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For The Record: On Raising Critical Questions about the Computer in Education

by Douglas Sloan - 1984

Appropriate use of computers for educational purposes begins with objective evaluation of human and educational priorities. Professional educators must consider if they are using the computer in educationally appropriate ways. A discussion of computers in the school environment is presented. (Source: ERIC)

This issue of the Record arises from a threefold conviction: that the computer offers potential for human betterment, and at the same time is fraught with great dangers to the human being; that neither the potential can be truly realized, nor the dangers avoided, without careful, far-reaching, critical questions being asked about the computer in education; and that American educators in general have been almost totally remiss in their responsibility to raise and pursue these critical questions.

Extolling the computer as a boon to critical thinking, professional educators by and large have been conspicuously uncritical about the computer itself. Scrambling to lead the van of the computer-communications revolution in education, American educators have made no concerted effort to ask at what level, for what purposes, and in what ways the computer is educationally appropriate and inappropriate, in what ways and to whom we can count on its being beneficial or harmful. The overall picture has been one, instead, of educators vying to outdo one another in thinking of new ways to use the computer in all manners and at every level of education possible. Professional responsibility demands more.

Why have American educators, apart from individual exceptions here and there,1 so sedulously avoided the critical questions? Several possible answers come readily to mind. There are the obvious, not so flattering ones: Pushing computers is where the money is; it is better to be on the bandwagon than running to catch up, or standing in front of it; no one wants to be labeled a neo-Luddite, an anti-technologist, a nongrowth person, a matho-phobe and computer-anxious one, the kind of person who would also have opposed Gutenberg and Copernicus—all the epithets even the mildest computer critic often, indeed, finds himself saddled with.

But there are two deeper possible explanations for the lack of any concerted critical perspective on computers among modern educators. One is the widespread sense, expressed not only among educators, that the computer-communications revolution is inexorable, and that we have no choice but to accept and come to terms with it. Frequently the advent of the computer and its related electronic communications is compared to a third industrial revolution, which, like steam and electricity before it, can be expected to be all pervasive in scale and scope, remorseless in its growth in that nothing can stop it, and unpredictable in its outcome in that no one knows what the long-range consequences will be. Chances are, this is all quite true. Hidden in this assumption, however, is often another, altogether different premise: namely, that human beings have no responsible choices whatsoever in shaping, restraining, and directing this revolution, that coming to terms with it means going along with it on its terms (and, what is not so often spoken aloud, on the terms of those who control and stand to profit from it). The responsible, mature person—the person who is not a crank or a hopeless romantic—will therefore, it is asserted, embrace the revolution, take it into his home, his children’s classrooms, his own soul, enthusiastically, no questions asked. It is a strange notion of responsibility whose first and last act is self-abdication. We may be sure of one thing: If we ask no hard and critical questions, if we have learned nothing from the first two industrial revolutions that we can apply to the so-called third, if we give no thought and action to the consequences, the new technology (and the power of those who control it) will be totally irresistible and its effect irreversible.

There are those who assure us that misgivings and uneasiness are unfounded. They concede that the new technology may produce many casualties, but insist that these will be mainly among those who, not embracing the revolution, will be left in the dustbin of history. In most of its effects the revolution, we are assured, will be overwhelmingly benign. Among the anodynes proffered to calm any anxieties about technological progress, the analogy of the automobile is frequently cited. The computer, like the automobile, it is suggested, may entail some casualties but it will greatly enhance convenience, comfort, and the possibilities for personal communication among the majority of its users. One could feel much better about the example of the automobile if those who put it forward gave even the slightest indication that they are aware of the huge personal, social, and environmental price that we have had, and have still, to pay for the convenience of its use.2 Even if we accept without question the benign influence of the automobile for society at large as an apt metaphor for the benefits of the computer, there are still some all-important distinctions to be made. After all, we do not put our four-, five-, and six-year old children behind the wheel of the car; we do not do it for their sakes and for ours.

Unfortunately, there are many signs already that call for more than a technolatrous faith that the third revolution will inevitably turn out well in its social consequences. The growing real possibilities of using the computer for official, and not so official, surveillance and control of the citizenry is a direct threat to any concern for a democratic education.3 The developing “industrial connection” between American education at all levels and computer, pharmaceutical, and defense industries mocks every notion of academic freedom.4 It does not take a flaming Bolshevik, nor even a benighted neo-Luddite, to wonder whether all those computer companies, and their related textbook publishers, that are mounting media campaigns for computer literacy and supplying hundreds of thousands of computers to schools and colleges really have the interests of children and young people as their primary concern. The warning signs of increasing social, economic, and cultural inequalities and disruptions arising from the growth of high technology call for the best critical thought from those concerned with the career and vocational dimensions of education.5 Educators have not even begun to face and grapple with the fact that the majority of graduates from university artificial intelligence programs will find, as Joseph Weizenbaum, computer scientist at M.I.T., has pointed out, that most of the jobs for them will be with companies working for the military.6 All these questions deserve the most careful attention of educators who are at all concerned with the social consequences of their work.

But there are still much deeper, more fundamental issues to be raised and explored. And here we see yet another possible reason for the failure of a critical educational perspective on computers to develop. There is very little in the literature on computers to indicate any widespread sense of conflict between the dominantly accepted goals of modern education and the use of the computer. Increasingly, there appears a growing convergence of outlook among educators and the public that the chief goal of education is to develop the concrete-operational skills of technical reason coupled with functional, utilitarian language skills. That cognition involves a rationality much deeper and more capacious than technical reason is forgotten; that even the development of strong logic and technical reason itself may not best be served by the hot-house forcing of analytical and abstract thinking at an ever earlier age is overlooked.

In this context the computer is seen to recommend itself as the further extension and embodiment of these same goals and the preeminent means to their achievement. To question the computer in a rigorous way means, therefore, to begin also to ask critical questions about the whole of modern education as it has increasingly taken form even before and up to the advent of the computer. And this, one suspects, most modern educators are not so much unwilling as unable, because unprepared, to do. Moreover, at a time when the nation’s schools are widely perceived to be in serious trouble, the computer seems for many people to have come on the scene as a veritable deus ex machina to put all things right, and to relieve parents, teachers, and all our sundry officials of any necessity for fundamental reexamination of self and society.

In the present climate, therefore, to call for a critical look at the computer in education will immediately be seen by many as by definition anticomputer and antitechnology and antitechnical reasoning. But to react in this way is to miss what is really at issue. The central question is not whether one is for or against computers in education, but to define the human and educational criteria and priorities that can make a truly human use of the computer possible. Such a critical look will be the first step in beginning to make much needed distinctions and discriminations between what is appropriate and what is inappropriate, between what is helpful and what is damaging, in the uses and places of the computer for different purposes and for different types and ages of students. That which is appropriate, for example, for high school students and adults may be inappropriate and outright harmful for small and school-age children. It would not be the least benefit of such a critical inquiry if it were to enable people to thus begin to discriminate rigorously between the appropriate and the inappropriate, between the good and the hurtful, in the educational use of computers, without feeling, or being made to feel, that they had thereby to take a stand for or against computers as such. But to ask really penetrating questions about the place of the computer in education will not be easy, for it might well lead in directions and into areas of concern long neglected in American education.

One of these all-important educational concerns has to do with what the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray has called emotional rationality. Macmurray employs this expression to denote the central part played by the emotional-feeling life in cognition.7 The main cognitive activity of the emotions is twofold. The emotions guide and empower logical reason, setting its goals and providing its energy. And, more important, feelings themselves, when properly developed and educated, work as our most penetrating and indispensable organs of cognition. It is only through a deep, feeling awareness that we can come to know the qualitative dimension of life—in nature, in other persons, in ourselves. It is in this larger matrix of qualitative reality that all reason, including the logical and calculative, ultimately finds its ground. Macmurray stresses, therefore, that it is crucial to grasp the primacy of feeling in all cognition. He writes: “It is not that our feelings have a secondary and subordinate capacity for being rational or irrational. It is that reason is primarily an affair of emotion, and that the rationality of thought is the derivative and secondary one.“8 Qualitative knowing—the only kind capable of grasping living and personal reality-requires a rich, vital emotional life.

Merely having feelings, however, is not enough (some “get-‘em-all-out” schools of popular therapy to the contrary notwithstanding). Just as we can have false reasons, we can have false emotions. For the feelings to serve as organs of cognition requires that they be nourished and educated—inner discipline, energetic attentiveness, and discrimination are essential.

Modern education often seems, however, to have lost all sense of the cognitive significance of the feeling—emotional life. To be sure, a few educational psychologists champion the importance of “affective education,” but almost always set it off against “cognitive education,” and as a result probably do more harm than good. Otherwise, in most modern educational settings the feelings seem to be regarded mainly as problems—if they cannot be held in check, perhaps they can be channeled off, as in athletics—or are seen as opportunities for exploitation—“capture their interest,” “make learning fun."9 By relegating feeling to the realm of the peripheral in education, we not only weaken and short-circuit thinking, we leave individuals and society aswim in feelings that are unformed, maudlin, and brutish. A people whose feeling sensibilities are more and more dulled and coarsened will quickly lose the capacity to recognize that the health of society can never be gained through the gross national product, a new election, technological advance, bigger defense spending. The atrophy of feeling-perception will have cut this people off from communion with the essential qualities of life.

What then does an education of emotional rationality demand? A first prerequisite is the nourishment and development of a rich life of the senses. “If we are to be full of life and fully alive,” says Macmurray, “it is the increase in our capacity to be aware of the world through our senses which has first to be achieved.”10 For the healthy development of growing children especially, the importance of an environment rich in sensory experience—color, sound, smell, movement, texture, a direct acquaintance with nature, and so forth—cannot be too strongly emphasized. And that fine sensitivity in discrimination which is the heart of emotional rationality arises in working and playing with the materials of the senses—through storytelling, drama, movement, music, painting, handwork. encounters with responsible, involved other human beings. What is demanded is clearly an artistic education in which the senses are nourished and sensibility and sensitivity developed. The lack of such an education can produce only a society that, whatever its cleverness and power, becomes increasingly Philistine, insensitive to life, and uncaring, because incapable of truly knowing. And it becomes more and more a menace to itself and others.

From this perspective, therefore, one important form of question is: What is the nature and quality of the sensory life encouraged by the computer? At what points and in what ways can the computer in education serve a vital, qualitatively rich feeling for life? At what points and in what ways will the computer in education only further impoverish and stunt the sensory experience so necessary to the health and full rationality of the human individual and society? And a prior question remains: What place does the nurture and education of the emotional life have within the theories and practices that presently dominate modern education with or without the computer?

Closely related to emotional rationality is the part played by the image in thinking. In an exclusive emphasis on the inculcation of utilitarian, operational problem-solving skills as the main task of education, the determinative role of the image in all thinking tends to be forgotten. As a consequence, thinking becomes tied increasingly to old, habitual—unconscious and unexamined—images, and fresh insight that alone can release logic from its habitual grooves and compartments and guide it into new paths becomes impossible. As the theoretical physicist David Bohm has noted in an earlier issue of this journal, new insight announces itself in new images (one recalls immediately, in this respect, Newton, Einstein, Kekule, Poincaré, among others). To be sure, the full meaning and implications of the initial images must be worked out through hypotheses, formal logic, and calculation. But formal logic, the exceeding great importance of which is not in question here, is, as Bohm has shown, even in science secondary to insight via images and is never the source of new knowledge. Formal logic and discursive reasoning not in the service of insight lock us all the tighter into our presuppositions and rigid mental compartments.11 Images may be of many kinds (visual, auditory, kinetic, and so forth), and a rich, vital imagery and image-making capacity of the mind are essential for new insight.

It is particularly in relation to the centrality of the image in all thinking that much serious thought must be given to the appropriate educational use of the computer with its powerful but highly specific, and exceedingly limited, form of imagery.

This becomes even clearer when it is considered that not only insight but all thinking is guided and shaped by our images, and that the quality of our images determines the quality of thinking and its consequences. We must of necessity rely constantly on our mental images in our efforts to integrate and understand the world. Even those physicists who engage in so-called imageless mathematics are guided by deep-lying images of the nature of the world they are probing, and they must have recourse to explicit imagery every time they seek to embody their calculations in instrumentation and experiment.12 David Bohm has written, “Indeed, one finds that physicists are not actually able just to engage in calculations aimed at prediction and control: they do find it necessary to use images bused on some kind of general notions concerning the nature of reality” (and he adds that the images dominating physics today are highly confused).13 The nature of our imagery and the health of our image-making capacities become all-important, for they will shape the kind of world we come to know, and the kind of world we come, thereby, to give ourselves. It makes all the difference whether our images are living, mobile, and fresh or dead, rigid, and habitual, whether they are more or less conscious or unconscious and, thus, likely to insert themselves unnoticed into our thinking, whether they are responsibly employed or wantonly chosen and applied irrespective of the consequences.

One of the most pervasive, probably the dominant, image of the modern mind set is that of the machine. It is certainly the case that science, and the scientism that has come to shape most people’s view of reality, is dominated by an imagery that is basically mechanistic. “It is no exaggeration,” R. C. Lewontin has recently written, “to say that most scientists simply do not know how to think about the world except as a machine.“14 This mechanistic imagery has been exceedingly powerful in our uncovering and coming to understand the mechanical, physical cause-and-effect dimensions of reality, but is it adequate and appropriate for understanding the whole of reality? Even the so-called life sciences are dominated by the mechanistic imagery that attempts to locate the secret of life in the inanimate. The noted biochemist Erwin Chargaff has spoken of what he calls “‘the paradox of biochemistry,’ namely, that biochemistry is helpless before life, having to kill the organism before investigating it.” And he adds: “Biochemistry is, in fact, much more successful in practicing the second part of its composite name than in following the prefix.“15 This mechanistic imagery has made it possible to manipulate life with much success, and with some undeniably useful results, but that it leads to an understanding of life itself is highly debatable. For an understanding of a living world and its requirements for survival, do we not need—in addition to the mechanical—living, mobile images that alone can guide a living thinking?

Our images will eventually give us the kind of world we come to know through them. As Owen Barfield has put it, if we persist in an exclusive preoccupation with mechanistic images, we will get a mechanical world.16 It is, thus, in the imaging capacity of the mind that we find the moral element at the heart of all thinking. We have a responsibility for the images we make and use in our efforts to integrate, understand, and shape the world. The development of a rich, healthy, living image-making capacity is the chief task of an education that is concerned with the development of a creative, responsible living-thinking, and of a living world.

This is what makes the feeling-life of the school-age child of paramount importance for education, for it is here that the education of emotional rationality and the education of a strong, vital image-making capacity are joined. It is in the picturing- and feeling-life of the school age child that the creative, image-making capacity begins to come fully into its own and to cry out for nourishment. The provision of an education rich in sensory experience and with opportunities for developing fine discrimination becomes essential for a living-thinking in which penetrating insight and strong logic undergird one another. The most serious questions must, therefore, be raised and weighed in considering the place of the computer in the education of young children.

We live at a time when the feeling, image-making capacities of the child have been already pushed aside and ignored in modern education by a misplaced emphasis on ever-earlier development of analytical, narrowly conceived functional skills. Are we in danger of now further subjecting the child to a technology that would seem to eliminate entire sources of sensory experience and living imagery—while accentuating out of all proportion images of a very limited type, all the while inserting the latter directly into the child’s mind during its most plastic and formative years? What is the effect of the flat, two-dimensional, visual, and externally supplied image, and of the lifeless though florid colors of the viewing screen, on the development of the young child’s own inner capacity to bring to birth living, mobile, creative images of his own? Indeed, what effect does viewing the computer screen have on the healthy development of the growing but unformed mind, brain, and body of the child?

The questions can be multiplied, and educators have a responsibility not to blink them nor to assume that they are not really urgent. As we grasp the issues involved, we will begin to see how important it is to realize that the alternative to sitting Canute-like before the incoming tide of electronic and computer technology is not to herd all the children onto the beach to have them bear the full brunt of the onrushing tidal wave. As for adults, we may come to see more clearly that the most important human problems are not computable, that besides data and calculation they require understanding, interpretation, and, often, empathy, sacrifice, and restitution.17

This issue of the Record is offered in the hope that it can encourage and make a contribution to a discussion that needs to be taken up and resolutely pursued. Only in such a dialogue can we begin to realize the full potential of the computer and of the human being alike.


With this issue my tenure as editor of Teachers College Record comes to an end. I want to thank the readers of the Record during the years of my editorship for their interest and support. I also want to express my special gratitude to Frances Simon and Glorieux Dougherty, the Record staff, for their virtually indispensable editorial and administrative skills, and for their unflagging commitment. It is a privilege to extend my welcome and best wishes to the new editor of Teachers College Record, Professor Jonas F. Soltis.


Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 85 Number 4, 1984, p. 539-547
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 875, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 9:16:30 PM

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About the Author
  • Douglas Sloan
    Teachers College, Columbia University

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