From that moment on, I was no longer a liberal, a believer in the self-correcting character of American democracy. I was a radical....The situation required not just a new president or new laws, but an uprooting of the old order, the introduction of a new kind of society—cooperative, peaceful, egalitarian.-- Howard Zinn (1994), You Can't Be Neutral on a Moving Train, p. 173
Technology represents the essence of American consumerism by feeding our popular clamor for acquiring the current hot thing. Yet the ever-increasing significance of technology in our daily lives and its contribution to powerful advances as well as a widening equity gap place education in a complex paradox.
Author Kurt Vonnegut quipped, “Novels that leave out technology misrepresent life as badly as Victorians misrepresented life by leaving out sex.” As with novels, so with schools, I believe, but we must take one step beyond “whether schools should address technology” to “how.”
Two experiences from my 18 years teaching high school English inform my belief that schools should not incorporate as much digital technology as finances allow. I began teaching in the 1980s during the rise of MTV and witnessed my field make a claim that text was dead, and thus English teaching had to shift to the brave new video world-failing to anticipate instant messaging, email, texting, blogging and the text-rich social-media boom.
The intersection of technology’s unknowable future, its inflated costs, and its inevitable obsolescence must give us pause as we spend public funds. Let me suggest simply looking into the closets and storage facilities at schools across the United States, where cables, monitors and other artifacts costing millions of dollars lie useless, replaced by the next-best thing we then had to acquire. In fact, just think of one thing, the Laserdisc video player (soon to be joined by interactive “smart” whiteboards in those closets).
Chalk board, marker board, interactive board-this sequence has not insured better teaching or learning, but has guaranteed greater costs for schools and profits for manufacturers.
In Walden, Henry David Thoreau offered two warnings that should guide how we approach technology: “We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate,” and, “We do not ride on the railroad; it rides upon us.”
The foundational principles of public education for democracy and human agency must not fall prey to preparing children for the future by perpetually acquiring new technology because we can never know that future. Thus, we must not squander public funds on ever-changing technology but instead focus on the human interaction that is teaching and learning as well as the critical literacy and numeracy every child needs. We can anticipate only one fact of our futures — change.