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  • The Pesticide of the Mind?

    by Lowell Monke (LM7846s@acad.drake.edu)

    The other day I went to the local hardware store to get some lawn fertilizer. Concerned about two sons who can't keep their shoes on, I asked the clerk just how poisonous was the crabgrass killer that seemed to be in all the early spring mixtures? "Oh, it's not poison at all," he said. "You could eat that stuff and it wouldn't hurt you." Somehow the comment struck me as both familiar and ominous. As I was walking out the door with my bag I realized why. Just a few weeks earlier I had been talking with my dad, a retired farmer, about my reluctance to spread chemicals on my lawn. He had nodded his head and then told me about his experience with DDT. "When it first came out they told us we could take a bath in the stuff," he said. "We'd spill it all over ourselves and think nothing of it. It did a great job, but I wish they would have let us know about the problems."

    As we ponder what effects the Web will have on our lives I think it would be good to keep in mind my father's lament. Today, DDT conjures visions of environmental devastation, but we should remember that it was once considered a god-send. Its application led to one of the most significant technological transformations in history. For the first time ever, the war against hunger and many diseases seemed winnable. Enthusiasm for its potential so muted criticism that by the time Rachel Carson's Silent Spring lifted the veil agriculture and consumers had become so dependent on chemical farming that our choices for alternative paths had become too tightly constrained to allow us to make meaningful changes.

    Today the Web, and its equally ill-defined parent, the Internet, are being held out as revolutionary technological innovations for all facets of our lives. We hold out great hopes for the Web, especially in my field of work, education. But I have begun to wonder if the advice given my dad in the forties will resonate with our children 50 years from now as they look back on the technological transformation of society in the past two decades. I wonder if they will be appalled when we tell them that the "experts" told us we could, and should, bathe our students regularly in the bottomless waters of the Web never having pointed out the dangers lurking in those uncharted depths?

    It's those dangers we need to be searching for at this juncture of development and debate. The clear and undeniable benefits have been reiterated and exemplified to the point of banality. It is the potential problems that are obscure, hidden in indirect social and psychological consequences that are slow to reveal themselves and difficult to reverse. We need to ferret them out and set them up alongside those much heralded benefits so that we don't blindly heap decision upon ill-conceived decision until our choices become too narrow to be meaningful. This essay is an attempt to contribute to that effort in the realm of education by pointing out four major myths of Web assisted learning.

    The Myth of Information

    The currency of the Web is information. And today access to information is being portrayed by many educational reformers as the key to education (Perelman). But others point out that the ultimate goal of education is not the accumulation of information but the development of knowledge, and the two are not at all the same (Roszak, Harris). An example from my own experience may serve to illustrate this point. Recently, one of my students designed and managed a Web page for a project involving the comparison of cultures from various parts of the world. This student gathered and catagorized hundreds of messages so that students could reference all contributions easily. For several months this student did just what proponents of "Information Age Education" say we need to teach our students to do: He organized, selected, processed and even published information that was sent to him every day. He did such a good job and was so proud of his work that we decided he should enter the web page in a contest. The entry form completely baffled him. He spent an hour pondering the question, "What is the purpose of your project?" He didn't seem to have any idea how to express the value of what he had spent so much time developing. When another hour of guided questioning didn't seem to lead him anywhere I finally relented and told him what I thought the purpose of his project was, but it didn't do him much good. He soon came back because he couldn't remember how to write down my exact words.

    This nice young man, who can gather and process information off the web so well, has been failed by our educational system. His problem had nothing to do with technology and couldn't be fixed by it. His problem was lack of insight, the inability to construct meaning by making connections between experiences and ideas. Where do experiences and ideas come from? Not from information. They come from each other, and in a truly educational environment experiences and ideas interact to create knowledge. Information is generated from and may confirm experience and it provides a test for ideas, but to stand it at the center of education is to mistake the flower blossom for the plant.

    The ability to access and organize information does not ensure, or even encourage, the development of a thoughtful individual. Indeed, as Theodore Roszak has pointed out, "An excess of information may actually crowd out ideas, leaving the mind (young minds especially) distracted by sterile, disconnected facts, lost among the shapeless heaps of data." (1986) The Web provides us with nothing so much as an excess of information.

    At best, the Web may broaden knowledge, but even that comes at the expense of depth of understanding. Consider how a child comes to understand trees. At various times the child may climb a tree, sit under its shade, pluck a leaf, break off a branch, listen to a cardinal singing in it. Without conscious attention the child comes to know that tree and, by extension, the idea of trees. This is a depth of understanding that comes only from experience that employs all the senses within the context of a physically rich environment. The Web (or a CD ROM or an encyclopedia for that matter) can only teach the child _about_ trees. There is a huge qualitative difference here. The information obtained is fragmented, desensualized, decontextualized and thus degraded. Its meaning to the child will be obscure and lifeless. It will never be linked to refuge from a blistering sun, or the strength of an immovable living object. It will never carry the emotional force of first hand experience.

    This is not just true of physical objects or small children. Students come to my class with a technological sophistication that astounds adults but they generally have little social, political or even ethical awareness to guide it. Name your destination on the information superhighway and they will take you there; but don't ask them to tell you what it means when you arrive. Design a web page? No problem. But ask them, as I sometimes do, what ideas like "freedom of speech", "honor", "equality", "justice", "ethics", or "community" mean and their responses rarely rise above the level of undigested sound bites. I find myself wondering how much their extensive computer education has prepared them for contributing to community life? How much has it distracted them from preparing to contribute to it?

    So why have we embraced information as the cornucopia of education? It is my contention that it is because we have confused and substituted the true purpose of education - the development of a responsible, thoughtful individual able to cope with life - with its occasional consequence, power. The real significance of the Web for students lies not in its educative capacities but in the power it confers. Look carefully at the hype swirling around the Web as a means of education and you will find that it is all about power: power to access information any time from anyplace; the power to "go" and communicate with anyone anywhere in the world; the power not only to access but to publish mountains of information. Learning in the era of the Web tends to get degraded from comprehending ideas through experience and thought into enhancing personal power through the possession of information. (If I ever had any doubts about this they evaporated when, in the midst of writing this essay, my math coordinator brought the new National Council of Teachers of Mathematics poster into my room. On a military medal-like drawing are inscribed these words:

    P roviding
    O pportunities
    W ithin
    E veryone's
    R each )

    All of these attributes may be valuable in the world of business or politics but in the realm of education they are deadening. No one would miss the absurdity of giving children powerful motorized vehicles so that during physical education classes they can cover more ground. We all recognize that the point of movement in PE is not getting from point A to point B as fast as possible but to exercise and develop the muscles. Putting powerful machinery at the child's disposal may improve performance, but that performance may come at the price of internal development. The skills remain outside the child, residing in the machine. So it is with the computer and the Web. These powerful cognitive devices are powerful precisely because they have built into them an enormous amount of skill, skill that the child must develop some facility with or be left helplessly at the mercy of the machine that provides it.

    It is often argued that relying on the skills of the machinery is not really a problem; that it frees our minds to develop even loftier skills. This is, unfortunately, nonsense. The purpose of using the machinery in the first place is to improve performance, not thoughtfulness. It is the pursuit of ever higher levels of performance that guides educational policy today, not a concern for higher level thinking. The more we rely on the ever increasing skills of the machinery the more time and effort we end up investing in and learning how to use those skills, not our own. From the moment our children enter the school system we systematically sacrifice thinking about ideas and experiences that might enlighten them for the development of skills that will "empower" them, mostly through the accumulation and manipulation of information.

    The Myth of Student Control of Learning

    The issue of power leads to the issue of control. The Web is often cited as offering an environment in which the child can assert his or her own initiative and produce unique results through mastery over a complex machine and the resources connected to it. As is so often asserted, it alters the role of the teacher from "sage on the stage to guide on the side." The emphasis here is on getting the teacher out of the way so the child can take charge of the learning process. But this is an illusion. There are a number of ways in which the student actually loses control when working on the Web.

    I will only mention in passing the effects of the computer itself. Physically, the computer restricts movement and limits the uses of the senses to sight and, occasionally, sound. When linked to the Web the student becomes tethered to a phone jack, ironically required to be stuck in physical space in order to roam the endless cyberspace.

    Whether on the Web or not, a good share of the control over the student's thinking process passes from teacher not to student but to programmer, the invisible pedagogue whose first priority is not the individual needs of a child but satisfying the restrictive parameters of the computer. These restrictions are based on the logical, either/or construction of the computing process. It is, by necessity, a degraded intellectual environment. The computer operates as multiple choice, not free response. It demands shopping mall thinking, not exploring-the-wilderness thinking. But it is precisely this this-or-that environment that offers a reprieve from the complexities of a world that doesn't respond predictably, that offers hints of meaning often too subtle for a child to recognize, that demands attention to the ideas, interests and needs of other human beings - in short, a world that tends to frustrate and stretch the student's mind rather than cater to it. The computer doesn't challenge the student with ambiguous meanings and inconsistent responses. It offers a strictly deterministic environment of cause and effect. To enter its world is to escape into rigid assurance. In this way the computer offers the student a measure of mechanistic control, but only if the student first surrenders to its narrow cognitive demands.

    The Web, anarchic though it be, does nothing to loosen this mental straight jacket. It relies heavily on search engines which simply match sequences of meaningless symbols. They pass no judgment on the veracity, quality or even availability of the sites returned. There was a time when a document had to pass the judgment of history, scholars, community standards and the teacher before reaching the individual student. The Web circumvents all of these filters and passes all information directly to the student with nothing attached to distinguish the brilliant from the trash. This heralded democracy of information means that a Yahoo search could render The Declaration of Independence and a neo-Nazi manifesto disguised as a Declaration of Freedom with no indication of their relative merit or historic value. Placing the burden of evaluating the worth of every piece of information that arrives on the desktop of a student's computer is not student control of education, it is education out of control. The student, and teacher for that matter, are abandoned, left at the mercy of anyone with an Internet account.

    I spend a good deal of my time trying to help my students develop the good "crap detectors" (to use Neil Postman's polite terminology) needed to cope with the flood of information that flashes on their screens. But these students are 17 and 18 years old. Their experiences have prepared them to nuture a healthy skepticism. I am not happy about having to teach those same skills to my 8 year old son. Skepticism is a mature state of mind. To instill a distrustfulness too early produces not skepticism but cynicism. If cynicism is the price he must pay to maintain a measure of control over the influences that are flung at him through the Web and other media then perhaps my son, and others like him, would be better off not taking charge of their own learning.

    In this respect the most troubling trend associated with the Web is the blurring of the line between commercial and educational interests. The controversy that began with Whittle's Channel 1 advertising is based on the recognition that advertising is all too often less concerned with truth than with manipulation. It is a form of propaganda that has been sanctified as the means of fueling a capitalist economy. But if education is at all concerned with the search for truth then propaganda of any sort does not belong in the schools except as a subject of study (in our society it should be a required course). Yet providers and popular Web tools like Netscape are slapping ads on every window presented to the user. Many sites to which the search engines send students for information are veiled advertising pages. It is getting more and more difficult to determine what is information provided for the sake of promoting knowledge and information provided for the sake of promoting a product or a service. As these purposes converge the message that underlies it all is that information is a commodity which can be controlled, bought and sold, and that education is the accumulation and consumption of this commodity. In the end, control over the student's education is taken over by the marketplace, and what the student learns from the Web at the deepest level is the ideology of consumerism.

    The Myth of Diversity

    Of course there is more to the Web than commercialism; more than just accessing information. There is communication with other people. In the schools the great justification for this activity is the opportunity to share diverse cultures. In the U.S. at least, multiculturalism is a powerful force in schools and the Web seems to be a tool perfectly suited for its study. But here again the truth is not so rosy.

    Not long ago I attended a workshop in which a national Web figure extolled the virtues of multicultural exchanges. The most telling example she gave was about a group of fourth graders she worked with in North Carolina who shared information about their lives with students in Alaska. "What struck these students most," the woman said, "was that students in Alaska eat at Pizza Hut just like them." The point she was making, which met with general approval, was that such exchanges are valuable in helping students recognize not the differences in cultures but the similarities.

    It is tempting to ridicule a judgment of common culture based on such superficial grounds, but the fact is she's right. The cultures of students who have access to the Web are much more similar than they are dissimilar, for they share a common techno-culture that subsumes whatever local culture may exist. I taught for several years at Academia Cotopaxi, a private international school in Quito, Ecuador. The difference in cultures between the Ecuadorean students attending Cotopaxi and students in a wealthy private school in New York City was far less than the differences between those Cotopaxi students and Ecuadorean children living 20 miles outside the city, who attended school without running water, much less a telephone. This commonality among the techno-elites gives the illusion of a homogeneous thought-world. At the beginning of the Utopian Visions project mentioned earlier each student participating was asked to submit a personal vision of a perfect society. Though the submissions came from Asians, Australians, East and West Europeans and Americans it was nearly impossible to distinguish where individual visions came from. The main themes - freedom, love, environment, peace - were never challenged, not even by such once mainstream values as honor, duty or tradition. These students are being deluded, convinced through their communing with fellow world citizens that there are only shades of a single color rather than an entire spectrum of thought among human beings.

    The multiculturalism promoted by the Web is like the glorification of the differences between twins. As Jerry Mander made so depressingly clear in "In the Absence of the Sacred" (1991) the real diversity of cultures left on the planet is between those who have been exposed to high technology and those who haven't. It is the sad paradox of the techno-culture that by seeking diversity we destroy it. Non-technological societies cannot use electronic communication technology without changing the way they think, the way they act, the way they live.

    As the Web and its technological infrastructure expand, cultural diversity shrinks. Culture is tied closely to language. The University of Bristol Center for Theories of Language and Learning has reported that "According to reliable estimates, half of the world's six thousand languages will become extinct in the next century. Furthermore, two thousand of the remaining three thousand languages will be threatened during the century after next." Certainly the Web, which increasingly demands the use of English to conduct its global business, will contribute mightily to these extinctions. And unsuspecting school children around the world, innocently seeking multicultural experiences, will contribute to their demise.

    The Myth of Narcissus

    There are myths that deceive and myths that enlighten. The ancient Greeks had a genius for the latter. I got a good glimpse of this genius during a telecommunication project my own computer class undertook last fall. One day after my class had met, I fired off a message to the coordinator, R.W. Burniske, complaining that most of my students were dragging their feet on the project. They loved working on the Internet but seemed to have no interest at all in actually communicating with other students about anything beyond personal interests. R.W. and I had designed and coordinated lots of telecomputing projects together before but always with students in English or Social Studies classes or independent volunteers, never with a whole class of advanced computer students, and we had never encountered this kind of problem before. I asked R.W. if he had any insight into what could be going on with these students? This was his response:

    I think McLuhan had the answer to this 30 years ago. Guess what it was? The myth of Narcissus. The story goes like this: a beautiful boy breaks the hearts of many a girl, letting them give chase, but never catch him. One day, one of the girls calls upon the gods to punish Narcissus for his cruel rejection of her love.

    You know the rest. He comes to a clear, calm little pond and bends over to take a drink. But before he scoops his hands into the water he sees the most beautiful image he has ever encountered. The word 'narcissist' has come to mean 'one who loves himself' and yet, the ironic thing here is that Narcissus had NO CLUE that he was in love with himself. He lacked 'self-knowledge'. He repeatedly reached his hands out to the water to try capturing that gorgeous image before him. Thus, the gods - in typical Greek fashion - meted out punishment to fit the crime.

    Let's apply this to your kids' fascination with the computer. They 'think' that what they are in love with is this 'image' that is 'new' and 'beautiful' and unlike anything else they've ever encountered. And yet, what they are really infatuated with is their own image, reflected in that screen. The computer is yet another 'extension of humanity', and as those lacking self-knowledge, the essential initiation to the self, looking into it they fall in love with THEMSELVES. Need proof?


    Gotta close, but let me give you a chunk of McLuhan, to answer that question of yours:
    The Greek myth of Narcissus is directly concerned with a fact of human experience, as the word Narcissus indicates. It is from the Greek word narcosis, or numbness. The youth Narcissus mistook his own reflection in the water for another person. This extension of himself by mirror numbed his perceptions until he became the servomechanism of his own extended or repeated image. The nymph Echo tried to win his love with fragments of his own speech, but in vain. He was numb. He had adapted to his extension of himself and had become a closed system. [(1964)]
    Now then, might all the frustrations you've had with these students not be comprised in that final sentence? Have they not 'adapted to the extensions of themselves and become a closed system'? It's up to us, as educators, to open them to others, to pull Narcissus' head away from the pond. If not, our students may face the same fate as Narcissus, who sat regarding that extension of himself until he withered, and died.

    Is the Web a modern day reincarnation of Narcissus' pond? In "Life on the Screen" (1995) Sherry Turkle observes the enormous popularity of MOOs and MUDs among college students and notes that many of these students use the simulations to test out alternate personas, trying on new identities much as they would clothes in a store. What does this phenomenon indicate if not a narcissistic self-absorption? Have we indeed developed an environment that more than anything else serves the culture of narcissism that Christopher Lasch (1979) called to our attention (perhaps not so coincidentally) at the very moment the desktop computer arrived on the scene? If so, what does it mean that we are leading our children Pied Piper-like to its very edge?

    Transforming the Myths

    The purpose of this essay has not been to paint the Web as a wholly destructive force in society. Rather my intent has been to illustrate that even the greatest benefits of the Web, at least in education, have a dark side - a side that stands in direct opposition to the claims that are being so loudly trumpeted. But I do not declare that the truth as I see it here falsifies those claims. What I have called myths here are not so much illusions but truths standing side-by-side with their denials, in a tension that we should recognize as paradox: Information educates even as it inhibits learning; students are empowered even as they are swept into an anarchy that strips them of control; the Web exposes us to diversity even as it destroys it. The Web, and the technology that facilitates it, are bound up in paradoxes. They show themselves wherever we look beneath the superficial hype.

    Situations like this usually indicate that we are being confronted by something that is so utterly new that our language and, therefore, our thinking is inadequate to resolve the apparent contradictions they generate. Perhaps that is why the Classical myths are again speaking to us across the ages. When reason fails us we must fall back on metaphor, on images that reach around the contradictions to the larger truths of human life.

    We have faced situations like this at other times in Western civilization. Until recently these challenges resolved themselves over the course of centuries as judgments and circumstances interweaved with new generations to slowly make for a new thought-world. Great arguments surrounded these periods - Plato and Aristotle, Descartes and Rousseau and Locke - as the mind renegotiated its relationship with the world. We are surely renegotiating our mental relationship with the world now, but it doesn't seem that we are so much resolving the paradoxes as overpowering them, sweeping one side of the truth away in a technological tidal wave.

    What is happening in education is discouraging. It is the nature of this technological revolution that it not only challenges the way we think but seeks to limit our thinking about the challenge at the same time. Schools seem all too willing today to accept those limitations in order to ride the wave. So in the one place where we should expect to find a bulwark against it we find instead an open beach.

    Still, there is room for hope. The carnage left by the growing excesses of the reign of technology is becoming noticeable to all but the most obtuse technophiles. Parents of school children are beginning to complain about the vacuity of educational software and the inability of expensive computer systems to address the real problems their children face each day. Luddite teachers are becoming bolder in questioning the way computers help students learn (I suspect there will soon be a Spider or Fly type contest held for high school students). The bloom is falling off the rose and a technological backlash is sneaking over the horizon. If it is not trivialized or over-hyped, but results in real attempts to elevate the paradoxes to a new level of understanding, then perhaps we can escape technology's clutches with our humanity - and the best of our high tech tools - intact. If not, I fear that the devastation wrought in my father's time by DDT and its offspring will be repeated in mine, but this time the devastation will be to our minds.


    Ethic-l listserve message from University of Bristol Department of Philosophy, 1995.

    Lasch, C. The Culture of Narcissism - American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations. Warner Books, New York 1979.

    Mander, J. In the Absence of the of the Sacred - The Failure of Technology & the Survival of the Indian Nations. Sierra Club Books, San Fransisco 1991.

    McLuhan, M. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. Signet Books, New York 1964.

    Roszak, T. The Cult of Information - A Neo-Luddite Treatise on High-Tech, Artificial Intelligence, and the True Art of Thinking. University of California Press, Berkeley 1986.

    Turkle, S. Life on the Screen: Identity in the Age of the Internet. Simon & Schuster, New York 1995.

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