Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

Technology, Web 2.0, and the Platonic Ideal

The Ptolemiac Universe

The first illustration is of the Ptolemaic universe, a series of spheres nested inside one another. Many of the earliest composers were attempting to capture the music that these crystal spheres must produce in their orbits; sort of like the music one makes running their finger around the rim of a fine crystal goblet. The bit of music we just heard is from Anton Bruckner’s 7th Symphony. I have been told by people who understand such things that Bruckner’s symphonies often exhibit a mathematical precision and it is this precision that often evokes the emotional response that many have to the music.

I think that what attracts many to music, whatever the genre, is not the melody but the content of the complete musical experience. The melody is the most accessible; it is what we whistle in the shower. But it is all the other stuff that is going on around the melody that makes the music endure. It is why we still listen to old Beatles records, perhaps, and not other of the less enduring bands of the era. The melody may be the hook, but if there is nothing of interest happening with harmonies and rhythms and the blend of instrumental sounds the melody soon becomes cloying. It is that melody we get stuck inside our heads and cannot get free of.

I think it is always the content that gives enduring value. If the melody is all there is the music is not likely to endure. It is those other things, the harmonies, rhythms, and instruments that give the music its depth and longevity. I think this principle holds true with many things, not just music and I think there is a lesson here about education, course content, and the technology (new or otherwise) employed to showcase that course content.

The kind of authentic assignments that many advocates of the new technologies offer as examples of best practice trivialize the core academic disciplines; create a kind of “Big Mac curriculum” where students develop only those skills that they are most likely to use in the market place. Because few students will need to read and understand anything more complex than a memo or a travel brochure, their writing tasks should focus on memos and travel brochures. Few of our students will go on to become physicists or literary critics. Most students will not in their daily lives have to use calculus or need to read Proust. But if school curriculum is built only around travel brochures and how to balance a checkbook we will not be training the physicists, mathematicians, or scholars of the next generation.

It may be that students will never write a term paper after they leave school and that the kind of writing they will do will be much more “practical”. But the purpose behind a term paper is not to prepare them for a life of writing term papers but a life of making critical, analytic, and interpretive judgments; skills that term papers teach and the paper itself documents have been mastered.

The adept will perhaps succeed in training themselves and the children of the wealthy and privileged will be able to acquire the skills that have always characterized the traditional liberal arts education, the children of the less fortunate (which includes the bulk of the middle class and the vast majority of children in this country) will not be challenged to excel at any but the most rudimentary skills. This need not be the case, I suppose, but when I look at the examples of what those leading the “technology revolution” regard as authentic assignments I see assignments that tap into what most students find interesting.

I do not mean to suggest that what interests students or what students think they need to know should be barred from the classroom but only to suggest that the classroom should go beyond this. In the 1960’s and 1970’s the philosophy of the Summerhill School enjoyed some popularity in America and that philosophy is revived every now and again. It is at heart a belief that students know best what they need to learn and left to their own devices will learn what they need to learn more effectively.

When I look at the educational philosophy behind much of the Web 2.0 tools and those that advocate for them I see this Summerhill philosophy. I think there is a lot of merit to this for the motivated students. But every school that I encountered that practiced this philosophy had problems motivating some of their students. It is these students that concern me. I think as a teacher it is these difficult to motivate students that makes the job challenging and exciting and keeps me from becoming bored with it. I think it is important to find a balance between offering students the opportunity to self-direct some of their education (as they will have to do for the rest of their lives once the leave the academic community) and the traditional teacher directed classroom. Even the most motivated students need guidance from time to time and student interest cannot be the sole criteria determining classroom content.

If I structure my classroom around what students want to know or what they think they need to know my job becomes much easier. But if I structure my class around the more difficult skills that students resist and maybe only a few will go on to use in their working lives my job becomes much more difficult. And this has always been at the heart of reforming the classroom, the choice between what is easy and what is difficult. I also think students see through this. They understand that if they are not being pushed to do things they do not like or that they think are beyond them that their time is being wasted. They resist because they want, like most of us, the easy road, but they also, like many of us, resent those that make things too easy for them. Some students after being coerced a bit to pursue a difficult line of study come to find it interesting.

When I was in school students were tracked. As a result of my dyslexia I was labeled in the mid 1950’s as “borderline retarded” and put into a vocational track that would not challenge me very much because the schools thought I could not do very much. So I was delighted when tracking was done away with and teachers were required to challenge all students at a “college preparatory” level. But what has happened in many of our schools is that more and more of the “college prep” curriculum has come to resemble the old “vocational” curriculum. If most students do not have the reading skills to handle Chaucer or Shakespeare, give them the current YAL (Young Adult Literature) favorites because these are easier for most students to read.

I have nothing against YAL and enjoy reading many of the titles that are classified under this label. But the challenge is not just to get students to read but to read difficult texts. There is a difference between reading Time Magazine and a poem by Keats. Students will not have to read Shakespeare or Chaucer when they leave school, though some may, but the language skills, the insights into human nature, the training of the imagination that these books provide cannot be provided by “more accessible” texts.

It is the difficulty of the traditional texts that make them valuable. It is like those things in music that enable the music to survive. The best opportunities often come to those that have learned to master difficult tasks and developed the tenacity and patience to work their way through a difficult problem. The issue is not relevance to the world of work but the mindset that is developed within the student.

It is also important for students to understand that the more difficult aspects of all the academic disciplines should at some level be mastered if only so they start to realize how a fundamental knowledge of those disciplines that do not attract them have relevance if only in broadening the scope of what their minds can grasp. Many students do not see where a math course applies to a language course or a history course to a science course. Though there is much about each discipline that is unique to that discipline (which is why it is a separate discipline in the first place) there is much that is transferable. I learned this in high school geometry. As a student more attracted to literature and language than I was to mathematics I always struggled in my math courses. But in doing proofs in my geometry course I learned the importance of evidence in making and defending an assertion. I still use a geometry proof I learned in high school that ends by “proving” one equals two as an example of a spurious argument in my A. P. Language and Composition course.

I think if the new technologies are to be made relevant to the modern classroom those that advocate for them must come to realize the importance of the content of the traditional curriculum to the classroom. I think one reason some educators resist the new technologies is because the defenses made for these technologies by their advocates appear to argue for a lowering of academic standards or trivialization of those aspects of the curriculum that are important to the practitioner of that discipline.

If the classical literature that is at the heart of the English curriculum is irrelevant than why keep the discipline? The examples of authentic assignments I have seen for the Language Arts classroom in articles advocating Web 2.0 technologies suggest to me that it is more important to prepare students for an occupation than to help students master language; that I am being encouraged to offer job training not exposure to an important literary tradition.

Plato and Aristotle walking and talking together

I do not think our students will ever have cause to quote Plato or Aristotle in the work place, but if they learn to follow and structure an argument as Plato and Aristotle did they will probably have significant advantages over those they are competing with for the best jobs in the work place. These philosophers challenge us to think not just deeply but broadly. They were wrong about many things. My mother used to tell me Aristotle set learning back a thousand years because what he taught was accepted as the final authority. I think there is truth to this, which Aristotle would probably recognize, but which he would also find a bit troubling, seeing in it a sign that he failed as a teacher.

It is said that when students of Pythagoras could not explain a difficult concept they had learned from Pythagoras they would respond, “ipse dixit”, which in Latin means “He himself has said it” (though being a speaker of Greek he probably said something else, though the points remains the same). They said this because they believed there was no higher authority than Pythagoras, so if he said something it must be true. I think we often encourage this kind of thinking in our students. It is easier to deal with students that just do what they are told than with students that question everything. When we give students what they want as opposed to what they need we are more likely to create this kind of complacency.

I had a professor in college who told us to accept nothing anyone says at face value, even anything he said, but exhorted us to challenge in our minds everything and verify everything for ourselves, or at least those things we might come to rely upon or try to teach to others. Like that old Russian proverb Ronald Reagan was so fond of quoting “trust but verify.” Perhaps we should take this attitude with the new technology. Trust people when they tell us the new technologies can improve the classroom and experiment with them, but verify for ourselves that they actually live up to their expectations.

Ptolemaic orbits, from “Harmonia Macrocosmica” by Andreas Cellarius, 1661, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_in_Classical_Antiquity

Detail of The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509, showing Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_science_in_Classical_Antiquity

From Symphony #7 in E Major, “Adagio”, by Anton Bruckner, Columbia Symphony Orchestra, Bruno Walter Conductor

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