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Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Technology per se is not the answer to Education Reform.

Technology can do wonders. I think our use of Safari (libraries of videos, long and short often with subtitles in English and Spanish), Smartboards and speakers have been a big improvement. We can make instant copies of articles we research on line. We have access to spell-check and online dictionaries , quotations and encyclopedias. For our English learners every story and article is available on CD; a summary of each story is available in twenty languages including Arabic, Chinese , Russian and Japanese. Computer labs make writing and editing essays easier.

But cheating is a big problem. Excessive reliance on multiple choice instruments when there are 40 and 50 students in a classroom designed for 30 or 35 is a problem. Computers and technology can help for review but by themselves they do not teach grammar, literary devices and good style. I recall Bill Gates boasting he got an A in a mythology class he never attended by studying the Cliffnotes. Well, perhaps he got an A on a superficial multiple choice test but he missed the point of gaining an introduction to Greek and Roman literature.

One cannot dismiss the utilitarian argument because one must be practical. One must pay the bills, “keep the wolf from the door” and be prepared to compete in today’s society. However, a liberal or humane education, at its best in the most practical and adaptive education a man can get. Why? For one reason a classical liberal education based on a well-rounded education of mathematics, history, literature, music and languages is a very hard and challenging curriculum. Second a good general education is important because we don’t know what challenges and questions we may face in our lives. The mere training of today may soon be obsolete. A third reason is as Cicero famously said, is that literature (the liberal arts) “hinders not.” They are, indeed a great ornament and a great comfort. They are, in my opinion, the key to a happy and satisfying life. There is no royal road to geometry, algebra, or fluency in French, Spanish, German, Chinese, Russian, English or Italian. And he who writes a living line must sweat.

A student asked Miguel de Unamuno what he should do to obtain wisdom.
Unamuno who excelled in every genre and who was fluent in many languages answered with only one word repeated three times: LEER! LEER! LEER!. Then he walked away. Regardless of the technology those who do not read and think will remain as children. A people lacking understanding will come to ruin. An individual who does not inform him or herself will simply be unable to make wise and informed decisions.
I believe there can be no short cut to Core Knowledge or Cultural Literacy.

Technology can help in so many ways but really, to me, in the subjects I teach, technology is only something to help, to make presentations more efficient, to print out thumbnails of class notes, to provide sound effects and memorable images in color. Technology helps give us tools to analyze some standardized test results and so have quicker feedback and be able to share records more easily. But in the final analysis we in the public schools must create citizens imbued with civic virtue, with a community spirit, with an appreciation for our splendid ancient heritage of freedom. And that includes freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the private domain, freedom of press, freedom of assembly, freedom of association and freedom to educate one’s self and one’s own child or children.

And there is no question that students need to learn not only of individual freedoms but also individual responsibility. There is no question that students should learn not only of what is good for themselves but what is right for others and the common good. Those who are strong should learn with humility that they will be strong only for a while. Those who are rich should learn that materialism is not enough and that boundless prosperity may slip away from us. Those who are strong should not hate the weak or the orphans or empire who lack the documents of the rich but instead remember the warning to be merciful to the stranger and the alien for “you too were once a slave in the land of Egypt.”

Scientists, technicians, bureaucrats, lawyers wrap themselves in a suffocating blanket misguidedly thinking they can solve all ills by planning and calculation when they have cut themselves off from their humanity and real understanding. Haim Ginott in his wonderful book TEACHER AND CHILD reminded us that “learned engineers” built gas chambers, “educated physicians” and “trained nurses” murdered infants and innocents not by the thousands but by the millions. He warned his fellow teachers that their efforts should never produce “learned monsters, skilled psychopaths” and “educated Eichmans.”

A well-rounded liberal or humane education teaches us how to think. I am a very strong advocate of a liberal culture because it is essential for the good life and as the basis ofa free society and for the preservation of what the Gael would call “ar dualchas airidh;our splendid ancient heritage. President Kennedy made reference to this is his famous inaugural of January 20, 1961 when he said he was proud of his “ancient heritage.” Dr. Morbius (remember FORBIDDEN PLANET?) sought all knowledge but he forgot the danger of unlimited power without restraint and without moderation and without care for others. In the end he and all he created was destroyed by Id Monsters. Technology is only as good or bad as how we apply it and how we use it. It can be used for the good of mankind or for unlimited evil or destruction. So whatever we do for our children and our schools and whatever technology we use we should take care that our schools are not murder machines of civility and humanity.

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