The Web & The Plow

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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?"

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