Tuesday, August 23, 2011


NY Times Op-Ed: "Education Needs a Digital-Age Upgrade,"
by Virginia Heffernan, in a review of Now You See It by Cathy N. Davidson, co-director of the annual MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions. 7 August 2011

"The new classroom should teach the huge array of complex skills that come under the heading of digital literacy. And it should make students accountable on the Web, where they should regularly be aiming, from grade-school on, to contribute to a wide range of wiki projects...."

I am not surprised that after the MacArthur Foundation put $50,000,000 into the study of Digital Learning (not learning just with one’s digits, of course) they discovered that using digital technology to enhance learning is a super-duper idea.

But I worked for the North American Aviation Space and Information Systems Division, on the Apollo Program,
which was somehow managed by engineers with computers only as powerful as iPhones are now, and who, with their pocket protectors and slide-rules, had sat patiently in rows in old-fashioned classes at MIT and Caltech, and learned the “huge array of complex skills” (of which Ms. Davidson speaks) that they needed to know to get men to the moon and back, and that includes the test pilot/astronauts who were also pocket-protector-wearing students who sat in rows learning aeronautical engineering, when they were not writing out their flight plans with a ballpoint pen.

The tens and tens of billions of dollars that have been spent on computers and software for education, and the hundreds of thousands (or millions of dollars?) spent on advertising for that stuff, coupled with a despair of ever raising the academic achievement of kids who skip classes and fail to do any of their homework, have deluded Digitopundits into a flight of digitalistical fantasies of wonderful changes which will relieve us of the hard work of teaching math, grammar, rhetoric, patience, self-discipline, history, attention, persistence, and all the other basic tools of learning a civilization requires, whether in the 18th century, the 19th century or the 21st century.

I find all of this drooling over the changes for education which technology will bring in some digitalistically magical mystery way to our tasks as parents and teachers to be a waste of time, money, and thought.

Pardon my age, but if 65 percent of jobs in the future will have new names, they will all still require basic literacy, patience, honesty, responsibility, probably some knowledge of math and science, an ability to listen and to follow instructions, etc. In short, nothing new.

I don’t forsee the day when “witty and incisive blogs” will be able to take the place of writing legislation, annual reports, history books, judicial opinions or any of the other vital tasks of a literate society.

This is all the malady of surrender to trendy digitalism that promises an escape from the hard work and necessary standards for literacy in our civilization.

If we can't do a good job of educating students, they seem to feel, then we should just jettison the effort and have lots of fun with Facebook and Tweets instead. So the standards for learning join those for modern art, showing that junk is, really, all we should hope to create.

Samuel Johnson and George Orwell would turn over in their graves at junk like this:

"Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form of the research paper. 'What if bad writing is a product of the form of writing required in school—the term paper—and not necessarily intrinsic to a student’s natural writing style or thought process?' She adds: 'What if ‘research paper’ is a category that invites, even requires, linguistic and syntactic gobbledygook?'”

Will Fitzhugh

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