New Internationalist

Dumbing Us Down

Issue 286

Dumbing us down

Illustration by TADEUSZ MAJEWSKI / 3 IN A BOX

Convinced that kids will be left in the dust unless they get computer literate? Anxious about getting your local school wired up to the information age? Well, don't be. Theodore Roszak argues that computers in the classroom are not all they're cracked up to be

By now most of what there is to say about the Internet is predictably clichéd. As usual it all has to do with stuffing lots of information into people's lives. Surfing the net, the hot new way to get information, begins by logging on to a variety of World Wide Web search engines like Yahoo that use key-words to find items. Almost all the search engines are commercially sponsored and feature advertising, some of it enticingly presented with lots of colors and blinking lights and cartoony images. Sometimes there is a prize for choosing this or that link, or maybe an Elvis Presley sighting is promised. Or there might be a big, bright link that says Don't Click Here! If you do you get a Dr Pepper soft-drink advert or some such.

Some Web sites are perfectly intelligent, conscientious efforts created by universities, government agencies, publishers or organizations like the Smithsonian Institution or the Library of Congress. Others feature celebrity gossip, sports, comics, jokes or pornography. With 20 or 30 machines running material like this in the classroom one can imagine teachers having some difficulty keeping everybody's attention focused on the assignment at hand.

If teachers can get the kids beyond the advertising and ask them to learn about, say, Aztecs, the search engine may produce on the order of 45,000 'hits' containing that word somewhere in the searched copy. This will include everything from soccer teams, used-tire companies and disco clubs to bowling alleys and software firms... Yes, the search can be refined, but not always that easily for younger students since all the engines use different protocols. Even so, the refined search will continue to produce lots of wastage because the waste is there and because the search engine, simply keyed to words, is a dumb thing that cannot tell waste from value. On the Internet, there is no quality control as there would be in any school library. If a bibliography on the real, historical Aztecs surfaces amid the gleanings it may very well be out of date and unattributed. It might be the work of an amateur Aztec enthusiast in Peoria who never read basic materials in the field. If there is an essay on the Aztecs it may have been written by a fellow in Moose Jaw who has rather unusual theories about pre-Columbian peoples and space aliens. The Internet is a free-for-all, as enjoyable as any conversation one might strike up in a saloon or coffee house. But it is hardly governed by the critical safeguards and intellectual structures that have been developed across the centuries to discriminate between honest thought and rampant eccentricity.

Some Web enthusiasts consider such structures a kind of élitist censorship. They might even regard the Dewey library catalogue system an infringement on the free flow of information. On the other hand I have heard no serious complaint that key words on the Web are now rented out by some search engines so that people seeking that kind of information will be steered toward a commercial product or service. On InfoSeek, a search for the words Christmas, Mothers Day, music, recipe (rented for as much as $1,000 each) is likely to produce some merchant's on-line catalogue.

Out of curiosity I recently asked a librarian if she had ever considered renting out space for advertisements in the card catalogue or its on-line version. She was first bewildered, then shocked. 'We would never do anything like that,' she said. That is the voice of public service.

In contrast, the Web is a creation of the entrepreneurial worldview. It favors high-tech effects and attention-grabbing tricks. The key forces behind it are seeking desperately to transform the medium into the new television, the new movies. Their objective is to get millions to look at their site so that they can make a lot of money. This is no secret: the main, ongoing story about the Web is how much profit its backers are (or are not) making. What passes through the medium is bound to be shaped by those values, not by any significant regard for quality, truth or taste. Used as a teaching device the Web is an expensive way to distract attention and clutter the mind. I would not see it eliminated from our society for that reason, but neither would I choose it as an educational resource. Over the generations teachers have evolved skills to encourage a respect for quality, truth and good taste. I'm not sure I understand why we should, at the behest of entrepreneurial elements, now decide to retire those skills in favour of 'Yahooligans'.

I drew up the attached list of rules to embody in as compact a way as possible the reservations I have about computers in the schools. I have tried to mention everything that gets left out of the compulsory enthusiasm in which every report on the Net and the Web comes wrapped. I offer it in the name of balance.

Computers in the schools: 19 neo-Luddite rules

1 Computers are merchandise. Treat them as such. Believe nothing you hear from people who are selling (and these days everybody is selling). Expect nothing to work as advertised.

2 People who recommend more computers for schools are like doctors who prescribe more medicine. What medicine? How much medicine? For what reason? The same questions apply to computers. Only the answers may be a long while coming since schools have to consult and budget to decide which computer to buy (Macintosh, PC?), which operating system (DOS 6.2, System 7, OS/2, Windows 3.1, Windows 95?), which programs?

3 By the time a school decides to buy anything it will be out of date. Rapid obsolescence is a key marketing strategy of the computer industry.

4 Computers are not a free choice. The money to buy them comes from places that need it more. For example: hiring more teachers at better salaries, buying lab equipment, books, art supplies, musical instruments, repairing the plumbing, fixing the roof.

5 No computer is any better than the software you run on it. The further the subject is from computation and objective right-or-wrong, the dumber the software. In some subjects (literature, history, creative writing, art) don't even bother looking.

6 No two people mean the same thing by computer literacy. Ten years ago computer literacy meant teaching kids BASIC to do their own programing. Then it meant desktop publishing. Then it meant multi-media. Now it means cruising around in cyberspace. Next year it will mean something else that requires updates and enhancements, faster chips, new programs and for sure spending more money. Computer literacy is a commercial fashion, not a specific skill, let alone a subject matter. If computer literacy does not include material on what computers can't do and shouldn't do, it is advertising, not education.

7 The main thing kids learn from computers is how to use computers. And anything they learn today is apt to be obsolete in two years. Absolutely nothing kids learn about using a computer in the first grade today will make them more employable when they leave high school. Employers should be left to teach what their employees need to know about the firm's computer system after hiring them.

8 When it comes to employment the computer is not working-class friendly. Computers don't create jobs; they eliminate the employment many kids would otherwise have. If we could delete computers from history tomorrow, there would be more jobs the next day than there are now.

9 Teachers who are reluctant to revamp the curriculum so they can intrude computers upon their pupils (and contribute to Microsoft's earnings) probably have good pedagogical reasons for their reservations. Trust them and hear them out before you spend the money. Portraying cautious teachers as obstacles to progress is a mean trick computer enthusiasts play to discredit the people who care most about education.

10 Playing computer games is not the same as learning. Games are fun, nothing wrong with that. Learning is another kind of fun, often related to long intervals of dogged attention, persistent questioning, strong doubt, memorizing things, looking things up, being bored, overcoming frustration. Games and learning have their own kind of joy. Confusing the two is the worst lesson to teach kids.

11 All CD-ROM materials do more to fragment the attention span than to teach anything. CD-ROM was invented by clever hackers to display the razzle-dazzle, hypertextual, multi-media capacities of the technology: point-click-zip-wham-wow! Hence there are few CD-ROM teaching materials that require kids to read more than three continuous paragraphs without being distracted by a hypertext link. The pedagogical value of hypertext is totally speculative.

12 Some knowledgeable people actually find surfing the Net to be a woeful waste of time. And with good reason. Before wiring your school find out why they feel that way.

13 Spending money to wire your school is the first step toward spending a lot more money after you're wired. The World Wide Web is very, very slow unless it is run on fast equipment and the latest software, none of which is free. All freebies from the computer industry should be regarded as you would a free sample from your friendly neighborhood crack dealer.

14 The World Wide Web is primarily an advertising medium. The main information kids will find on it is advertising. All the search engines used to find anything are rigged with advertising. Almost all information-bearing homepages are studded with advertising. The main reason enthusiasts want it in the schools is to deliver advertising. If you don't believe me, try suggesting that all advertising be eliminated from computers used in schools. Just try. You will be told this is a technical impossibility. It isn't.

15 People who think education equals information have no idea what either information or education is. Always ask computer enthusiasts to define what they mean by information. If they tell you everything is information and information is everything: beware. That's a sales pitch, not a sensible idea. A good working definition of information might be: it is an answer to a question that purports to be a fact. At least a definition like that reminds us that the quality of the question is more important than the quantity of data that appears as an answer. And how do we teach kids to ask good questions?

16 Kids don't need much information anyway. Not first of all. Teaching them that they do is bad teaching. They need ideas, values, taste and judgement without which information is worthless. Take a simple example: the telephone book contains lots of information. To use it at all kids need to know alphabetical order. But alphabetical order is not information. It is a very old idea about organizing information.

17 Ideas, values, taste and judgement are found in other human minds. And most cheaply in the minds of authors of books and teachers in classrooms. Kids need to learn about those other minds. Let them. A good teacher equipped with enough cheap copies of Huckleberry Finn to go around can teach more that kids need to know than the same teacher forced to revamp all she knows to fit the limited skills of a roomful of expensive computers.

18 There are about as many kids born computer-proficient as there are born piano-proficient or poetry-proficient. It is mere folklore that all children born since 1980 have mutated into brilliant computer-users. Different kids have different talents. Provide for as many as your budget allows.

19 A computer is an expensive way to spend a long time getting ready to do anything. A kid with a pencil in her hand is ready to write. A kid with a crayon in his hand is ready to draw. A kid with a computer is ready to... begin a learning curve that starts with booting up, virus-checking, configuring, re-booting if the machine hangs, searching for misplaced files, undeleting lost files, learning the interface, arranging the desktop, re-arranging the desktop, customizing icons, fussing with screen-savers, creating button-bars, resizing and positioning windows, formatting, re-formatting, mastering protocols, downloading, uploading, clicking on menus, choosing fonts, deciphering error messages and reviewing the documentation. Unless, of course, the teacher does all that for the kids and creates the illusion of easy-to-do.

Or if all of this is too much to remember here is the abridged version:

1 Find out what Bill Gates wants your school to do. Don't do that.

2 Keep a pre-computer image of education in mind at all times, remembering that education predates high tech. Here's one I like: Abraham Lincoln learning to write with a lump of coal on the back of a shovel and growing up to jot the Gettysburg Address on a crumpled envelope.

Theodore Roszak is the author of The Cult of Information: A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High Tech, Artificial Intelligence and the True Art of Thinking (University of California Press, 1995). His novel The Memoirs of Elizabeth Frankenstein was published by Bantam Books, 1996.

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©Copyright: New Internationalist 1996


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