Book Reviews

#1786 The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning. (2016). James Paul Gee. New York: Palgrave McMillan, 240 pp. $17.00 (Paperback). ISBN #978-0-230-34209-5.

Veronica Wilson

Advising Center

National Louis University

vwilson8@nl.edu

When did you last stop to ask yourself what the purpose of education should be? Or the role of education in fixing the ills in society, such as poverty, disparities in educational access and outcomes, climate change, or racism? Paul Gee, a linguist and educator and author of “The Anti-Education Era: Creating Smarter Students Through Digital Learning," has spent significant time studying these questions and methodically attempts to cast a solution-minded vision to the readers of his book. 

Gee wastes no time in creating a sense of urgency, claiming that both school and society are in crisis and we must collectively get smarter before it is too late. Educators – and anyone invested in bettering the world –must embrace a paradigm shift in which the outcomes of education move away from standardized tests and indoctrination toward reflection, mentoring, and “[allowing] students to find passion for a good life” (p.213). In Part I of the book, all 16 chapters of it, Gee builds upon the case that humans are inclined to being stupid, even after, and perhaps because of, receiving formal education. Well-researched without being cumbersome, the causes of our individual and collective stupidity include lack of experience; the innate quest for status, solidarity, and optimization; mental comfort stories; lack of context; “frozen thought;” and immediate gratification. 

A welcome shift toward guardedly optimistic solutions arrives in Part II: How to Get Smart Before It’s Too Late, with the question: “what if human beings are not meant to be individuals, but rather, are meant to be parts of a bigger whole?” (p. 152). The answer - yes – is foundational to the solutions, first and foremost, that there is an "inclusive ‘we’ that is…smart … [and] enhances the dignity and creativity of each and every human being” (p.153). Digital spaces offer a public forum for the free exchange of ideas, as well as supportive mentorship, a critical element in what Gee terms the “circuit of reflective action” on the individual level or its collaborative equivalent, "the empirical game.” The empirical game is analogous to scientific inquiry, but emphasizes an accessible approach uniting experts and novices to solve complex problems, such as a breakthrough in AIDS research discovered by non-scientists playing Foldit, a protein-folding game (p. 160). Expertise is not effaced, instead Gee posits that mentorship and collective knowledge are necessary to better problem-solving. “Mind visions” are the empirical game’s complement, akin to the humanities and liberal arts, essentially inviting critical thinking, empathy, and innovation by asking “What do YOU think WE should do?” (p. 169). Mind visions break down the human bent toward self-preservation, a barrier to being smart.  

In the final pages, Gee returns to the purpose of education, to “focus on giving every member of society a valued life and the ability to contribute, to learn how to learn, and to adapt to changing times” (p. 205). Likely many educators would enthusiastically agree with such a noble sentiment, however, the author generally fails to move beyond the conceptual. There is also an implicit and ungrounded message that glorifies what education used to be. Still, academic advising professionals may appreciate Gee’s vision, and will need to spend concerted time mastering the jargon and then applying the concepts to student-facing work. Perhaps the paradigm shift Gee seeks is possible by way of a groundswell of educators committed to involving students in reflection, promoting supportive mentorship relationships, and stimulating inclusive problem-solving.

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