What's (Still) Killing Higher Education?

by Steve Talbott (1)


Robert Cringely attended a conference for computer professionals in K-12 schools and came away with the disturbing feeling that "these people were under siege". Why? Because young people, empowered by technology, "are ready to dump our schools".

Cringely writes the "Pulpit" column for pbs.org, and in his March 21 piece he starts with the proposition that "kids can't go to school today without working on computers". But this immediately leads him to the paradoxical observation that in recent years ever greater resources have been devoted to purging technology from schools. "Keeping kids from instant messaging, then text messaging or using their phones in class is a big issue, as is how to minimize plagiarism from the Internet. These defensive measures are based on the idea that unbound use of these communication and information technologies is bad, that it keeps students from learning what they must, and hurts their ability to later succeed as adults. But does it?"

Well, you can probably guess what's coming:

Andy Hertzfeld said Google is the best tool for an aging programmer because it remembers when we cannot. Dave Winer, back in 1996, came to the conclusion that it was better to bookmark information than to cut and paste it. I'm sure today Dave wouldn't bother with the bookmark and would simply search from scratch to get the most relevant result. Both men point to the idea that we're moving from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic. Education still seems to define knowing as more important than being able to find, yet which do you do more of in your work? And what's wrong with crimping a paragraph here or there from Cringely if it shows you understand the topic?

The entire education system, Cringely suggests, is now unstable. "There's only one thing missing to keep the whole system from falling apart - ISO certification", not only for schools, but also for students. After all, he writes, "certification is what destroyed the U.S. manufacturing economy". When there are precise, certifiable standards, a manufacturing plant in Kuala Lumpur can reasonably claim to produce the same product as an IBM plant in New York, so that mere "reputation" has to give way to unvarnished "statistics" - and as a result the IBM plant has now disappeared. Much the same, Cringely argues, is about to happen to the MITs and Harvards of the world, as soon as the necessary standard-setting bodies move into action. Attach a label to every student showing exactly what he's capable of, and who needs a costly degree?

I had a strange sense of déjà vu in reading Cringely's column. Back in 1998 (NetFuture #78, subsequently published in Educom Review) I wrote an article entitled "Who's Killing Higher Education? (Or is It Suicide?)". And now it's as if Cringely not only confirms all the fears I voiced back then, but finds in their fulfilment an occasion for rejoicing - or at least for yielding to reality.

I wrote in my 1998 essay that once we re-conceive understanding and education in terms of a computer-like ability to store, manipulate, and transfer information, the school is bound to lose out because it can never compute as successfully as the computer itself. I also remarked that teachers and classrooms would not be the only losers; students, too, would become superfluous. After all, it's much more efficient to download information into another computer than into a mind. The idea of "just-in- time information" being downloaded to computational nodes on the assembly line or in workers' cubicles - intended to minimize the need for workers to understand much of anything beyond the calculable or to act on their own initiative - pretty much captures the situation. Further, I cited the various efforts to standardize the educational transfer of information, with the associated loss from view of everything constituting the uniqueness, the nonconforming, individual angle of insight - the genius - of the true learner. And, finally, I spoke of the loss of the very subject matter of education:

If we've been re-conceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another, this is because what passes for knowledge has more and more been reduced to the kind of decontextualized fact fit for such transfer. The world we ought to be engaging has disappeared behind a tissue of brittle, yes-or-no abstractions. Just as we have ignored the student in favour of an array of measurements, so also we have turned our faces away from the world itself, as qualitatively given - the world that might, unnervingly, speak to us. From the scientist's instrumentation to the sociologist's surveys, we have perfected the means for ignoring the immediate, expressive presence of the people and the natural phenomena around us, and therefore we have no meaningful context in which to anchor our swelling cascades of data.

And now, facing all this, Cringely hails our movement "from a knowledge economy to a search economy, from a kingdom of static values to those that are dynamic" - "dynamic", in this case, apparently meaning that we prefer searching and bookmarking (and maybe plagiarizing) to the accumulation of static data.

Let's agree, then, to reject a fact-shoveling model of education. And let's try to forget, for the moment, that the computer, with its "knowledge databases" and "information storage", its uploading and downloading of "content", its input and output of "critical data", has done more than any other human invention to rivet the fact-shoveling model of education upon our imaginations. What we still need to realize is that the dynamism we're looking for in education is, in the first place, a dynamism of minds, not a dynamism of computerized search tools, however valuable these may be in their place. Without minds capable of attending in a sustained, focused, ever more deeply penetrating way to whatever aspect of the world and its problems we are addressing, all those tools simply put us even more at the mercy of shallow automatisms of the intellect than did the static content of shoveled knowledge. We end up frozen, mesmerized by the dazzling, mechanical play of information taking place before our glassy, screen-fixated eyes - a play that we mistake for our own understanding.

I find it stunning that an intelligent commentator can cite computer searching - googling - as a fit symbol for an ascent from "static" to "dynamic" values. Type in a search string and skim through the disconnected, decontextualized fragments spit out by the search engine - yes, one can conveniently find certain things this way. More and more, as society continues to restructure itself around such tools, this will become the only way to find things. It certainly has its peculiar advantages. Yet how can one deny that our use of this digital ejecta in any reasonably educated sense depends upon mental skills having little to do with - being almost the opposite of - the intellectually empty exchange between student and search engine?

In my 1998 article I, like Cringely, suggested that education, in the dominant form we have known it, will inevitably continue to disappear - and needs to disappear. This is not because education needs to advance into the computer age, but rather because education has already become too computerized. Long before the computer as such took hold, our classrooms, teachers, students, and subject matter were well on their way to the current dead end. That is, they were being shaped by the computational, informational, data-debased mindset that was driving society in such a one-sided way toward the Information Age. The industrialization of education, by which it was progressively collectivized and standardized, objectified and quantified, was but one stage of its computerization.

Until we can see in the long-running industrialization and computerization of education a sickness rather than healing, there is little hope for our finding the right educational uses for the powerful and endlessly distracting data-manipulating tools now at our disposal. In fact, until we recognize that the computer's storage, manipulation, and delivery of information have almost nothing to do with human cognitive and creative activity - until we recognize, as I put it in Devices of the Soul, that a computer cannot even add 2 and 2 if by this we mean anything remotely like what we do when we add two numbers - there can hardly be a coherent conversation about the role of technology in education. Meanwhile, we are likely to remain divided between those for whom that last statement is simply laughable, and those less computer-entranced souls for whom it is a self-evident truth.

At this point in our culture's technology-infatuated trajectory, I'm not sure there's much for the latter people to do except to cultivate among themselves those disciplines which, at some future time, our society may be desperately trying to remember.

(1)  Steve Talbott stevet@natureinstitute.org is the editor of NetFuture an electronic newsletter where this article originally appeared.  (Netfuture, April 22, 2008) http://www.netfuture.org/inx_topical_all.html. is the newsletter's url.