Commentary

High-Tech Rhetoric Belies Students' Real Needs

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The rhetoric is building. The nation, pundits proclaim, is moving rapidly into a future dominated by high technology, where working men and women will trade in their hard hats for keyboards. To make this transition, the workforce must be retrained, taught more sophisticated "high-tech" skills. Mathematics and science instruction must be re-emphasized and upgraded, the argument goes.

Many states, with an eye to the high-tech rhetoric, are moving in that direction, requiring more mathematics and science courses, providing scholarships for technical teachers, and increasing college outreach programs for promising high-school scientists.

While the much-discussed shortage of good mathematics and science teachers is real and there is a legitimate need to prepare the nation for a changing workplace, these efforts reflect a fundamental misunderstanding of the high-tech revolution: In many ways, the skills needed for "high technology" are not all that high. Computers are not overwhelmingly complex to use and they are becoming less complicated and easier to understand, rather than the other way around.

A good example might be that of the automobile. There is certainly a much "higher level" of technology employed in automobiles today than 50 years ago, with automatic chokes, transmissions, electronic ignition, and computerized sensing systems that diagnose problems with the automobile. However, today's automobile is much simpler to use, rather than more difficult. The trend is reflected in many other aspects of high technology as well.

The skills needed to use the new technology are not a new and specialized branch of knowledge. Rather, they involve the same old skills of comprehension and logic that can be learned just as well in good English, history, or art courses as in good mathematics and science courses. (Many courses in all subjects, though, fail to deal with what we would call "knowledge" as opposed to "information.")

In fact, artistic ability and creative talent may be more important than an advanced understanding of mathematics to someone using, say, the newer graphics-oriented computer systems. The "high-tech" courses that really need to be taught are those that help students sort out the moral and social implications of the nation's increasing use of technology.

We need to teach such things as "Introduction to Electronics," "The Impact of Computers on Society," and "Values, Technology, and Society," and not adopt the simple-minded approach of merely requiring more students to take traditional college-preparatory courses in, say, trigonometry and physics, as many of the "high-tech" initiatives are suggesting.

The growing preoccupation with mathematics and science education as the major solution to the so-called high-tech crisis also obscures the fact that technology may be as valuable in the humanities as it is proving to be in the sciences. Word processing, data-base organization, modeling, and communication are as useful to a history teacher as they are to someone who teaches physics.

Federal, state, and local policymakers, then, should emphasize the usefulness of technology across the curriculum, not just in mathematics and science. Such an approach will also help more people to realize that "technical" does not have to mean "inaccessible." The high-tech rhetoric has already struck needless fear in the hearts of too many students who feel they will be unable to fit into our rapidly changing economy.

Vol. 02, Issue 21, Page 20

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