Education Opinion

The Web & The Plow

By Lowell Monke — October 01, 1997 20 min read
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Putting the computer in its place.

My father grew up on an Iowa farm at a time when the field work was still done with horses. He has often told me how much he enjoyed working with the teams my grandfather owned. But his biggest chuckle always comes when he recalls how his younger brother, Virgil, struggled to develop the strength and determination to bend the will of those powerful animals to the needs of the farm. The horses were none too kind to him, apparently, especially when they “smelled the barn” at the end of a hot day in the fields. Dad tells of watching them flying across the field for home at full gallop, equipment careening along behind, with little Virgil clutching the reins, trying to stay on the seat, hoping only to somehow steer clear of total disaster.

The image of my uncle, hurtling along behind headstrong charges, often comes to mind when I work with computers. Even though I teach computer technology, I often sense that rather than being the master of it, I am merely holding on as it rampages along out of any real human control.

This seems especially true of computer telecommunication. The education community has been bombarded with hype about “the information superhighway.” But in practice, the connections are often unreliable, the interfaces unintuitive, the documentation unintelligible, the information unfindable. And when we do get the systems working, the technology changes so fast that we never feel fully confident about what we are doing. We often sense that we are just clutching the reins, trying to stay on a wagon being swept along by technological forces that have “smelled the barn” and are racing us through the field toward a destination not really of our own making.

Five years ago, when I worked on my first telecomputing project, I was just beginning to question the uncritical enthusiasm swirling around educational computing. Somehow, the solutions offered by the computer revolution didn’t seem to address the issues that lie at the heart of our education system.

Sure, the computer promises my students an endless supply of information, but what good will that do if they can’t make sense of any of it? Technology promises to help my students express their ideas better, but what good is that if they don’t have any ideas to express? It promises to help them develop marketable skills for modern society, but how valuable is that if they have never developed the good judgment needed to live a fulfilling life?

For me, the key question was: How is computer technology going to help my students develop inner qualities such as insight, creativity, and good judgment that education at its best has always sought to inspire? To put it another way: Is there a way to harness the power of computer technology to serve my students’ search for meaning in their learning and in their lives?

This question is scarcely asked these days, much less answered. (It certainly doesn’t go over big at educational computing conferences.) But I think if we listen closely to what our students tell us--and fail to tell us--we will recognize that it is an essential one. Some of the bright students who pass through my computer classes display a lack of cultural awareness that is as impressive as their computer skills. For example, in working on an Internet project some time back, several students drew complete blanks when confronted with terms such as “conservative” and “liberal.” Without some minimal comprehension of our basic political vocabulary, how could these 18-year-olds make sense of the political discourse going on around them? This is Iowa, after all, where presidential candidates know hog farmers, and some hogs, on a first-name basis.

I suppose we could say that these young people simply lacked information. But it’s more than that, I think. They lacked comprehension of the great (and not so great) ideas that give meaning to the information that passed through their eyes and ears. Somehow they were never initiated into the conversations that define our culture.

Ironically, by the standards of many reformers championing high-tech education, these students were well-educated. Enrolled in the most advanced computer class the school district offered, they were already technologically proficient. Name your destination on the information superhighway, and they could take you there. Just don’t ask them to explain what they found when they arrived. When they graduated from school they were ready for work. But were they ready to be part of their communities?

Philosophers from Plato to Postman have noted that new technologies of any kind are always mixed blessings. Their obvious benefits are always accompanied by not-so-obvious, and often unpleasant, side effects. When the automobile replaced the horse and buggy, no one predicted that cities would be fouled by air pollution. Neil Postman cites another example that is perhaps more closely related to our discussion: “When Gutenberg announced that he could manufacture books...he did not imagine that his invention would undermine the authority of the Catholic Church. And yet, less than 80 years later, Martin Luther was, in effect, claiming that with the word of God available in every home, Christians did not require the papacy to interpret it for them.” Whether this was a benefit to society or a detriment I have no intention of getting into. But certainly it was a side effect that Gutenberg, a devout Catholic, did not anticipate.

While we work on the computer, it works on us, molding our minds to fit its narrow capabilities at the expense of other ways of thinking.

Postman has concluded that technologies are ecological; their introduction sends out ripples that rearrange relationships throughout the world. Regardless of the technologies’ intended uses, they also work at a deeper, personal level, influencing (though not fully determining) the way we act, the way we think, the way we view the world. If I drive to school in the morning, rather than, say, ride a bike, the car influences the speed and comfort with which I get there (my main purposes for using it). But it also insulates me from contact with nature and people and gives me no exercise. Biking exposes me to the possibility of skidding across the pavement on my nose at 15 mph, but it stimulates my circulation and makes few demands on energy resources other than my own. It also gives me a chance to hear the birds sing and at least exchange greetings with fellow riders and pedestrians. Each time I choose a tool to use, certain values get amplified while others get reduced. These values, in turn, both reflect and influence my entire worldview.

The computer is one of the most powerful worldview-influencers. While we are working on it, it works on us, chipping here, smoothing there, molding our expansive minds to fit its powerful but much narrower capabilities. Because its operation is based solely on the highly abstract thinking process called logic, it expands this one aspect of our cognition. But it does this at the expense of other ways of thinking and knowing, such as intuition, physical contact, and the entire gamut of emotional and spiritual experiences. As social critic Theodore Roszak says, “We do not bring the full resources of self to the computer.”

Certainly a primary purpose of education is to develop “the full resources of self.” Thus, it seems to me that we need to be careful about devices that limit the exercise of all those resources. Looked at from this perspective, telecomputing--indeed, the computer itself--is an inappropriate tool for some ages and educational endeavors. I say this not to condemn the computer in the classroom but to point out a major responsibility that goes with it.

This responsibility demands that when we consider using computer technology, we think about what will be lost as much as we think about what will be gained. Through such careful thought, we may find that we are giving up opportunities to develop the very qualities whose absence in our students most worries us.

To illustrate this, let me revisit the farm. When I was growing up, my dad rented a farm that bordered one owned by an old fellow named Louis Prien. Louie was a relic. He was probably the last holdout in our area against the shift from horsepower to tractor power. My dad liked to say Louie was as stubborn as the mules he drove through his fields. Louie wouldn’t, or couldn’t, adapt to changing times. Progress left Louie behind.

But to those of us who knew Louie, he also provided a reminder of what progress took away from farming. Mechanization sits us high above the soil and runs us across much more of it at a much faster speed. Somehow, this alters our psychological relationship to it. Land becomes a resource from which we extract as much profit as possible. Likewise, the hundreds or thousands of livestock we can run through our feedlots become viewed primarily as products. Eventually, our crops and our animals are only the means to an end, which is profit.

We always got the feeling that for Louie, the soil, the livestock, and the work were the ends as well as the means. It was as impossible to separate him from his land as it would have been to separate his land from the creek that ran through it. He knew each animal he owned, probably by name. Working with all of it, bringing it to life year after year, is what gave meaning to his life.

The computer, like the tractor, comes with some hefty psychological and cultural baggage.

My dad understood this even though he never articulated it. He may also have understood in his bones that increased mechanization was prying loose his sense of belonging to the land. This (along with the normal irritation of a know-it-all teenage son) was probably the thorn that was digging under his skin when he chastised me with uncharacteristic sharpness one day for making fun of how slowly Louie and his mules moved through the fields. My dad was a bridge between worlds, and though he accepted the benefits and demands of the new one, he could still appreciate what the old world offered--and wasn’t at all pleased that his son could not.

What does all of this have to do with computers and education? There are at least a couple of important lessons to be learned, I think. The most important may be that in choosing the computer we are not simply making a choice based on one tool’s superiority over another. The computer, like the tractor, comes with some hefty psychological and cultural baggage. Putting it in the classroom without concern for the weight of that baggage may unintentionally leave some important educational values behind.

Here is one example. Quiet contemplation was once held up to students as a key cognitive process needed to digest received knowledge, understand personal experiences, and develop ideas, all of which, with practice, can help the student make meaning of the world. Yet the computer’s capabilities lie primarily in accessing and manipulating information. As Roszak points out, there is a real danger in confusing access to mountains of information with the real meat of learning. “An excess of information may actually crowd out ideas, leaving the mind (young minds especially) distracted by sterile, disconnected facts, lost among the shapeless heaps of data.” As the computer’s role in education expands and it lowers the floodgates to data, will the wisdom that grows out of making meaning from experience and ideas give way to the accumulation of information as the highest goal of our schools? Will quiet contemplation give way to “hyper” net-surfing as the most esteemed intellectual process? Will we at some point find ourselves asking, along with T.S. Eliot, “Where is the wisdom lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge lost in information?”

Unfortunately, we seem to be headed in that direction. Indeed, we have been moving that way for a long time. But the computer seems to have intensified and accelerated that movement. Listen to those pushing computers for schools and you will hear “information” spoken almost as a mantra. Look at the packaged telecommunications projects and you will see that the vast majority involves the collection and sharing of data. There is, of course, a place for this kind of activity. But in leaning heavily on computers for learning, we will alter, without ever trying, what we mean by education and find, to our surprise, that we have come to the same position as my dad, shaking our heads over students who can’t even comprehend what has been lost.

A second lesson we could learn from Louie Prien is that the computer, like the tractor, distances us from what we are learning. This may seem a strange statement, considering the computer can make it possible for students on opposite sides of the world to communicate with each other. But the “distance” I am talking about has to do not with physical distance but rather the cognitive distance from firsthand experience. Max Frisch, the late dramatist, defined technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we do not experience it.” Similarly, Roszak observes that placing a computer between the child and the subject “puts more distance between intention and result.” The more complex the technology, the farther removed we find ourselves from the object of study.

Such a trade-off may be irrelevant when studying something as inaccessible as the surface of Mars. But what if the subject is trees? The best the computer can do is teach the student about trees through images and text--abstract symbols, decontextualized and cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast this with the way small children normally come to know a tree--by peeling its bark, climbing its branches, sitting under its shade, jumping into its piled- up leaves. What’s more, these firsthand experiences are enveloped by feelings and associations--muscles being used, sun warming the skin, blossoms scenting the air--none of which can be even approximated by a computer.

This is exactly Roszak’s point when he says we don’t bring all the resources of self to the computer. It is what Frisch was talking about when he said technology keeps us from experiencing the world. It is the enormous qualitative difference between learning about something and learning from something. Sadly, our schools currently do very little to facilitate this kind of learning; perhaps if they did, the computer wouldn’t look so attractive in comparison.

The computer can get us lots of information about lots of things. But in extracting--and abstracting--the essential information, it filters out the rich context that direct experience provides. Although using telecommunications for education broadens the students’ knowledge by bringing them accounts of other people’s experiences, it cannot deepen it the way firsthand experience can. Sitting high atop the computer, students may be able to survey thousands, if not millions, of acres of knowledge, but they forgo the chance to sink their hands deep and long into the educational soil that lies right at their feet.

All this is merely to emphasize that computers bring certain values to education. These values amplify certain kinds of learning while ignoring or discouraging others. Among other things, the computer encourages an appreciation for efficiency, measurability, objectivity, rationality, progress, and the accumulation and manipulation of data--lots of data. These are all traits noted by computer advocates and their critics. But what promoters never talk about is the learning that is not inherently encouraged by the computer, learning that is therefore less valued in using technology. Here is a short list:

  • The pursuit of truth.
  • The comprehension of great ideas.
  • The generation of one’s own ideas.
  • The discovery of meaning.
  • The use of good judgment.
  • The exercise of emotional maturity.
  • The development of wisdom.

These are precisely the qualities that I believe should be the fundamental goals of education--and the computer itself does nothing to enhance them. It is sad but perhaps not surprising that in more than a decade of listening to vendors, business liaisons, administrators, technology consultants, and “futurists” exude over the benefits of computers in the classroom, I have rarely heard anyone mention these profoundly human goals. Indeed, there seems to be a substitute for each of these: for the pursuit of truth, the pursuit of skills; for the comprehension of great ideas, the compilation of them; for the generation of one’s own ideas, the slick packaging of others'; for the discovery of meaning, the search for resources; for the use of good judgment, reliance on data analysis; for the exercise of emotional maturity, the diminished challenge of disembodied relationships; for the development of wisdom, the achievement of success. What is troubling here is not that these “substitutes” are included in our educational objectives but that in the rush to computerize learning, they have supplanted what I believe to be the core goals of education.

I’ve given the computer a good bashing, so I must hasten to clarify that I am not blaming the computer for our educational woes. Our schools’ blossoming love affair with computer technology is merely an indication of our society’s long-evolving willingness to reduce learning to that which is material, mechanical, and measurable and to that which promotes an essentially economic view of life. The computer happens to be particularly well-suited to this limited view of learning and as a result presents a greater challenge to use healthfully than most other educational tools. Thus, as schools scramble to join the on-line festivities, it is even more crucial that we understand what the computer leaves out of learning so that we stand a better chance of recognizing what we human beings (teachers in particular) must bring to the telecomputing banquet. Because the computer distracts us from the pursuit of the higher goals of education, teachers who can keep focused on them become more critical. One of the most important roles for the teacher in the high-tech classroom is to compensate for the computer’s mechanistic tendencies and to assure that all “resources of self” are brought into the learning process. It is a task that can be performed only by a caring, thoughtful person dedicated to elevating the inner life of each child.

Just getting computer technology to work is frustrating, but that’s the easy part. The hard work is getting it to support our efforts to nurture our students.

This is a new teaching role we have to accept. (Certainly it should be a major concern in any telecomputing activity.) Computer technology is rapidly becoming a major ingredient of education in this country. We can’t turn education over to computers, but we can’t turn our backs on them either.

The response to the invention of the Gutenberg press has a lesson for us here, if we accept Marshall McLuhan’s interpretation of it in his 1964 book, Understanding Media:

“If we persist in a conventional approach to these developments, our traditional culture will be swept aside as scholasticism was in the 16th century. Had the Schoolmen with their complex oral culture understood the Gutenberg technology, they could have created a new synthesis of written and oral education, instead of bowing out of the picture and allowing the merely visual page to take over the educational enterprise. The oral Schoolmen did not meet the new visual challenge of print, and the resulting expansion or explosion of Gutenberg technology was in many respects an impoverishment of the culture.”

Somehow we have to create this new synthesis, a meld in which all modes of learning are honored and given an appropriate place. But it should be clear by now that I do not think this is as easy as giving each child a computer and an Internet address. As McLuhan implies, embarking on such a course would in all too many respects lead to an impoverishment of our educational culture and, no doubt, our culture in general.

What I want to hammer home is that using computer technology in education is hard work. Some may find it frustrating just to get the machinery to work, but that’s really the easy part. The hard work is getting it to support our efforts to nurture our students’ attempts to reach their highest human potential. With the perplexing task before us of integrating computer technology with print and oral traditions, now is hardly the time for the teacher to step aside and become what the wide-eyed technophiles call “the guide on the side.” We have a responsibility to preserve from the old what is dear to us as well as to discover in the new what is truly beneficial. That is an enormous task and not something to be left to chance encounters in cyberspace.

A new synthesis of education. This is really what is needed. It is the harnessing of a new powerhouse to the educational plow, not to replace the old familiar workhorses but to enhance and extend their reach when it serves human purposes. Educational telecomputing is not just a matter of how to get these machines communicating with each other. It is not just a technical activity. It is, rather, an enterprise governed by the search for opportunities for student growth.

At times, I have been surprised at the depth of human understanding that the computer has facilitated. At other times, I have had to work very hard to keep the technology from choking it. But always, I have tried to set as the goal expanding my young students’ minds and hearts rather than expanding the use of the computer for its own sake. This is one of the key responsibilities of classroom teachers--to protect the interests of the children in their care against the commercial/technological alliance that too often cares more about education as a market than as a servant of children’s needs. This is not to say we should resist all change; our system of education has been in desperate need of radical change for decades. But if schools are going to be part of the educational revolution, the change has to emerge from the classroom, not from the boardroom, not from the houses of Congress, and certainly not from cyberspace. It has to be led by teachers who care about the lives of each of their students, not policymakers focusing on the economic competitiveness of the nation.

Our schools’ love affair with technology is an indication of society’s willingness to reduce learning to that which is material, mechnical, and measurable.

Whatever we think of them, computers will be part of the educational landscape. Will the reflection of society that we see in tomorrow’s classrooms be a cold, mechanical training ground focused on the ingestion of megabytes of information, or will it be an image filled with the rich textures and deep meanings that form the tapestry of a thoughtful life? Will our digital tools be synthesized into a larger, more holistic learning environment, or will we simply capitulate to a new but restricted form of education?

As I watch school districts install in their elementary grades computerized “integrated learning systems,” I am not encouraged. But there are glimmers of hope in other places. There seems to be a natural convergence taking place among social critics like Postman, holistic child psychologists, some alternative schools (particularly Waldorf schools), and the environmental movement regarding the role of computers in education. This convergence may result in asking not how widely computers should be integrated into the curriculum but rather at what point computers should become a part of a child’s educational experience. Keeping the computer away from children in the early grades as they most intensely negotiate their relationship with the physical world may be as important for a healthy synthesis as getting the computer into their hands is as they get older. A childhood steeped in rich, physical, and organic experiences may to some extent inoculate the adult against the dehumanizing, mechanistic aspects of a high-tech society.

But we shouldn’t wait for the education system to alter technology’s course; that is likely to be a very long wait. Individuals can find ways to transform the computer into a tool that contributes far more to the goals I listed earlier than it detracts from them.

It is our responsibility as educators to lead that exploration critically, always concerned about what we are giving up as well as what we might gain--searching for the synthesis that McLuhan advocated. Only if we approach the computer and its uses in this way will we be able to escape becoming the teaching equivalent of my poor uncle Virgil. With the welfare of our students at stake, it is not enough for educators to merely ride along on the runaway technological wagon. To do so would inevitably turn us into technicians and education into mere training. If we want to truly enrich and ennoble the lives of our students, then we each have to grab the reins and force these spirited new dynamos within our reach to work for us in ways that once again elevate the higher human purposes of education.

A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 1997 edition of Teacher as The Web & The Plow


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