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    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Education Is Not Like Eating at the Olive Garden
July 20, 2014 - 6:10pm

I’d wager that Charleston has more great restaurants per capita than any city in the world.

This wasn’t always the case, apparently. Last year I interviewed Chef Sean Brock of Charleston’s Husk and McGrady’s for a magazine article and he told me about coming to Charleston from Wise County, Virginia, for culinary school and being excited to try this regional dish called “Hoppin’ John” he’d heard so much about.

Brock told me, “If you came to Charleston to experience the cuisine seven, eight years ago, and you sat down to order Hoppin’ John, you were getting garbage – Uncle Ben’s rice and black eyed peas from Sysco that had been sitting on the shelf for three years and tasted like nothing. And so what happens is you eat the dish and your first impression of lowcountry cuisine is that Hoppin’ John is crap.”

According to Brock, over time, because of a single-minded drive towards monocultural farming and mass production and efficiency, we lost access to the things that make Hoppin’ John Hoppin’ John, things like Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island peas.

It made him angry.

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People like Clayton Christensen and Larry Summers and Daphne Koller and Clay Shirky and Sebastian Thrun and Anant Agarwal and Arne Duncan and Barack Obama, and any number of others, believe that education can be mass produced. They do not see why we should have all of these colleges and all of these teachers saying so many of the same things to students when they can be replaced by superstar professors[1] – the tops in the field –  teaching thousands of students online.

They not only believe that education can be mass produced, they believe that there is a “best” way to educate people. This best way can be discovered using the ever “emerging” fields of data science, neurology, and neuroeconomics.

It’s important to note that the “best” way is not necessarily a marker of excellence or elite status. “Best” means education that is efficient, reproducible, accessible.

“Best” in this context actually means “just good enough.”

What they want education to be is… the Olive Garden.

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My wife and I had lived in our previous home of Greenville, S.C., for about a year when a sign went up in the strip mall two miles from our house announcing that an Olive Garden was coming.

We were ecstatic. At the time, Greenville was not known as a culinary hot spot and we both had fond memories of meals at the Olive Garden. Bottomless salad swimming in tangy Italian dressing and endless breadsticks slick with garlic butter…yummers.

When the restaurant opened, the wait for a table was an hour or more. We’d go at 5:30 on a weekday to avoid the crowds.

The food was always fine, not good, not bad, but fine. The Olive Garden has its menu down to a science. As part of conglomerate Darden Restaurants, Olive Garden recipes are developed and “perfected” in a lab and then using proprietary software called “Meal Pacing” they make sure that individual franchises are following the moment-to-moment instructions for “best” (most uniform) results.

In 2009, Fast Company marveled at how Darden Restaurants was managing to grow, even in very bad economic times, going so far as to claim we had a collective "addiction" to the food.

The key was how the company used “analytics.” As Darden CEO Clarence Otis said at the time, “On the continuum of intuitive restaurants versus systematized, analytic restaurants, we're very analytic. The direction of our business is based on understanding customers.”

They use sophisticated customer feedback systems and predictive analytics on customer turnout which helps with staffing and supplies, maximizing efficiency in both areas.

We ate at Olive Garden a handful of times. It was a good choice when we were tired and didn’t want to have to think.

And then a restaurant named American Grocery and others like it opened in downtown Greenville, and we never ate at Olive Garden again.

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Speaking at the Aspen Ideas Festival on a panel with current Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust, former Harvard President Larry Summers remarked on the fact that something like “35,000” times every fall, different teachers in different classrooms explain the “basics” of introductory calculus.

Following his own logic he said, “Surely it must be the case if that happened 400 times and the best 400 expositors provided the exposition, that it would happen with substantially more clarity and with substantially more effective communication. If what’s true in calculus is true in a large number of fields, it’s just not right that Hamlet is exposited 15 or 25 thousand times in high schools and colleges.”

It does not take very many guesses as to where we might find these top expositors and who may produce these materials and who is then going to be expected to consume them.

Summers thinks this kind of shift is inevitable, that schools must adapt to new economic realities or die.

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The first time my wife and I ate at American Grocery, the server gave us a list of where all of our ingredients came from. I believe the furthest anything had traveled was some smoked trout from North Carolina.

We thought is was a little strange at the time. What does it matter if the pork belly was from one county over?

And then we ate our meal. It was better than fine. We both moaned with pleasure throughout. Frankly, we were embarrassing. Everything was fresh and flavorful and most of all, surprising. I remember thinking that I’d never eaten food precisely like that before. We didn’t know what we’d been missing.

When we got the bill it was a little more expensive than a night at Olive Garden, but not by much, maybe 15%, and the experience was 1,000% better. At this very moment, I can conjure the taste of the grilled romaine salad and chipotle dressing.

As we drove home, we remarked to each other that we hoped it would last, though we had our doubts. We were two of only six diners in the restaurant the entire evening[2].

--

After Sean Brock tasted the terrible Hoppin’ John, he set out to understand why it was so terrible. The problem was in the crappy ingredients. It was impossible to impart flavor into beans that had been canned a half-decade before.

Brock told me that for years we had, “Traded deliciousness and nutrition for efficiency.”

He was determined to push back.

Frustrated with the products he could buy in Charleston, Brock started growing his own food, some of it from heirloom seeds that had been in his family for generations.

He made use of local suppliers like Anson Mills, whose founder, Glenn Roberts resurrected Carolina Gold rice from near extinction. Roberts would comb the backyards of the lowcountry, looking for varieties of corn and rice that hadn’t been grown commercially for decades or even longer and then working to return them to production levels that allowed for broader public consumption.

People like Sean Brock and Glenn Roberts and others like them reclaimed the cuisine by rebirthing threatened varieties of corn, peas, rice, and other grains. In Brock’s words, they “rebooted” the “cultural practices” in order to resurrect a cuisine that had been nearly lost.

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Darden Restaurants is in trouble.

One week ago, its stock price hit a 52-week low, losing 18.4% of its value over the last year. Even jettisoning its oldest and most troubled brand, Red Lobster, hasn’t helped. Wall Street says this is "not surprising," as though Darden hadn't been declared a model company just a few years earlier. Now, apparently they're hopelessly wayward. The usual perfect hindsight from our financial branch.

It turns out that mass produced, good enough food isn’t sustainable. Not against a competition that has embraced local, fresh, and delicious.

Dare I say it? Mid-priced casual dining has been “disrupted.”

It is now commonplace for every restaurant in Charleston to tell you where their ingredients are sourced, and local, fresh, and delicious food is readily available at every possible price point. The average food truck has a better and cheaper meal than Olive Garden.

Farmers markets are seemingly everywhere, people hungry for both good food and community.

The explosion of high quality and diverse cuisine has been awfully good for business and the economy of Charleston. Growth has been so robust that an ordinance has been proposed to mandate a midnight closing time for any new establishments in order to put the brakes on previously unchecked development.

Restaurants are also forced to consistently improve and innovate or lose their place. Even Husk, once the unquestioned champion of the Charleston restaurant scene, is now threatened by new competitors and forced to step up their game.

It is a capitalist fever dream, competition everywhere, lifting all boats.

It’s great for those of us who like to eat delicious food as well.

--

Olive Garden is in the midst of a retooling. They’re introducing smaller plates, and a more updated look to their restaurants. They’re trying to imitate restaurants that can boast fresh, local ingredients and ever-evolving menus. It's a difficult proposition though, considering the huge number of restaurants. If they make a bad choice, the end result is catastrophic.

When you go into a local Charleston restaurant, you never know what’s going to be on the menu. Your meal will be based on what’s available during the current season.

We get a custom meal made for the audience of diners in that time and that place.

Right now, it’s peaches everywhere, peaches that taste perfectly of peaches, not some generic, fibrous, fruit-like substance, or worse, "fruit" that has been bathing in high-fructose corn syrup.

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In order to be right about the future of education, Larry Summers, and those who agree with them, need to reduce “teaching” to “expositing.”

In very large lecture courses, it’s possible that this is the case. There probably isn’t that much difference between a 1500 person lecture and a 50,000 person MOOC.

But this is not an argument for replacing face-to-face teaching with canned lectures or MOOCs. It is an argument to reduce the number of large lectures in traditional college settings.

We also should acknowledge that the instructors meant to be replaced by these technologies are not located in elite private and public universities. They are meant for community colleges and less selective universities[3], places that have been subject to austerity politics, places that Larry Summers thinks would benefit from more exposure to “genius” faculty, but also places that already have relatively small classes (averaging 25-35 students at the community college level), and very few large lectures, certainly nothing along the lines of Harvard’s “Social Analysis” course, which enrolls more than 800 students.

Summers believes that basic calculus is better taught if the explanation of concepts is done by the “best” explainers of these concepts, no matter if that person is a recording on a screen.

I think he’s wrong. Those of us who teach in ways that require interaction with students know that expositing is possibly the least important thing we do.

I think the best teacher is the one who can explain the concept in a way that’s tailored to her specific audience and then look around the room and determine the degree of understanding, and if lack of comprehension seems to be present, to try a different way of explaining until whatever is trying to be conveyed clicks into place.

I think the best teacher is the one who is available to continue the in-class conversation in one-on-one interactions.

In every course I’ve taught, even when I was young and callow, I was the best teacher in the room because I was in the room. I was present with my students as part of a community, trying to figure this all out together.

Today, as a more experienced, and much better instructor, I can see myself as someone like Sean Brock, someone who tries to reach his students using only fresh and local ingredients, curriculum and instruction geared to both what my students want and what I believe they need.

The key to doing this well is in the personal exchanges between me and my students. Just as Sean Brock can see which plates are returned to the kitchen cleaned, I can read my students’ essays and determine degrees of connection and understanding. I can and do adjust the course at any given time.

In this context, my intuition is always going to be superior to the analytics.

Always.

--

Larry Summers and others think they’re saving higher education from economic forces that threaten the system. He thinks “we” need to adapt or die.

Some things seem clear to me, however, if we allow Summers’ vision to come true.

One is that the elite private universities like Harvard will be excused from this need to adapt. When he says “we” he isn’t speaking about himself.

Another is that those elite universities will profit on the backs on the non-elite by selling us these online interfaces.

And still another is that this sort of system will only exacerbate inequality and make our already shaky prospects for upward economic mobility even worse. It will be a ratcheting up of the borderline plutocracy most of us already operate under, where the Larry Summers’ of the world get expenses paid trips to the Aspen Ideas Festival to expound on the future, while the rest of us work in the present.

And finally, the only solution is to reclaim education as a public good, to reject the politics of austerity when it has now become apparent that only certain sectors of the economy are expected to be austere.

--

If “disruption” is going to “save” some semblance of higher education, let’s be clear on the costs.

Mass produced education carries the same risks as mass produced food. Yes, we need a system that allows us to feed everyone, but not at the price of making everyone eat the same food and certainly not at the risk of making the best and most nutritious food available to only the privileged few. We may need to eat some meals at Olive Garden, but it can’t be our only choice.

When education becomes the equivalent of Hoppin’ John made with minute rice and canned peas, how long is it going to take for students to realize they’re eating “garbage?”

What happens to our culture when the vast majority of students only have garbage to eat, and know little else?[4]

What happens when we decide that all students should be eating the same food, even though clam chowder is fresh and delicious in the Northeast and an invitation to food poisoning in Nebraska?

What happens when we lose the ability to innovate, trying new recipes with unexpected ingredients that have amazing, but unanticipated results? What happens when we know we need a retooling, but the one-size-fits-all system is too big to fail?

Yes, local, fresh education is going to be somewhat more expensive (though not as expensive as the doomsayers claim), as well as time consuming, and occasionally frustrating[5].

But it is also going to be better, more delicious and nutritious. It will remind us that we are first members of local communities, organisms, not data.

And we will put people into the world better armed to face the challenges of a changing society, so we won’t have to rely on people like Larry Summers and the other attendees of the Aspen Ideas Festival to do our thinking for us.

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I've learned lots of things following education experts on Twitter.

 

 

 


[1] Anant Agarwal of EdX suggests, with an apparent straight face, perhaps replacing the superstar professors with actors like Matt Damon to make lectures even more engaging.

[2] American Grocery not only survived, but thrived. The part of downtown Greenville where American Grocery is located that used to be mostly desolate is now filled with shops and restaurants.

[3] Coursera’s experiment with San Jose St. University, feeding them Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s Justice course is an object example.

[4] I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. If you want to know the future of student attitudes toward higher education under the vision of someone like Summers, just look at how students have responded to a generation of standardized testing-driven curriculum in elementary and secondary schools. Not pretty.

[5] In the interview Sean Brock related his difficulties with cultivating the Sea Island Rice Pea, which is a small, delicate seed, and can go from perfectly cured and aged, to burnt and torched in a matter of hours. In Brock’s words, “You can go out on a Tuesday and they’re close, it rains on a Wednesday, totally screws them up, Thursday you come back and it’s close, and Friday you come back and it’s really really close, you go away for the weekend and come back and the whole thing is gone, everything is dried up and ruined. It’s insane.”

 

 

 

 

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