A Brave New World?

Keep a healthy dose of skepticism about the 'information age' and 'globalization' by Leon Botstein

The first question that needs to be answered is whether the so-called new economy and information age really exist. At every moment in history at which a major technological breakthrough has occurred, pundits and prophets have been quick to declare that particular moment truly transformative.

When the railroad came into being, some predicted the fundamental health and psychic stability of humans would be impaired. There were comparable commentaries about the impact of the telephone and the automobile. And since World War II, Americans have continuously and obsessively debated what the role of television really is.

That the railroad, the automobile and the telephone each had an enormous influence on history is, of course, not in dispute. However, the actual roles played by these widely disseminated technological changes were different from those predicted when the innovations first appeared. Without the automobile, there would most likely be no phenomenon quite like suburbia. And without the railroad, it could be argued that the industrialization of Europe and America might not have occurred at the same rate and in the same fashion.

With respect to the telephone, though, it is not clear that the character of friendship and intimacy is different than it was when people could only communicate in person or at a distance by sending letters. These letters, by today's standards, took an enormous length of time to arrive at their destination. But what really did the telephone change in the fundamental circumstances of history? Perhaps very little indeed.

Healthy Skepticism

Little doubt exists that during the last 100 years the way we account for time has changed in the sense that we not only live longer but each hour seems capable of including more acts of communication and more transactions. Our perception of time has been inalterably influenced by the ease of communication first initiated by rail travel and wireless telegraph.

At the same time, it can be argued that despite these momentous changes, the structure of our behavior and our attitudes toward birth, death, love, marriage and meaning in life have remained quite stable. The psychology of human behavior may contain more inertia than superficially appears to be the case when we look at human behavior only through the prism of the external trappings of our environment. Those trappings include everything from electric light and elevators to personal computers and cell phones.

It is therefore prudent to maintain a healthy skepticism about predictions concerning the influence and long-range significance of any given new technology. This is true even in the biomedical field, which in the past has transformed our approach to health and disease and raised our expectations regarding longevity and the rarity of, for example, mortality during childhood. We hear all too much today about so-called earth-shattering trends that have been labeled largely by journalists as "globalization" or the "explosive" growth of knowledge. Why do we only now believe that we live in an "information age"?

With such slogans, the debate about what the future will be like becomes neatly divided between enthusiasts who predict radical change and utopian outcomes and conservatives who fear that the end of civilization, culture and decency is suddenly at hand. It is not so much that the truth falls between the apocalypse and any utopia, but rather that both points of view share a common fault. Their protagonists have jumped too quickly and too predictably into the trap of thinking that the right questions have been asked.

The truth of the matter is that since the industrial revolution of the 18th century, we have lived in an age where information has increased rapidly, both in terms of its formulation and its availability. Since 1750, transportation and communication have steadily become faster and cheaper and have enabled individuals to handle more and more variables and items in their lives. Yet Gottfried von Leibnitz, a German mathematician, and Sir Isaac Newton, who lived in the 17th century, may have been more learned than their modern equivalents are today, if we have them. The computer is therefore another step in a long trajectory. It is not nearly as decisive as was, for example, the discovery of penicillin or Louis Pasteur's earlier discoveries in the history of medicine.

In the long run perhaps, the computer and the Internet will be more properly compared to the elevator and the typewriter. Future generations may easily look back at all the verbiage expended on the impact of the information age with the onset of the Internet as startling if not humorous. One would be embarrassed to have written a prediction about a new future based on the transformations that the elevator and the typewriter brought to civilization, important as these technologies were. We should be equally cautious about the Internet.

With respect to knowledge, there is an explosive simplification in the access to knowledge, but the rate of what is knowable and what deserves to be known is not necessarily increasing. As new discoveries, techniques and subjects emerge, they replace items that disappear and lose priority, including aspects of philosophy, theology, literature and even science.

And as to globalization, there is little doubt that because of the speed of communication and transportation, the integration of economies that had already begun in the 19th century has blossomed. The rapid flows of capital and the ease of shipping products have forced a genuinely worldwide network of economic behavior into being. That event brought to fruition the spread of standardization in industrial manufacturing and deepened the patterns created by the trade networks of imperialism and colonialism that date from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Grounded Questions

One needs therefore to step back from all the premature excitement about all that seems new in the world (especially in view of the rapid collapse of the Internet economy and stock bubble). One should ask some less momentous and more grounded questions about how we can make public education function better, given the undeniable technological and economic changes around us, even if we view those changes as incremental and modest. If a child gets sick in school, we now can telephone the parent. But we should all remember how wrong everybody was in the 1950s about the educational potential of television. Within a restricted and simple framework, there are obvious opportunities and cautions that bear examination.

First, with respect to the Internet, there now is a much greater need than before to stress the teaching of skills of discrimination, analysis and interpretation. Since getting so-called facts is now easy, the need becomes to teach children and young adults how to handle large amounts of information, isolate bad information from reliable information and critically unravel facile connections that now can be made with the push of a button.

An argument of causality, for example, is not an argument based on correlation. By some statistical maneuvering, we now easily might show that there is a correlation between baldness and intelligence. This kind of impressive-looking but fallacious and misleading argument can be put together easily by using the computer and the Internet. It was more difficult to do so before.

Likewise, with the Internet, one can cite authors and produce a bibliography without reading anything at all in a way one could not have done years ago. Even if these changes are only incremental with respect to earlier technologies, the change itself strengthens the need for education to focus not only on ending ignorance, but on helping new generations to deal with the illusion of knowledge, the onslaught of so-called data and evidence, and the failure to be able to think clearly and logically and to sort out the wheat from the chaff in any subject and argument.

Just try to get driving directions on-line. They show neither judgment nor understanding about what it takes to get from one place to the next. Teaching young children to ask the right questions and evaluate data and interpret so-called facts and judge that which seems important and dismiss that which may not be in any given field of learning should be a primary objective. But it was always so.

Second, easier access to information through the Internet reminds us of the "dangers" of the copying machine. We are so seduced by the ease of access that we fail to make a distinction between finding something and knowing it. When there were few books and those that did exist were expensive, we taught by rote and lauded memorization. With cheap printed materials readily available, a revolt against rote learning began. We have gone too far. In order to ask the right questions, one needs to learn and remember ideas and information.

Just because everything seems to be at our fingertips does not mean that children and young adults should not memorize names, places and dates, and poetry and music, as well. In the end, whether one has the Internet in one's wristwatch or not, it is finally what you carry around with you in that most sophisticated of all information-processing machines, your own brain, that counts. Knowing without prompting and being able to talk about something intelligently because one retains ideas and information need to be stressed. One can only have insights and new ideas by holding onto information about an issue in one's head without reliance on any technology. This is what we call "knowing one's subject."

Third, just because there is a lot out there that we can access does not mean we have to teach it. There are some important efficiencies that modern technology can provide in the curriculum. We do not have to lecture to students as much as we used to. We do not have to tell them facts they can find much more quickly by themselves. We can use the access to knowledge to clarify the curriculum and focus on knowledge and skills that are indispensable in contemporary life and can only be taught face-to-face.

Those skills include active command of language, writing and speaking; the capacity to construct arguments and to deal with numbers and understand mathematical relationships; and the grasp of the conduct of science. When teaching science, for example, we need to do more than make science a collection of facts placed within a predictable cookbook format. Science as problem solving now can be taught in the classroom by using modern technology.

The same holds true for the teaching of historical analysis and educating children and young adults to understand literature, art and music. The machine now puts a greater burden on the teacher to spend time teaching thinking and interpreting as opposed to purveying simplifications of constructs of fact. Modern technology will unmask the mediocrity of the way we recruit and train teachers more quickly in the eyes of parents and pupils than ever before.

Fourth, modern technology enables our society to construe education as a 24-hour/seven-day per week experience. The walls of the school building were once necessary. One had to construct places that protected and maintained the capacity for education, in the absence of any alternatives. Libraries and schools were brilliant solutions in an age when communication was less efficient. We still need schools and libraries because, in the end, only the direct contact between human beings generates debate and discovery. Science, technology and most of our economic life are not primarily the consequence of solitary "Lone Ranger" activities. Working alone needs to be complemented by collaboration.

Consider the analogy to sex. There is now apparently more pornography because of the Internet, but the opportunity for isolated fantasy (as was the case with the solitary reading of cheap novels) does not seem to have replaced peoples' desire for having sex with someone else. Learning demands contact between and among human beings. But school buildings may be used differently. The time spent in school can connect to life outside of school and outside of the school building in new ways.

Learning needs to be sparked by the in-school experience and sustained after school among and between pupils and teachers. There needs to be, in other words, a new effort to integrate learning into daily life in a way that would have been much harder to achieve when technology was more primitive. We have suffered too long with a sharp separation between work and leisure and between learning and fun. Learning can be made part of daily life as one of the most enjoyable experiences for most of our citizens using new technologies.

Fifth and last, with respect to globalization, there is little question that even if there were no new technology at all in the public education systems in the United States, pupils must learn, from kindergarten on, more about the world outside of America and Europe. The reasons not only are economic and political. As a result of immigration, the United States itself is changing and becoming more of a mirror image of the ethnic and cultural diversity in the world as a whole. Whether the subject is history, literature, politics or even religion, a high school graduate in America during the first quarter of the 21st century must know how to ask intelligent questions about Asia, Africa, South America and those parts of Europe outside of England, France, Germany and Italy. They need to know more than their predecessors about the geography, history and culture of these regions.

This need is underscored, of course, by the fact pupils in the United States are studying as residents and citizens of the most powerful nation in the world—a nation that carries a responsibility for the rest of the globe, which, unfortunately, it all too rarely discharges with decency and a sense of justice. One of the potential benefits of the Internet and globalization is the ease with which we may be able to dispel prejudice, unmask dishonesty and corruption and separate truth from fiction. This needs to be said despite the troublesome explosion of prejudice, falsehood and hate on Web sites. But the Internet is still in an early stage of development.

Clear the Air

A final word of caution to school administrators and school board members. Restraint, if not silence, about how different our age seems from what went on before would help clear the air so that we can focus on something that we fail to do today. Teaching and learning are fundamental human skills and activities that have not changed since the birth of civilizations. The successful transmission of modes of thought and action and of knowledge by adults to children must continue. Children in school should see themselves in a stable historical continuum, not as a new breed in a new world in which the past seems irrelevant.

Leon Botstein is president of Bard College, P.O. Box 5000, Annandale Road, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. 12504. E-mail: president@bard.edu