NEHTA Newsletter Fall 1998 Volume XI, Number 1
Just as in the days, decades ago, when there was a big push to put a television set in every classroom, makers of technology now want to put new hardware in every classroom, not only, of course, to make money, but also to bring students and teachers out of the dark ages of reading and writing ordinary text on sheets of paper, and into the bright new dawn of full color multimedia productions.
Taking notes can be replaced with the videocam and writing papers can be improved away by teaching students to use digital drawing and editing programs to “morph” their ideas into colorful and fast-moving pictures that can hold the attention of their fellow students for fractional seconds, and make them say “Wow!”
Some problems remain, naturally. Just as Peter Jennings depends almost entirely on pictures to present his view of the 20th century on ABC News (and spinoffs), and is thus somewhat limited in the knowledge he can convey, as compared to that offered, for example, by Martin Gilbert’s three-volume history of the same century, so other events and writings which do not lend themselves to easy summary in pictures will get lost as well.
Take, for example, George Washington’s Farewell Address. On paper it reads, in part,
The impressions, with which I first undertook the arduous trust, were explained on the proper occasion. In the discharge of this trust, I will only say, that I have, with good intentions, contributed towards the Organization and Administration of the government, the best exertions of which a very fallible judgment was capable. Not unconscious, in the outset, of the inferiority of my qualifications, experience in my own eyes, perhaps more than in the eyes of others, has strengthened the motives to diffidence of myself; and every day the encreasing weight of years admonishes me more and more, that the shade of retirement is as necessary to me as it will be welcome. Satisfied that if any circumstances have given peculiar value to my services, they were temporary, I have the consolation to believe, that while choice and prudence invite me to quit the political scene, patriotism does not forbid it.
How would we go about rendering those remarks in an exciting, graphic, colorful, multimedia sort of way? How can we employ Canvas, Freehand, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark, PowerPoint and any other among the tools of the multimedia fan to enhance these mere words by a long dead President? How can we free our feelings of being creative from the diffidence he expresses and the sense of duty which constrained him?
Or to take another example, from Jefferson:
During the throes and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of the same principle. We are all republicans, we are all federalists. If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
Could this be improved by the application of multimedia? Only in the minds of those whose experiences with literacy left them unaware of the majesty and evocative powers of the written word. For those who read little and poorly, and yet teach in the schools, and for those who may be literate themselves but see no way to pass that gift along to the new generations, the primrose path of multimedia lies sparkling before them, and many take it. I was told at a conference recently that term papers are things of the past, replaced for ever by the visual aids of the new illiterates and the multimedia tools they are being sold. One History department chair said he no longer assigned papers, but PowerPoint presentations instead. The wonders of books will not be offered in his classrooms. We all lose when great writing is left behind.