Will Technology Alter Traditional Teaching?

ARE we nearing the end of traditional education? Will computer networks, multimedia capabilities, and ``virtual reality'' make schooling obsolete? Will schools still be around 30 years from now?

World Media asked these questions of Lewis J. Perelman, senior researcher at the Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C., and Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University.

Mr. Perelman has no doubts about the future: A learning revolution is under way, and school as we know it is dying, he says.

Professor Postman is skeptical. While he does not oppose the introduction of new technologies in the classroom, he worries about people embracing this technological revolution without adequately reflecting on its deeper consequences. Why do you say schools are doomed to disappear?

Perelman: In pre-modern societies, education served to create a core of literate bureaucrats to run states and empires. Even in modern industrial societies, education was meant primarily to manufacture people who could perform bureaucratic functions. All bureaucracies, as we know, are rooted in the idea of controlling people's access to knowledge by concentrating it at the top and distributing it very parsimoniously to those at lower levels. But this is precisely what is becoming more and more difficult to do in this new Age of Knowledge, which we are right now entering.

The rapid growth of both computing and communication technologies is causing a true revolution, which will eventually be more radical than the agricultural or the industrial revolutions. A fundamental implication of this revolution is that the creation and transmission of knowledge will no longer move vertically, from the top down. It will move horizontally, among many people, at a tremendous speed. This will undermine the foundation of every bureaucracy, including schools. What will take the place of schools?

Perelman: The very notion of traditional education will become obsolete. The new technologies that are now being developed will enable people of all ages and social conditions to learn anything, anywhere, at any time. Learning will not be based, as it is today, on mechanisms of selection and exclusion. Diplomas will disappear. Instead, people will get certificates (the same way we get driver's licenses) to show potential employers that they have specific skills, talents, or knowledge. What makes you think this is going to happen?

Perelman: In the United States alone, education costs $450 billion a year. It is a huge burden, yet almost everybody agrees that schools are failing. The system I foresee and advocate has two great advantages: It works better and costs less.

Postman: Between information and knowledge, there is a great difference. What makes you believe that our growing ability at generating and storing information will translate into knowledge? Aren't we facing the risk of an information glut?

Perelman: One of today's fundamental technological developments is the creation of intelligence built into our machines and networks. By intelligence, I mean the ability of these machines to filter the huge ocean of available data and to present it in a way that makes sense to the human mind. In this respect, the possibility to ``visualize'' information and to create virtual realities is of crucial importance. That's what makes me believe that we are not going to face an information glut, but that we are instead entering into the Age of Knowledge. You seem to view technology differently.

Postman: When I look at today's major problems, I find that they have nothing whatsoever to do with technology. If there are children starving in Somalia or dying in Bosnia, if crime is terrorizing our cities, and if families are breaking down, it is not because we have insufficient data, information, or even knowledge. Something else is lacking.

I wouldn't dispute for a second any claim concerning the possibility of using computers in order to make learning more efficient and more interesting. But efficiency and interest are the means to an end, not the end. So the question we continuously have to address is: What are schools for? What is learning for? In order for school to work, there has to be some transcendent reason for the children to go to school.

Maybe kids don't believe it, but parents and teachers have to believe that schools are a good and necessary thing. The only answers people have come up with in recent times are, ``You should go to school so you can get a job, or a better job.'' This means looking at America as an economy rather than as a culture. There have to be other reasons for having schools. For example?

Postman: The fundamental reason is that we need unifying narratives. I mean shared myths that provide meaning, purpose, and direction to a culture. This is what schools should provide. One of our problems, here in America but even more so now in Russia and Eastern Europe, is that we have lost our powerful narratives of the past, which helped us give focus to our lives and organize our sense of what is meaningful, what is worth learning. And there is a big difference between learning, or acquiring knowledge, for making a living, and acquiring knowledge for making a life. What I am talking about is making a life.

Perelman: I don't see how a person who cannot make a living can make a life. I find this derogation of economic need really insufferable. I can't grasp the concept of liberal education that denies the importance of economic independence as a primary good. My primary concern is that today, at least in America, education contributes to poverty. I see this as a very serious failure and threat, since poverty breeds intolerance and tribalism.

Postman: Let's be realistic. Schools are not going to go away that easily. They will be mostly housed in special buildings. There will be people who will be mostly called teachers and who will mostly teach by using the language.

Perelman: No, no. Take the invention of the printing press, for example. By giving individual persons direct access to the Word of God, this new technology blew the Catholic Church's authority wide open and in a sense made the Protestant Reformation inevitable. Yet that took decades, if not centuries, to work through. Things move much faster now. A decade ago, Ronald Reagan said in a speech that he was looking forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the ``Evil Empire.'' Most people thought he was talking about 200 to 300 years from now. Today, we know that it took only a few years.... When it ended, it ended in one big bang. That's what I see happening in the arena of education.

Postman: But wait! I can give you, using the printing press as an analogy, the opposite picture. Prior to the invention of the press, the professor was usually the only one who had texts. He had full control of the information and gave his lectures. Today, 500 years later, if you go to New York University or any other college, most classes are still conducted as if the printing press had not been invented. Teaching is still an oral activity, based on human interaction. Why should things change to the extent that you predict?

Perelman: The driving force that keeps schools going is not a spiritual commitment. It is economic expectations. Ninety percent of the public [believe] that if they go along with the game, follow the rules, and get their diplomas, there will be economic rewards at the other end. But that has become bankrupted in the recession. In America now, it is the most educated people who are becoming unemployed in the largest numbers. We are finding out that all this financial commitment to academia does not produce the rewards that were promised. Do you see private education as the solution?

Perelman: Giving people choice between private and public schools is like giving them choice between horses and buggies in the Automobile Age. Since it is the profit motive that drives technological innovation, education should not simply be privatized, but fully commercialized. I propose to abolish all public grants for schools and colleges and instead give the money directly to families in the form of ``micro-vouchers'' to be spent on anything that nurtures the spirit and teaches new skills.

Postman: But this means to neglect the tremendous role that public schooling has played in creating America. Schools are one of the few places where young people are taught (or are supposed to be taught) how to behave in groups, how to become members of a civilized community.

Perelman: I would gladly acknowledge that public education played a role in the creation of America. But to say that public education was useful in some missions at some point in time does not therefore mean that we need to preserve it for ever.

ARE we nearing the end of traditional education? Will computer networks, multimedia capabilities, and ``virtual reality'' make schooling obsolete? Will schools still be around 30 years from now?

World Media asked these questions of Lewis J. Perelman, senior researcher at the Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C., and Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University.

Mr. Perelman has no doubts about the future: A learning revolution is under way, and school as we know it is dying, he says.

Professor Postman is skeptical. While he does not oppose the introduction of new technologies in the classroom, he worries about people embracing this technological revolution without adequately reflecting on its deeper consequences. Why do you say schools are doomed to disappear?

Perelman: In pre-modern societies, education served to create a core of literate bureaucrats to run states and empires. Even in modern industrial societies, education was meant primarily to manufacture people who could perform bureaucratic functions. All bureaucracies, as we know, are rooted in the idea of controlling people's access to knowledge by concentrating it at the top and distributing it very parsimoniously to those at lower levels. But this is precisely what is becoming more and more difficult to do in this new Age of Knowledge, which we are right now entering.

The rapid growth of both computing and communication technologies is causing a true revolution, which will eventually be more radical than the agricultural or the industrial revolutions. A fundamental implication of this revolution is that the creation and transmission of knowledge will no longer move vertically, from the top down. It will move horizontally, among many people, at a tremendous speed. This will undermine the foundation of every bureaucracy, including schools. What will take the place of schools?

Perelman: The very notion of traditional education will become obsolete. The new technologies that are now being developed will enable people of all ages and social conditions to learn anything, anywhere, at any time. Learning will not be based, as it is today, on mechanisms of selection and exclusion. Diplomas will disappear. Instead, people will get certificates (the same way we get driver's licenses) to show potential employers that they have specific skills, talents, or knowledge. What makes you think this is going to happen?

Perelman: In the United States alone, education costs $450 billion a year. It is a huge burden, yet almost everybody agrees that schools are failing. The system I foresee and advocate has two great advantages: It works better and costs less.

Postman: Between information and knowledge, there is a great difference. What makes you believe that our growing ability at generating and storing information will translate into knowledge? Aren't we facing the risk of an information glut?

Perelman: One of today's fundamental technological developments is the creation of intelligence built into our machines and networks. By intelligence, I mean the ability of these machines to filter the huge ocean of available data and to present it in a way that makes sense to the human mind. In this respect, the possibility to ``visualize'' information and to create virtual realities is of crucial importance. That's what makes me believe that we are not going to face an information glut, but that we are instead entering into the Age of Knowledge. You seem to view technology differently.

Postman: When I look at today's major problems, I find that they have nothing whatsoever to do with technology. If there are children starving in Somalia or dying in Bosnia, if crime is terrorizing our cities, and if families are breaking down, it is not because we have insufficient data, information, or even knowledge. Something else is lacking.

I wouldn't dispute for a second any claim concerning the possibility of using computers in order to make learning more efficient and more interesting. But efficiency and interest are the means to an end, not the end. So the question we continuously have to address is: What are schools for? What is learning for? In order for school to work, there has to be some transcendent reason for the children to go to school.

Maybe kids don't believe it, but parents and teachers have to believe that schools are a good and necessary thing. The only answers people have come up with in recent times are, ``You should go to school so you can get a job, or a better job.'' This means looking at America as an economy rather than as a culture. There have to be other reasons for having schools. For example?

Postman: The fundamental reason is that we need unifying narratives. I mean shared myths that provide meaning, purpose, and direction to a culture. This is what schools should provide. One of our problems, here in America but even more so now in Russia and Eastern Europe, is that we have lost our powerful narratives of the past, which helped us give focus to our lives and organize our sense of what is meaningful, what is worth learning. And there is a big difference between learning, or acquiring knowledge, for making a living, and acquiring knowledge for making a life. What I am talking about is making a life.

Perelman: I don't see how a person who cannot make a living can make a life. I find this derogation of economic need really insufferable. I can't grasp the concept of liberal education that denies the importance of economic independence as a primary good. My primary concern is that today, at least in America, education contributes to poverty. I see this as a very serious failure and threat, since poverty breeds intolerance and tribalism.

Postman: Let's be realistic. Schools are not going to go away that easily. They will be mostly housed in special buildings. There will be people who will be mostly called teachers and who will mostly teach by using the language.

Perelman: No, no. Take the invention of the printing press, for example. By giving individual persons direct access to the Word of God, this new technology blew the Catholic Church's authority wide open and in a sense made the Protestant Reformation inevitable. Yet that took decades, if not centuries, to work through. Things move much faster now. A decade ago, Ronald Reagan said in a speech that he was looking forward to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the ``Evil Empire.'' Most people thought he was talking about 200 to 300 years from now. Today, we know that it took only a few years.... When it ended, it ended in one big bang. That's what I see happening in the arena of education.

Postman: But wait! I can give you, using the printing press as an analogy, the opposite picture. Prior to the invention of the press, the professor was usually the only one who had texts. He had full control of the information and gave his lectures. Today, 500 years later, if you go to New York University or any other college, most classes are still conducted as if the printing press had not been invented. Teaching is still an oral activity, based on human interaction. Why should things change to the extent that you predict?

Perelman: The driving force that keeps schools going is not a spiritual commitment. It is economic expectations. Ninety percent of the public [believe] that if they go along with the game, follow the rules, and get their diplomas, there will be economic rewards at the other end. But that has become bankrupted in the recession. In America now, it is the most educated people who are becoming unemployed in the largest numbers. We are finding out that all this financial commitment to academia does not produce the rewards that were promised. Do you see private education as the solution?

Perelman: Giving people choice between private and public schools is like giving them choice between horses and buggies in the Automobile Age. Since it is the profit motive that drives technological innovation, education should not simply be privatized, but fully commercialized. I propose to abolish all public grants for schools and colleges and instead give the money directly to families in the form of ``micro-vouchers'' to be spent on anything that nurtures the spirit and teaches new skills.

Postman: But this means to neglect the tremendous role that public schooling has played in creating America. Schools are one of the few places where young people are taught (or are supposed to be taught) how to behave in groups, how to become members of a civilized community.

Perelman: I would gladly acknowledge that public education played a role in the creation of America. But to say that public education was useful in some missions at some point in time does not therefore mean that we need to preserve it for ever.

About these ads
Sponsored Content by LockerDome

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.

Loading...

Loading...

Loading...

Save for later

Save
Cancel

Saved ( of items)

This item has been saved to read later from any device.
Access saved items through your user name at the top of the page.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You reached the limit of 20 saved items.
Please visit following link to manage you saved items.

View Saved Items

OK

Failed to save

You have already saved this item.

View Saved Items

OK