Thursday, August 02, 2007

everything bad while in the process of amusing us to death is good

Daniel Livingstone has the intellectual wherewithal to compare two books which on the surface point us in opposite directions. Brilliant!!

Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1986) by Neil Postman
Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making us Smarter (2005) by Steven Johnson

Daniel's blogs are thought provoking:
Amused to Death
TV Culture Makes us Smarter ... than what?
Smarter and Sillier

I’ve been reading a lot about alan kay’s ideas recently and discovered that Postman was a member of the advisory board for the Viewpoints Research Institute until his death in 2003

In his biography of Kay, John Maxwell analyses the connection b/w Postman’s social analysis and Kay’s ideas about using computers with children. Here is a long quote from Maxwell's thesis about this:

Kay’s warning that too few of us are truly fluent with the ways of thinking that have shaped the modern world—logical argument and systems dynamics — finds an anchor here. How is it that Euclid and Newton, to take Kay’s favourite examples, are not part of the canon, unless one’s very particular scholarly path leads there? We might argue that we all inherit Euclid’s and Newton’s ideas, but in distilled form. But this misses something important, and I know I’ve missed something important in my understanding of math and science. Kay makes this point with respect to Papert’s experiences with Logo in classrooms:

Despite many compelling presentations and demonstrations of Logo, elementary school teachers had little or no idea what calculus was or how to go about teaching real mathematics to children in a way that illuminates how we think about mathematics and how mathematics relates to the real world. (1997, p. 19)
The problem, in Kay’s portrayal, isn’t “computer literacy,” it’s a larger one of familiarity and fluency with the deeper intellectual content; not just that which is specific to math and science curriculum. Kay’s diagnosis runs very close to Neil Postman’s critiques of television and mass media (Postman was a member of the advisory board for the Viewpoints Research Institute until his death in 2003); that we as a society have become incapable of dealing with complex issues. Postman charges that public argument on the scale of that published in and around the US Constitution would be impossible today, because the length and depth of the argumentation simply would not fit in a television format, newspapers would not print it, and too few people would buy it in book format (Postman 1986).
Being able to read a warning on a pill bottle or write about a summer vacation is not literacy and our society should not treat it so. Literacy, for example, is being able to fluently read and follow the 50-page argument in Paine’s Common Sense and being able (and happy) to fluently write a critique or defense of it. (Kay 1996 p. 548)
Another example of “literacy” that Kay repeatedly mentions is the ability to hear of a disease like AIDS and to recognize that a “disastrous exponential relationship” holds:
Many adults, especially politicians, have no sense of exponential progressions such as population growth, epidemics like AIDS, or even compound interest on their credit cards. In contrast, a 12-year-old child in a few lines of Logo [...] can easily describe and graphically simulate the interaction of any number of bodies, or create and experience first-hand the swift exponential progressions of an epidemic. Speculations about weighty matters that would ordinarily be consigned to common sense (the worst of all reasoning methods), can now be tried out with a modest amount of effort. (Kay 1994)
Surely this is far-fetched; but why does this seem so beyond our reach? Is this not precisely the point of traditional science education? We have enough trouble coping with arguments presented in print, let alone simulations and modeling. Postman’s argument implicates television, but television is not a techno-deterministic anomaly within an otherwise sensible cultural milieu; rather it is a manifestation of a larger pattern. What is ‘wrong’ here has as much to do with our relationship with print and other media as it does with television. Kay noted that “In America, printing has failed as a carrier of important ideas for most Americans” (1995). To think of computers and new media as extensions of print media is a dangerous intellectual move to make; books, for all their obvious virtues (stability, economy, simplicity) make a real difference in the lives of only a small number of individuals, even in the Western world. Kay put it eloquently thus: “The computer really is the next great thing after the book. But as was also true with the book, most [people] are being left behind” (1995). This is a sobering thought for those who advocate public access to digital resources and lament a “digital divide” along traditional socioeconomic lines. Kay notes,
As my wife once remarked to Vice President Al Gore, the “haves and havenots” of the future will not be caused so much by being connected or not to the Internet, since most important content is already available in public libraries, free and open to all. The real haves and have-nots are those who have or have not acquired the discernment to search for and make use of high content wherever it may be found. (Kay 2000a, p. 395)
What is to be done, then? This sort of critique puts the education system in the United States (and most Western countries, by obvious extension) in such bad light that many are tempted to depair. Kay’s project is relentless, though: with or without the school system, the attempt to reach children with powerful ideas and the means to working with them is always worthwhile. Part of the key to seeing a way through this is to remember that education does not equal school, nor does television (or any other medium) represent an essential obstacle to education. “Television,” says Kay, again recalling Postman’s argument, “is the greatest ‘teaching machine’ ever created. Unfortunately, what it is best at teaching are not the most important things that need to be learned” (1995). But in this are also the seeds of an alternative; how could different media be harnessed in such a way as to lead in a more productive direction? How can children have any “embedded cultural experience” that encourages learning logic and systems thinking? The answer isn’t in the design of any particular curriculum. Rather, Maria Montessori’s vision inspires Kay: putting the emphasis on children’s “absorbent minds” and the freedom to play and explore.
The objects in our system are instead a help to the child himself, he chooses what he wants for his own use, and works with it according to his own needs, tendencies and special interests. In this way, the objects become a means of growth. (Montessori 1972, p. 150)

1 comment:

Daniel Livingstone said...

Many thanks for the positive feedback. I've really been neglecting my blogging (and reading!) of late as my workload has been shifting around.

Got some long flights coming up, so maybe a chance to catch up on the reading side...