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A Schoolteacher Looks at Technology in Education

by John Taylor Gatto


When I was twelve I learned to drive. On the day it happened it caught me by surprise. I was just hanging around Uncle Bud's printing office on a Saturday afternoon in Monongahela in the summer of 1947 when all of a sudden he said to me, "Let's take a ride, Jackson." The next thing I knew we were whizzing down an empty country road in his Buick Roadmaster convertible.

"It's time you knew how to drive, " he said. And so saying he seized the back of my neck forcibly with his right hand, focusing my attention at the base of the steering column.

"The long pedal makes it go. The square pedal makes it stop. Turn the wheel left when you want to go left, right when you want to go right That's all there is to it. Any questions? Good. Let's change seats."

Was I scared? Terrified. Wouldn't you be? How did I make out? Well, I wove all over my lane for a while but a few cracks across the head cured that in a hurry. Bud seemed to believe everyone was born already knowing how to drive.

I'm drawing an analogy here between the skill of driving in which your life is at risk from even a momentary lapse of attention and the skill of computer operation in which it isn't. Both are too easy to learn to make a big deal about it.


The nation's largest architectural firm, Hellmuth-Obata, ignores computer savvy when they hire because architects can learn everything they need in a two-week training period, they say. Joe Weizenbaum, a professor of computer science at MIT, says that all the computer skill a student needs to succeed at the Institute can be learned from scratch "in a summer." And both recognize a downside to hanging around terminals too long.

LUCASArts Entertainment, an interactive gamemaker whose most important employees are artists, agrees. It prefers traditionally trained artists by a wide margin because painful experience has taught them that those who learned their art at a work station show "stiffness and flatness, lack of richness and depth" in their work. Hewlett-Packard avoids hiring executives whose expertise is primarily computer, favoring instead liberally educated men and women. And Sherry Turkle, whose specialty as an MIT professor is studying children interacting with computers, concludes that the most popular programs used in schools - simulation games - dull insight and discourage precision.


A schoolteacher would have to be nuts not to love technology. Once the machines were on I could turn off and get paid for day-dreaming. Unlike the administration of tests, which is a purer racket with the same outcome, with tech I could feel justified watching the kids go numb because it made us both happy - and who knew, maybe it was good for them. As long as they didn't snort dope or visit terror on the weak and vengeance on the stoolie, I could hide electronically in the cracks opened up elec tronically. Tech keeps the brats quiet. We shouldn't lie to each other about this.

Whatever advantages tech has out in the real world, in classroom use it is child's play to pervert into a perfect tool for low-grade social engineering. Habitual use accustoms children to consume without question an invisible stranger's mind-altering drills. Undetectible agendas resonate splendidly through technology, and if that weren't enough reason to be wary, tech has its own non-human agenda. It must recruit its users as loyal participants in simplified abstract dramas with neat resolutions - thus denying them an understanding of the ambiguity in real situations.

I should have loved technology as a pedagogue because it takes the fight out of kids. As long as we plan to continue marginalizing children as radically as we've done throughout the 20th century to achieve certain economic and social goals, we need to avoid the kind of training known to develop intellect and character. Listening to machinery, like listening to Ritalin and Prozac, does the job for us neatly without excessive cost.

What has to be avoided to avert a too-well-developed mass citizenry is struggle with difficult texts; facility in the active literacies of public speaking and public writing; familiarity with the physical, emo tional and intellectual danger in bowing to the demands of intellect; time spent learning to enjoy solitude; heavy exposure to mature people possessing specific competences; and experience with significant duties. None of these things require machinery to learn. Education and machines have very little in common.

As long as social managers believe students must be indoctrinated for various economic and philosophic purposes, they cannot be educated to understand that the formula for a good life has remained constant throughout the human record and doesn't cost very much. For instance, if you don't have something to hug regularly and sincerely, you don't have a very good life however many machines you may own.


The conflict of permanent values like this one with the more energetic quest of searching for continuous novelty is an ancient contest, but characterizing the rapid change pole as "perpetual evolution" changes the equation somewhat, investing what would otherwise seem to be a form of madness like St. Vitus Dance with the dignity of progressive purpose. It implies a direction to history which would delight Herr [Professor] Hegel. Nothing is wrong with this as long as you realize that in logic it would be called begging the question, and that it is nothing more or less an act of religious faith.

Classical Greece cast this contest in the form of a dialectic between the words of Heraclitus, who said you never could step into the same river twice, and the words of Thales, who said no matter how much details change, it is always the same river. Heracliteans are compelled to minimize timeless realities like the not-so-innocent hug I mentioned, and particularly to minimize the inescapable fact of death, which is the same to all in all nations and times. Hugs and dying are beyond the reach of science, medicine or fast talk, and they are what education must invest its time in, not booting up, logging on or downloading.

Time is the only true currency and everyone has about the same amount of it. Children whose training has failed to teach them that are doomed to chase their tails endlessly. And here is another universal: whatever decision you make about your time - to fill it up with novelties or go on a quest for absolutes - there is no escape from risk. Only a choice of what risks to take. How then can education be possible without heavy experience in risk-taking, not simulations of it?

As a Thalean myself I have little patience with religious ecstasy about technology. It offers a great bag of tools, but there's a price to pay: when we use them, they use us in return; if we use them too often, we become servo-mechanisms ourselves. To say that technology has any power to solve the human dilemma is just silly; instead, it aggravates the human dilemma, which is learning how to be fully human. Only one curriculum teaches that, a timeless one consisting of four lonely and difficult pursuits:

The first is learning a passion for hard work and giving your best to everything. The second is building a firm and sure moral sense tending toward the absolute so you can live a principled life rather than a pragmatic one. The third is building comprehensive self-mastery, which includes developing a dependable immunity to material incentives so that your liberty (and duty) is unassailable - not for sale, I mean. And the last involves developing the wisdom to accept pain, sickness, aging and death. All with a glad heart. Such a curriculum is within everybody's reach, there for the humble as well as the splendid, as long as we don't waste too much time in distractions like machinery.

Thales was the righter, I think. But even if you disagree, I hope we still concur that young folks need to be conscious of this argument early, because as one or these outlooks becomes dominant, quite different curricular paths must be followed. With Thales, the grand purpose of education is knowing and mastering yourself; with Heraclitus comes the active, endless search for rich sensations, great projects and imposing your will on the flux - giving it an existential purpose like perpetual evolution. Bill Gates is Heraclitean; Mother Theresa and your local barber Thalean.


Vikings were the Heracliteans of early modern Europe. No wonder we get the most advanced forms of corporate adventurings from their part of the map. The imposing technology of the longship, their amazing technology of warrior training - these allowed Vikings to terrorize Europe for many centuries in their quest to assuage boredom. Viking education simplified men and despised women, who were difficult to simplify. Morality was discarded, to be replaced by situational ethics.

So coherent and relentless was this pragmatic vision that only men who died in battle - those suddenly turned off like machinery - could earn Valhalla. Those few "evolved." Everyone else was just vegetation, endlessly dissolving and being reconstituted in the same soulless forms. No other system could compete with warriors propelled by such an inhuman spring.

Suddenly after five or six centuries of success, Scandinavians began to give up their murderous non-stop adventuring. Such a turn had happened before to high-tech peoples, the most dramatic instance being that of the Chinese, who by the 4th century had a technological lead over Europe estimated by historians to be as much as 1000 years. All at once China gave it up completely. Serious high-tech experimentation became a crime punishable by death; tremendous developments like explosives became toys like firecrackers. Nobody knows why.

And there is the case of Rome after five centuries of successful imperialism and bureaucratic articulation based on technological superiority. Rome just quit, too. About Rome we know a little more of the reasons. We know that ordinary Italians became disgusted with the emotional price they had to pay to maintain empire. They refused to waste their precious time in that stupid way any longer.

Three l8th century events conspired to bury the lessons of Thales in modern times: first was the 18th century Enlightenment; second was the exploitation of the fossil fuel coal in conjunction with machinery; and the third was the development of a fantastically rich global narcotics monopoly by the British. All these made it imperative for wealth-seekers to perfect the techniques of social engineering pioneered by Caesar, Machiavelli and Hobbes - to find effective ways to convert ordinary men, women and children into "human resources" if a golden opportunity to evolve society was to be seized and the take maximized.

The major obstacle in the path was the Judeo-Christian narrative interpreting life's meaning and duties, the sustaining logic of the West. It had to be scrapped. Throughout history Christianity had been nothing but grief for Heracliteans, and the folks mediating the social changes taking place at the turn of the l9th century were nothing if not Heracliteans. But what to replace Christianity with? A "civil religion" was needed to forestall populist uprising.

It's not unfair to say the theory of biological evolution, and the forced schooling reflecting the faith and spreading it, came along at exactly the moment they were needed most. Here was the substitution for the Christian story as far as the industrial management classes and their professionalized assistants were concerned. In Christianity salvation had to be earned on a case-by-case basis - the State was powerless to save you - but for evolutionists, salvation was a collective matter, one which required the community to organize expulsion of its deadwood and protect the privilege of its best breeding stock.

A bleak transformation in the idea of liberty was at hand. Universal liberty had been proven scientifically unsuitable for the masses. Then a second shoe fell. Over in France a philosopher named Comte cobbed together a new scientific religion called Positivism which drew its inspi ration from the example of endlessly evolving machinery. Since mankind was only biological machinery, the same improvements could be achieved in mankind if evolutionary biology was established as the queen science, privileged counselor to state and corporate leadership.

The logic of evolutionism was implacable. Nothing less than unification of the entire human race and all the nations into a scientific breeding laboratory which would guide racial destiny. International businessmen were natural leaders of such an initiative, said Comte. His religion spread like wildfire through the upper reaches of the trans-Atlantic business community. In that fusion of wealthy men, ambition and opportunity, and justifications drawing on the name of Science for approval, a new secular religion with a blueprint for the experimental twentieth century came into being.

Mass forced schooling, a half-baked idea which had been around since Plato, was adopted as the social technology needed to bring second-class breeding stock to its senses. It was the ideal institution to unthread the Christian narrative and all other powerful wisdom traditions, replacing them in part with a close attention to Nature where "species cleansing" - what Darwin called "Natural Selection" - could be shown to be a kindness rather than a cruelty. Through other school subjects, the invisible hand of rational leadership could civilize Natural Selection, empowering men of affairs and their sons, wives and daughters as shepherds of Evolution. Sometimes we call this new religion "Progressivism" and sometimes we call it "Scientific Management."

The notion of manageable evolution as a master theme for the new century was embraced enthusiastically by Carnegie, Morgan and Rockefeller, and a complex professional management of society began to replace democratic management after 1890. In this new form, the mass population came to be viewed as laboratory creatures suitable for positivistic social experimentation. Thus, constant change became the common experience. How people responded to these disruptions was "data" to be incorporated in policy thinking and the design of the next experiment. The direction of these essays was always toward further centralization in politics and economics, what party held office was irrelevant; electoral politics no longer provided the important leaders of social change. Schooling's role in this project was to follow a strategy of social management successfully developed by the Prussians, to strip children of the ability to think contextually. To this end Science was a wonderful tool because science is not about strategic thinking, but only about problem-solving. Technology is even better.


So here we are. But before you climb on this bandwagon, you want to consider a few remaining obstacles standing in the way of managed evolutionary dynamism as the new background against which history is to be written. In the first place, billions of people regard Heraclitus or his effects as pathological. People whose core existence is wrapped inside modern technology are still in a decided minority. For instance, a full two-thirds of all men and women on earth have never made or received a single phone call to date. You see what I mean?

Then we have deliberate contrarians like the Old Order Amish. Far from being unable to defend their Thalean ways, they are the most successful entrepreneurs on earth according to Johns Hopkins and their prosperous, crime-free communities have multiplied 30x in population in this century.

Pushing on, what could it mean that as this most secular, most schooled and technified century ends, phenomenal growth is evident in the most old-fashioned evangelical religions world-wide, nowhere more explosively than in the USA? Many of their members have an active and increasingly combative hostility against experimentation on their kids. They too are multiplying like computer viruses.

Other signs that the market in expert-guided Heraclitean futures might not be one to invest in is the big, leaderless homeschool movement, a bold statement about the irrelevancy of professionalized leadership, or the rapidly-spreading jury nullification movement which freed Randy Weaver, or the startling revolution in finance which has quietly allowed rogue financial traders to strip governments and central banks of their monopoly control on the value of money.

Let me take a contrarian tack myself: if modernity is what I suspect a majority of the human race is coming to believe - a nightmare visited upon ordinary men and women by the quasi-religious en thusiasms of bored, morally hollow and comfort-dazed élites, then we are at a curious point in history where élite leadership has lost its claims to legitimacy as it did in the fall of Rome.


All this brings us back to technology in education. What should its use be? If you are a Thalean, it is just one of many tools which might be used to the end of self-awareness; if a Heraclitean, it is a cornucopia - after all, even 12-year-olds can learn to drive. Through the computer religion children can easily learn to ferret out your secrets from the credit bureau, to draw down your bank balance, to arm government weapons systems, to use your credit cards, and to exchange simple, inexpensive formulas for nerve gas, fertilizer bombs, anthrax grenades, and more. I got this from the Net, why shouldn't they? But there are some pretty high costs involved in celebrating technology at the expense of an education.

Computers lead to bad relationships by taking time away from what really matters, time kids can't regain. The moral logic of technology is one of obedience, subordination and passiv ity in the face of experts. One carefully controlled study of the Reader Rabbit Reading Program, already in 100,000 schools, shows students who use it lose the power to answer open-ended questions. That shouldn't surprise you.

Judah Schwartz, director of Harvard's Educational Technology Center, said recently that "ninety-nine percent" of all available educational technology is "terrible, really terrible." Ed Miller, former editor of the Harvard Education Letter, says the existing research testifying to technology's classroom value is "just worthless. So flawed it shouldn't even be called research." Computers encourage a fundamental shift in sociability and values, just as television did before them. They teach that exploring two-dimensional electronic frames is more critical than engaging in conversation, exploration and risk-taking. Anyone in his right mind should be worried about a technological takeover of schooling. The highly discouraging record of student and teacher performance with computers is being deliberately concealed.

Do I have an answer? I don't, but the legendary William James, who did as much as any man to produce the absurd comedy of modern Heraclitean life, does. It comes in the form of a self-repudiation he made after looking back on his perfectly successful life. James wrote:

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big success. I am for those tiny invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies like so many rootlets, or like the capillary oozing of water, which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.

I think history will impose this Thalean solution soon whether we like it or not. When that happens, instead of grieving we should celebrate.

And that's my story and I'm sticking to it.

© 1997 John Taylor Gatto

This article reprinted by permission of the author

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