Merritt speaker James M. Giarelli to look at ‘After-School Era’ future of education

James M. Giarelli
James M. Giarelli

James M. Giarelli is old enough to remember when the family physician made house calls.

“The doctor driving to our house, in his own car, coming into our house with the little black bag, taking care of my sister and me,” muses Giarelli, Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. “We’re long past that.”

Now imagine the same fate befalling schools. Yes, schools.

It might seem far-fetched, but to Giarelli, it’s inevitable – and it’s a “scary and disruptive” future for which colleges that prepare teachers are mostly unprepared as well as one that demands “a radical re-envisioning of our work.”

“We are moving to what I call a post-text society with the rise of the Internet and social media,” he says.

“School is a text-based culture based on books and reading, writing and arithmetic. As we move away from these texts, the school becomes less powerful. The importance of the school – the dominance of the school in the educational configuration – shifts,” he adds. “The same thing is happening to newspapers. The same thing is happening to books. The same thing is happening to all of our text-based culture.”

Giarelli is the 2018 recipient of the James and Helen Merritt Distinguished Service Award for Contributions to Philosophy of Education, an award given by the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations.

He will deliver the annual Merritt Address, titled “Democracy and Education in an Age of Spectacle,” at 4 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 11, in the Holmes Student Center Sky Room. A reception begins at 3:30 p.m.

Named for the late James Merritt, philosopher of education and professor in the College of Education, and the late Helen Merritt, artist and professor of art history in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, the series spotlights scholars who have deeply influenced educational thought and practice.

All are welcome to attend; email Professor Leslie A. Sassone at lsassone@niu.edu for more information.

Helen and James Merritt
Helen and James Merritt

Giarelli hopes his presentation will provoke creative and critical learning and thinking about the situation confronting schools and the educators involved in their operation.

“I’ve been worrying about this for at least 40 years,” he says. “It’s been pretty clear to me for a long time, and that’s not a strange thing to say. All configurations change. That’s the nature of the beast. School has had a really long, successful run for about 100 years as the dominant part of the configuration. It’s nice to think that the way things were for us are the way things are always going to be, but it’s not going to happen.”

Pondering the shifts in social and technological conditions prompts other questions for Giarelli, who once taught in a Chicago elementary school before his career studying the theoretical and philosophical aspects of his craft.

Can schools continue to educate? Can students learn anything from them not already available on their phones? What will become of schools when they’re not able to fulfill these responsibilities?

“Schools, when they were created, served a number of functions. One, to transmit text-based culture. Two, a place to keep kids as a custodial-based function, somewhere to put people,” Giarelli says.

“In 1900, 6 percent of 17-year-olds graduated from high school. That means that 94 percent of 17-year-olds spent their time some other place, learning how to do things or working,” he adds. “Can you imagine what it would be like nowadays if 94 percent of 17-year-olds were not in high school? Although I can’t imagine a world like that, I imagine that what they would be doing in those other places would be quite different.”

Although Giarelli says that neither he nor anyone else has all the answers, he is eager to engage in the conversation at NIU.

“We’re in danger now of thinking about ‘educated persons’ without the role of knowledge; that it’s not really that important what you know, or that ‘knowing’ is something quite different than what schools have held for a long time,” he says.

“I was raised – and most of us were – that you got your news in particular ways. You expressed your views in particular ways. Politicians responded in particular ways. That’s no longer true,” he adds. “Our political life is being influenced by platforms of communication fundamentally different than those envisioned by the long tradition of democratic educational theorists. As a result, all of our traditions of the relationship between democracy and education must be radically reimagined.”

Nonetheless, Giarelli stays optimistic.

Others who bemoan that “there is no way out of this fix; technology is in control; the people who don’t read text are in control; the school is not ascendant anymore; woe is us;” should not despair, he says.

“I’m a Deweyan in a broad sense,” he says. “John Dewey said that, ‘The intellectual function of trouble is to make us think.’ I’m using that as a prod to get us to think together.”

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