In reading “Mindstorms,” Seymour Papert’s treatise on computers, I got stuck on the line, “That this would be fun needs no argument … They are learning to speak mathematics, and acquiring a new image of themselves as mathematicians.”
I get the fun of creating commands for a drawing turtle robot and making it follow your instructions; I get that math could be cooler. Giving a child agency to control something and make it follow your instructions in order to teach kids lessons on how the world works does seem like a useful meta socialization process. The memorization of certain types of concepts that are foundational for becoming a computer programmer has a certain necessity now. Physicalizing education into a friendly computerized output device speaks to a modern notion of learning, engaging the physical and the tactile even as it abstracts and conceptualizes concepts into new code.
But maybe this is another case of “To a hammer everything looks like a nail” (and this is a pretty expensive hammer for very privileged children) ? Are education and learning problems to be fixed with a computer? What efficiency are we talking about in this operation? Bringing the future to children is a wholly modern enterprise and our socialization now begins in the backseat on cartrips: an iPad provides hours of solitary enjoyment and quiet for the parents who are responding to e-mails on the heads-up display as they drive to the next socialization experience. But… I’m not sure that this is fun and needs no argument.
I grew up with a computer, I wrote my first programs in Turbo Pascal. When my brother said he needed a computer for his statistics class, the Apple ][e sat in our basement, glowing green and waiting for input. What I learned from that screen was how to converse with a computer: the rudimentary interfaces, the file structures, memory, graphics. I had a dual drive and it allowed me to copy and trade games with a small network of 5th graders. Occasionally I would type the entire contents of a program from Byte magazine and save it to one of the Elephant diskettes. These were terrible programs — “Make the apples fall from tree” — and it took like 4 hours to type the whole thing in: pages of BASIC in a print publication. Elephants never forget. I sometimes wrote text based programs because buying a new game was too expensive. I heard about modems and once went on Compuserve at a friend’s house for $5 an hour. But computers didn’t teach me: they are inanimate until you tell them what to do. If anything, I spent time in a feedback loop that taught me about the media form that would engulf all global communication within 15 years.
My parents were adamant about not having a television, but I had a computer. Is it a better screen? These are things; they are inanimate; we animate them or they are animated for us by others who have an agenda.
Computers didn’t teach me about math; the Montessori nuns did, and when I need to multiply I still hear the songs that they would have us sing. Every multiplication table had a different song. Sister Letizia would have us memorize each distinctive tune. Music plus math: I’m not sure which one was primary. I’m terribly slow at multiplication, but I still hear the sound of my class of 3rd graders singing numbers every time I need to calculate a result.
Education is personal. It is socialization; it is physical; and it is how we construct identity. Depersonalizing our innately human communication as we form our knowledge may have benefits. The big modern questions of scale, efficiency, and maintainability are all there and maybe these are answers to the failures of early modern methods, but they also seem to indoctrinate us in forms of participation and communication that are intermediated by products. Products have physical costs, become obsolete, reflect the needs of capital, dislocate the personal and cannot respond to our questions.
Steve Jobs famously says, “Computers are bicycles for the mind” and the information access that he describes for the next generation of children is one that we live with now. It has surpassed any of our expectations in its scale and depth of penetration in our daily lives. It has been a phenomenal realization of the dream for ubiquitous access to knowledge. The bicycle is an interesting analogy because it makes you go faster and becomes part of your corpus, in the same way that the augmentation of our computational abilities and information access is now exponentially greater and we have integrated with our devices.
Yet there are still questions that speak to a larger philosophical set of issues: Where is the bicycle going? Why is it going there? And when will I have to buy a new one? And, who gets the bicycles? These are questions that the computer will not answer: corporations will. In his sales pitch for the bright future, the moment Steve Jobs really lights up is when he describes the billions of dollars people are spending on games, these silly simulations. He extends it to reimagining the economic world of Louis XIV – and we know how that ended. Versailles doesn’t last. So what are we simulating? Is Call of Duty simulating our current economic environment?
I think back to the nuns and what they taught me, and how the Montessori method was about facilitating our inquisitive nature in the world to acquire knowledge through the tactile, the physical, the real. Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, I learned from the streams in the woods behind my house, the crayfish beneath the rocks, the rain on leaves, and the bird calls. Those questions are eternal and they are material.
What is the difference between knowledge and being?