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  • Children of the Machine



    This is Chapter 14 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    One wants so badly to like what Seymour Papert has done. In his book The Children's Machine he deftly limns the stiff, repellent, institutionalized absurdities of conventional education. His emphases upon the child's natural proclivities, informal classroom settings, the integration of education with life, and the sheer fun of learning all bear on what is wrong with education today. He condemns the idea of teacher-as-technician. And best of all, he repeatedly stresses a "central theme" of his book: the "tendency to overvalue abstract reasoning is a major obstacle to progress in education." What we need, he tells us, is a return to "more concrete ways of knowing" (p. 137).

    Papert made his reputation in education by introducing computers in the classroom -- and, particularly, by creating the Logo language, which enables young children to learn through programming. That may help us understand why he places the computer at the heart of his educational program. But it does not ease our perplexity, verging finally on incredulity, as we read that computer technology is to be the primary instrument for overcoming abstraction, reintegrating education with life, and embedding the student in concrete learning situations. Yet this is precisely Papert's thesis.

    It is true that the computer is a concrete object -- a magnetic focal point around which the schoolchild may happily revolve. It is also true that we can, if we choose, assimilate innumerable learning activities to the computer, interest the child in them, and thereby enable him to learn "concretely," in the course of pursuing his interests.

    But it is a strange definition of "concrete" that places all its stress upon the student's active involvement, and none at all upon whatever it is he is involved with. The only fully concrete thing a computer offers the student is its own, perhaps enchanting presence. Beyond that, it hosts a mediate and abstract world. The image on the screen, the recorded sound, the "output behavior" of a program -- but not the world itself, apart from computer technology -- constitutes the universe of the student's learning.

    It is rather as if we decided to make an encyclopedia the basis of the child's education. Except that the computer, as Papert points out, can be much more engaging than an encyclopedia, appealing as it does to more of the senses, while also inviting the child's interaction. This makes it easier for the child to remain caught up in the computer's presentation of "reality" -- and therefore inserts a more distracting, more comprehensive veil between him and the world into which he was born than an encyclopedia ever could.

    Unfortunately, many schools have