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Rounded Edges

By Alan Warhaftig — December 21, 2005 3 min read
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Over the past decade, technology entered K-12 classrooms largely because of concerns that high school graduates can’t compete for jobs if they don’t master computers. This vocational argument resonated with parents and politicians, though educators had to wonder whether their traditional mission—guiding students toward the classical ideal of an educated person—had been replaced by training information workers.

Has the debate about the relationship of education and industry, supposedly settled long ago, been reopened? Nineteenth and 20th century advocates envisioned spiritual renewal through learning craftsmanship, but the working class wanted education to take its children beyond the factory, not into it. Academics prevailed, and American education committed to a full curriculum for every child. Without explicit discussion of a controversial course change, 21st century vocationalism has entered schools via the loading dock, a stealth accessory of new computers.

Young people need to know technology, but they must also learn to think, read, write, and calculate. They must know about nature, geography, culture, and the past. It’s an open question whether computers in classrooms promote these goals or, through “mission creep,” they increasingly become the curriculum, diverting attention from academic content.

Tools can be determinative.With a hammer, you pound; with a hatchet, you chop; with a computer, you do multimedia. Creating effective presentations requires skill, but are the benefits as deep as those that students have long derived from the struggle to write essays? If an essay is expansive, the sustained development of an idea, presentations tend to be reductive, a gloss, forcing ideas into unnaturally limited space. Bulleted text has uses, but young people need opportunities to find and refine their voice—and grapple, in long form, with expressing complexities.

At a 2004 briefing for Los Angeles magnet schools, an Apple executive offered software designer Marc Prensky’s generational distinction between “digital natives,” young people for whom computers were a cornerstone of childhood, and “digital immigrants”—adults who had used typewriters and would always speak technology with an accent. To reach today’s students, according to the Apple exec, teachers must employ media familiar to a generation neurologically transformed by frequent use of digital devices.

I’m a sucker for a good mutation yarn, but I was unable to suspend disbelief. Call it a teacher’s well-honed sense that up is not down—at least not yet. The difference between today’s children and children past may simply be our willingness to indulge their propensity to distraction—and of corporations to endeavor to profit from it.

Instead of weakly infusing technology into instruction, perhaps it is time to return to the first definition of “vocation”: a summons or calling to a particular kind of work. Educators reflexively encourage students to go to college because investment in higher education has historically yielded returns that far outweigh its expense. Unfortunately, this economic justification may no longer be valid as more jobs are outsourced and employee benefits erode.

This doesn’t mean that young people shouldn’t go to college—far from it. If globalization has leveled the playing field, then young Americans, no matter how they excel, cannot live in the United States for what equally excellent young people are paid in India. “Job skills” will soon be less important than perspective, the intellect and acumen to discern one’s place in the world—and there’s little doubt that perspective is more readily developed with academics than applications software.

To survive in this “flat world,” young people will need to know, more than ever, how to think, read, write, and calculate. They must be able to recognize and create opportunities, which requires understanding the world around them—the mechanisms of nature and society—and how things have come to be as they are.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, not Bill Gates, is the American philosopher with the most to say about living in the world, and if Emerson were blogging today, he’d surely agree that a flat world requires well-rounded people.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 01, 2006 edition of Teacher as Rounded Edges


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