A Founder’s View of National Education

(Click here for Wichita Eagle version)

One of my major writing projects this summer has launched me into the world of the Founding Fathers–that vague and often misrepresented collection of white guys who either A) signed the Declaration of Independence; B) argued about the Constitution; or C) knew somebody who did a and/or b. I haven’t been looking specifically at their views on education, but, as I have come across things that they said on the topic, I have made notes for a writing project in some future summer.

Yesterday, I came across a passage in one of John Adams’ letters that came close to blowing me away. Here it is:

“Before any great things are accomplished, a memorable change must be made in the system of education and knowledge must become so general as to raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher. The education of a nation instead of being confined to a few schools and universities for the instruction of the few, must become the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”

I was not surprised to find that John Adams cared about education; he was one of the most extraordinarily well educated men of his age, after all. What surprised me was how clearly and unequivocally he asserted two propositions that have recently been denied vigorously by commentators (mainly right-wing radio hosts and their allies in Congress) precisely because they supposedly go beyond the intentions of the Founding Fathers:

1. That the federal government has a clear responsibility for education that includes paying for it.

2. That a primary purpose of education is to “raise the lower ranks of society nearer to the higher.”

I suspect that, if President Obama were to make these same two observations today, he would invite yet another barrage of criticism, featuring words like “socialist,” “communist,” “social engineering,” “nanny state” and “overreaching federal government.” Certainly, we would all be reminded once again that no responsibility for education is delegated to the federal government in the Constitution and so, under the terms of the 10th Amendment, it belongs entirely to the states. That, after all, is what the Founders intended.

Except that it isn’t. Not John Adams at least. His vision for the future of America included broad access to education, including higher education, across social classes. He understood very clearly that, in the kind of democracy he was building, education would be the key to social mobility. If only the wealthy could afford education from one generation to the next, America would end up with a permanent aristocracy in everything but the monograms on the towels. The only way for America to become a meaningful democratic society was to make both schools and colleges “the national care and expense for the formation of the many.”

Where higher education is concerned, Adams’ vision for the future languished for more than a century, during which there was no appreciable rise in the number of American students who attended or graduated from college–which accounted for fewer than 5% of the population until the end of World War II.

Two things happened in the 20th century to move that number–both of them directly related to the federal government. The 1944 GI Bill sent an entire generation to college and transformed America more rapidly than anything since the Revolutionary War. The 1965 Higher Education Act (which ultimately resulted in the Pell Grant and various loan programs) put college within the reach of every American.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the amount of the Pell Grant, in real dollars, has been declining steadily since 1980. The federal commitment to the education of low-income students now comes primarily in the form of subsidized loans, and even those are in jeopardy in the current round of budget slashing. And we are already beginning to see the first signs of declining college-going rates among our poorest populations.

Ironically, much of the current defunding of education at the national level is being done in the name of what some mythical group of “Founding Fathers” might have thought about the national government, through taxation, assuming financial responsibility for the higher education of poor Americans. In such an environment, it is worth noting, at least, what the real Founders had to say.

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Gold, Groundwater, and the Future of Guatemala

As we participated in the Proyecto de Salud Ambiental (Environmental Health Project), we also learned about much deeper and more disturbing threats to Guatemala’s environment coming from multinational mining companies that, with only minimal payments to the country (1% of total revenues) have removed tons of gold from Guatemalan soil, not through picks and shovels and tin pans with holes in them, but by leaching it from rocks with arsenic–a process that (to put it mildly) is not good for the ground water.

While we were in La Labor, people throughout San Pedro Ayumpuc were organizing against mining exploration in their villages. This final video blog documents some of their efforts to use the democratic process to protect their environment.



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Why the Federal Definition of “Credit Hour” Is a Bad Idea and Why You should Care

I wrote a letter to my congressman today, which is something that I rarely do, and I sent it in on official letterhead, which is something that I have never done before. And when I think of all of the world-shaking issues that might have moved me past political apathy, even I am surprised by what actually did it: a somewhat obscure (but potentially far reaching) debate between the Department of Education and the Higher Learning Commission on the meaning of a “credit hour.”

A little bit of context here: the Department of Education has been trying to define “credit hour” for more than two years. Department officials have held hearings, appointed task forces, issued proposals, solicited input, and spend more than a year negotiating with the six regional accreditors, including Newman’s accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Unlike some people in my position, I do not dispute the government’s right to involve itself in this issue. The Department of Education pays out billions of dollars every year in Pell Grants, supplemental grants, and direct loans to individuals enrolled in college and university courses. As a major bill-footer for credit hour production in the United States, the federal government has a legitimate interest in the educational outcomes that it helps to subsidize.

Having said that, however, I must sadly report that the proposed federal definition of “credit hour” is unwise, unnecessary, and, well, just plain silly. Here it is, straight from section 600.2 of the DOE’s regulations governing institutions that accept federal financial aid (and don’t even get me started on the first 599 sections):


Definition of Credit Hour: the minimum amount of work that is an institutionally established equivalency that is not less than one hour of classroom or direct faculty instruction and a minimum of two hours of out of class student work each week for approximately fifteen weeks for one semester; or ten or twelve weeks for one quarter hour of credit, or the equivalent amount of work over a different amount of time.


So what’s wrong with this? The definition follows what most of us have always known: one hour of college credit means one hour sitting in class and two hours studying outside of class. My high school teachers told me that this was what college meant. So did my college teachers. I have even been known to write it on a syllabus or two myself over the last 20 years. This is a standard rule of thumb for an academic unit that has always proved difficult to define.

The problem, though, is that a rule of thumb is not the same as a definition. It is one thing to tell a student that college is harder than high school—that he or she will need to devote at least two hours outside of class for every hour in class. It is a very different thing to incorporate such a rule into a financial-aid requirement. Colleges don’t actually measure how much time students spend outside of class, and if we did, the measurements would vary too widely to have any value.

Different people have different cognitive styles and perform learning tasks at vastly different rates. The same 30 page chapter that one student might read in 30 minutes with good comprehension might take another students 3 hours. The same goes for writing, studying, memorizing, and almost everything else that students do outside of class.

This extreme variability is a major reason that college-level credit has always been measured by outcomes (how much a student learns) rather than inputs (how long a student spends in a chair). Colleges and universities are not new to the assessment game. Our accrediting agencies began pushing outcomes-based assessment 20 years ago, and any institution of higher education that does not have a robust assessment plan in place in 2011 stands a very good chance of having their accreditation revoked by their peers.

So what is the harm in the proposed definition? Why can’t we just play along for the sake of family unity and all that? Fifty years ago, I would have said “sure, just give me the forms and I will fill them out however you want.” Today, however, it is not that easy. The proposed definition has the potential of undoing most of the gains in educational access—especially for adults and nontraditional students—that have been in my lifetime that that form a core part of the mission of many colleges and universities today.

The “one-hour-in-class-for-every-two-hours-after-class” definition of “credit hour” is also known as the “Carnegie Unit.” This is because the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching endorsed it, in 1906, as a standard for participation in their pension plan. But the world of higher education was very different a hundred years ago than it is today. Then, only 3% of America’s population attended college at all, and those who did were overwhelmingly rich, white, male, and between the ages of 18 and 22. The major format for course delivery was the lecture, and the major assessment tool was the oral examination.

All this has changed. At Newman University, only 15% of our student population fits the traditional, residential college-going demographic. When “rich,” “white,” and “male” are added into the mix, we come down to less than 3%—roughly the same fraction that would have attended college at all in the world that produced the Carnegie credit hour definition.

And the rest? Some of our students take most of their courses on line—a format that simply can’t be measured by the Carnegie rule of thumb. Others—mainly working adults—take courses in compressed formats: over eight weeks instead of sixteen, on the weekends, during intensive terms in January or May, etc. Many other students receive credit for kinds of learning that did not exist in 1906: cooperative education, service learning, study abroad tours, and other enriching experiences that simply cannot be translated into “one hour in a seat and two hours outside of class.”

Measuring student learning in all of these experiences requires us to have a strong program of outcomes assessment in place. This is a consistent challenge for us, but it is one that our regional accrediting body—which is made up of our peers—is ideally suited to evaluate.  Government regulation of this core function of education is neither wise nor necessary.

For this reason, I have written my own congressional representative in support of the recently proposed H.R. 2117, which would revoke the Department of Education’s unwise and untimely definition of “credit hour” and prevent it from attempting similar definitions in the future. I would urge you to do the same.




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Service in Guatemala: A Video Blog

This year, the Guatemala Study and Serve trip added a new component: a videographer. Thanks to a grant by the Gerber Institute, Newman student Marisol Chavarria accompanied the group, armed with a video camera, to record the experience. This past weekend, I began the task (a labor of love) of sorting through some 30 hours of video that Marisol shot during the first three weeks of the trip and situating it into a narrative. By the time the trip is over, we hope to have a documentary record of the entire experience. The videos below represent a small part of that eventual effort:


Video #1: The Home Stay Program in La Labor


Video #2: The Service Week



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Guatemala Study and Serve Trip, 2011: A Photo Essay (Part I)




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“These Kids Today. . .”: An Encomium

Kvetching about “these kids today” has been a part of adult culture for a very long time. Note Juvenal, in the first century of the Christian era, complaining that the new generation of Romans had become infatuated with the effeminate Greeks and had squandered five hundred years of Roman values.  Or Cicero, a few generations earlier, working his audiences into a frenzy saying that “times are bad, children no longer obey their parents, and everybody is writing a book.”

Distressingly, some of the biggest players in the “complain-about-today’s youngsters” game are the teachers and professors who are supposed to be providing them with an education. Anyone who has been an educator for any time at all has seen, and probably participated in, a kvetch session with other teachers, lamenting their students’ bad writing, incompetent spelling, faulty thinking, or distressing lack of knowledge about such things as the Ottoman Turks. A good friend of mine (who knows many things about the Ottoman Turks) has even become wealthy by compiling, into bestselling humor books, innocent (and admittedly funny) mistakes that he has culled from his 30 years of teaching history at the university level. This sort of pedantry is the blood sport of choice for those of us who don’t like football.

So, it is with great pleasure that I report that, for the past two weeks, I have been travelling through Guatemala with nine college students of whom I can find nothing to complain. As I have interacted with them, I have thought a lot about what kind of world they will build. This is a very interesting question to me; I intend to become old and vulnerable in the society that they create, so I need some sense of how they will handle the old and the vulnerable—as well as all of the problems that they will face when they are in charge.

As I have watched these students for the past few weeks, and have thought a lot about the other students that I have taught and worked with for the past 15 years, I have become downright optimistic—perhaps uncharacteristically so—about the future. I say this, not just because they are intelligent (which they are) but also because they are committed and compassionate. They have take a very difficult assignment—to come to a very different culture and live among its people for two months—and made it truly their own. They have loved, they have cared, and they have struggled to understand.

In the process, they have had to face some very unpleasant things. They have met people who have been deeply affected by both crushing poverty and senseless violence. And, perhaps more dramatically, they have come face to face with the fact (which is completely unavoidable if you spend any time at all in the places they have been) that much of the poverty and violence they have encountered stems directly from their own patterns of consumption and the cultural values with which they were raised. This is a difficult truth to face, yet they have done so—with more grace and wisdom than I possessed at 20—or indeed, more than I possess at 45.

And so Jacob, Ellen, Ruth, Marisol, Shelby, Sarah Beth, Monica, Jessica, and Angelica—I salute and congratulate you. You have taught me much, and I thank you. But more than that, I trust you. I trust you to create the kind of world that I want to grow old in. You are, to put it succinctly, up to the task of running the world. Not quite yet, perhaps. You still have things to learn, and people my age still have a trick or two to teach. But you will get there soon. And I, for one, am looking forward to it.

Students from the Newman Study and Serve program in front of a latrine that they built in rural Guatemala

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Pail/Fire: First Notes from Guatemala

¨Education is the lighting of a fire, not the filling of a pail.” —Heraclites (or W.B. Yeats, or maybe G.B. Shaw)

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure who said this bit about filling pails and lighting fires. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t Heraclites, who usually gets the credit, as I once read through all of the extant fragments of his writing looking for where he would have said such a clever thing. Shaw and Yeats also get cited from time to time, but I have never found a primary source. Most probably, it is a piece of folk wisdom that sounds too good to have come from the folk, so, when serious people want to use it, they look for someone serious to cite. So let’s just say it was Heraclites—as unlikely as it is that he would have known anything about pails.

But whoever said it was right. He or she managed to capture something significant about what is wrong with much of contemporary education (“No Pail Left Unfilled”) as well as why it sometimes works so well. As a teacher, I have certainly filled my share of pails. But I have seen enough fires over the years to think that I really might have a worthwhile job—that education really can change people’s lives in ways that, while difficult to measure, are nonetheless important.

This is certainly the case with the nine students—eight from Newman University and one from Donnelly College—whom I have accompanied for the past week on a “Study and Serve” summer trip to Guatemala. This time, I am not the teacher. That privilege belongs to Professor Sonja Bontrager, Newman’s extraordinarily gifted Spanish instructor, who arranged every detail of the trip and continues to be its leader and principal lighter of fires. I am along as a student and fellow traveler—one who can speak a bit of Spanish in a pinch and use the University credit card in an emergency.

I decided to come along this year (this is the fifth consecutive summer that we have run the program) for a variety of reasons. Some of them have to do with my administrative position: I wanted to see what our students were up to, I wanted to show my support for a faculty initiative that I considered important, and so on. But mainly I came because I have always regretted not taking advantage of study abroad programs when I was in college. Although I went to one of the top schools in the country for international study, I never opened myself up to the experience—and that is something that I have always regretted.

But as I prepared to come to Central America, just a month before my 45th birthday, I began to suffer from many of the same fears that kept me from studying abroad when I was 20. Superficially, this had to do with imagined threats to my physical safety, such as the armed bandito and the malarial mosquito—both of which loomed large in my imagination, but, to be honest, not significantly in my intellect.

On a deeper level, I think, I was afraid that I would not be adequate to the experience. I have been out of the United States only a few times in my life—and every time has taken me well outside of my comfort zone. I have expended a lot of effort over the past 20 years to structure my life in such a way that I spend all of my days encountering the kinds of problems that I am good at solving—none of which have ever had anything to do with Guatemala.

As I contemplated this particular trip, however, I experienced an even deeper fear—one that I am just now starting to be able to put into words. I have been, and am, afraid of beginning to love—of starting to care for people who live very differently than I do and whose problems, I know, are completely beyond my ability to solve. Let me explain a bit. The last part of the Newman Guatemala trip takes place in a language institute and is all about learning Spanish. The first part, though, takes place in a rural school and a health clinic run by the order of Sisters who also sponsor the university. It is all about living among the people of a small village and learning their names and the names of their children—and trying to improve the quality of their lives. It is, in other words, all about love.

I have always been, of course, all about love, and I have the t-shirts to prove it. I know, for example (because John Lennon told me), that it is all you need. I cry at all of the appropriate places when Bob Dylan sings “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Joan Baez sings “De Colores.” My taste in music and fashion has always been consistent with universal love. But it is easy (or at least cheap) to love things like “the whole world,” or “everybody,” or “all of my brothers and sisters whatever their nationality or system of belief.” But this, of course, is a fashion statement rather than a moral imperative. Loving actual people, on the other hand, requires action. It requires us to change. And change is uncomfortable.

But the lighting of fires requires discomfort. The comfort zone of any human being is the ideal location for the filling of pails: comfortable students can always bring their empty little knowledge-buckets into the classrooms of their comfortable teachers, and we will obligingly fill it up with facts and theories that can be memorized, digested, and assessed. And, if we aren’t careful, we may confuse this with education.

Speaking only for myself, my education in Guatemala—the fire kind, not the bucket kind—began last Saturday night at an evening mass in the small village of La Labor. It happened right before communion, at the time of the offerings of peace, when members of the congregation great each other and express their good wishes. As a non-Catholic, I have always liked this portion of the mass the most—though it rarely results in more than an affectionate handshake or two, which is pretty much what happened this time as well. But as the communion lines were beginning to form, I noticed a little curly-haired girl of two or three weaving in and out of the pews. She came right up to me and stopped, like she wanted to say something. I leaned down to listen, and she stood on her toes and gave me a kiss on the cheek. I knew immediately that I was going to have to change, though I am still not quite sure how.

And that, I am beginning to suspect, is what Heraclitus (or whoever) meant by “lighting a fire.”

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Of Highways and High Roads: Why the Government’s Role in Public Life Must Include Higher Education; or “Why We Cannot Let Ourselves be Ayn Randed Back to the Stone Age”

“With the exception of the military, I defy you to name one government program that has worked and alleviated the problem it was created to solve. Hhhmmmmmmm? I’m waiting. . . . Time’s up.”  –Rush Limbaugh

This is the Limbaugh Challenge, also known as the Ayn Rand Gauntlet or the Libertarian’s Lament: name one thing that government does that private industry doesn’t do better. Behind this challenge we can generally sense the view of a government that is something like Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes: a comically inept, self-important bumbler whose only value lies in his ability to get out of the way while the important people do their work. And indeed, this very view has become more popular in the last two years than it has been at any time in my life.

It seems to me, though, that, among all of the possible responses to the Limbaugh Challenge, two of them provide such compelling, decisive rejoinders to its underlying ideology that the debate should now be settled for good. (It isn’t, of course, but it should be). The first of these rejoinders is the US Interstate Highway System; the second is the American Higher Education system. These are the most ambitious and successful projects of their kind ever undertaken anywhere in the world. They have both provided benefits to the American public that far outweigh their costs. And they would both have been impossible without the government.

Let’s begin with the highways. In 1919, a young army captain with an interest in tank warfare joined a convoy travelling from Washington DC to San Francisco. The trip took 62 days at an average speed of 5 miles an hour, and Dwight Eisenhower carried the memory of that trip through World War II and into the White House, where he oversaw the construction of the Interstate System. Over strong Congressional opposition—characterizing him as a free-spending liberal exceeding his Constitutional authority—Eisenhower soldiered on, eventually securing passage of the $25 billion dollar Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956.  The US Highway systems remains, in the words of well-known non-liberal George Will, “the most successful public works program in the history of the world.”

When Eisenhower travelled across the country in 1919, he was, by virtue of his graduation from West Point, one of the 3% of Americans who had a four-year college degree. This percentage did not change substantially until Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the GI Bill in 1944. And it did not shoot up decisively until a conservative Republican, Richard Nixon, signed legislation creating the Pell Grant in 1972. As the Federal government made higher education affordable, state governments began to meet the new demand by investing heavily in their state institutions. By the late 1970’s, states were spending an average of about 8% of their total budgets on higher education.

Just as it had been with highway spending, the result of this investment in higher education was dramatically increased access to important thoroughfares. College-going rates skyrocketed, and a college degree went from being a luxury only imaginable to the super rich to a goal well within the reach of every American. And when access increased, the productivity of the American worker increased with it, resulting in an unparalleled period of economic prosperity during which the median standard of living for Americans increased sevenfold.

It turns out, however, that, while both state and federal support for highways has remained fairly constant, support for higher education reached its high-water mark in about 1979. In 2010, for example, state support for higher education was around 4%–half what it was 30 years ago. State university’s that once received 60-70% of their funding from state governments are now hovering around the mid-to-low twenties, making in-state tuition at many schools nearly indistinguishable from that charged by elite private institutions. And Pell Grants, which once covered nearly 100% of the educational expenses for economically disadvantaged students now support less than half of the tuition and boarding expenses at a regional public university.

And these decisions, too, have consequences. The rapid disinvestment in American higher education has already had dramatic effects. Americans have fallen from first place to fifteenth place in college completion rates worldwide, and now rank right behind the Slovak Republic. And the percentage of international students who rank America as their country of choice for higher education is now about half of what it was in 1970. As access to education continues to decrease, the result will be a less educated, less competitive work force in which almost all of the advantages go to the children of parents who can afford college without the government’s help—which is exactly how it worked BEFORE American became an economic and military superpower.

I am not, mind you, complaining. I know that times are tough and that everybody must be part of the solution. What I am doing, however, is pointing out that the decisions we make right now will have long-lasting consequences. The Interstate Highway System took 40 years to build, and it has changed almost everything about transportation in America. The cross country trip that took Captain Eisenhower 62 days can now be accomplished in about four and a half. If we were to let it wither away, or make it available only to those who could afford to subsidize its maintenance, we would all pay a tremendous price: Americans everywhere would become less connected, less secure, and less great.

And we can expect precisely the same thing if we continue to allow what was once the world’s greatest higher education system to wither away, or to revert back to what it once was.

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It’s All About the Jungle Gyms: The Cognitive Importance of Recess

Neither straight rows, nor wooden desks, nor cursive writing occur in nature. They are all outgrowths of the human intellect. Nonetheless, if my own family’s experience is any indicator, they are a bit less natural for boys than they are for girls. I was not a boy who had an easy time sitting still, and my son, now 13, hasn’t even managed to reach my bar. Boys, in nature and in school, are usually pretty wiggly.

As the parent of a wiggly pre-adolescent male, and as a reformed wiggler myself, I know only too well how excess energy is punished in many American classrooms: you lose your recess. As a parent, I find this amazing. Why would anybody think that the best way to stop a kid from wiggling would be to keep them inside when everybody else is running and playing and getting worn out? Why not double recess and have them run laps? But I don’t make the rules, nor do I have to suffer the consequences of a room full of squirmy boys in an afternoon class.

But it is getting harder and harder to take away kids’ recesses, as there is less and less recess to take away. The morning and afternoon recesses that I remember  all through elementary school have been shrinking steadily to make room for more important things, instructional things, things like math and reading that are covered in state assessment tests. Things that make sure that children are not left behind.

Except that they don’t. And recess does. Really. I’m not talking about the physical education aspect of unstructured exercise, or, for that matter, the fact that kids need to run around and expend excess energy (which they do). I am talking about learning–the cognitive development that is supposed to be the main reason that we send kids to school in the first place. As I look back on my time in elementary school, I can see that, in a very real, non-trivial way, it was recess, more than math or science or reading or history that prepared me for the job I now have and the life I now lead. I am the person I am because of what I learned on the playground, much more than because of anything I learned inside the school.

This is not hyperbole, nor is it a clumsy attempt to rework Robert Fulghum’s All I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten. There are all sorts of cutesy life lessons that one can draw from sandboxes and jungle gyms, I suppose, but that is not my goal here. Rather, I assert, without irony, that recess is a more intellectually challenging, cognitively demanding, and developmentally necessary activity than anything that goes on during the day’s lesser learning activities. This is true because recess is, for most students, the only time that they interact with each other directly, free from structured activities and adult supervision. It is during this time that they learn how groups function, how power flows through informal channels, how pecking orders are established, how alliances are formed, and how social threats can be neutralized. It is the only time during the day when a group of children who have not selected each other’s company come together as Hobbesian natural beings and go through the initial steps of creating a social contract.

It is, in other words, the only time during the school day when children actually use their brains the way that brains were designed to be used.

This, at least, is the current thinking of most cognitive psychologists studying the question, “why do human beings have such big brains in the first place.” We have long known that human cognition is much more developed than any program of hunting and gathering could reasonably require. And it is becoming clearer and clearer that the major environmental factor that required human beings to develop advanced cognition was other human beings–other minds with other needs and desires without whose help our ancestors could not have survived. In another venue, I recently addressed this issue as part of my own scholarship:

Research suggests that human evolution occurred largely within groups of about 150 human members (which remains the ideal size for many social organizations today). In order to interact successfully in such a group, a person would have had to keep track of 149 other minds. He or she would need to understand each other person’s motives, history, and temperament and would have to show some understanding of each person’s relationships with each of the other members in the group. In this way, a person could attract mates, form alliances, reciprocate both slights and favors, and acquire status within the group. Keeping track of 150 minds and the millions of possible relationships among those minds requires much more computational power than playing a game of chess or composing “Claire de Lune.” (Austin, Useful Fictions, p. 83)

The current educational orthodoxy–that what happens in the classroom is important while recess is “extra”–gets it exactly wrong. Math and science and reading and cursive writing all have their place, to be sure, in the grand scheme of things, they are simply byproducts of the cognitive functioning that really matters. Unmediated group formation–complete with status hierarchies, romantic rivalries, alliances, betrayals, and reciprocal favor-trading–demands that children use every ounce of brain power that they possess. And, as difficult as life will be for children who never learn to write cursive or solve quadratic equations, their deprivations are nothing compared to those of the children who never develop the skills necessary to make it through recess.

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“Daddy, I’m Nine!”: Thoughts on Teaching Technology to Digital Natives

It was a humbling moment. My wife called me at work and asked if I could come home early to help our daughter, Clarissa, with a PowerPoint assignment for school. I rushed home and ushered Clarissa into my basement office, booted up my computer, and took her hand in mine as we moved towards the mouse. “Today,” I said, “I’m going to show you how to make a PowerPoint presentation. Don’t worry, I can stay with you all night if you need me to.”

“Daddy, I’m NINE,” she said, with an annoyed look on her face. “I can do PowerPoint.”

So I left her alone—dejected, perhaps, but secure in the knowledge that my generation had very little to teach our children about the functioning of technology. We still try, of course, but, when we do, we look like hapless missionaries trying to teach native children how to speak their own language. Most of us can put together an Excel chart or a PowerPoint presentation, but we have had to learn how to use these technologies; our children acquired them.

This is why I usually laugh on the inside (and occasionally, if the truth be known, resort to sarcasm on the outside) when I am in a faculty meeting where the topic of discussion is something like “teaching technology for the 21st century” or “increasing the technological literacy of our curriculum.”  “Computers are important,” we are told, as if this had not yet occurred to us.  “We need to get more computers into the classroom so students can become familiar with them” because, as well all know, computers have magic powers to make students learn (see what I mean by resorting to sarcasm). I once went to an open house at my children’s school and watched in amazement as well-meaning volunteers went around showing children how to open their web browsers—while the students tried to keep from laughing.

The Internet is not, as some like to say, the future. The Internet was the future in 1992—before either of my children, and many of my students, were even born. Today, it is simply the environment we live in. My son could use a mouse before he could use a fork, and my daughter could, by the time she was four, use Google to find the correct spelling of her favorite TV show so she could watch it on YouTube. They know how to use web browsers.

But fortunately for parents and educators, who like to imagine ourselves useful to the upcoming generations, the information revolution has opened up a niche market of sorts for the old-fashioned skill called “knowing what to do with information once you have it.” In almost every important way, having 59 million sources of information about a topic (a modest yield from a Google search) is exactly the same as having no information at all—and search-engine optimization becomes what we mean by critical thinking. As educators, we need to understand that our jobs have changed. When I first started teaching English Composition in 1990, I spent about six weeks of every semester teaching students how to find information in a library. Today, I spend exactly no time on this topic, which is actually a good thing, as it gives me more time to teach things like

  • + Evaluating information to determine its context, relevance, currency, and research value
  • + Understanding biases and implicit assumptions
  • + Reading everything with some degree of skepticism
  • + Generalizing information from one context to another
  • + Using certain kinds of evidence to support certain kinds of claims
  • + Finding a position that is supported by research information but not completely duplicative

These are not new ideas. They were all kicking around the schoolhouse before anybody knew about computers. But the current state of society makes them more important than ever.  Most of us can now access the bulk of the world’s information on our cell phones, and, as a result, research that once took months can now be done during a commercial break. But information is not the same as knowledge, and knowledge is not the same as learning. The great Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson got it right when he wrote, “We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it, and make important choices wisely.”

Exactly, and nothing could be more important to learn.  Even when you’re nine.


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