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Teachers and Fire Horses

September 19, 2008, 12:09 PM ET

Wired Youth Dialogue: Siva Urges Historical Perspective on Technology

Dear Mark,

The two cases you cited in your last post — the young whippersnapper on CBC declaring that “you can’t ask students to sit back passively and repeat what the teacher says any more” and the horrific results of the essay exam in Maine — demonstrate a crisis that goes far beyond the particular technological platforms that we have been discussing.

Simply put, there has been a steady and dangerous erosion of authority in teaching at all levels in America. It’s older than Facebook, even older than AOL. It’s not the fault of teachers (although many have been passive or complacent in its face). It’s not the fault of the students, who will bend toward short-term rewards and away from short-term costs no matter when they were born or what devices sit in their hands.

A few weeks ago I remarked in an offhand way on my blog that I had considered banning laptops from the class I teach at the law school. Now, this is a very common sentiment among law professors. And law students understand the arguments around such a policy very well. But I should have known better than to publish such a flippant thing without context or explanation.

Now, everyone who reads my stuff knows I am hardly a technophobe and am a passionate cultural democrat. I think the democratization of creativity and information unleashed by computers and digital networks is profound. I have written a couple of books cautiously celebrating this global phenomenon, what I now call the Technocultural Imagination. And I never suggested that students in my large undergraduate lectures on digital media should abandon all digital media at the door (how dumb would that be?).

Nonetheless, I was not prepared for what happened when The Chronicle Wired Campus blog picked up the remark. All of a sudden commenters were treating me … well, like I am sure they treat you!

One commenter wrote, “Professors shouldn’t be holding students’ hands or telling them how they should or shouldn’t learn.”

Well, that’s where I had to draw the line. Yes. Professors should be holding students’ hands. We should be telling them how they should or shouldn’t learn. That’s why we get paid the small bucks, after all. Students and the general public might not appreciate it, but we actually spend years trying to master the art of teaching. Most of us get pretty good at it. Many of us get fired if we don’t demonstrate competence at it.

I am responsible for the learning environment in my classroom. I have the power to make a student leave if she has been rude. I have the power to tell students not to use mobile phones or computers. If a student does not want me to take her to a new place, push on her beliefs, expose her to new facts and arguments, or maintain an environment that can ensure the greatest learning for the greatest number, she should drop my course (and probably out of the university).

This ain’t a spa or salon, people. You don’t get to tell us how you want your education. We spend years mastering and then refining this system and our subjects. We entertain challenges to our methods from all quarters. And we are a diverse lot. And we share notes on methods and approaches.

Please note the assumptions embedded in that comment to my post and what the young technologist said to you on CBC: The customer, no matter how young, is always right.

Well, that’s the problem. Students are not customers. Students are students. They study. We are not service providers. We are professors. We profess.

We have the privilege of working in the one profession in the country that is somewhat insulated from the shallowness of the market. But that shell is getting thinner every day. We must repair that insulation. Of course, the obscene price of private higher education makes that harder.

In my last post I lamented the nationwide rejection of the standards or logic or evidence in public matters. I don’t pretend to claim that this phenomenon is new. I know it is not. In fact, we are more literate, more capable, more connected, and more potentially engaged than at any time in human history.

All the elements of the rich democratic culture that John Dewey envisioned exist for the taking. Digital technology is a big part of that change. And I remain excited by the potential of digital culture, information delivery, deliberation, and activism.

All around us there are glimpses of that coming to fruition. This dialogue itself serves as evidence of the sort of rich conversation that was impossible a decade ago. But, as you have demonstrated in many ways, that is not enough. Too few are choosing substantial engagement. Too many are choosing distraction over depth. I can’t argue that with you, although I would like to challenge the notion (as you have heard too many times) that everything that looks shallow must be shallow.

It’s all potential. We can’t just invent, market, sell, deliver, buy, and log on. We can’t just put a $100 laptop in every village in the world, flip a switch, and watch malaria disappear. Technology does not drive history, or even personal improvement. There is so much hard work to do to make something great out of the new.

We finally have the platforms and resources to enlighten the species. But we have only been living with this stuff for about a decade. Let’s not forget that. Let’s resist the simplifying lure of technofundamentalism. But let’s also allow ourselves the possibility that these new tools can enhance learning and expand opportunity. We have not yet figured out the methods, laws, and standards that could make all these devices work for our edification rather than our distraction. That is our charge.

Distraction is the default cultural tendency of our age. We, as scholars and teachers, must fight it. We must harness whatever tropes, tools, and technologies we have at our disposal to convince the greater public of the virtues of patience, depth, and complexity. It’s a struggle that is as old as literacy, as Socrates reminds us in Plato’s Phaedrus with his recollection of a debate between Thamus and Theuth over the power of writing:

What you have discovered is a receipt for recollection, not for memory. And as for wisdom, your pupils will have the reputation for it without the reality: They will receive a quantity of information without proper instruction, and in consequence be thought very knowledgeable when they are for the most part quite ignorant. And because they are filled with the conceit of wisdom instead of real wisdom they will be a burden to society.

Thamus’ warnings, we have found over the centuries, was overwrought and alarmist. In fact, we would not know what Thamus warned without reading his words printed in books (in my case, in an English translation).

The lesson here for Cassandra, Thamus, Vaidhyanathan, and even Bauerlein is that we must be patient yet vigilant, open yet informed. New things need not destroy old things. And all old things were once new.

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