Posts Tagged With: modernization

Die Suche nach Sicherheit


Conze, Eckart.  Die Suche nach Sicherheit: eine Geschichte der Bundesrepublik Deutschland von 1949 bis in die Gegenwart.  Munich: Siedler, 2009. 

In Die Suche nach Sicherheit, Eckart Conze has written a comprehensive history of the Federal Republic of Germany that ranges from its foundation in 1949 to 2009, the year this work was published.  At over one thousand pages and covering topics from politics, society, culture, and the economy, Conze’s book is a Gesamtdarstellung of the history of the Federal Republic.  The book proceeds chronologically, but within this chronological framework, Conze employs a thematic approach, dedicating chapters to particular themes such as “Modernization in the Reconstruction,” “Security and Stability,” and “the Search for Identity and New Optimism.

The leitmotif of Conze’s book – as the title suggests – is the Germans’ search for security, certainty, and safety. “Die Geschichte der Bundesrepublik ist bestimmt von der Suche nach Sicherheit,” he writes (15).  Since the foundation of the Federal Republic, every administration and every political party has taken security as the goal of their politics.  In the Adenauer Era, stretching from 1949 to 1963, the focus was on securing stability for the newly-formed nation.  Political and civilian institutions had to be reestablished, all under the pressures of the Cold War. The American-Soviet binary put the divided Germany right at the center of the tense political climate.  Therefore, the ‘search for security’ during the 1950s was the search for military and physical safety, along with a sense of autonomy.

By 1965, Conze notes, contemporary observers felt that life had finally become more normalized, or at least stabile.  The Cuban missile crisis had subsided and West Germans were able to focus more on family life and their careers. But 1968 revealed that this sense of security and stability was a farce.  Though Conze asserts that the social revolt symbolized by the year 1968 constitutes the second formative stage of the Federal Republic’s history, he shows that the social revolutions of the late 1960s and early 1970s were not specifically a German phenomenon by situating 1968 in an international context (333).  The result of this tumult was that the 1970s was a period focused on internal security for West Germans.

The economic crises of the late 1970s, as well as the increasing importance of international security politics (NATO armament) in the 1980s forced Germans to, yet again, acknowledge that their futures depended on global factors; therefore, they were not the masters of their own destiny.  Conze speaks of a “return of history,” of an increased interest in German history in the late 1970s that was caused by the loss of a sense of certainty for their own future (655).  The reunification of Germany in 1990 gave Germans a new sense of security as a united nation, but revealed internal tensions between “Wessis” and “Ossis.”  The terror attacks of September 11, 2001 revealed that nation states were not the only source of danger, and that nation states could not always protect its citizens from global terror networks.  The book ends with the conclusion that the economic reform package passed in Germany was not just meant to fight off rising unemployment or rising debt. “It’s about the stabilization of commonwealth and the cohesion of the society.  It’s about trust in the government and the promises of protection by the state. It’s about security” (936).

Beyond giving readers a new analytical framework through which to understand the history of the Federal Republic, Conze also offers a warning against viewing its history as a teleological path towards reunification or a “long path towards the West,” as it has often been portrayed after 1990.  He drives this point home by quoting histories from the late 1980s that still portrayed “ratlosigkeit” or having no sense of where German history would go from there (11).


For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here.

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European Modernity & Mass Culture


Modernism & Mass Culture

In our past sessions, we have explored different transformations that historians have designated as marking Europe’s transition into the modern era.  We have discussed technological advancements, processes of secularization, nationalism, and the transformation of conceptions of time and space.  The books that we read for this session add culture to this discussion. Each of these authors approach the ambiguous topic of culture differently, and thus come to different conclusions about the causes and implications of the profound revolutions in European culture.    Did cultural transformations reflect or produce changes in the political sphere?  Did the emergence of a mass society created by technological innovations create a vast, alienating sea of individuals, or a new sense of community based on the “spectacular realities” of modern life?  And what can we make of European culture’s collective “journey inward,” its turn towards psychology and psychoanalysis as the source of answers for life’s troubles?  The five authors for this session all contribute to a greater understanding of European modernity by attempting to answer these questions.

In Fin-de-Siècle Vienna: Politics & Culture, Carl Schorske explores the cultural world of the Habsburg Empire’s capital at the end of the nineteenth century.  Vienna’s small class of bourgeois liberals lies at the heart of Schorske’s story, and he argues that we must view liberals in Austrian culture as occupying a different place than liberals in France or Britain. In this way, Schorske’s argument can be seen as part of the Sonderweg thesis that is often applied to Germany’s transition into modernity.  According to Schorske, it was the failure of Austrian liberalism to overthrow the landed nobility and secure political authority for itself that marked Austria as different than the Western European powers and set it on a separate path of development. 1848 marked a defeat of the liberals against the aristocracy, and it was not until the 1860s that the liberals gained a constitutional regime almost by default.  “Not their own internal strength, but the defeat of the old order at the hands of foreign enemies brought the liberals to the helm of the state” (5).  This was only a partial victory, though, because the liberals were forced to coexist with an aristocracy that mocked them and thwarted their every attempt to accrue more political authority.  The only option left to liberals, Schorske argues, was to turn to culture as a means of ersatz authority to make up for their lack of actual political power.

As a result, the bourgeois liberals began imitating aristocratic tastes in architecture and art, since art “was closely bound up with social status, especially in Austria” (296).  Eventually, however, sociopolitical events caused these liberals to relate to art in a new way.  “If the Viennese burghers had begun by supporting the temple of arts as a surrogate form of assimilation into aristocracy, they ended by finding it an escape” (8).  According to Schorske, they were seeking a refuge from forces that they had inadvertently unleashed onto the thousand-year-old empire.  Although the liberals were proponents of parliamentarianism, they sought to restrict representation; only after people were educated with Enlightenment ideals could they be trusted with a vote.  These ideals spread beyond the liberal’s control, however, and various groups within the multi-ethnic empire began using liberal ideals to fight for their own inclusion in political processes.  So while the liberals were directing a nationalism against the aristocratic cosmopolitans above them, Slavic and Pan-German patriots were arguing for autonomy from below.  The Austro-German liberals “succeeded in releasing the political energies of the masses, but against themselves rather than against their ancient foes” (117).  In this light, Schorske uses Freud’s notion of Oedipal revolt, of “son” revolting against “father” to explain how the Viennese liberals were ultimately defeated by their own ideals.  By the century’s close, the liberals retreated from the public sphere into the introverted sanctity of the private sphere, leaving the nationalistic masses to dominate politics.

Deborah Coen challenges this narrative in her work Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life.  In an interesting book that utilizes the method of biography, Coen questions the “retreat” of liberals to private life as a “defeat.”  Instead, like Gerald Geison, she questions the notion of a fundamental separation between private and public spheres.  She’s able to do this by focusing on one family, the Exners, who were a “scientific dynasty” in Vienna.  By focusing on their family dynamics and their influences on the wider political and scientific communities, Coen is able to demonstrate that for the Austrian Bildungsbürgertum, or middle class intellectuals, “academic work and family life occupied the same social sphere” (31).  The home acted as a space for the Exners, and others like them, to not only discuss work and politics, but to also actually contribute to their work, thus “bridging the public and private lives of its inhabitants” (23).  Central to her argument is Coen’s assertion that “Liberal identity in Austria lay not only in an ideology but also in a character – a style of speaking, reasoning, and interacting, the product of an individual’s education in the broadest sense of Erziehung” (11).  A vital part in cultivating this liberal character was retreating from urban life, summering in quaint villages situated “in nature,” and not only observing nature, but participating in it as well.  Moreover, the Exners did this as a family at their “colony,” Brunnwinkl, along with other Viennese liberals who also summered at the Wagnersee, creating a seasonal “liberal space” where scientific and philosophical ideas were nurtured so that they could be spread back in the “public” sphere at the end of summer.  Thus, Coen argues that “cultivation of the domestic sphere was not a retreat from politics but a precondition of liberal identity” (90).

Coen also addresses the impact of uncertainty on liberal culture.  Where the Enlightenment ideals of the certainty of nature led to beliefs in unwavering laws of nature (scientific determinism), new discoveries and methods of interpretation led to the realization that perhaps nature was best understood as a set of probabilities rather than certainties.  In other words, phenomena were no longer dictated by natural laws, but instead were seen as having a higher (or lower) mathematical probability of occurring.  This new way of understanding mirrored the socio-political revolutions occurring as nationalistic and democratic waves overthrew the old social hierarchy.  Schorske argues that the liberals saw the acceptance of uncertainty as the “death of history,” a complete break with past understandings of the world, and thus retreated from politics and sought explanations in deep internal sources.  The relativistic “psychological man” replaced the traditional “rational” man of the old liberal ideals.

Coen claims that this view is simplistic and wrong.  Acknowledging that nature and society are more complex than previously understood did not destroy liberals’ worldview.  Instead, liberals like the Exners were able to “tame” and “manage” uncertainty through quantitative theories of probability, which contributed to two goals: defeating Catholic dogmatism, and providing a plan of action in the face of crippling relativism (10).  “Skepticism was thus not liberalism’s downfall but instead a vital element of liberal culture and natural science in post-1848 Vienna” (13).    In this light, psychoanalysis and similar sciences were not an admission that there was no real truth, but simply another chance to understand the world.  Franz Exner, for example, argued that “psychology should become to the interior world what natural science was to the exterior” (50).  Ultimately, Coen’s account adds more nuance to Schorske’s story, showing how liberals were able and willing to adapt to larger historical changes instead of just retreating to the private sphere (the home, and the inner self) in defeat; moreover, Coen’s characters are active actors contributing to the new, modern world, instead of just reacting to it.

Vanessa Schwartz’s Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris addresses another phenomenon related to the birth of modern culture: the rise of a mass society.  In a thoroughly entertaining piece of history, she challenges the idea of the new mass culture as a repressive, alienating phenomenon.  She sees the “spectacularization” of reality in Paris, which included the creation of “the public,” as a means of community building, where people did not feel alone in the crowd, but genuinely felt a camaraderie with other Parisians.  Schwartz’s analytical focus here is the gaze – she studies what people are looking at, who’s doing the looking, and how they are looking.  Therefore, unlike in Foucault’s portrayal of modern culture in which “the crowd” is seen, or is the spectacle (the object of the state’s attention), Schwartz’s portrayal changes the perspective and the crowd becomes the one doing the seeing.  In other words, the urban crowd became a society of spectators.  This is an important shift, because no longer is mass culture seen as something that is overwhelming and happening to individuals who feel lost or alone in a sea of other individuals.  Instead, mass culture is something that is partially shaped by the crowd, which is portrayed by Schwartz as group of actors. Schwartz’s characters are not mindless consumers; their demands and expectations shape the possibilities of the producers.

Spectacular Realities examines a number of media forms that helped create this crowd by turning everyday reality into events, things that should be first read about (she emphasizes the importance of the growth of literacy), and then gone out and experienced or seen for oneself.  “Like the boulevards, the press – especially in its sensationalization of the everyday – promoted the shared pleasures and identification of individual city dwellers that transformed them into “Parisians”” (26).  Going to see dead bodies in the morgue was like “real life theater,” turning death into an aspect of modern life.  Wax museums recreated scenes from daily life and let viewers “view themselves” in a narrative form, because the curators always set up the displays in a particular fashion to tell a specific story.  Wax museums, in other words, let modern Parisians see themselves as a spectacle from the viewpoint of a spectator (131).  Ultimately, while Schwartz’s book provides a plethora of important and entertaining information, the overall point of her book shows that the “spectacularization of everyday life” and the creation of the urban crowd deserves a spot among the study of democratization and technological innovations in the formation of modern society and culture.

Modris Eksteins’ Rites of Springs: the Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age is a grand, yet confusing book, in my opinion, and in fact, its composition seems to reflect the very break with tradition and sense of uncertainty that his subjects felt during the era of the Great War.  The 1913 debut of the Russian ballet The Rights of Spring in Paris “rightly stands as a symbol of its era and as a landmark of this century,” Eksteins claims (16).  The reason is because the ballet’s music, choreography – its entire production – expressed revolutionary new ideas. On the eve of World War I, its message was that “If there was any hope, it was in the energy and fertility of life, not in morality.  To an audience decked out in its civilized finery, the message was jarring” (50).  This feeling of change and detachment – the signposts of modernity that were brought about by technology – were accelerated by World War I.

Eksteins studies the power of the masses and their influence on geopolitics in particular.  He devotes a lot of attention to Germany, because he feels that the German experience lies at the heart of the modern experience since “she more intensively than any other “developed country has given evidence to the world of the psychic disorientation that rapid and wholesale environmental change may reproduce” (68).  However, I find his treatment of Germany problematic mainly because he speaks in overgeneralized terms (“the Germans” did this, or “the Germans” wanted that).  He claims that “Germany had been the country most willing…to promote the breakdown of old certainties” (156), yet 100 pages prior he was describing how the German masses were clamoring to see, and almost worship, their conservative Kaiser, and how this pressure not only forced the imperial government into war, but also swallowed up any opposition (63).

In find Eksteins’ discussion of Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic more interesting, plausible, and useful.  Lindbergh, upon his arrival in Europe, became “the new Christ,” the “most famous man ever” (242-244).  This was because he straddled two worlds created by the devastation of World War One.  One world was one of “positive values, revolving around family, religion, nature, and the good and moral life.”  The other was a “modern” world that was exhilarated by the act of flying over the Atlantic alone.  “The act was everything” (250).  After a war, the dimensions of which defied all comprehension, conservatives found a harbinger of traditional values in gentlemanly and self-made Lindbergh, while others – including “the masses” – saw Lindbergh as a star, a representative of man’s conquest of nature through technology.  These same ideas of conquest and progress through social engineering were taken up by the National Socialists who ultimately twisted and perverted morals to the extent that “death was the supreme manifestation of life” (330).  Complete and utter destruction through war (what Eksteins calls Germany’s “endless right of spring”) would purge and cleanse the world, allowing for new and pure life to emerge triumphant.  Ultimately, I remain very skeptical of Eksteins’ book. I am not sure if it is meant to be a way that the two world wars can be viewed, or an attempt to explain them.  I wonder if he is not just conducting his own grand ballet here.

Finally, George Mosse’s work Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars explores the ways in which war, and the Great War in particular, affected how nations understood mass death.  Mosse asserts that the modern world, beginning with the French Revolution, was characterized by a sense of loneliness, particularly amongst its bourgeois citizens.  This is how he explains the large number of volunteer soldiers in every war since the Revolution.  Because of this sense of loneliness and meaninglessness, men volunteered to fight for a greater cause.  This symbolized a shift away from men simply being called into action by their monarch.  “Men’s loyalties were being redirected from dynasty to the fatherland,” Mosse states (20).  This notion of a greater cause – beyond being a motivation for men to volunteer for the war in the first place – was also used to justify the death caused by the war.  Death, then, was turned into a noble sacrifice on behalf of the nation and its people.  This leads to the creation of what Mosse calls the Myth of the War Experience.  This myth became a tool of nationalism, and was essentially a coping mechanism for those nations that lost in the Great War.  For instance, in Germany, trauma and defeat led to the strengthening of nationalism and the War Myth as “a civic faith” (10) in which monuments and memorials can be seen as shrines to the fallen dead.  It is important to note that only the memories and experiences of veterans that matched with the larger aims of nationalism were commemorated in cemeteries and monuments (37).  In this way, nationalism was in the business of establishing and perpetuating official memories for the Myth of the War Experience.

He has an interesting section on the trivialization of the war, by which he means the processes in which the war was “domesticated” (141).  War themed books and toys allowed citizens to take control of the war, which seemed much smaller and manageable as a result.  In short, it allowed people to grow accustomed to warfare, thus dulling the impact of mass death.  Moreover, Mosse argues that changes in the ideals of masculinity, notions of activity and vitality, as well as the ideal of serving one’s nation in any way possible, all contributed to a brutalization of politics after the Great War (159).  This brutalization limited the number of possibilities open to politicians when tensions led towards a second global war in the 1930s.  World War II ended the Myth of the War Experience, though, because the Myth was not able to deceive people any longer.  More people experienced the war first hand due to a blurring of the boundaries between battlefield/home front and soldier/citizen.  Also, pictures, movie footage, and radio broadcast allowed more people to experience the war as it happened, and also exposed them to the new atrocities of modern warfare like the Holocaust (202).  This shattered the Myth and nations had to come up with new ways to deal with the mass death of the modern world.  The concept of “sacrifice” no longer sufficed in the face of Auschwitz.

All of these books reveal the turn of the twentieth century as a moment in European history characterized by far reaching change.  Technology, science, and geopolitics transformed cultures, which in turn affected politics, science, and technology.  The mass destruction and death caused by the Great War seemed to cut off the modern world from the past.  Eksteins shows that even the Victors experienced a sense of shattered reality.  They had achieved victory; now what?  (238).  Schorske in particular shows that while the masses were becoming active in politics, at least a part of society was becoming more introverted, looking inward for answers to the woes of modern life.  Individuality and “the self” took on a level of importance unparalleled to that point.  Indeed, Nikolas Rose claims that it was during this era that Europeans invented “the self,” looking for something deep within that was essential and true.[1]  Essentially, I would argue that this process could be seen as the search for a “secular soul” as the response to a movement bent on fighting the dogma of religion.  Eksteins calls this the collective “journey inwards” (298), and Coen displays that this inward journey does not equate to a wholesale departure from the public sphere of politics.  Finally, while both Eksteins and Mosse suggest that World War One was the cause of these new uncertainties, the other authors show that the forces of modernity were in effect before the Great War (and, in fact, contributed to its outbreak) even while the War accelerated and exasperated their effects.

[1] Nikolas Rose, Inventing Ourselves: Psychology, Power, and Personhood. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Books Under Review:

  1. Schorske, Carl E. Fin-de-SieÌcle Vienna: Politics and Culture. New York: Knopf, 1979.
  2. Coen, Deborah R. Vienna in the Age of Uncertainty: Science, Liberalism, and Private Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007.
  3. Schwartz, Vanessa R. Spectacular Realities: Early Mass Culture in Fin-de-Siècle Paris. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
  4. Eksteins, Modris. Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
  5. Mosse, George L. Fallen Soldiers: Reshaping the Memory of the World Wars. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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European Modernity & Mass Culture by W. J. Newsome is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.


For more books on modern European history, see my full list of book reviews. 

Categories: Book Review, Modern European History | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Grading the Digital School

Mooresville’s Shining Example (It’s not just about the laptops)

By , NY Times

Published: February 12, 2012

A version of this article appeared in print on February 13, 2012, on pageA10 of the New York edition.


MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Sixty educators from across the nation roamed the halls and ringed the rooms of East Mooresville Intermediate School, searching for the secret formula. They found it in Erin Holsinger’s fifth-grade math class.

There, a boy peering into his school-issued MacBook blitzed through fractions by himself, determined to reach sixth-grade work by winter. Three desks away, a girl was struggling with basic multiplication — only 29 percent right, her screen said — and Ms. Holsinger knelt beside her to assist. Curiosity was fed and embarrassment avoided, as teacher connected with student through emotion far more than Wi-Fi.

“This is not about the technology,” Mark Edwards, superintendent of Mooresville Graded School District, would tell the visitors later over lunch. “It’s not about the box. It’s about changing the culture of instruction — preparing students for their future, not our past.”

As debate continues over whether schools invest wisely in technology — and whether it measurably improves student achievement — Mooresville, a modest community about 20 miles north of Charlotte best known as home to several Nascar teams and drivers, has quietly emerged as the de facto national model of the digital school.

Mr. Edwards spoke on a White House panel in September, and federal Department of Education officials often cite Mooresville as a symbolic success. Overwhelmed by requests to view the programs in action, the district now herds visitors into groups of 60 for monthly demonstrations; the waiting list stretches to April. What they are looking for is an explanation for the steady gains Mooresville has made since issuing laptops three years ago to the 4,400 4th through 12th graders in five schools (three K-3 schools are not part of the program).

The district’s graduation rate was 91 percent in 2011, up from 80 percent in 2008. On state tests in reading, math and science, an average of 88 percent of students across grades and subjects met proficiency standards, compared with 73 percent three years ago. Attendance is up, dropouts are down. Mooresville ranks 100th out of 115 districts in North Carolina in terms of dollars spent per student — $7,415.89 a year — but it is now third in test scores and second in graduation rates.

“Other districts are doing things, but what we see in Mooresville is the whole package: using the budget, innovating, using data, involvement with the community and leadership,” said Karen Cator, a former Apple executive who is director of educational technology for the United States Department of Education. “There are lessons to be learned.”

Start with math lessons: each student’s MacBook Air is leased from Apple for $215 a year, including warranty, for a total of $1 million; an additional $100,000 a year goes for software. Terry Haas, the district’s chief financial officer, said the money was freed up through “incredibly tough decisions.”

Sixty-five jobs were eliminated, including 37 teachers, which resulted in larger class sizes — in middle schools, it is 30 instead of 18 — but district officials say they can be more efficiently managed because of the technology. Some costly items had become obsolete (like computer labs), though getting rid of others tested the willingness of teachers to embrace the new day: who needs globes in the age of Google Earth?

Families pay $50 a year to subsidize computer repairs, though the fee is waived for those who cannot afford it, about 18 percent of them. Similarly, the district has negotiated a deal so that those without broadband Internet access can buy it for $9.99 a month. Mr. Edwards said the technology had helped close racial performance gaps in a district where 27 percent of the students are minorities and 40 percent are poor enough to receive free or reduced-price lunches.

Others see broader economic benefits.

“Even in the downturn, we’re a seller’s market — people want to buy homes here,” said Kent Temple, a real estate agent in town. “Families say, ‘This is a chance for my child to compete with families that have more money than me.’ Six years from now, you’ll see how many from disadvantaged backgrounds go to college and make it.”

Mooresville’s laptops perform the same tasks as those in hundreds of other districts: they correct worksheets, assemble progress data for teachers, allow for compelling multimedia lessons, and let students work at their own pace or in groups, rather than all listening to one teacher. The difference, teachers and administrators here said, is that they value computers not for the newest content they can deliver, but for how they tap into the oldest of student emotions — curiosity, boredom, embarrassment, angst — and help educators deliver what only people can. Technology, here, is cold used to warm.

Mooresville frequently tests students in various subjects to inform teachers where each needs help. Every quarter, department heads and principals present summary data to Mr. Edwards, who uses it to assess where teachers need improvement. Special emphasis goes to identifying students who are only a few correct answers away from passing state proficiency standards. They are then told how close they are and, Mr. Edwards said, “You can, you can, you can.”

Many classrooms have moved from lecture to lattice, where students collaborate in small groups with the teacher swooping in for consultation. Rather than tell her 11th-grade English students the definition of transcendentalism one recent day, Katheryn Higgins had them crowd-source their own — quite Thoreauly, it turned out — using Google Docs. Back in September, Ms. Higgins had the more outgoing students make presentations on the Declaration of Independence, while shy ones discussed it in an online chat room, which she monitored.

“I’m not a very social person, but I have no problem typing on a keyboard,” said one of those shy ones, Chase Wilson. “It connected me with other students — opened me up and helped me with talking in public.”

In math, students used individualized software modules, with teachers stopping by occasionally to answer questions. (“It’s like having a personal tutor,” said Ethan Jones, the fifth grader zooming toward sixth-grade material.) Teachers apportion their time based on the need of students, without the weaker ones having to struggle at the blackboard in front of the class; this dynamic has helped children with learning disabilities to participate and succeed in mainstream classes.

“There are students who might not have graduated five years ago who have graduated,” said Melody Morrison, a case manager for Mooresville High School’s special education programs. “They’re not just our kids anymore. They’re everybody’s kids — all teachers throughout the school. The digital conversion has evened the playing field.”

Many students adapted to the overhaul more easily than their teachers, some of whom resented having beloved tools — scripted lectures, printed textbooks and a predictable flow through the curriculum — vanish. The layoffs in 2009 and 2010, of about 10 percent of the district’s teachers, helped weed out the most reluctant, Mr. Edwards said; others he was able to convince that the technology would actually allow for more personal and enjoyable interaction with students.

“You have to trust kids more than you’ve ever trusted them,” he said. “Your teachers have to be willing to give up control.”

That was the primary concern that the 60 visitors expressed during their daylong sojourn to Mooresville in November. “I’m not sure our kids can be trusted the way these are,” one teacher from the Midwest said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid trouble back home.

Thomas Bertrand, superintendent of schools in Rochester, Ill., said he was struck by the “culture of collaboration among staff and kids” in Mooresville and would emphasize that as his district considered its own conversion.

“There’s a tendency in teaching to try to control things, like a parent,” said Scott Allen, a high school chemistry teacher in South Granville, N.C. “But I learn best at my own pace, and you have to realize that students learn best at their own pace, too.”

Mooresville still has some growing pains. In one ninth-grade social studies class, a video that easily could have been shown on a large screen instead went through the students’ laptops, several of which balked, “Unable to find proxy server.” One fourth grader, having to complete 10 multiplication questions in two minutes for the software to let her move on, simply consulted her times tables, making the lesson more about speed typing than mathematics. And those concerned about corporate encroachment on public schools would blanch at the number of Apple logos in the hallways, and at the district’s unofficial slogan: “iBelieve, iCan, iWill.”

Mooresville’s tremendous focus on one data point — the percentage of students passing proficiency exams — has its pitfalls as well. At November’s quarterly data meeting, there were kudos for several numbers whose rise or dip was not statistically significant, and no recognition that the students who passed by one or two questions could very well fail by one or two the next time around. Several colorful pie charts used metrics that were meaningless.

“I realize the fallacy of looking at one measure,” Mr. Edwards said in an interview afterward. “We look at scholarships, A.P. courses taken, honors courses, SAT scores. But the measure that we use is what the state posts, and what parents look at when they’re comparing schools moving here.”

After three years of computers permeating every area of their schooling, Mooresville students barely remember life before the transformation and are somewhat puzzled by the gaggle of visitors who watch them every month. (“At times it’s kind of like being a lab rat,” one 11th grader said.) But Mooresville understands its growing fame in the world of education, much of which has yet to find the balance between old tricks and new technology.

“So,” Ms. Higgins asked her English class after the bell rang, “you think you’re going to like transcendentalism?”

“Only if you’re a nonconformist,” a student cracked.

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