T he physicist Murray Gell-Mann
has remarked that education in the 20th century is like being taken
to the world's greatest restaurant and being fed the menu. He meant
that representations of ideas have replaced the ideas themselves; students
are taught superficially about great discoveries instead of being helped
to learn deeply for themselves.
In the near future, all the representations that human
beings have invented will be instantly accessible anywhere in the world
on intimate, notebook-size computers. But will we be able to get from
the menu to the food? Or will we no longer understand the difference
between the two? Worse, will we lose even the ability to read the menu
and be satisfied just to recognize that it is one?
There has always been confusion between carriers and contents.
Pianists know that music is not in the piano. It begins inside human
beings as special urges to communicate feelings. But many children are
forced to "take piano" before their musical impulses develop;
then they turn away from music for life. The piano at its best can only
be an amplifier of existing feelings, bringing forth multiple notes
in harmony and polyphony that the unaided voice cannot produce.
The computer is the greatest "piano" ever
invented, for it is the master carrier of representations of every kind.
Now there is a rush to have people, especially schoolchildren, "take
computer." Computers can amplify yearnings in ways even more profound
than can musical instruments. But if teachers do not nourish the romance
of learning and expressing, any external mandate for a new "literacy"
becomes as much a crushing burden as being forced to perform Beethoven's
sonatas while having no sense of their beauty. Instant access to the
world's information will probably have an effect opposite to what is
hoped: students will become numb instead of enlightened.
In addition to the notion that the mere presence of computers
will improve learning, several other misconceptions about learning often
hinder modern education. Stronger ideas need to replace them before
any teaching aid, be it a computer or pencil and paper, will be of most
service. One misconception might be called the fluidic theory of education:
students are empty vessels that must be given knowledge drop by drop
from the full teacher-vessel. A related idea is that education is a
bitter pill that can be made palatable only by sugarcoating-a view that
misses the deep joy brought by learning itself.
Another mistaken view holds that humans,
like other animals, have to make do only with nature's mental bricks,
or innate ways of thinking, in the construction of our minds. Equally
worrisome is the naive idea that reality is solely what the senses reveal.
Finally, and perhaps most misguided, is the view that the mind is unitary,
that it has a seamless "I"-ness.
Quite the contrary. Minds are far from unitary: they consist
of a patchwork of different mentalities.
STUDENTS at the Open School: Center
for Individualization, in Los Angeles, are creating a dynamic simulation
of ocean life (right) and doing math (above) with the help of Macintosh
computers, which are set unobtrusively into the desks. In the Open School,
which already had a strong curriculum before it obtained computers,
the machines do not substitute for teachers. They are thought of as
"just another material," like books, paints and clay, that
can support the children's activities. In the next few years, notebook-size
computers are expected to become available; then children will be able
to carry their computers anywhere they go.