Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not a Dark Age, maybe just a dim one.

The digerati believe that we don't need to memorize things anymore. Well, maybe some things, but not most things. The reason should be apparent to anyone from my generation, and perhaps just taken for granted by kids. Its because the machine will do it for you. Think Wikipedia. As the apostles of the new age have said, its not vital to know the date of the Battle of Hastings. you can just look that up. What is important, is that the Norman Conquest influenced English culture by bringing in a permanent French influence etc. Just Google it.

Similarly, it has been argued that we should stop teaching algebra in high schools. The rational here is that whatever simple operations algebra helps us with in everyday life - like paying a tip perhaps - can be done on a smartphone. Instead, what we should be teaching kids to do is to program to design and develop the tools (software and hardware) that are going to continue to power innovation, efficiency and productivity.

It seems to me that the implication of this is two fold. First, we are talking about basically abandoning certain assumptions about education, that have hitherto been thought of as "classical education." In the case of algebra, the refrain from students for decades has been "why do I need to learn how to do this. I am never going to use it." And while that was most likely true, there were some good reasons for it. the most important of which is that perhaps as a freshman in highs school, you just don't know any better. You may find after a year that you have a knack for math and science and that you in fact want to become an engineer. The education system was designed in some ways to allow for that self-discovery. Of course, others argue that it also made students suffer for struggling with subjects for which they simply had no affinity (this is a subject I will tackle in a future post).

This is the other aspect of the classical education that we assumed valuable on its face for so long. And that is, simply put, that learning for learning's sake is a fundamental good. You learn about literature, not because the school expect you to become a writer, but they expect you to be able to make sense of all the artifacts of culture you may encounter in the world. I think that this assumption is now threatened and its continued influence may be crumbling.

What I don't know is whether or not its a bad thing. The second implication contained in the idea of essentially uploading vast areas of human experience to the machine is that we may end up living in a world that is not dark, but at least dim. I am delving into the realm of the speculative, but bear with me. The idea I am trying to express is that we will still have civilization, we will still have individuals with highly technical expertise, but we will lose a lot as well. What we consider great and good is simply a product of a particular moment in time. In one hundred years, the idea of a Beethoven or a Picasso or a Frank Lloyd Wright may seem quaint, when the value system, language and discourse of that future is considered.  I use the examples of artists because I think that a society based on instrumentalist, individually adapted education and the economic system that it seeks to support, would likely reduce the artistic bandwidth of the population overall. Artists, writer and composers will still exist, but most likely only through a system of patronage, or more likely will be more akin to designers of  various technical products.

Those who see the change coming, who can read the writing on the wall that signals the end of the classical education system will lament the loss of a certain kind of human ingenuity, and may well look back at the industrial age as a golden age. Civilization will go on, but some human knowledge will be lost. Not lost because we have forgotten, but lost because we had turned our responsibility for it over to the machines.

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