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Losing Wisdom In Information

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An educated hacker's lament.

Internet. The World Wide Web. Cyberspace. Computer literacy for the 21st century. Say this string of words aloud. Repeat. Repeat again. Listen to the euphonic quality of the consonance, assonance, and off-rhyme. Memorize. Make it your private mantra, or cherish it as you would your daily beads. Carry it into your classroom, into your meetings, into the polling booth, into your life. Then you are on your way along with untold others toward the altar of the great god, Technology.

Don't fret over the sin of idolatry. You will find Christians, Jews, Moslems, Hindus, Buddhists, and many others worshipping Technology in front of their private shrines, sending prayers off into the ether through their modems. You will be in good company. President Clinton is there; so are most business leaders and those in the forefront of education reform.

Technology asks only one thing of you: to believe. Believe that it will make the complex simple, the crooked road straight, miraculously transform information into wisdom, and easy access into goodness. Believe that the past is marginally relevant, the present fleeting, and the future alone worthy of reverence.

Know that many indeed do believe. The national survey conducted earlier this year by Public Agenda found that 70 percent of the public school teachers surveyed believe that computer skills constitute an essential component of the curriculum. Less than 25 percent believe that such classic works of literature as those by Shakespeare, Hemingway, or Steinbeck are essential. What possible value could Hamlet's "To be, or not to be, that is the question" have when compared with the latest CD-ROM that takes the viewer on a virtual trip into the workings of the human body or into the great cities of Europe?

The words of the scholar who has spent a lifetime exploring one subject area exist side by side with those of the know-nothing who has an ideological ax to grind.

Know also that Technology is not a jealous god. It is democratic, and promotes equality among all regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, experience, effort, or intelligence. The words of the scholar who has spent a lifetime exploring one subject area exist side by side with those of the neophyte who perhaps has read a single article or the know-nothing who has an ideological ax to grind. The poet Robert Bly observes in his insightful cultural critique, The Sibling Society, that "the Internet is a perfect creation of the sibling society, particularly in its belief that no codes of literary behavior and no standards are called for, and information can come along fruitfully without any filtering." Equality. Nobel laureates next to 2nd graders. Take your pick.

Ignore the naysayers and neo-Luddites who contend that the great god Technology is an amoral god, one who is unconcerned with appropriateness and values. These dissidents always have been around. Take Matthew Arnold, for example, the Victorian poet and social critic who warned in his Culture and Anarchy that "faith in machinery is ... our besetting danger; often in machinery most absurdly disproportioned to the end which this machinery, if it is to do any good at all, is to serve." Arnold wrote this over 120 years ago, and we know how wrong he was, how the technology of his day led to sweetness and light. Think of what the technology of our day will bring.

Laugh gently, but with understanding, at Matthew Arnold and contemporary like-thinkers who naively contend that we should be about the promotion of culture, and culture for Arnold was the "study of perfection." Postmodernists and those in the corporate world (strange bedfellows) have shown us the obsolescence of such funny notions, especially those that insist that culture, as Arnold maintained, is an "endeavour to come at reason and the will of God by means of reading, observing, and thinking." Reason? Reading? The will of God? Culture as a single, unifying idea?

Let's follow our leaders. President Clinton says to make all classrooms on-ramps to Technology's network of information superhighways. Bob Dole, Mr. Clinton's recent challenger in the presidential election, never reads for pleasure, if we can believe his authorized biographer; he reads to get things done in the real world of politics. Shouldn't we be preparing students for the 21st century, for the real world, and not for heading into the future with a glance through our rearview mirrors? Lobby for more money for computers.

I know whereof I speak. I'm writing this on my Macintosh LC III, checking my spelling as I go. When I finish, I'll log on to the World Wide Web and surf for something interesting. I'm gradually weaning myself from those old-fashioned books that somehow I can't keep from buying. Like The Spirit Level, the latest volume of of poetry from Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, which lies open on my filing cabinet. Like those poems of his that probe the ways the present and the future are inextricably woven into the past. Like his exploration (as he puts it so precisely) "Of being here for good in every sense."


Francis E. Kazemek is an associate professor of education at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud, Minn.

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