Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Little Ranting

What have we done?
Today, intellectual exploration is reduced to a game of Trivial Pursuits. 'Right' answers are rewarded and 'wrong' ones are simply eliminated--at best, they are ignored, not explored.  Finding the 'answer' is simply a question of choosing between various options from a list. It requires no more intellectual rigor than a game of hide-and-seek. 
Given that this is an approach that many Americans grew up accepting, even long before the digital age, the search-engine design of Google, Bing, and most any other can appear particularly appealing, even comforting, to many users.  Answers can be found, it seems; truth can be discovered.  To make matters worse, the search engines are extraordinarily effective in a number of arenas. We really can find things out! The problem lies in being able to discriminate: when and how can search engines be used effectively and when and how not.
In what has proven to be one of the most quoted passages of the eighteenth century (the first line of it, at least), Alexander Pope wrote:
A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir'd at first Sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless Youth we tempt the Heights of Arts,
While from the bounded Level of our Mind,
Short Views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc'd, behold with strange Surprize
New, distant Scenes of endless Science rise!
So pleas'd at first, the towring Alps we try,
Mount o'er the Vales, and seem to tread the Sky;
Th' Eternal Snows appear already past,
And the first Clouds and Mountains seem the last:
But those attain'd, we tremble to survey
The growing Labours of the lengthen'd Way,
Th' increasing Prospect tires our wandering Eyes,
Hills peep o'er Hills, and Alps on Alps arise!
Like the multiple-choice tests we grew up with, the frame of the search limits us to 'short views,' never allowing us to 'tremble to survey... the lengthen'd Way.'  Yet it is this we need (in our education and in our lives)
             Though it may sometimes scare us, this is what we should want.
Neil Postman said that “School teachers.... will, in the long run, probably be made obsolete by television, as blacksmiths were made obsolete by the automobile.”  This is a view still common, probably more so, as the mechanistic view of teaching has, if anything, grown.   And it is being put into practice: “over 7,000 students in Miami-Dade County Public Schools [are] enrolled in a program in which core subjects are taken using computers in a classroom with no teacher. A 'facilitator' is in the room to make sure students progress. That person also deals with any technical problems.”
This belief that teachers can be superseded by technology is one of the reasons many find it so easy to attack teachers today, and their unions—they see no danger in it, for they see no place for teachers in the world of the future.  But it is teachers, and not machines, who are best able to help make digital information, for those attempting research on the Web, pliable and useful.
Again, it is teachers who make us able to use our machines.
Replacing them, we move from vision into permanent blinders.

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