Arkansas Governor’s School: A summer of humanity in the time of machines

This summer, I had the privilege of teaching 375 bright, gifted, and talented rising Seniors. They came from all corners of Arkansas, the large metropolitan Little Rock (pop. 193, 524) to the smaller Dumas and Greenwood (pop. between 8,500-9,000).

The four week period of AGS, held on the campus of Arkansas Tech University, was a platform for the students to express their talents and to cultivate their interests in academics. The AGS model is to largely align academic specialties in different areas with critical thinking and project-based learning.

Enough with the preamble: Let me tell you about my experience.

If these students had one talent they excelled at, they had 10. I met students who could outstrip me intellectually, analytically, and artistically, though I will say the last point does not take much effort. I saw brilliant displays of art performance, music, and theatre. I also participated, as was my teaching duty, in very intriguing discussions on philosophy, psychology, and various applied topics.

The four week period was tightly packed so much, it felt like 4 months. However, I did not grow weary of the students, and I hope I did not grow stale in their minds. It was so easy for me to do my job. Of course, I had to prepare as I always do, but I had an open sandbox of teaching approaches and techniques. We largely engaged in the Socratic method, but sometimes we engaged with subjects in silent reflection. After class, I had students stay behind to discuss more, at the expense of missing lunch, and when afternoon and evening events were held, I looked down at my watch only to realize I had been in deep discussion with students into the late hours of the night. All I had to do was show up and contribute.

That word, contribute, is missing from much of the classroom today. Education has somewhat created a paradox where it is attempting to become increasingly relevant through the use of technology, online courses, platforms, and devices that make things run so smoothly. Yet, the smoothness of tech has come at a cost. The cost is surely financial, but what is harder to pin down is the human cost. The human cost is the student as consumer rather than contributor, gulper of information rather than co-participator in the construction of knowledge. One reading at AGS came from a curmudgeonly but honest intellectual, Neil Postman, who has been raising questions about this issue since the dawn of the Internet!

Pending more ranting on this topic, I will focus on what I saw at AGS that gave me hope that the paradox does not mean case closed. This 2019 AGS was designed around a theme of technology, wave of the future, AI, VR, etc. However, I did not see a consumption of this message as anticipated by the premise I set up in the prior paragraph. Students started to fight back at this idea. They were not all passive consumers, but rather a multitude questioning the value of the argument that “all sectors of work will be automated in the next 25 years”, and they were raising questions like, “What does it mean to be human?” This reaction is actually in line with much automation research (see work by the late Raja Parasuraman, whom I had the pleasure of being taught by) showing that people do not take lightly to AI that mimics a real person. There are conditional acceptances for trusting automation including norms, etiquette, and anthropomorphic qualities. The AGS students exemplified this tension – we are beings, situated in a cultural context, and with our own cultural frame of reference, we can challenge a techno-centric cultural milieu as somewhat artificial itself.

In my class, I tried to foist the technology idea on to the students, and specifically used virtual reality (Google Cardboard, so hardly high-tech). We examined the lives of Syrian refugees ( after reading the short story, “The Ones Who Left Omelas” by Ursula LeGuin. I asked the students to compare the experiences, and they immediately shot back with a preference for Omelas. The reason I did it was because of research I have been looking into on the role of empathy and VR experiences (see NPR story on topic here). Two students keenly distinguished that Omelas made them think “What could I do?”, while the VR told them what they should do. They felt empathy for the refugees, but they felt constrained by the experience. If there is one thing teens are tired of, it is a droning Charlie Brown’s parent telling them how they should use technology. Perhaps we need to monitor youth and teach responsibility, but I took away something else. Here is my summary reflection:

Let’s be careful about projecting our ideas and issues with technological fashion onto others. The subject matter is certainly important, but people need the opportunity to think about their lives in relation to changes. They need space to reflect on how they adapt to change, how they use, and how they make the change part of their routine. Perhaps we have unquestioningly embraced technology, made it part of our daily routine, or worse become addicted and automated ourselves. Yet, when given the time to reflect (or as in AGS for about 9 days, when the technology is taken away), we combat, we say “I have a choice!”, and we perhaps believe more in our humanity than in automation.