January 1995

This Issue
Vol. 06, Issue 04

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I was startled because the student violated one of my rules: I do not accept papers written about sex or the use of drugs or alcohol.
As perhaps befits a man who never received anything but D's in school for classroom conduct, the oddly cantankerous yet charming Roger Schank, a world leader in artificial intelligence and (some think) visionary of educational software, insists that no one has the right to tell students what to learn or how to learn it.
When I started out as a French teacher in the late 1960s, my department head gave me three commands: "Never talk to a student before class. Be sure the books have covers. Look for gum.'' I was assigned introductory courses of lower-level students. Our textbook, written in the 1940s, featured Jean-Paul, who wore knickers and wanted garden tools for his 16th birthday. My students hated French and told me so regularly. I just kept looking for gum and making sure their books were covered.
Shortly after celebrating her 18th birthday, Cheryl Mullen went to the county courthouse primed to do her civic duty and register to vote. But when the clerk asked the young woman her party affiliation, Mullen hesitated. Democrat or Republican? She may as well have flipped a coin for all she knew about politics. "What are most people around here?'' she asked.
I was 11 years old when the kindergarten teacher walked into my 6th grade classroom and whispered a long message into our teacher's ear. I could see the curve of Mrs. Samuel's neck as she cocked her head to listen. Like my classmates, I wondered what they were saying. Finally, Mrs. Samuel looked my way, smiled, and called me up to the front of the room.
On the wall of Jan Davidson's surprisingly unassuming office is a photograph taken by her husband, Bob, on Christmas morning 1979. In it, Jan Davidson watches as her three children gaze in wonder at the newfangled present they have just received from their parents: an Apple II computer. Downright primitive by today's standards, the machine--which came with a Sony black-and-white monitor--was considered cutting edge at the time. But what could three children possibly do with a personal computer?
Robertson, in polished Chinese, prods her students: Who is this man? Who is this woman? What is their relationship? The students respond, somewhat in unison, that the two are new friends. Pleased, Robertson pushes the button again, and the encounter on the screen continues.