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The Accidental Technologist

Robbie McClintock was a humanist philosopher searching for a Nietzschean hammer. He found it in computers and the Web

Robbie McClintock was a humanist philosopher searching for a Nietzschean hammer. He found it in computers and the Web

By Joe Levine

Robbie McClintock was on a prolonged sabbatical from Teachers College, working as a government bureaucrat, when he discovered computers and their potential for education.

It was 1975. A friend and former fellow Columbia student, David Mathews (now President of the Kettering Foundation) had been named Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under President Ford. He had brought McClintock to Washington as his special assistant, a job that afforded McClintock his first opportunity to observe “text-editors”—large, “Star Trek”-like consoles used to produce and track the agency’s voluminous correspondence.
“I had been anti-technology—I thought of computers as big rooms of vacuum tubes, sifting through IBM cards, spitting out salary checks and the like,” McClintock, TC’s John L. and Sue Ann Weinberg Professor in the Historical and Philosophical Foundations of Education, recalled one morning this past summer. Lean and balding at 72, with silver hair at the temples, he was wearing shorts, sneakers and a denim shirt. The outfit, together with a habit of pondering his words before speaking, gave him an unhurried, student-like air. “But it occurred to me, I’d always composed at a typewriter. I’m compulsive about wanting a clean page, so I’d spent inordinate amounts of time retyping revisions. I looked at these text editors and said, gee, that’s a very useful machine.”

So he bought one, taking out a mortgage to cover the cost. He got a lot of mileage out of it, but soon micro-computers came on the scene. Hooked, McClintock learned programming and began developing some primitive classroom applications for his courses.

“I had been good with motors as a kid, and I liked to understand how stuff worked,” he said. “But I also had taught some courses in the history of communication. I was attuned to changes in communications having significant cultural and historical influence. So what had begun as an extravagant convenience prompted me to wonder where all this was leading. And it was kind of an obvious inference that if this technology takes hold, it’s going to alter a lot of things. Nietzsche, whom I’ve studied a lot, says that we have to learn to philosophize with a hammer. We need to find ways for philosophy to have effects. And it occurred to me that digital technologies were the hammer of philosophies of education.”

The story perfectly illustrates the educational philosophy that McClintock himself had espoused just a few years earlier in an essay titled “Toward a Place of Study in a World of Instruction,” published in the Teachers College Record. The piece is a passionate argument for education as a student-driven process of “self-formation” in which the learner follows “a zigzag process of trial and error,” exercising “an inchoate, infantile power of judgment” to slowly attain “form, character, perhaps even a transcendent purpose.” Teachers, under this model, act at most as coaches or guides, never as instructors. Much of the most important learning typically occurs away from the classroom.

That vision of study has animated McClintock’s long and varied career. It is the thread that links the young education historian who published a 700-page book on the Spanish philosopher Ortega y Gasset with the “accidental technologist” (as he likes to call himself) who subsequently mobilized more than $20 million in funding to bring networked computers into K–12 schools. It is the guiding theme of McClintock’s 2005 book, Homeless in the House of the Intellect, in which he holds that universities should create education departments within their own schools of arts and sciences—distinct from professional schools such as TC that prepare teachers and school administrators—dedicated to the “disinterested” study of learning. And self-education also is the central conceit of an online, epistolary novel that McClintock currently is writing with his wife, Maxine. Titled Emilia: The City as Educator (an homage to Rousseau’s educational novel-cum-treatise, Emile), it is a bildungsroman, or story of a young person’s development to maturity—a genre McClintock feels should be made the focus of introductory college literature courses. Its central premise: the heroine skips college to spend four years “going to city”—living in New York, learning from museums, libraries and, especially, the Web.

“Part of Robbie’s creativity is that he has not chosen the role of a traditional scholar,” says Frank Moretti, McClintock’s former doctoral student, who heads Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning. “He’s always doing new things. He’s written about school architecture. He once tried to invent an engine dependent on buoyancy in water. And he was one of the first people to do anything with digital technology in education. He’s had a profound impact on how educators have envisioned what schools should do with computers and the Web.”

Wiring the Schools

Twenty years ago, McClintock and Moretti wired Dalton, the elite Manhattan private school where Moretti was then the associate headmaster. Funded by the real estate magnate Robert Tishman, a Dalton parent, they equipped the school’s classrooms and corridors with workstations for teachers and students, a dedicated server “so that you could go to any workstation and log on as yourself and have all your stuff,” and an industrial-scale local area network that linked teachers and students to Dalton’s library, New York City cultural institutions and—via email—each other.

The project was considered so cutting-edge that Time, in 1995, devoted a full-length feature story to it, titled “The Learning Revolution.” The story describes Dalton sixth graders simulating an archeological dig at an ancient Assyrian site while tapping into collections at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and seniors using a program called Voyager to look at images of stars and nebulae recorded by the telescope at California’s Palomar Observatory. A cast of enthusiastic participants, from the school’s principal on down, attests to a revamped approach to learning in which “students must actively dig up information, then construct their own understanding from raw, observable facts.” It was, in short, McClintock’s word made flesh.

McClintock followed the Dalton work in 1996 with Project Eiffel, a vast $24 million effort involving nearly 100 New York City schools, including many serving low-income neighborhoods. Columbia University, the Center for Collaborative Education, and at least 10 different local community organizations signed on as partners. By his own admission, the project overreached, achieving a significant presence in only some of the participating schools—but it positioned McClintock for an even more ambitious effort that, had it come to fruition, could well have created a very different sort of school system in New York City than the one that exists today.

Known as “Smart Cities New York: Education for the New Millennium,” the project sought to deploy a laptop to every New York City public school student and to link students, their families and their teachers through a shared network to be developed by Columbia and other universities.

The network, which was ultimately to include other cities, was going to be “semi-commercial,” allowing companies and organizations to conduct commerce on it outside of in-school uses—now a commonplace on the Internet.
A surviving 80-page Power Point presentation—assembled by a consulting company, but peppered with McClintock-isms—confirms that the project did not lack for hubris: “Hitherto the school has contained the educational program. Henceforth the educational program will contain the school, as well as the home and the community—the entire City.”

Hubris or no, Smart Cities came within a hair of becoming reality. McClintock drew on the connections of another TC faculty member, Irving Hamer, Manhattan representative to what was then the City’s Board of Education and also a friend of Rudy Crew, then the City’s public school chancellor. In 2000, the Smart Schools plan was authorized by the full Board of Education. Two coalitions of technology and consulting companies, whose players included Apple, IBM and Hewlett Packard, submitted bids. And then everything unraveled.

“The companies that looked at this had valued the network in the billions of dollars,” McClintock says. “But then the dot com bust hit, and that changed their assessment of the network’s worth. They began withdrawing their bids. Then Bloomberg defeated Mark Green in the mayoral election, and he did away with the Board of Ed.”
But another force was also at work.

“The educational vision of the Dalton Project, Eiffel and others was that good-quality education, when fully developed, will break open the curriculum in such a way that you can’t predict what a good student should know,” McClintock says. “And, frankly, that vision of education lost out.”

What replaced it, he says, was “the standards movement, which in state after state has involved a much more explicit statement of what the expectations are in each grade and subject—and what kinds of activities will be taken as representative. And as a result, not much of what we did has endured.”

State of Nature

McClintock’s belief in self-formation seems rooted in his family’s history and his own childhood. His mother grew up in rural North Dakota and spent her infancy in a polio asylum, “which left her with a very independent streak.” After being told by the state university that women couldn’t study math, she ran off to Paris to apprentice herself in the fashion industry. From there she went to New York and became a successful designer, with her own line of ready-to-wear.

On his father’s side, McClintock’s family were Appalachian loggers who migrated west over successive generations and finally established a logging supply business in the State of Washington.

“By the time my father was a child, it was a very lucrative business,” McClintock says. “But he wanted to study history, so he went to Princeton and then Columbia. But in 1927, the family went bankrupt, and he decided he had to get a job. He went into investment banking, and near the end of his career, he became CEO of Burnham and put together the merger of Drexel and Burnham.”

McClintock lived on a farm in Pennsylvania until he was eight, an experience he likens to that of Rousseau’s Emile. An only child, he hung out with “carpenters and cultivators” and also spent a lot of very pleasant time by himself.
“I used to go up in the attic as a kid and start rummaging around, and I’d get interested in whatever was up there,” he says. “There was no one to bother me—it was my own world, enabled by that environment rather than by any larger discourse, and I was trying to construct it.”

The McClintocks moved back to New York City in time for their son’s later childhood. He was dragged along to parties in the dress-making and investment banking worlds; got a summer job in Switzerland driving kids around on a bus; and came to political consciousness during the Cold War.

“My parents had lived through the Depression, so there was an awareness that bad leadership can really screw things up—that if things aren’t done right, Armageddon is clearly conceivable. I think that led to my feeling, in a way that may be less a part of a young person’s consciousness now, that it’s important to situate your own sense historically.”

Like his father, McClintock went to Princeton and then Columbia. At the latter, he worked closely with Lawrence Cremin, the Bancroft Prize-winning education historian who would shortly become TC’s president, and the cultural critic Martin Dworkin, whom he describes as a kind of “Vince Lombardi of the intellect,” a demanding teacher who “would not let someone like me sit back and take the easier road intellectually.” Cremin and Dworkin believed that education systems tend to replicate societal power structures. Their antidote was for schools to work in concert with other institutions that educate—families, employers, churches, youth groups, the media—and for policymakers to recognize and support those relationships.

As McClintock tells it, the idealism of the Cremin presidency was hampered by the College’s financial woes and the political disillusionment that set in after the ’60s. McClintock himself spent much of the subsequent decade adrift, questioning a traditional academic career in a search for relevance that led him to write financial reports for the College, live for a year in Germany, and finally, toil in Washington. But Cremin’s ideas lingered in his mind and still do.

“A number of us deeply internalized an ideal for TC of a commitment to education as a form of public leadership, and that hasn’t come to fulfillment,” he says. “It’s something that has happened more in Europe, where people seem more willing to put national and political allegiances aside to build common institutions. Maybe now we’re seeing the beginnings of that here with Obama. Or maybe that’s just the wishful thinking of an aging humanist.”

Back to the Future

When McClintock retires from Teachers College this coming spring, it won’t be to reflect on what might have been. On one level, the novel he and his wife are writing is a fable of “study” as McClintock defines it. The letters between Emilia and her parents are supplemented by hyperlinked bibliographies that will allow readers to become more immersed in the book’s wide-ranging philosophical and political themes. But on a broader level, Emilia illustrates the possibilities of what McClintock calls “cultural democracy.”

“University libraries now spend more on subscriptions to digital materials than on print books. With a membership in the Columbia University domain, our students have personal libraries that no scholar prior to the year 2000, no matter how long he or she collected books, could match. And that holds not only at the university/college level. The K–12 teacher and student also are working in an intellectual environment that’s never existed before for people working in schools. They’re moving into a world in which the whole historical acquirement of the human race is there for them to use and select from and find their interests within.”

Right now, he says, the education system is doing “maddeningly little” to capitalize on this abundance. “We’re still stuck in debating what standard body of knowledge kids should know and how to test them on it. But the beauty of networked digital technology is that, potentially, it’s an activator of choices. It’s not a teaching tool but a study tool that empowers the choice of the student to read this rather than that. So I’m much less concerned that we get ‘the right material’ into kids’ hands—this book versus that—and much more concerned with getting lots of materials into the hands of all kids. If one can do that, the full educational environment of kids will get equalized.”

Ultimately, McClintock’s vision of cultural democracy extends far beyond the school system. The world of the past several hundred years has been shaped by boundaries—nation states, territorial borders and laws that privatize property (both intellectual and physical)—that have provided incentive to invest capital and unleashed “a huge amount of human potential.” But now, because digital resources “are infinitely reproducible without diminishing quality and at negligible cost,” a “digital commons” is emerging that favors communal production and shared resources.

“A very concrete example of that is Wikipedia [the online information resource that is written and revised by the public], which in 10 years of development has put out of development hugely historically successful publishing and creation processes such as Encyclopedia Britannica,” McClintock says. “It’s a genuine commons, open to anyone.”
Such developments augur a broader, slow-moving shift “away from ‘mine and thine,’” McClintock says, toward “making use of things in common and living in shared public spaces.” And that coincides with yet another trend he finds enormously significant.

“The historical process of the last three or four centuries has been one of immense growth in wealth, populations and complexity,” he says. “But the long-term demographics of the world are tending quickly to a stabilization of populations. We’re beginning to see that in the aging of the U.S., European, Japanese and Chinese populations. The UN projects that the global population won’t increase much beyond 10 billion after the year 2100.”

In a world where neither population growth nor the engines of capitalism are running at full throttle, McClintock says, “we may have to recalibrate our measures of success, competence and good governance. Instead of ‘more,’ an ethic of ‘enough’ may need to be cultivated. Economic achievement may seem less central, and cultural achievement and self-expression may become much more universally important.”

Again, such a world may be more reflective of his hopes than reality. Still, it seemed possible on a stifling evening this past June, when a small group of his friends, colleagues and former students gathered in the McClintocks’ Seth Low apartment. They were there to discuss “Waiting for God,” an essay in which Simone Weil, the French philosopher, some-time Communist and Catholic, talks about prayer as a form of attention that should be applied to reading and learning.

McClintock, ever the humanist, expressed reservations about Weil’s religious fervor, but he returned several times to her description of a kind of “hovering” or receptivity in study that is not about forcing one’s brain to focus.
“With anything you read, there has to be an openness at the beginning,” he said at one point. “A faith that something may not make sense now, but if I stick with it—if I let myself tolerate a lack of understanding as I proceed into the text— the ideas and connections will begin to occur, and I’ll exit with a greater sense of fulfillment and understanding.”

Not everyone agreed. The conversation went on, thick with references to Heidegger, Josef Pieper, Calvin, Plato, Schleiermacher and others. To an outside observer, it seemed that the group was getting no nearer to arriving at any answers. But McClintock, reaching for a beer as he turned his attention to yet another speaker, seemed untroubled. People were asking questions. He was in his element.

Visit McClintock’s Web site (and see his novel in progress) at View a videotaped interview with McClintock at

Published Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2010


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