Oh, Those Awful Computers!

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There are some people out there who just don’t like computers. They hate them. Hate them so much that it warps their minds and memories.

Most commonly, you see it from those who want to ban violent video games, but nothing else violent in our media.

Computers change our lives in two ways. They give us new ways of doing old things, not only allowing us to do old things better, but often to do them at all.

They also allow us to do old things in different ways.

For those who hate computers, the first way is terrible because when you have new ways to do things, you stop using or never learn the old ways of doing things. For those who grew up doing things the old way, not only do they have to learn the new way, but the often hard-earned old way goes out the window.

For those who hate computers, the second way is no good either because they see the different thing as a new thing, and if it’s bad, they don’t see it as a different way to do the same-old bad thing, but as a brand-new bad thing.

Today, we have one especially silly article illustrating both:

We Walked Three Miles To School Every Day, Uphill Both Ways, And We Liked It!

Here is an LA Times article entitled, “Little Billy Gates Benefited From Not Having a PC.”

Two paragraphs from the piece provide the gist of it:

“According to the study, 61% of the youngsters surveyed said they do something else, some or most of the time, while doing their homework. There’s nothing wrong with doing research online, but it makes kids lazy. Do research at the library? Why bother when you can access dozens of sources without moving from your desk? Copy notes on index cards? What’s wrong with cutting and pasting into a Microsoft Word document — other than the fact that plagiarism has become a rampant problem on campuses? And, BTW, LOL, why write in full sentences when the language of instant-messaging will do?”

“We’re raising a generation of computer and computer game addicts who are doomed to fail in school, not because the system is obsolete but simply because it’s a lot more fun, and a lot easier, to hang out on the computer than it is to read “A Tale of Two Cities.””

Let’s look at this piece by piece:

“61% of the youngsters surveyed said they do something else, some or most of the time, while doing their homework.”

OMG!!! Before computers and the Internet, no one ever, ever did anything but study when studying! They never watched TV, or listened to a CD, or record, or the radio, or looked at magazines (dirty or clean), or comics, or entertaining trashy books !! Ever!!!

Please.

There’s nothing wrong with doing research online, but it makes kids lazy. Do research at the library? Why bother when you can access dozens of sources without moving from your desk?

Could someone please tell me how much anyone has ever learned about a subject during the amount of time it took/takes to get to the library (and back, unless your nose is in a book all the way back, which could be hazardous to your health while crossing streets)?

If it takes you a half-hour to walk to the library, isn’t that half-hour not only wasted mental time, but doesn’t that discourage those less than eager from going in the first place?

Let’s say you want a hot dog from 7-11. Would you be more likely to get that hot dog if the 7-11 were a mile away, or right in your room?

You get to the library. Odds are it’s a pretty small library, with just a handful of thousands of books on everything, and just a handful of books on what you want to know about. Then you have to figure out where what you want is, and waste more time not learning anything outside of maybe the Dewey Decimal System, or how poorly equipped the local library is, when you finally find one book you need in the card catalgoue, but it’s not on the shelf?

This is better than googling something? Only if you’re a librarian out to keep his/her job, it is.

Why bother going to the library when you can access dozens of sources without moving from your desk? Exactly, why bother, it’s stupid to waste so much time accessing information when you can do it in a moment. It’s like saying that walking twenty miles to work each day is better than driving. Not if you value your time, it isn’t.

More Treasured Buggy Whips

“Copy notes on index cards? What’s wrong with cutting and pasting into a Microsoft Word document . . . ?”

First, most libraries I’ve ever seen have this new-fangled device called a photocopy machine, and have for quite some time, so at least the rich kids willing to wait on the photocopying line didn’t have to bother scribbling anything down.

Waiting on line and learning how to pump rolls of coins is a deeply enriching educational experience, but it can’t be compared to transcribing notes like a medieval monk at the stunning rate of twenty words a minute. Now that’s education.

What’s wrong with cutting and pasting into a Microsoft Word document? There’s nothing wrong with it if your goal is to get information rather than hand cramps.

I’m only surprised she didn’t denounce ballpoint pens, too, and insisted that fountain pens, if not quill pens, were a safeguard against a new Dark Ages.

“other than the fact that plagiarism has become a rampant problem on campuses?”

Oh, that never happened before computers? No one ever used anything like Cliff Notes in days of yore to write a report rather than read the books and sweat it out?

This misses the key issue, though. What is the purpose of the report in the first place?

Is it to learn how to research? Computers and the Internet make old-style research skills about as obsolete as buggy whips. What you need to do if that’s your goal is to teach kids how to use the Internet well, and since simple tasks are so easy to find, make the tasks harder.

Is it to learn facts about a subject? There’s certainly nothing wrong with that, more of that needs to be done these days, but maybe a report is no longer the best way to get that done. Maybe answering a number of specific questions on the subject is a better way to get kids to learn the answers? There’s always the possibility of testing kids on the subject.

Of course, either involves more thinking and work on the teacher’s part. It’s a lot easier to tell someone “Write a report on the Battle of Shiloh” than asking that someone ten questions about the Battle of Shiloh.

Is it to learn how to organize material and express oneself coherently? I’m certainly not going to argue against that, but is the subject of the typical report likely to do that in any case? If some space alien came down and was given an assignment to write a report on the Battle of Shiloh, he might logically conclude that it was a waste of time and effort to just reinvent the wheel and paraphrase what is written perfectly well in an encyclopedia or two.

If you want original thinking and expression (and frankly, quite often, you shouldn’t, do you really expect great original analysis on the Battle of Shiloh from a fourth-grader), you have to assign topics that require answers that aren’t ready made in Encarta. For instance, instead of asking for a report on the Battle of Shiloh, ask, “How did the Battle of Shiloh change General William T. Sherman’s life?” The person is going to have to learn not only about the Battle of Shiloh just to find out what Sherman did, but also some more about Sherman.

The old way of doing things was the old way of doing things not because they were the eternally best way of doing things, but because there was no better way of doing things back then. When better arrives, the old needs to go.

Back when they fought the Battle of Shiloh, the telegraph was high-tech. Knowing Morse code was a valuable skill. Then came the telephone, and it wasn’t just different than the telegraph, it was better. It was so much better that it killed the telegraph, and you’re not going to get a job too many places because you have excellent Morse code skills.

It’s the same with “skills” like knowing the Dewey Decimal System, or writing excellent index cards, or paraphrasing encyclopedia articles. These skills are becoming obsolete, because there are better ways to get the job done, which frees up times to do other, more relevant, more important things.

When old skills become obsolete, or when what was hard becomes easy, it’s time to transform the teaching.

“And, BTW, LOL, why write in full sentences when the language of instant-messaging will do?”

Such intolerable barbarism! Nobody ever did that before the Internet!!! Back in the good old days, when truly civilized people saw that a stick of dynamite has been accidentally lit, they always said, “Please pardon my abruptness, but I must insist that you extinguish that fuse expeditiously. The cylinder it is attached to contains 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene.” No, they were civilized and cultured and never would have used a vulgar, degenerate term like “TNT.”

A little over fifty years ago, I’m just as sure Drs. Watson and Crick always called what they were trying to figure out deoxyribonucleic acid, certainly nothing foul like “DNA.” And if they hadn’t done that, they . . . might have figured it out six months sooner.

I hope the author never watches the Olympics. He might have a bowel accident hearing people crudely, uncouthly chant, “U-S-A.” Then again, maybe not; he might not know what it means.

All sarcasm aside, the point of language is communications: I say, you hear and understand. Language is much like a technology standard like TCP/IP; so long as everyone involved follows a standard, it works.

If I write a paper on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and I know what the term NATO means, and everyone else likely to read what I write knows what NATO means, and just for the few who might not, I say that NATO means North Atlantic Treaty Organization at the beginning of the paper, what gain is there for anyone outside of the print and paper industry if I say “North Atlantic Treaty Organization” rather than “NATO” two hundred times in my report? Closer to home, if I wrote an article here that said “central processing unit” each and every time I meant “CPU,” would I have done anything but waste your time?

“We’re raising a generation of computer and computer game addicts who are doomed to fail in school, not because the system is obsolete but simply because it’s a lot more fun, and a lot easier, to hang out on the computer than it is to read “A Tale of Two Cities.””

My God! No kid ever played rather than do his homework before the Internet!!! From the nineteenth century until that dastardly PC showed up, every kid assigned “A Tale of Two Cities,” locked himself up in his room and refused to eat or sleep or do anything else until they were finished (then no doubt immediately set out to walk twenty miles through howling blizzards, saving lives here and there, just to return the book early to the log-cabin library so someone else could read such a masterpiece right away.)

And for sure, no student ever talked to another student about something other than study while studying, via telephone, or in the library, or maybe even with a homemade telegraph or two tin cans attached to a string!

Earth to author: No. If the computer has changed anything, I’d bet it’s improved matters by cutting out all the donkey time and work just trying to get what has to done, leaving more time to both do the work and goof off.

While I’m certainly not against introducing kids to literature, forcing someone to read a book written almost a hundred and fifty years ago about events that happened over two hundred years ago may not be the best way to engender a love of reading for most people.

I remember having to read Jane Eyre over the summer in high school. I will not deny its literary place in the sun, but it is hardly ideal relevant reading for the average late twentieth century teenage boy. The sole lesson I took to heart from reading it was to stay as far away from books like that as possible.

If I had had a PC and IM and Doom 3 along side Jane Eyre, I think I would have rather fragged and talk to my friends, too. God knows I managed to find plenty of other things to do besides read it that summer, and I didn’t even have a computer!

And BTW, just what is so bad about learning how to do more than one thing at a time? Go to a modern-day office, and that seems to be the biggest essential job skill you need to have.

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Conclusion

If you could bring the average middle-aged man of 1900 into the present, and after a little time with kids, asked him about them, he’d probably consider them idiots.

These kids don’t know anything! They don’t know Morse Code, they don’t know any Latin, they don’t even know how to ride a horse!

Would you think him correct? I think not. Yes, there were many things schoolchildren knew then that kids today aren’t taught, but the same is true the other way around, too, and knowing how to put together a webpage today is a lot more important and relevant than being able to recite Virgil back then.

Yes, there is much to criticize about the American educational system, and it is wrong to think that all you need to fix it are more PCs. That’s like thinking having the death penalty will make a crime-ridden place suddenly law-abiding; it may help reduce the number of a few crimes, but it’s not going to stop mugging or jaywalking. Computers can be a good resource, but they do not substitute for a good curriculum and a population of teachers, students and parents who give a damn.

The author got wound up about this because Bill Gates gave a speech about education. Now if he had said, “American education, I am your lord and saviour,” articles like this one would at least be understandable.

But he didn’t. What he did say ought to be done was “offering kids a challenging college prep curriculum, ensuring that courses and projects relate to their lives and making sure adults are around, pushing these kids to succeed.”

She sneered at that, saying it wasn’t “imaginative thinking,” but unlike the author, Mr. Gates can separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to what matters in education. Education is not about totems like index cards, it’s about making children want to learn, then doing what it takes to make sure they learn. Saying anything else is reinventing a perfectly good wheel, and PCs and the Internet don’t change that one bit.

However, they’re hardly the major (or even minor) cause of the real problems that do exist. If anything, they’re a net plus, and thinking that they’re the problem is even dumber than thinking they’re the solution.

What really takes the cake, though, is that the author didn’t take her own advice. She didn’t go to the library or write up index cards. No, she used the Internet to research, and a computer to write the article! Talk about “Do as I say, not as I do.”

Negative nostalgia, that’s all it is.

Ed Stroligo

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