A Technology for Arts and Habits

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The Carnegie Council on Adolescent Development released this fall a 10-year study of adolescent development in America which reveals that the awkward age is indeed getting more awkward. (See Education Week, Oct. 18, 1995.)

The study confirms that adolescents need more contact with their parents and with other adults. Surveys of adolescents even show that the adolescents themselves want more adult contact in their lives, despite all the rebellious posturing they are taught by Hollywood and the advertising culture of the media.

One touching section of the study suggests "breaking schools into smaller units."

While I was in Vermont a few weeks ago, The Rutland Herald newspaper there announced that the school committee at Mill River Union High School in Rutland has noticed open-classroom techniques don't work. The committee has authorized building classroom walls inside its expensive concrete tent-with-media-center-in-the-middle high school (a prominent school-architecture fad of mid-1970s America). Most of the schools constructed on this model have long since, at great cost, embraced the technology of classroom walls. After about 10 years, most school committees began listening to the teachers and started building classrooms.

One of the many ironies of this situation is that the arguments used to sell well-intentioned school committees on the open-classroom-school-with-media-center-in-the-middle are the same arguments now embraced by well-intentioned enthusiasts promoting educational salvation by the Internet.

It would be an interesting exercise to consider what technology is really needed to address the real needs of those adolescents studied by the Carnegie Council, presumably the same adolescents who, back in the 1970s, were to be released from the boundaries of their constricting classrooms and the lectures of their tyrannical teachers to browse contentedly amid the wonders of the media centers.

If students need more contact with mature and responsible adults, we might build smaller schools, as the Carnegie study suggests, in order to promote communities in which each adult in the school can know each child, and each child can know each adult.

The small school is a kind of technology, just as the U-boat or the torpedo plane are kinds of technology.

We might design our classrooms around tables rather than the rows of desks in the old Sputnik-era schools. The tables prevent "back rows" and promote involvement, engagement, and discussion. These new high-tech classrooms serving the needs of adolescents would be limited to perhaps 15 students who could each day learn to participate in arguments, to appreciate nuance, to learn the value of contradiction. Such classrooms could function as only the most sophisticated information systems do, for sophisticated information systems sift and refuse information. They eliminate static, irrelevance, and trivia.

To satisfy our urge to be contemporary we could give these new-style classrooms catchy names. We could call them "laptop" or "miniaturized" classrooms.

Crude information systems are like idiot savants. They collect noise. They broadcast the wheat and the chaff. They have their use in assembling vast quantities of data. But they are only useful to people who possess the more sophisticated technology used to make important distinctions among the babble and rush of white noise.

Public-address systems and telephones are examples of crude systems. Trained minds are sophisticated systems. They are systems with filters. Imagine being at the mercy of a constantly blaring PA system without a multifiltered brain, without any logical devices to help you choose among the wheezes and grunts, without a knowledge of how to turn the noise off or down, without a hint of when to listen and when to tune out.

The business of high schools is to develop the minds of future voters, future parents. These minds should be equipped with the switches, filters, receptors, and compasses necessary for successful navigation in what the Carnegie Council has recently noticed is an increasingly chaotic sea of white noise and conflicting messages to our young.

Never mind the Carnegie Council's study. Suppose we actually took seriously William Cory's famous injunction of 1860 about "arts and habits":

You go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention; for the art of expression; for the art of assuming at a moment's notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person's thoughts, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the habit of working out what is possible at a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and for mental soberness. Above all, you go to a great school for self-knowledge.

In our national discussion of technology, we are too focused on the microtechnology of communications gadgetry. But we ignore, just as the admirals did before Pearl Harbor and with the same results, the macrotechnology. The outspoken World War I air ace Billy Mitchell tried to tell the admirals in the 1920s that the battleship was obsolete. He understood that the new macrotechnologies of naval warfare were the submarine and the airplane.

The proper macrotechnology, the organizing structure necessary for educating modern American adolescents, is not the battleship high school with its TV studio, computer rooms, and media centers. Instead, we need schools designed around teacher- and student-friendly classrooms, contained within the organizing structure of the small school community.

We need to understand our business before we understand which tools we need to service it. If our business is to serve the real needs of adolescents, we need to put those adolescents into the closest possible community with adults. Good small schools are really (like good families) high-control environments. They are places with few rules and thousands of expectations. They are the true school technology of the future, just as surely as, by 1940, the submarine and airplane were the naval technology of the future, a technology which rendered the fancy battleship, weighed down with the expensive compensatory technology of anti-aircraft and anti-submarine ordinance--abristle with rapid-fire guns and antennae--obsolete and, all too often, all too tragically, on the bottom.

Vol. 15, Issue 14, Page 35

Published in Print: December 6, 1995, as A Technology for Arts and Habits
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