May 19, 2013
The Trojan Horse of Education
by Daniel Greenberg
There is almost universal agreement among American educators and laypersons that one of the most important features of a modern school is an up-to-date technology infrastructure. It has become a common mantra that every student should have access to a computer and that every school should have high-speed access to the Internet. Computer literacy is a much-heralded goal for all children and is seen as a prime focus for instruction at every age and in every subject. All this is being promoted in the name of education reform, which purports to restructure U.S. schools in order to make them more compatible with the needs of the post-industrial Information Age.
There is, however, a great historical irony in this widely accepted position. By urging the rapid integration of computers into classrooms, the champions of reform are unwittingly promoting the demise of the schools they supposedly want to strengthen. For it turns out that computers are the Trojan Horse of schooling as we know it, and by welcoming them into their midst, educators are hastening the day on which the schools they have designed will fade into oblivion.
Make no mistake about it: bringing the instruments of the Information Age into current schools is tantamount to introducing the very means by which these schools will become irrelevant and unnecessary. Let me explain.
The Way We Were
The chief justification for the existence of mass schooling in the United Statesa relatively recent phenomenon, barely 150 years old, with little historical experience to call uponis the necessity in a modern culture to have a broad base of citizens who can contribute effectively to the well-being of the community. Such contributions include, primarily, the ability to lead productive lives that enhance material, aesthetic, and intellectual wealth, as well as the desire to benefit from the productivity of others. Schools were seen as essential tools for creating such a citizenry. Schools, it was thought, would take the unformed, raw material on which all societies are basednamely, childrenand transform them, through instruction, into educated adults having the knowledge, skills, and ambitions they need to serve society.
How to achieve this transformation from unschooled child to knowledgeable adult has been the question that educational philosophers and practitioners have addressed continuously since the early 19th Century. Whatever their differences, they have all agreed that two elements were essential to all schools: teachers, who were the source and models for the knowledge and skills to be imparted; and curricula, which were the particular areas that were deemed important to impart. From this agreement sprung the teacher-training programs and curriculum-development projects that have characterized the history of recent American education.
Throughout all this, the clients of the educational system, the students, played a passive role. They had essentially nothing to do with choosing their teachers or their subjects. Their duty was to obey the wishes of the wise and powerful people who ran the schools. They were to learn as well as they could from the instructors assigned to them, and they were to attain a prescribed level of mastery of the subject matter imposed upon them. They were required to place absolute trust in the validity of the program laid out for them by their adult guides and to make every effort to fulfill the expectations made of them.
As the 20th Century progressed, and as life became more complex, educators worked hard to justify this trust, by constantly revamping and renewing and restructuring and reforming the system they controlled. This never-ending activity created the impression among parents, the lay public, and among educators themselves, that everything necessary was being done to keep schools abreast of the latest developments and transformations taking place in the world at large. Continuous change in schools was taken to be the mark of the unflagging relevance of schools to the conditions of an ever-changing reality. But this was to be an illusion that could not be sustained indefinitely.
Our New World
In the closing years of the last century, a new world came into being, creating a radically different environment for the entire global population, and particularly for those who lived in developed countries. The two features of this new world that most directly impinged on the role of schools in society were: rapid access to a staggeringly large reservoir of human knowledge; and the opportunity for an unimaginable variety of new activities to contribute productively to human culture and prosperity. The particular instrumentality for this cultural upheaval was the computer, in all its manifestations, and the various networks to which the computer could be linked, prime among them the Internet.
The full implications of the transformation that has taken place, and is continuing to take place with ever greater momentum, have scarcely begun to be appreciated, even by the most farseeing observers. But some of the simpler ramifications of this revolution, as they pertain to U.S. schools, are clearly visible on the horizon.
First and foremost among these is the plain fact that, through the cyberworld, children of all ages (as well as adults, of course) now can link themselves directly to the most up-to-date sources of information on virtually any topic they choose to pursue. In other words, a person who wants to find out about something now has the ability to seek out world-class expertise; to access it at will, whenever he or she wants to; and to follow it up to whatever level of excellence he or she desires to attain. There is no way that the vast majority of teachers, whatever their training, can ever hope to match in their classrooms the caliber of instruction children can receive at will from sources of their own choosing.
In addition, it is a simple matter for any person to link up with others having the same interests, anywhere in the world, and to engage in mutually enriching conversations and interactions that further enhance the understanding of all the participants.
Second, and no less significant, is the almost infinite diversity of activities and interests that are accessible to all childrena diversity that stands in stark contrast to the narrowly limited field of view presented by the handful of subjects selected by anonymous pedagogues as the proper focus for all students. By comparison to the wealth of variety available on the World Wide Web, on CD-ROMs, on DVDs, and on a host of other storage media, the world of schools and curricula seems hopelessly sterile, arcane, and irrelevant. No child who has surfed the Web on his or her own can ever turn back to the dry pages of a school textbook, or the dry elements of a school assignment, without realizing how exciting the former is and how drab the latter.
American educators, innocent of these implications, tout the value of computers and the Internet in their schools, primarily because they have heard that these are the tools of the future, and they want to appear modern and up-to-date. So they bring the hardware into the schoolsand then they use it in lieu of, and just like, the standard hard-copy textbooks and workbooks of old. They impose stringent limits on students’ free access to these electronic paraphernalia and prescribe in detail how, where, when, and for what purpose students are to use them.
But, once introduced into the schools, this Information-Age equipment will not remain restricted and limited for long. One way or another, surreptitiously or overtly, during class hours or after school, students will discover the limitless power that their new paraphernalia can bestow upon them and will increasingly withdraw from the humdrum life and demands of their schools. It will become harder and harder to keep them bound to the confines of prescribed curricula and the mediocrity of the average instructor. Slowly at first, more rapidly as time goes on, the very raison d’etre of traditional schools will disappear, and students will take their education into their own hands and pursue it according to their own lights.
All this will happen the more rapidly because of the eagerness with which innocent and naïve school people have rushed to introduce the instrumentalities of the Information Age into their classrooms. They have welcomed the cyber-Trojan-Horse into their midst, and as surely as in ancient Troy, it will end up being the cause of their extinction.
Editor’s Note: See the TECHNOS Interview with Daniel Greenberg.