I teach children. I teach them not in public school, but after school, in the afternoons and evenings. I have taught children from preschool through seventh grade, mostly in various kinds of language arts, and sometimes in social studies and basic math. The nice thing about this kind of teaching is that I also get to teach them things not on a curriculum or in a course – things such as kindness, adherence to truth, work habits, appreciation of their talents, and the like. The down side is observing that the children seem to be learning less and less in school, with the exception that they have mostly become expert at making computers do things for them.
This progression towards mastering the computer, apparently at the expense of some other kinds of learning, has been fairly rapid. When I started teaching my first class in 2001, children were still using the chalkboard, pencils and paper, books and workbooks, learning English phonics, syntax, penmanship, and even memorizing addition facts and times tables.
Now, with the exception of children who read books with attention, and whose parents talk with them at home in educated English, reading skills have generally devolved. Reading material now includes material such as used to be relegated to comic books (which are now often called graphic novels, readily available on the Internet), and the classics are rarely read by choice. The memorization of poetry or sections of classic literature or historical passages has all but disappeared. Writing skills, both stylistic and structural, such as grammar, have deteriorated; penmanship and proofreading are becoming unknown (the computer does those), memorization of addition facts and times tables are relegated to computer assisted tasks, and children find it more difficult to compile in their own words information that used to be found in books, but which is now gleaned from the Internet. (It is easier and more convenient to use the copy and paste function than to copy by hand from several books and include that unfortunate copying in one’s handwritten or typed essay – in other words, easier to plagiarize,)
The child who cannot read or write well, or calculate well, is handicapped, but can still function on an average level, given computer assistance. The child who cannot master use of the computer is as sidetracked as is an illiterate person. Teachers, bless them, are often being given larger classes and required to teach more via the computer than in the personal manner that allows them to connect individually with students. Increasingly, schools are not using books for lessons. Testing is standardized and online. In some schools, it is increasingly difficult for a parent to get a personal interview with a teacher about his or her child; the expectation is that everything – conferences, homework, projects, record keeping – is handled online.
There is another related trend, too. It is called STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. This group of subjects is being encouraged, even pushed, at the expense of what are considered “soft” subjects, such as the arts, music, drama, or even non-competitive physical education. The money goes to STEM. The money goes to technology. The arts-related creative subjects suffer for lack of funding, time and recognition. Why?
The most often cited reason is that the computerized system saves money, as it requires fewer teachers, books, materials, and record keeping time. Another common reason given is that the jobs of the future are all STEM related, and that if one wants one’s child to succeed, one will ensure that STEM classes are mastered. Yet another given reason is efficiency, and an easier ensuring that all children receive the same education.
I wonder, though. At home, too, parenting is often done by technology such as the TV, video games, computers. Tired parents find it easier to let technology occupy their children until bedtime, with homework performed on the computer or entertainment generated in cyberspace. The trend is not complete, but it seems our children are being led deeper and deeper into Cyberspace, away from the Earth, and away from us. Even their communications with each other are often done with devices, rather than face to face. If I am correct, then humanity may be headed in a direction that we have not thought about and toward which we may not wish to go.
Cyberspace is virtual. It has little connection to created Earth, if one believes in Creation, or to Earth as it has naturally evolved. It is a world unto itself, dependent for now only on a source of energy from the Earth. Skills necessary in Cyberspace are not the ones needed to live physically on Earth. We have already lost many of those skills. Cyberspace does not take care of the Earth; such issues as pollution, destruction of habitat, or climate change are irrelevant in Cyberspace.
Technology is a wonderful and powerful tool. It can also be addictive, and create a dependency upon it beyond its use simply as a tool. There is an old illustration of the dangers of dependency: to hire a cook, if one can afford to, is a pleasing luxury. However, even with a cook, one needs to know how to negotiate a kitchen and prepare food. Otherwise, what happens if the cook suddenly leaves or if one can no longer afford the cook? It may not be possible to find another quickly. Similarly, what happens if the power is out for a long period, for whatever reason? What if our computers and devices cease to work? We need to rethink where we are going. Do we want a world in which lives are lived in Cyberspace instead of nature? Do we want to forget the skills that have served us well, skills of memory and knowledge and practical application? Even if a computer can do many of these for us, do we want to be dependent on the computer to do for us that which we can no longer do for ourselves?
Let us make a conscious choice instead of simply going with the flow without thinking about it very much. Let us adjust our teaching, parenting and living to suit. It is worth the effort.