On School

“You can’t deny that technology has made big changes in education,” I insisted.

“Every day,” Mr. Magundi said, “we see the children walking past us on their way to the elementary school on Breckenridge Avenue. And what are they doing? Carrying things. They’re carrying more things than ever before. They are pulling their backpacks around on wheels. Why? Because schools are utterly blind to the really useful aspects of technology.

“Brielle has every book Mark Twain ever wrote on her cell phone. Mr. Bates never carries a thing to work—it’s all in the cloud, so he can work on it at home or in the office. As for you, I still have no idea what you do, but it obviously doesn’t involve carrying things. In the real world, the single greatest thing technology has done for us is to relieve us of the responsibility of carrying piles of things when we want to get intellectual work done. We just go where we need to go, and the things we need are in computer-cloud land, waiting for us when we get there.

“So if our schools have embraced technology with such fervor, why are our children carrying anything at all? Why isn’t their homework already waiting for their teacher when she gets to the classroom? Why aren’t all their schoolbooks waiting on the iPad for them when they get home? Why are they breaking their backs carrying their own weight in textbooks and binders? I say that technology in school has put shiny new siding on a rickety old structure, and that it has made no really interesting changes in education at all. It has not done the one thing technology should be really good at doing, which is to free the body of useless and irrelevant burdens so that the mind may flourish.”

2 thoughts on “On School

  1. Good point. Modern education is wedded to some very old ideas, and has become locked by them into a fixed position on the cutting edge of about 1870. For educators, technological innovations are either a distraction or maybe a subject for an advanced degree thesis.

    Similarly, people have been using keyboards for work and pleasure for at least 3 decades now, yet schools still seem to view typing as something secondary at best, while every kid pretends to learns to write by hand as if it’s still 1870.

  2. Mr. Tannhauser shrugged. “I am not so sure that freeing the body of burdens is necessarily the best way to get the mind to flourish,” he suggested. “Idle hands are the devil’s playground, are they not? I’ve often found my most creative inspirations and deepest thoughts came when my body, or the surface level of my mind, was invested in a routine labour that I didn’t need to think about — shovelling snow, or data entry. And I’ve noticed that for many people the more books they carry on an electronic device the less likely they are to actually read any of them at length — the great advantage to a physical text is its unavoidable reality, its constant reminder that this is, or was intended to be, the focus of your attention at this time.

    “Indeed, that is perhaps the thing that the old model of education truly excelled at, or could excel at when properly practiced, and that the new technology cannot help with: it taught — or was intended to teach — not any particular set of knowledge but the particular virtuous disciplines of preparation, persistence, repetition, patience, and endurance, habits which will always be required to master any skill set one is not fortunate enough already to love deeply for its own sake. The new technology is not designed to eliminate distractions, it is designed only to get you from one distraction to the next new one as effortlessly as possible.

    “And, of course, there is the problem that the technology not only started ahead of what the teachers themselves understand and are used to, but continues to outrace any effort they can spare to pick it up. By the time a teacher concentrating on building his curriculum and dealing with scholastic politics can master e-mail lists, his students are all on Facebook. By the time he gets the hang of Facebook, they are all communicating on Twitter. Say what you will about the burdens of notebooks, papers, physical textbooks, and pens and pencils, they can be guaranteed never to be rendered obsolute or unreadable because of platform incompatibility issues.”

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