind of minds" (p. 153), or what Gee calls Mind (with a capital M) as opposed to an individual mind (with a small m). Digital media can create an environment where individual minds can meet to form a greater problem-solving Mind, through the creation of 'affinity spaces,' of which there are already plenty on the internet.
This is what universities should be, but have failed to be, according to Gee. Instead, he believes, they are "agents of the short-term thinking and short-term profit seeking typical of our contemporary society" (p. 7). Ouch.
There are plenty of provocative ideas here, and they are grounded in the ideas of Gee's influential forebears. Students of Dewey or Vygotsky (or at least Vygotsky's successors) will recognize their influence in Gee's call for experience in education and his belief in the social basis of learning. When you read a book like this though, you might wonder if anyone is really taking notice, or if a voice like Gee's is just crying in the wilderness against the increasing trends toward vocationalism and credentialism in education.
Gee is a great thinker and a good writer, able to express important ideas clearly and in straightforward language. This is a stimulating read for educators, and might serve as the beginnings of a theoretical foundation for online or traditional educational design. It could change the way you think about learning, and if you are an educator, how you think about the organization of teaching.