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By Leigh Bortins
In the introduction to his book on how technology has changed society, Neil Postman contrasts two competing predictions about the future of humankind. The first is George Orwell’s vision in 1984 in which a totalitarian state rules over every aspect of life. The second is Aldous Huxley’s vision in Brave New World in which people are free but have become anesthetized by the wide availability of technologies that are designed to make life more pleasant. In the introduction, Postman demonstrates the differences: But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity, and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think. What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture . . . .1 If we do not wish to be “reduced to passivity and egoism” or to be “drowned in a sea of irrelevance,” we must evaluate educational technologies with caution. As a classical home educator, I want families to pursue Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. I want my family and the families in my community to seek and acquire wisdom and to express it eloquently. In order to achieve these ends, I like to see families exposed to many words and ideas from conversations that began in the dawn of human civilization. Although I am excited by the promise of technology, I approach it with a healthy skepticism. I believe that we must ask two important questions: 1. What are the pitfalls of using technology in the instruction of our children? 2. How can we wisely use the new tools that are available so that they serve us? Although I believe computers will be a part of our children’s education, I believe that they can only ever be a part and not the whole. Our children are not machines but complex, thinking souls who should be nurtured by strong personal relationships and by exposure to the big ideas of the past. Technology Caution #1: Absence of Mentors One of the greatest blessings of home education is that our children are able to spend large amounts of time in the company of wise adults. I want to spend time reading great books with my children, working math problems together, drawing maps, and discussing literature, philosophy, and current events. Overuse of technology can remove this blessing, resulting in an absence of mentors. G. K. Chesterton wrote that “education is simply the
soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another.” 2 The transmission of wisdom and morals requires warm relationships with caring adults. Our values cannot be transmitted through a screen. While children may learn how to solve specific kinds of math problems from a computerized instructor, they will not learn how God created math as the language of the universe and gave it to us as a gift to uncover His wonders. Technology Caution #2: Avoidance of Hard Work I like technology when it helps us to think better or more creatively but not when it undoes our ability to think. In previous generations, students were expected to work hard in their studies. Now, I often hear of parents removing their children from courses like Latin or Logic because they are too hard. One of my favorite historical novels is Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham. The main character desires a good education. When his life circumstances denied him the possibility of school, he committed to learn on his own. Armed with a side-by-side Latin and English translation of the New Testament, he painstakingly learns Latin so that he can read Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica in the original Latin. I do not believe that children were historically more gifted than our children today; they were simply accustomed to hard work. This is the example I desire for my boys, and I worry when technology shortcuts rob them of the opportunity to accomplish great things through hard work. Technology Caution #3: Impoverished Language Skills As I noted in my earlier column on writing, I want my boys to learn to be masters of language. One recent study investigated schools in which PowerPoint presentations have replaced book reports. The media specialist who conducted the study recorded these results: When I was working in a school technology department, I watched eighth-grade students present PowerPoint projects to an obviously proud superintendent. Curious, I counted the number of words that each student had actually written. On average, each eight-grade student had spent two weeks writing 77 words.3
Contrast this with the average five-paragraph essay that is usually a minimum of five hundred words. In high school, I require my boys and the students in my Classical Conversations community to complete one-thousand-word essays. Whether we like to admit it or not in our world of texting and tweeting, one fact remains true: complexity of words is linked to complexity of thought. The more words we use, the more ideas we can express. The more sophisticated the words we use, the deeper the ideas we can express. Technology Caution #4: Lack of Information Ownership I like technology when it allows my boys to take possession of new information. I enjoy having the library of the world at our fingertips in our own home so that we can delve deeply into any subject in which we become interested. Unfortunately, this is seldom how people use the Internet. All too often, the technology reduces our capacity to memorize information and thus make it our own for a lifetime. I believe that the best tools for giving
our children a quality education are the simplest ones: books, paper, and our time. I know that the best lessons result from wrestling big ideas, arguing one’s position, and expressing thoughts in writing. I want my children to be able to read a work of classic literature, debate its main ideas with their peers and with other adults, and then defend their own position on blank sheets of paper. Technology Caution #5: Impoverished Experiences I want my children to be exposed to a wide range of ideas in history, music, art, literature, philosophy, science, math, and logic. I encourage this by having them read both widely and deeply. All too often, though, technology counteracts this exposure to the rich and varied experiences of humankind. Although they have a treasure trove of human thought and accomplishments at their fingertips, most young people do not pursue enriching experiences when they are online. In his book The Dumbest Generation, Mark Bauerlein expresses his concerns: “Instead of opening young American minds to the stores of civilization and science and politics, technology has contracted their horizon to themselves, to the social scene around them . . . . The autonomy has a cost: the more they attend to themselves, the less they remember the past and envision a future.”4 In most cases, opening our young people’s minds to history, science, and politics can best be achieved through the simple medium of a great book. Benefits of Technology in Education While I have offered up many cautions about the ways in which we use technology in our children’s education, I do not believe that it can or should be avoided altogether. I earned my doctorate degree through an online distance learning seminary program. My students watch video lectures of Francis Schaeffer discussing European art. My third son is currently enrolled in history courses through a partnership with Bryan College and Classical Conversations. His courses have allowed him to be mentored by an experienced college professor who has helped him to improve both his writing and his knowledge of history. My company just launched an iPad app that is designed to help students practice and retain their memory work. All of these are excellent ways in which technology allows us to enrich the knowledge and experience of our children. For Further Reading • Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. • Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985. • Trelease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook, Sixth Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2006. Leigh A. Bortins is author of the recently published book The Core: Teaching Your Child the Foundations of Classical Education. In addition, Ms. Bortins is the founder and CEO of Classical Conversations, Inc. and host of the weekly radio show, Leigh! At Lunch. She lectures about the importance of home education nationwide. She lives with her family
in West End, North Carolina. To learn more, visit her website, www.classicalconversations.com, or her blog, www.1SmartMama.com . Endnotes: 1. Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. New York: Penguin Books, 1985, p. vii. 2. www.river.org/~dhawk/gkc-quotes.html, accessed March 24, 2012. 3. Trelease, Jim. The Read-Aloud Handbook, Sixth Edition. New York: Penguin Books, 2006, p. 154. 4. Bauerlein, Mark. The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. New York: Penguin Books, 2009, p. 10. Copyright 2012, used with permission. All rights reserved by author. Originally appeared in the May 2012 issue of The Old Schoolhouse® Magazine, the family education magazine. Read the magazine free at www.TOSMagazine.com or read it on the go and download the free apps at www.TOSApps.com to read the magazine on your mobile devices.
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