Education Opinion

Computers And Swans

By Nicholas S. Thacher — March 01, 1996 6 min read

This morning, I received an e-mail message informing me that we now have 236 computers on our campus.

I know this message was suffused with excitement, even though it is hard to convey emotion by e-mail. (The computer network, which links our six major buildings, doesn’t allow for italics or underlining.) Ever the proud principal, I did some swift, institutionally congratulatory calculations. Let’s see, 558 kids divided by 236 computers: We are getting close to the 2:1 target ratio we set a few years ago when everyone began hopping onto the educational-technology bandwagon.

Today, we are networked across campus. Kids and teachers use microcomputers in their learning and teaching without a second thought. Ninth graders, even precocious 6th graders, ask for permission to present their research reports in a multimedia form. First and 2nd graders print and publish their own books. Middle schoolers cruise the Internet. (Their teachers have established the cruise controls, of course.) Televised upper-school science reports on DNA provide the feature entertainment in the lobby of our main building. We are now digital--I guess.

This morning’s e-mail message arrived from our school’s technology coordinator--a position that didn’t even exist on campus until two years ago. As principal, I was a little hesitant to climb on that bandwagon. It took the faculty’s media and technology committee more than a year to convince me to spring for the annual salary for this new position. But now we have a technology coordinator, a good one, and he looks after the electronic needs of 558 kids, 120 adults, and 236 computers. In many ways, he is the school’s shadow principal, the only other staff member who is legitimately involved in the professional life of everyone on our campus. In some ways, he may be the true principal. After all, the most potent crises recently have all involved power failures of one sort or another. News that “the server has crashed” sends paralyzing shock waves coursing from classroom to office to library and back again. Help! Only the technology coordinator can save us now.

I pay attention to messages from the technology coordinator. So this morning, I ponder the figure he has sent me. Two hundred thirty-six computers on campus. That number presumably doesn’t include the laptops that students and teachers, myself included, lug to and fro each day. Two hundred thirty-six computers: The figure makes me happy and sad simultaneously, an unsettling mixture of feelings. Then I realize with a start that what is most significant about the number is that we are still counting. This must mean that we remain, at some visceral level, uncomfortable with the invasion of microcomputers into our educational vineyard. If we were comfortable, why would we care how many we have? Why do we keep counting?

This reflection on the meaning of counting sends me off on a kind of goose chase, a flight of fancy into the realm of my own teaching. I remember the joy of sharing with children what is arguably the most beautiful and brilliant poem in the English language, William Butler Yeats’ “The Wild Swans at Coole.” I think of the way I have introduced it to dozens of English classes: Why is it important that there are “nine and fifty” swans? The students go at that inquiry in fits and starts, groping for the significance of the numeral. At first it’s like a mathematical Victorian parlor game. Fifty-nine. One less than 60. A prime number? Eventually, if we are lucky, someone grasps the central point: “It’s not the actual number, Mr. Thacher. I think it just emphasizes the fact that the swans are important to the poet, I mean, the speaker. Otherwise, why would he count them?”

Why do we count things? The class discussion is launched into the immaculate ether of energetic, inquiring young minds wrestling with the question of why a bunch of swans might be important to someone observing them “upon the brimming water.” Why do we count anything? Computers, swans.

Great poetry carries children, like the swans, higher and higher:

Unwearied still, lover by lover,
They paddle in the cold
Companionable streams or climb
the air;

Their hearts have not grown old;
Passion or conquest, wander
where they will,

Attend upon them still.

Sooner or later, someone finds the right oral emphasis: “Hey, I get it! Their hearts have not grown old. But maybe the speaker feels his heart has.”

They rummage the poem, deciphering the autumnal imagery. “And he remembers the first time he counted them, 19 years ago, he ‘trod with a lighter tread.’ Whatever that means.” Maybe he has put on weight, someone speculates. A murmur of self-conscious laughter reminds me these are pre-adolescents, caught up in the melodrama of their bodies.

“Listen,” someone is eventually bound to say (and if the fragile academic ethos is intact, everyone does listen), “this could be a poem about what it feels like to grow old.” Someone else might add, “Or at least about starting to think about what that feels like.”

At that moment, I unfailingly think to myself: These are kids, how can they possibly understand? But by then, some child has stilled the classroom clamor by rereading the poetry aloud. It is Yeats who is helping them get it, sometimes the whole poem reread, sometimes only the final stanza:

But now they drift on the still
Mysterious, beautiful;
Among what rushes will they

By what lake’s edge or pool
Delight men’s eyes when I awake
some day
To find they have flown away?

My reveries and remembrances of classrooms past are interrupted by, of all things, the gentle beep of my e-mail. Another message. What might we be counting now? I recall the report our technology coordinator gave at the end-of-year meetings last June. Somehow able to keep track of how many messages each e-mail station has handled, he announced the school’s “Top Ten Communicators.” Unlike the speaker in the Yeats’ poem, I have forgotten the precise number of my messages, but I do recall it was enormous--appalling, really. Yet, as one of the early Luddites on campus, I derived an odd satisfaction from the news that I had dispatched more e-mail in the course of the school year than anyone other than our telephone switchboard operators.

This morning’s message about the number of computers on campus brought the same emotional mixture of satisfaction and unease. I think about the recent increase in misbehavior among our lower-school children. (“It must be something in the water,” shrugs our wise but baffled lower-school head.) I think of the fact that 236 computers don’t seem to have had any positive impact on the moral domain: Eighth grade boys still, on occasion, find anti-Semitism the soul of wit, and young children are as cruel to their peers as they’ve ever been. I think of what the featured speaker at a recent principals’ conference told us about the limitations of technology: “Never forget that a conversation with your cat is far more interactive than the most interactive software.”

And finally, I think of Yeats’ wild swans, as “unwearied” as each of the 558 children who rollick off our buses each morning. Good schools, someone once told me, keep their focus on raising and educating healthy 30-year-olds. Viewed through this lens, the vast array of cutting-edge technology on campus may, I am beginning to suspect, have minimal significance. Is it possible that 236 computers will actually make no lasting impact on our students’ development or on their happiness when we awake someday to find they have flown away?

I guess the time has arrived to stop counting the computers on campus. A little more Yeats would probably be good, too.

A version of this article appeared in the March 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Computers And Swans