In Defense of Computer Illiteracy: The Virtues of "Not Learning"
by R.W. Burniske - September 13, 2000
What if the push for computers and Internet connectivity fails to serve the best interests of humanity? The true believers lobbying for electronic boxes and wires in classrooms may dismiss such thoughts as heretical. However, their zealous praise for the wonders of technology often neglects an essential question: what shall we do with students who resist our brave new media?
As a student and teacher of the humanities, I have habitually thought of literacy as a virtue. However, the hype over "computer literacy" often makes me question that position. Of late, a pro-innovation bias has enabled the church of technology to construct new altars in our educational institutions. What if the push for computers and Internet connectivity fails to serve the best interests of humanity, though? The true believers lobbying for electronic boxes and wires in classrooms may dismiss such thoughts as heretical. However, their zealous praise for the wonders of technology often neglects an essential question: what shall we do with students who resist our brave new media?
Indeed, the majority of students may embrace technology because they believe it will serve them well on the job market, but there are many who resist computer-assisted learning for good reasons. One of my students in the Computer Writing and Reseach Lab, an undergraduate music major, complained that "90% of [his] time is now spent in front of computers." During office hours one day he asked if professors were aware of how much time their assignments forced students to sit before computer terminals. He also wondered whether or not anyone had studied the cumulative effect of these brave new machines upon the physical, mental and emotional development of students. Though he understood the need for educators to experiment with the pedagogical uses of emerging technologies, he was clearly exasperated by the new "drill and kill" routines that put him through the electronic paces for online research, webpage construction and the composition of essays and musical scores.
He was not the only student to hoist this red flag. In fact, others have demonstrated much greater resistance, to the point of refusing to learn certain computer skills. What prompts such resistance? As Herbert Kohl has observed, educators often misinterpret "not-learning" as a disability or lack of skills when it often has more to do with personal desire and determination:
Not learning tends to take place when someone has to deal with unavoidable challenges to her or his personal and family loyalties, integrity and identity. In such situations there are forced choices and no apparent middle ground. To agree to learn from a stranger who does not respect your integrity causes a major loss of self. The only alternative is to not-learn and reject the stranger's world. (Kohl 1994, 6)
Kohl used the example of Hispanic immigrants refusing to learn English because they didn't want to lose connection with the culture that shaped their personal identity. I can empathize. A few years ago, while qualifying as a doctoral candidate in the "Computers and English Studies" concentration at the University of Texas, I chose to "not-learn" a computer programming language. I had two options for fulfillment of a foreign language requirement: three years of a conventional language or two years of that language plus two years of a programming language. I gave the computer programming a try.
The course began with a series of cryptic lectures, delivering a rapid succession of overhead transparencies to more than 200 students in a dark, cramped auditorium. Between lectures, graduate students who were more comfortable with computers than people -- and more skillful with PASCAL than English-- conducted programming sessions in equally cramped computer labs. Their pedagogy relied primarily upon photocopied instructions and a relentless schedule of due dates for the completion of programming chores. It was a hostile, de-humanizing environment. To succeed in it would mean changing who I am, acquiring the language and customs of a culture that I didn't find appealing.
After two weeks, I withdrew.
Rest assured, this wasn’t a neo-Luddite reaction. I simply didn't want to learn PASCAL, a moribund programming language that had more to do with codes and syntax than creativity and pedagogy. Certainly, we need educators with specialized computing skills, which is why I’ve learned to teach in a networked computer classroom, introducing students to hypertext compositions and a variety of online learning tools.
However, we also need to consider the forms of literacy that we endorse. If my decision made me less "computer literate" then so be it, but I'd argue that choosing to "not-learn" one form of literacy was as important as choosing to learn other forms of literacy. Implicit in that choice, I believe, is the conviction that certain types of reading, writing, speaking and listening would be overwhelmed by technology rather than served by it. After two weeks it was clear that this course and I weren't compatible. So I chose not to continue; I didn't want to learn how to speak a language divorced from emotions.
This may sound like the dull rationalization of a misguided romantic, but it was an unpleasant ordeal, and one that forced me to look closely at who I am and what I wish to be. By choosing to "not-learn" a programming language I felt like I had failed in some way. Nonetheless, I knew it was the right decision for me. My choice was a deliberate rejection of a course and culture. I didn't like stripping language of emotion, reducing it to purely grammatical constructions. I was conscious of this choice after reading Ludwik Fleck's monograph, The Origin and Genesis of a Scientific Fact. Half a century ago Fleck admonished scientists to examine the "thought style" of their community's "thought collective," lest an obsession with objectivity and scientific methods should blind them to a pernicious habit:
The concept of absolutely emotionless thinking is meaningless. There is no emotionless state as such nor pure rationality as such. How could these states be established? (Fleck 1979, 49)
Personally, I didn't want to join a "thought collective" that valued "emotionless thinking." This is why I chose to study "Computers and English Studies" rather than Computer Science. What I value about reading, writing, speaking and listening - all of which rely upon the "technology" of an alphabet and grammatical structures - is the way that each of these activities enables the exploration of what it means to be human. An obsession with technology as an end in itself neglects our humanity, generating the kind of "emotionless thinking" that Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility fear.
So I withdrew from the study of PASCAL. I chose to learn more Spanish, instead, re-acquainting myself with an expressive language and culture that I had embraced while living and working abroad. This meant reading The Labyrinth of Solitude by Octavio Paz to prepare for translation of a selection from that text. It also meant reflecting upon travels in Spain and Latin America, a nostalgic return to the people and places of Andalucia and Ecuador that shaped my life. Good fortune has allowed me to choose what to learn and often where to learn it. This I knew. What I hadn't realized, however, was that fortune also allowed me to choose what to "not-learn," what I would not become a skilled reader of, because I chose not to let it shape my life.
Every student should have the right to "not-learn." A humane, educational system would respect that right as much as the right to learn. Yet, after the extraordinary expenditure of time and resources – on state, national and international levels – how will educators respond to the student brave enough to raise her hand and say, "I’d rather not use a computer today." To make such statements within a high-tech environment requires courage, since those immersed in such a thought collective often fail to see its potential harm. One wonders if such environments might produce a new breed of "maladjusted" individuals, however, the kind that Herbert Kohl had in mind while writing I Won't Learn from You.
We know what happens to maladjusted people. Society ostracizes them. If they fail to conform, or at least remain quiet, society punishes them. For this reason Kohl recognized that "adjustment is not to be abandoned lightly: It is wonderful to fit comfortably within a family, at work, in culture, or society" (129). This is why students and educators must wrestle with their conscience. We wish to adjust, to belong, but at what price? Can we really live peacefully, accommodating both society and ourselves, if we forfeit our convictions and compromise our integrity? Who among us has not worked or studied within an educational institution or department that was hostile to the learning environment they wished to cultivate? Unfortunately, we often conform or flee when we ought to resist through 'maladjustment,' preserving that which we cherish:
When it is impossible to remain in harmony with one's environment without giving up deeply held moral values, creative maladjustment becomes a sane alternative to giving up altogether. Creative maladjustment consists of breaking social patterns that are morally reprehensible, taking conscious control of one's place in the environment, and readjusting the world one lives in based on personal integrity and honesty -- that is, it consists of learning to survive with minimal moral and personal compromise in a thoroughly compromised world and of not being afraid of planned and willed conflict, if necessary. (Kohl 1994, 130)
Our present climate, which indoctrinates many educators through the gospel of the technology "thought collective", makes it virtually impossible for students to "not learn" technical computing skills. Yet, as we experiment with new learning environments shouldn't we consider potentially harmful effects? What if the embrace of "computer literacy" – particularly an impoverished form emphasizing technical skills while neglecting ethical concerns – should marginalize more robust forms of human literacy? In light of such possibilities, perhaps the "creative maladjustment" that perpetuates computer illiteracy, will prove to be a virtue, providing an essential counter-balance to de-humanizing forces.
Ultimately, we need to cultivate more critical awareness of the learning environments and sub-cultures that computer literacy generates. My own ambivalence enables me to read, think, speak and listen as both a believer and skeptic. It also sustains my conviction that human emotions are a prerequisite for investigations of topics such as "Computers and English Studies." I should hope that I never lose such convictions, nor the ability to understand students who refuse to prostrate themselves at technology's altar.
Kohl, Herbert. 1994. I Won't Learn from You: and Other Thoughts on Creative Maladjustment. New York: New Press.
Fleck, Ludwik. 1979. Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
R.W. Burniske is the author of Literacy in the Cyberage: Composing Ourselves Online (Skylight, 2000) and co-author of Breaking Down the Digital Walls: Learning to Teach in a Post-Modem World (SUNY Press, 2001).