Just the facts, RAM

Just the facts, RAM: By Christopher Ott. Computers in the classroom promote a conservative vision of education -- but liberals don't seem to have noticed.

Published August 28, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

"Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them."
-- Thomas Gradgrind, in Charles Dickens' "Hard Times"

Despite all the controversy between liberals and conservatives over issues like sex education, school prayer and a "back-to-basics" curriculum, there's a curious agreement on both the left and right today about one educational endeavor: putting as much technology as possible into the hands of students and teachers.

Conservatives have done their part with proposed legislation to give tax incentives for buying computers, and the Texas Board of Education has even flirted with plans to replace all textbooks with laptops in hopes of saving money. But educational technology seems to be a rare spot of political common ground. Some of the most vigorous proponents of educational technology have come from the liberal side: President Clinton praises the computer as "a teacher of all subjects," and Vice President Al Gore literally invented the term "information superhighway."

That's ironic -- because, perhaps without realizing it, well-intentioned liberal proponents of technology have begun promoting an essentially conservative view of education. What's at issue here are not just doctrinal differences over what students should learn -- evolution or creationism, safe sex or abstinence, Columbus as explorer or invader -- but different visions of what learning is. Is it open-ended inquiry, or the simple mastery of facts, concepts and procedures?

The latter is more a kind of training than education. It's also what educational technology does best. Web sites and CD-ROMs are very good at delivering information, but not so good at teaching what it means or raising difficult questions about it. This fits in well with most strict conservatives' view of learning: Just teach my kids facts and job skills, and don't question the "traditional values" of middle-class aspiration, morality and decorum. Both the left and the right have pinned hope on technology's promised educational revolution, but the right may be its unexpected beneficiary.

Technology can be used just as easily to convey liberal educational views as conservative ones. In fact, the conservative side even seems to be losing out so far, now that Web sites routinely spill the beans about subjects that social conservatives would rather young people didn't find out about, like birth control or sexual orientation. But this only means that the liberals have won a few battles in a losing war.

Even when educational technology is used to convey "liberal" information, it fits into and actually accelerates an existing trend toward the debasement of education. For decades in lecture-pit classrooms -- and now to an even greater extent online and with computers in the classroom -- we have come to think of education as a process of transferring information. We are building an educational system on the assumption that our minds are a lot like hard drives that can simply be filled up with data. The occasional interactive exercise serves simply to verify that the transfer took place correctly.

So what is real learning? David Danaher, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin who has done recent work on the implications of this "transfer model" of learning, says we need to get over our culturally ingrained but largely unconscious view that learning is passive. "We tend to think of learning as if it were a liquid that could be poured by a teacher into students' heads, or pumped through pipes to the classrooms," he said.

Danaher -- who has developed educational software himself and is not a technophobe -- said learning isn't something that happens automatically in the transfer of information. "It's not simply a matter of information exchange, or obtaining, acquiring, accumulating or purchasing knowledge," he said. "It's a process of interpretation. The human mind is constantly trying to fit new and sometimes conflicting information with what it already knows. Ideally, educators don't just dispense new data to be processed. They actively help make that process of interpretation happen."

This is not what strict conservatives -- or, to be fair, some orthodox liberals -- have in mind. While nobody actually says that learning should just be a one-way "brain dump" from teacher or technology to student, if you look past the rhetoric, it's clear that many social conservatives do rely on the model of learning as passive transfer.

In debates over sex education, social conservatives want to see their "abstinence-only" prescription transferred as a fact into students' minds, to the exclusion of other views. Moderately conservative parents send sons and daughters off to college every year with exhortations to study something "practical." This can be good advice, but it can also be a way of saying, "Take for granted the way we live and believe, and don't waste time asking questions about it."

Even in the field of moral education, a typical conservative approach is not to puzzle through issues to develop a coherent moral system but to simply apply tried-and-true maxims. William Bennett's celebrated "Book of Virtues" argues that the way to morally educate the young is to give them a familiar "stock" of moral aphorisms and stories, and that no attempt should be made to deal with complicated real-world issues until high school, by which time a set of preordained moral guidelines will have been solidly implanted.

This is a concept of education -- the transfer of information, vocational training and prepackaged concepts that require little or no evaluation -- that computer technology serves perfectly well, and far more cheaply and conveniently than paying a human instructor to teach only 20 or 200 students at a time. It is also an approach that anyone interested in humanistic education ought to rebel against. If education is viewed as a passive transfer of information that can be achieved better, faster and cheaper by technology, then the kind of open-ended inquiry that often leads students toward more liberal views will wither.

Current offerings of online courses fit this trend. Through new schools that operate partially or wholly online like DigitalThink, the University of Phoenix and International University, you can now take accredited courses on subjects like Perl or Java programming, marketing, public speaking and team communications, and can even choose from a variety of degree programs like the University of Phoenix's Bachelor of Science in Business or Master of Counseling programs.

The education currently offered online is almost exclusively vocational. This may simply be a reflection of where the demand is, but it also illustrates our general attitude toward education as a means to making a living rather than an experience of exploring how to live. It's a lot easier to study marketing online than Tolstoy because that's what we value, and that's what we'd rather do.

In his 1987 book "The Closing of the American Mind," the late Allan Bloom -- not exactly a champion of politically liberal causes or educational philosophies -- wrote that "the impression that our general populace is better educated depends on an ambiguity in the meaning of the word education, or a fudging of the distinction between liberal and technical education. A highly trained computer specialist need not have had any more learning about morals, politics or religion than the most ignorant of persons."

Bloom's warning rings even more true today. Obviously, job training is valuable, and some degree of simple memorization is necessary in nearly every profession. But if more and more of our learning takes place within the rigid routines of computer programs, we may, without even realizing what's happening, subtly skew our whole political and social culture to the right.

The danger is not that liberal views will not be presented, but that our minds will begin to work only within the limits of the media through which we are educated. Fewer and fewer people will understand the liberal political perspective if their education has gone no further than memorizable maxims, the latest career know-how and efficiently transmissible facts.

By Christopher Ott

Christopher Ott is a writer in Madison, Wis.

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