by Barrett Mosbacker (BarrettM@cybernetics.net)
"Most of the stuff on the information highway is road kill," wrote John Updike, as quoted by George Gurley of the Kansas City Star. And Neil Postman, author of the best selling book Amusing Ourselves To Death has recently written a new book titled Technopoly in which he criticizes our current love affair with technology.
With some caveats, I think Updike and Postman raise legitimate concerns. Now I do not want to be misunderstood. I am an enthusiastic user of computer technology and an active promoter of its thoughtful use in the classroom. Covenant Day School, of which I am Headmaster, has invested tens of thousands of dollars in cutting-edge technology for the purpose of exploiting its potential for supplementing the educational program. Access to world class libraries, Presidential press releases, scientific data, government and university research etc., is a wonderful addition to the classroom. Use of word processors, spreadsheets, and databases can all make positive contributions to the educational enterprise.
The concern I share with Updike and Postman arises over the tendency to ascribe a Messianic quality to computer technology. It is being heralded as the savior of education, saving students from boring lectures, provincial thinking, lack of motivation, and educational inequities. Consider for example the following email message I received from an enthusiastic teacher about her daughter's use of the computer.
"One of my colleagues noted in a faculty meeting discussion of laptops that our students are relating to computers and will continue to relate to computers in ways that we cannot imagine. That point was brought home to me in a powerful way that evening. My daughter explained to me how she used the Famous Quotations section of Microsoft Bookshelfto find a quote that she could use to introduce a paper for her African History course. . . . It would have never occurred to me to browse through a copy of Bartlett's to find a quote to start off a paper, but it did to her."Although I appreciate this teacher's enthusiasm, there are some fundamental questions that need to be asked. Has her daughter read the essay or book that contained the quotation? Does her daughter know its historical and logical connections and context? Or, as I suspect, was the quotation merely a bit of digitized and decontextualized information dangling in cyberspace that sounded good as a way of starting her presentation?
The danger in the unthinking use of computers, or even a printed version of Bartlett's, is that it provides a cheap imitation of a real education. Why quote Plato if you have never read Plato? Why quote Shakespeare if you have never read his work? To do so is to give an appearance of sophistication and literacy while lacking both; it is to elevate form over substance. And it is to run the risk of unethically pulling the quotation out of context, thus changing its meaning and abusing the author's intent.
The most often cited virtue of computer technology in the classroom is that it provides information, an avalanche of information, at lightning speeds. While being well informed is indispensable to a good education, information in and of itself does not produce wisdom, discernment, or character. In short, having access to information does not produce a well educated student anymore than quoting Plato makes one a philosopher.
Notwithstanding the hyperbole surrounding the new technology, the biggest threat to democratic society, our civil liberties, and our economy is not technological illiteracy or a lack of information; it's ethical, moral, cultural, and functional illiteracy. As Postman has astutely observed:
"The computer argues, to put it baldly, that the most serious problems confronting us at both personal and public levels require technical solutions through fast access to information otherwise unavailable. I would argue that this is, on the face of it, nonsense. Our most serious problems are not technical, nor do they arise from inadequate information. If a nuclear catastrophe occurs, it shall not be because of inadequate information. . . . If families break up, children are mistreated, crime terrorizes a city, education is impotent, it does not happen because of inadequate information. . . . [T]he computer is useless in addressing [these problems]."I would add that those addicted to instantaneous bits of information, information lacking context and logical coherence, are ill equipped for the rational dialogue and analysis that is essential for the maintenance of a civil and literate culture. Modern technology cannot substitute for a thorough understanding of the Federalist Papers, The Constitution, Moby Dick, Edwards, Plato, Aristotle, the Bible, William James, Kant, Jefferson, Charles Dickens, T. S. Elliot, etc. Being technologically advanced and sophisticated is not the same thing as being literate and civilized.
Compounding the problem is that many teachers appear to be designing their lessons around the Internet and other computer technologies rather than determining clear objectives and then using computer technology if and where appropriate. I wonder if Socratic dialogue, seminaring, extensive writing and reading, classes in rhetoric, logic, philosophy and theology, and rigorous written and oral examinations would not better prepare students to be positive contributors to an advanced literate culture than surfing the Internet looking for keypals?
Have you read some of the inane "communication" between keypals? Could it be that the often heard complaint that keypals do not "write" back is symptomatic of a bigger problem; students who have nothing to say? Trivia will only sustain a conversation for so long. Could it also be due to the fact that students are ill mannered and egocentric? I see no reason to believe that surfing the Net will contribute to civility and sustainable substantive conversation.
What I am suggesting is that viewing the Internet, or any technology, as an educational panacea is misguided. Rather than actually educating students, it has the potential for further addicting students to amusement and instantaneous gratification. After all, using the computer is fun. I certainly enjoy it. I wonder, though, if student time would not be better spent reading historical biographies, good literature, or engaging in well-informed conversation and debate.
In short, my fear is that computers have the potential of becoming major distractions to a good education. What makes it potentially insidious is that technology is being viewed as the key to improving education and is thus being brought into the classroom with little thought as to its educative value. Is devoting five hours a week to preparing a hypertext version of the school newspaper or yearbook, or gawking at interactive CDs, time well spent? I have my doubts. I am concerned that we may be wasting a lot of precious educational time "playing in the classroom" under the guise of education. Time spent scraping digital roadkill off of the information highway is time not devoted to producing ethically, morally, culturally, and functionally literate students. If we are not careful, we may produce a generation of technophiles more in love with gee whiz technology than with truth, goodness, and beauty.
Technology, in and of itself, is neither good nor bad. It is the use of technology that will determine if it contributes to a good education or proves to be a distraction to it. There are only so many hours in a school day. What we must constantly access is whether time spent preparing hypertext pages, writing to keypals, creating a multimedia school newspaper, etc., is producing genuinely literate students or merely students highly skilled at producing beautifully packaged trivia. Only time will tell.
Barrett L. Mosbacker is Headmaster of Covenant Day School in Matthews, North Carolina. He's the author of School Based Clinics and Other Critical Issues in Public Education, and former management consultant to the Legal Services Corporation, Washington, DC.
Copyright © 1995 by Barret L. Mosbacker. All Rights Reserved.