Tocqueville’s observations about the curious version of democracy that Americans were cultivating in the 1830s have served as a touchstone for social scientists ever since. One sociologist writes about the continued relevance of what Tocqueville noticed way back then, particularly the odd fact that we cherish our commitment to individualism yet experience a “relentless pressure to conform.” Each of us can do what he likes as long as he ends up fundamentally similar to everyone else: You’re “free to expand as a standardized individual.”
A couple of decades ago, that last phrase reminded me of how our pitiful individuality was screwed to the backs of our cars in the form of customized license plates. Today it brings to mind what goes by the name “personalized learning.”
A suffix can change everything. When you attach -ality to sentiment, for example, you end up with what Wallace Stevens called a failure of feeling. When -ized is added to personal, again, the original idea has been not merely changed but corrupted — and even worse is something we might call Personalized Learning, Inc (PLI), in which companies sell us digital products to monitor students while purporting to respond to the differences among them.
Personal learning entails working with each child to create projects of intellectual discovery that reflect his or her unique needs and interests. It requires the presence of a caring teacher who knows each child well.
Personalized learning entails adjusting the difficulty level of prefabricated skills-based exercises based on students’ test scores. It requires the purchase of software from one of those companies that can afford full-page ads in Education Week.