Gaming the Curriculum

Like a lot of people, my away-from-home workdays are bookended by an automobile commute. While wasting nonrenewable resources, heating up the atmosphere, and boosting the power of the Saudi monarchy, I also get what is often my only chance to catch up on the news of the day, via National Public Radio.

June 28 was just another one of those days, exceptional only because it brought two news stories that seemed to provide bookends not only for my day, but for American civilization.
The morning brought news of the death of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.). The obit reminded us of Byrd’s long journey from the home of a poor coal miner to a place very near the top of the Washington food chain. The story mentioned his well-known failings (the youthful Klan membership, the filibuster against the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and his achievements, such as the billions of federal dollars he brought home to his needy state and, greatest of all, his heroic 2002 stand against George W. Bush’s Iraq war.
But what really impressed me from the review of Byrd’s life was the arsenal of cultural resources that he brought to his public work. He was educated during the Depression, in public schools that served the poorest part of one of America’s poorest states, but despite these disadvantages, Byrd could recite hours of classical poetry from memory. He wrote a four-volume, prize-winning history of the U.S. Senate, and lectured extensively on its ancient Roman predecessor. And he was a pretty good old-time fiddler. The NPR story included him playing and singing “Old Joe Clark.” The report ended with Byrd reciting Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar.”
That was the morning.
Smack in the middle of evening drive-time was a story about a public middle school in the Chelsea district of Manhattan. In terms of economics and culture, that’s about as far as you can get from Byrd’s hometown of Sophia, West Virginia. The school, called Quest to Learn, has modeled its curriculum on interactive video games. The school uses simulation exercises in which students advance to increasingly difficult levels and are occasionally knocked down by random misfortunes. It also apparently devotes a lot of time to actually designing and programming student-created video games.
It was kind of hard to grasp exactly what goes on at the school. And looking at the website ( didn’t really help. The descriptions combine the worst elements of the jargon emanating from schools of education and the world of “information technology.” According to one of the school’s directors, Katie Salen, “The big idea of the school is that we looked at how games work ... and the way they support learning.” I’m guessing that to “support learning” is not the same thing as “to teach.” But I’m not sure. According to the teaser on the website, the school “is a place to play, invent, grow, and explore.” The absence of “learn” from that series of verbs seems significant.
To allay concerns about the lack of “content” in the curriculum, Salen insisted that the students take the same standardized tests as every other New York student and that the video game motif helps students learn to “manage complexity.”
In young Robert Byrd’s school, technology was probably a chalkboard and a stick for corporal punishment. But I'm betting that the Quest to Learn kids will never recite Tennyson, or even Robert Frost. Daniel Webster will be as unknown to them as Cato. And, for all their comfort with “complexity,” I’m left wondering if, when it’s their turn, they will be able to perceive the simple truth, say, about the folly of empire.

Danny Duncan Collum
, a Sojourners contributing writer, teaches writing at Kentucky State University in Frankfort, Kentucky.

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