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Technological Progress: An Oxymoron?

By Dennis L. Evans — November 06, 2002 4 min read
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At what price do we continue the headlong emphasis on computers in schools?

Technology (also known as “progress”) has an aura of inevitability and invincibility about it. It is perceived as a force that cannot and should not be stopped, and anyone with the temerity to suggest that there might be a downside to its inexorable march is cast as a naysayer, a neo-Luddite, or a relic from another age. We have accepted a priori the assumption that technology is an all-or-nothing phenomenon: We must either allow it to permeate all aspects of our lives, or we can’t have any of it.

Technology’s ability to reduce the levels of time and human effort needed to perform tasks, both menial and highly complex, is the source of its siren-like appeal. Who can argue with the marvelous advancements in science and medicine expedited by computer and other information-age technologies?

But technology takes no prisoners. In their 1995 book The Axemaker’s Gift, James Burke and Robert Ornstein present a history of technological advancement from the prehistoric to the present. Their fundamental thesis is that with each advancement created by technology (the “axemaker” of the title), something is lost. For example, while the ax facilitated the felling of trees for shelter, it also made dispatching an enemy easier. The wonderful progress wrought by Gutenberg’s printing press also brought increased control over peoples’ lives by making it easier for despots to disseminate the written dicta of authority.

Political leaders use their bully pulpits regularly to promote the headlong rush to bring computer technology to our schools. Rather than “a chicken in every pot,” today’s campaigners promise “a mouse in every classroom.” Like technology in general, the computers-in-school movement has created its own momentum, and there is little room or patience for any reflection or discussion regarding a possible downside. K-12 textbook and library budgets are being reduced to free up funding for computers and related products. Will student essays become cut-and-paste creations from www.com? Will reading and reporting on a book be considered a boring and inefficient use of time, when a synopsis can be quickly found on the Internet and “downloaded”? Will research come to mean using a “search engine”? Will classroom discussions become “asynchronous computer chat rooms”?

At the university level, options such as distance learningare being promoted as steps toward a “virtual university” with an “information and data- retrieval center,” rather than a library. Progress? Perhaps, but at what price?

Technology threatens to diminish qualities such as self-discipline, sustained concentration, and in-depth deliberation.

By reducing the amounts of time, effort, and energy needed to perform tasks, technology also threatens to diminish qualities such as self- discipline, sustained concentration, and in-depth deliberation.

Sound bites, cable news, bumper stickers, and “surfing the Net” are a few examples of our growing propensity to avoid complexity, substance, and the hard work of thinking. Indeed, the very phrase “information age,” which is proudly used to describe our computer-driven era, connotes a surface-level, digitized vision of knowledge. As David Rothenberg, an associate professor of philosophy at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, lamented in the Aug. 15, 1997, issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education: “I’m seeing my students’ attention spans wane and their ability to reason for themselves decline. I wish the university’s computer system would crash for a day.”

Teachers at all levels echo Mr. Rothenberg’s concerns. Students increasingly seem to lack the intrinsic motivation to take on any learning task that requires rigor and perseverance. Instead, growing numbers seem to equate education with entertainment, and for them, the most damning characterization of a subject, or of school in general is, “It’s boring.”

It is to that MTV mentality that minions of technology cater when lauding the computer for its alleged ability to motivate these “reluctant learners.” That the computer itself may be contributing to the very malaise that it purportedly will cure is a perfect example of an iatrogenic treatment. Critical thinking, thoughtful writing, and reasoned discourse do not come easily; they can be taught, but only to those who are motivated to learn.

James Burke and Robert Ornstein, in concluding The Axemaker’s Gift, try to put on a brave face regarding this new world by suggesting that computer technology, properly used, may allow us to regain some of the personal freedoms and re-establish some of the human connections that prior technological advancements have taken from us. We can hope that they are right. But it is difficult to imagine how our freedom and our humanity will be enhanced by reducing our need to think, create, and engage directly with others.

Dennis L. Evans is the co-director of the program in educational leadership development at the University of California, Irvine.

A version of this article appeared in the November 06, 2002 edition of Education Week as Technological Progress: An Oxymoron?

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