NEW YORK — When asked if wiring schools is a good idea, culture critic and author Neil Postman smiles disarmingly and counters with a question - one he thinks educators ought to tackle before barging head-on into technology's "onslaught."
"Does this solve some problem for me that I am plagued with or annoyed about?" he asks.
"If the answer is no, then I think there is no reason to allow the technology to intrude itself upon my life," he says, sitting at his desk that noticeably lacks a computer.
But this question is a narrow one, says Mr. Postman, the chairman of New York University's Department of Culture and Communication, and one of the nation's most articulate education critics. In his view, it evades a more fundamental issue that should dominate the debate on making today's ill-functioning public schools work well again: "What is schooling for?"
Postman, a former elementary school teacher, says that today's schools are in a state of spiritual emptiness and confusion - and not because they're not hooked to the Internet, but because they've lost sight of their purpose and value.
In fact, Postman sees the question of access to the Internet as only one among many. Others rage: Should we privatize schools? Kill testing? Adopt national standards of assessment? None, he argues, address the real question: Why schooling?
Often, he says, the role of schools is reduced to preparing students for entry into economic life and helping them accommodate vast technological changes - leaving pupils with an empty feeling.
Postman doesn't want schools to get rid of their computers. But he suggests that they treat technology as a serious subject in the humanities. Technology education would involve "something quite different from instruction in using computers to process information, which, it strikes me, is a trivial thing to do...," Postman writes in his 1995 book "The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools."
It would mean, he says, studying the history of our relationship with technology and its effects on our psychic habits and social relations. Students must understand that technology never comes free. "There are always unforeseen consequences, and many of them irreversible," he says.
"I think that is a very consciousness-raising idea, and one that would be especially important for Americans, because Americans lead the world, I think, in their unfettered enthusiasm for technology," he says. "If there is one thing Americans need, I think, it is some sense of what the costs [of change] have been."
Postman sees teachers as losers in the new technology age, and challenges them with a series of questions he says could guide them into understanding better their and technology's role.
* Are they using technology because it's the modern, progressive thing to do, or do they have some specific educational goal?
* Suppose computers weren't there: Would they know how to teach students how to think, or have they been waiting all these years until the computer came along to do so?
* If the teacher replies that he or she already knows how to make students think, the question would be: Why do you need the computers?
So thirsty are we for the new, says Postman, that many of us tend to confuse technological innovation with human progress, to think that never before have there been such great technological changes, and to believe that schools' most serious problems could be solved if only students had more information and better access to it.
When New York schools opened last fall, "there were 91,000 students who showed up for whom there were no seats. Now, what is the response of the American educational establishment to all of this? They say, 'Let's get each classroom wired to the Internet' ... I think that's crazy."
Public education can be saved, Postman argues, by redefining the value of schools: Is it to produce only economic units able to operate machines and function in an economy, or to form citizens conscious of their place in a community of people? He suggests in his book that "at its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living."