Obsolete Education

In a new, digital world, why is education still firmly part of an old one?

Sugata Mitra argues that the educational system invented in the nineteenth century by the Victorians had as a primary goal the maintenance of a global colonial empire. Because instant communication was impossible, education had to produce functionaries who all thought and worked in a similar fashion in order to support the empire. This system needed to sublimate individuality and promote homogeneity in thought and practice to manufacture workers for empire. Even though the empires have fallen, the twentieth-century’s increasingly corporate world found the Victorian system compatible with its goals, so education changed little throughout the last century: factories churning out products, rather than schools educating citizens.

The classroom and its traditional tools are products of this process: grids of desks, podium, chalkboard, books, paper, and pencils. This structure posits the teacher as the authority at the front of the class. Students must remain in their seats and memorize selected materials from their textbooks to restate on exams. This architecture promotes the one-way flow of communication, from the teacher to the students, and the latter are rewarded for their obedience and uniformity, and they are punished for outbursts of individualism or imagination. The classroom and its tools condition students to be students, not educated individuals.

Even though the rise of digital technologies and those who advocated a change in educational approaches that they could afford, education has really changed little, even today. The products of this old approach to education are incompatible with the demands of a postmodern culture that is increasingly decentralized by networked digital technologies. In his book Being Digital, Nicholas Negroponte levels similar criticisms at our educational system. He argues that if a surgeon were taken from 100 years ago and placed in a contemporary operating theater, he would be lost, since science and technology have changed medicine so radically. The classroom, however, remains the same today as it did then, so a nineteenth-century teacher would have no trouble teaching in one of our post-2000 classrooms.

Negroponte’s observation suggests another reality: that the jobs education pretends to prepare students for no longer exist. Sterling states that because of the twentieth-century’s radical technological transformation, lifetime “stable roles in large paternalistic bureaucracies” are no longer tenable (41). In fact, because of the uncertainty that rapid technological development brings, it’s likely we have no idea the kinds of jobs that will even be available in five years. Perhaps instead of focusing on vocation, education should instead target skills necessary for the digital age, like adaptability, critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and creativity. Tony Wagner suggests that the “Net generation” are accustomed to instant gratification and extending their reach through technology to examine their own social communities and interests in all aspects of their lives except the classroom.

Even as early as 1974, Theodor Nelson questioned the structures of education. Like social indoctrination, the main subject of education is the correct way to learn. Nelson suggests that “schools as we know them appear designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education” based on how information is fed and regurgitated, how students’ own interests and abilities are not considered, and how their responses are carefully monitored and evaluated (308). The products of this system are adults whose “mentality is cauterized, and we call it ‘normal’” (Nelson 308). Our educational system, states Ken Robinson three decades later, kills creativity and imagination.

To combat these negative effects of an outdated system, Nelson proposes Project Xanadu, a curated hypertext of human achievement and knowledge. Xanadu was theorized by Nelson to be a system of interconnected and parallel resources that emphasized individual exploration and facilitated unique learning outcomes based on student interests. In this system, the authority did not take center stage, but remained in the background as a facilitator, a gentle guide, or curator. Nelson saw the computer as a key tool for allowing students to relate directly and personally with the subject matter – without interference from the conventional expectations of learning. Education should be “clear, inviting and enjoyable, without booby-traps, humiliations, condescension, or boredom” (310).

Nelson’s Xanadu is not the World Wide Web of today. Our hypertext is not really hyper because it can be organized linearly. Nelson seems to desire something less based on the textual objects of the past, something that works symbiotically with the user to create a truly interactive and evolving form: “it has become possible to create a new, readable medium, for education and enjoyment, that will let the reader find his level, suit his taste, and find the parts that take on special meaning for him, as instruction or entertainment” (144). While the World Wide Web is not exactly what Nelson had in mind, it does operate on a similar premise. Among the major problems with the Web are its inconsistencies and the questionable value of much of its information. A web page that was here one day, might be gone tomorrow, or moved to a different location. With anyone able to create content, how do we know what content is valuable and which should be discarded.

Add to that what Bruce Sterling calls “canon panic”: education aimed at career training and lacking tradition would begin to resemble industry, “clever, fast-moving, but vapidly focused on products and profit” with academics becoming more like business practice (47). If this becomes the case, he argues, scholastic mastery loses its footing. In the digital age, educators, must walk the tenuous line between the sheer excitement of networked information and the scholarly tradition of verifiable and organized knowledge. He suggests that educators will increasingly become canon builders, helping student make sense of the expansive knowledge of the digital world that grows every year (48). Knowledge of yore depended on the “sacred torch” of weighty tradition, an intellectual canon of cultural classics that the thinkers of the time agreed were important and should be passed on to subsequent generations (46). With the encyclopedic and loose nature of the World Wide Web, education needs the guiding presence of the educator, but perhaps in a different capacity in a new age.


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