Senator Ron Johnson: Too Many History Teachers, Not Enough “Destructive Technology”

It’s reassuring to know that there are enlightened people like Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson who are in positions of power and have the ability to set education policy in this country.

Senator Johnson says that the “tenured professors in the higher education cartel” are working to keep college costs high and not doing enough to embrace digital technology like Blue-Ray discs, the internet, and the world wide web in the classroom – a classroom that he believes should have fewer teachers and replaced with what he calls “destructive technology.”

Johnson: We’ve got the internet – you have so much information available. Why do we have to keep paying different lecturers to teach the same course? You get one solid lecturer and put it up online and have everybody available to the knowledge for a whole lot cheaper? But that doesn’t play well to tenured professors in the higher education cartel. So again, we need destructive technology for our higher education system.

WISPOLITICS: But online education is missing some facet of a good –

Johnson: Of course, it’s a combination, but prior to me doing this crazy thing [of being in the Senate] . . . I was really involved on a volunteer basis in an education system in Oshkosh. And one of the things we did in the Catholic school system was we had something called “academic excellence initiative.” How do you teach more, better, easier?

One of the examples I always used – if you want to teach the Civil War across the country, are you better off having, I don’t know, tens of thousands of history teachers that kind of know the subject, or would you be better popping in 14 hours of Ken Burns Civil War tape and then have those teachers proctor based on that excellent video production already done? You keep duplicating that over all these different subject areas.

Where do you even start with this nonsense?

  • Digital technology–more specifically education technology–is not a panacea that automatically enhances classroom learning. In 1922, Thomas Edison predicted that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” That “revolution,” of course, never came about, partly because any sort of technology used in the classroom is merely a tool for achieving the larger goal of learning. Technology is not an end in and of itself, and watching a documentary is no more effective than listening to someone drone on forever in the front of a classroom. It’s how you use those tools that matters, and the best teachers put a range of tools–from pens and pencils to computers and tablets–to work in fostering a positive learning environment.


  • Jonathan Rees has blogged for several years about MOOCs and ed tech and has a book coming out on the subject. Mr. Johnson ought to read it.


  • Ken Burns is a wonderful filmmaker and producer, but his PBS series is not the definitive word on the history of the American Civil War. It’s been twenty-plus years since the documentary came out. It is dated and has a few questionable interpretations. Again, teaching history or any subject doesn’t mean popping in a movie and having students take notes. Pairing the documentary with other works of scholarship–written and on film–and analyzing how historians have interpreted the war and constructed narratives about the history of the war is a better start. Having students learn from a trained professional how to find, analyze, and interpret primary sources…that’s also a good start. And having a teacher facilitate dialogue through guided questions or some other thoughtful activity after the film holds more potential for learning than watching a video from “a solid lecturer” after watching a fourteen-hour documentary.


  • Ron Johnson sounds like he hasn’t stepped foot in a college in forty years. Tenure basically doesn’t exist for most young faculty members anymore. The “higher education cartel,” if any such thing exists, has bought into Senator Johnson’s rhetoric and has actively worked to implement austerity measures while relying more on part-time contingent faculty, especially since the 2008 recession. College doesn’t consist of professors constantly lecturing their students anymore. Higher education is not an Orwellian propaganda machine where students read Das Kapital and dream about Cultural Marxism all day and then party all night. We should be investing more in public education rather than advocating for “destructive technology” or busting up some make-believe “higher education cartel.”

You can’t make up this stuff up.


8 thoughts on “Senator Ron Johnson: Too Many History Teachers, Not Enough “Destructive Technology”

  1. My favorite comment on Ron Johnson’s proposal was over at the blog Lawyers, Guns and Money, that suggested we should get rid of art classes, too, and just have students watch old Bob Ross videos.

      1. Probably not a lot to worry about here. Can you imagine those nice folks in red-state Georgia and Alabama agreeing to let the federal government in Washington, DC decide their Civil War history curriculum for them?

  2. Good gawd, I read and hear these sorts of anti-academia-cum-inferiority-complex rants
    frequently, but I did not expect to see it coming from a member of the US Senate . Perhaps the “Higher education cartel” meets at an Ivory tower in close proximity to Ron Johnson’s tower of babble.

  3. I am appalled by Senator Johnson’s suggestion. I teach at a community college and am almost finished with my doctorate in College Teaching and Learning. I use the Internet extensively in my ground courses along with video clips. My experience and research has shown me that nothing is better at teaching the majority of students than a live teacher working with students in an interactive learning environment. While some students can master the content with little interaction from an instructor, the reality is that most students need instructor assistance to master the content.

    I think that Senator Johnson is parroting the mantras that his ideological affiliates think their base wants to hear. They don’t value higher education and see it as a left wing bastion of information that is counter to the right wing ideology. Part of this has to do with historical fact conflicting with much of what right wing conservatism has chosen to believe in along with an inflexible political ideology that resists change of any kind.

    There were some interesting comments about Senator Johnson over on Inside Higher Ed that revealed some interesting facts. Apparently the senator is not the self-made man he claims to be.

    “Now, fast forward to 2010. Ron Johnson is running for the U.S. Senate. He tells everyone that he is a rich guy that will spend all of his fortune on the Senate race. How did he make his money? Here’s what he told The Hill
    (link is external)
    Over 31 years of very hard work, I’ve tucked away, outside of business, enough money to get my message out. If I have to, I’ll spend it all.

    No mention that his father-in-law was billionaire Curler and that 99.99% of his personal fortune is due to the fact that he married Curler’s daughter.
    What’s more, he repeatedly intimated that he was a self-made man that “started” his business from the “ground-up,” without ever mentioning that he wasn’t even in the state when PACUR was being built and that PACUR was not only a creation of Howard Curler, but would feed from the Curler-controlled Bemis trough throughout its entire life.

    By every measure, Ron Johnson is a “fence post turtle” and the only way a turtle get’s on a fence post is if someone puts them there– that someone was Howard Curler.”

    Looks like we have another case of a politician making claims about their past that upon fact checking turn out to be incorrect.

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