Valerie Strauss wrote a piece yesterday about our friend and inspiration, Salman Khan. I believe she was very fair to Khan. Her basic thesis comes down to:
Clearly Khan has become the vessel for many reformers’ hopes and dreams about how to educate the masses. How Khan sees himself and his academy… is a more complicated matter.
She cites some of Khan’s biggest supporters, including Bill Gates. There is a tendency among Khan’s supporters to call his Academy “revolutionary”. This type of rhetoric should sound familiar to teachers who are used to having this idea or that idea pushed as the silver bullet that will fix our education woes.
Yet, while Khan’s supporters are signing his praises, Khan himself seems much more modest. He claims that he is not doing anything revolutionary. While his supporters talk him up, Khan has a tendency to talk himself down, or at least to try to provide a more realistic assessment of what his Academy is about.
Even though Valerie Strauss doesn’t come right out and say it, she alludes to the idea that this is one big work (if I may borrow an insider’s term from wrestling) on the part of Khan. The very last sentence of her article says:
And he is a really excellent marketer.
So maybe he is playing the role of the humble, altruistic educator while his financial backers like Bill Gates talk up the flipped classroom as a “revolutionary” development in education. After all, if he displayed the same type of vim and vigor of many of his acolytes, he would turn many people off, especially educators.
There is a part of me that really wants to believe that Khan is the altruistic man he portrays himself to be. On the other hand, Khan is an extremely shrewd, extremely intelligent man. He certainly knows what Bill Gates is saying about him. He certainly knows that some school districts are using his flipped classroom idea as their primary mode of educating students. Yet, he has never directly spoken against these supposed misrepresentations and misappropriations of his idea. That in and of itself tells me that Khan’s persona is a work.
This reminds of the same type of problem John Dewey faced when he was considered the patron saint of modern American schooling. He created what seemed to be revolutionary ideas of “progressive” education. His experiments at the Chicago Lab School aimed at blurring the lines between education and life. In Dewey’s mind, education was synonymous with life. Like Khan, Dewey’s work was financed by some of the wealthiest interests in the nation. Like Khan, many people around the nation misappropriated his ideas. Like Khan, Dewey said nothing against those who were misappropriating his ideas, at least not until very late in the game. When he finally did, his denouncements were tepid. It did not matter at that point anyway since Pandora’s box was already open.
With the benefit of almost a century of hindsight, it is safe to say that Dewey did not really mind so much the misappropriation of his ideas. His ideas are still twisted around today by people who continue to misunderstand him. His acolytes seemed to believe that Dewey had called for a vacuous, fuzzy-headed and saccharine pedagogy. Educators in his day as well as ours interpreted his ideas to mean that content was nothing and process was everything. The misrepresentation of his ideas led to a progressive dumbing down of American schooling.
Dewey was not a stupid man, much like Khan is not a stupid man. They both knew/know full well what types of things people were/are doing while flying their banners. Part of it is probably due to vanity that most if not all of us have. Who would not like to see people inspired by ideas that we birthed? Who could say with any certainty that they would act any differently if they were in Dewey’s or Khan’s shoes?
I have read all of Dewey’s books as well as several books about Dewey. I have sat through hundreds of hours of Khan’s videos, read numerous articles about him and participated in all types of discussions with people about flipped classrooms. There is one major similarity that I see in both of their efforts.
Dewey was very abstract when outlining his educational program. Despite the fact that he had laid down certain parameters of what he believed proper pedagogy to be, these parameters could be interpreted in wildly different ways depending on who was looking at it. Khan also has his parameters. In many ways his parameters are much more concrete, mostly because he is not the philosopher that Dewey was. Yet, the fanfare that even he himself creates around his ideas is essentially telling people to take his videos, take his ideas and use them, use them, use them. His goal, as he has stated in no uncertain terms, is for people around the world to have access to education through his Khan Academy.
Both Dewey and Khan presented their ideas with a wink. The wink tells people: here are my ideas but feel free to bastardize them in any way you see fit. The only thing that matters is that the idea spreads. The wink is unspoken. It comes across through the implications of the words they use, as well as the words they do not use.
Both Dewey and Khan are marketers. Both Dewey and Khan are widely respected to the point of worship. Both Dewey and Khan are bankrolled by the wealthiest interests in the nation.
Both Dewey and Khan play the Shill Game.