You [Theuth] who are the father of letters, from a paternal love of your own children have been led to attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this discovery of yours [writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.
~Plato, Phaedrus, 275
Of course, Socrates was speaking of the invention of writing, but is there any more apt description of the Internet Age?
Students should live a life of “technological poverty,” where the use of electronic media is prohibited. This policy should not be enforced out of paranoia, ignorance, or a will to oppress, but to create an atmosphere conducive to education—to the experience of joy and contemplation. This restriction is radical, but radical action is called for. Modern technology and the habits surrounding it distance people from creation. The influence of television, video games, and popular music distort human vision by deforming the imagination, inclining more to bizarre fantasy than to reality.
The decades on either side of WWI witnessed brilliant work in Physics: the concept of quanta, the theories of special and general relativity and the development of quantum mechanics. One might expect that the most important work in these fields would be done by graduates of the technical school system. Nearly the opposite is true. Max Planck, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, Niels Bohr were classically educated. Einstein attended a Swiss technical high school, but he had spent his first six years at a classical school, where his sister remembered his best subjects as Mathematics and Latin: “Latin’s clear, strictly logical structure fit his mindset.” Heisenberg wrote: “I believe that in the work of Max Planck, for instance, we can clearly see that his thought was influenced and made fruitful by his classical schooling.” Heisenberg insisted that his own insights into nature came from his classical education. Its combination of math and physics with language instruction led him to read Plato’s Timaeus in Greek. He was impressed by Plato’s rational appeals to understand nature mathematically rather than as a purely physical reality: “I was gaining the growing conviction that one could hardly make progress in modern atomic physics without a knowledge of Greek natural philosophy.”
“Why do I have to learn when the Battle of Hastings occurred? When am I ever going to use this information in my life!?”
Such laments about learning the events, peoples, or places of history are not uncommon in the school classroom. For some time children are taught about those people who came before them, and those events which led up to their own time. Yet, why? Why spend so much time teaching students about history? It seems rather impractical to spend so much school time on the past when schools are supposed to be preparing students for the future, right?
Claims like these are among some of the reasons why history is losing its place in the modern American school. In a series of upcoming posts I plan to explore the role of “history” in education, which up until the modern era held an essential role. Recent calls for educational reform are essentially a plan to return history to its place in education.
My plan for this series is as follows:
First, I will offer definitions of both “education” and “history” in order to explore the proper relationship of the two ideas to one another.
Second, I will give a brief survey of four ways that history has been used as a part of the educational process going back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
Third, I will explore the philosophical shifts that have led modern American educational systems to displace history (and the humanities generally) in place of science and technology subjects.
Fourth, I will survey attempts by several different kinds of educational reformers, all of which see the failure to teach and study history one of the essential problems with American public schools. All of this will go to show that the most robust education must have a place for history.
From “Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer” by Wendell Berry:
…My best reason for not owning a computer is that I do not wish to fool myself. I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil. I do not see why I should not be as scientific about this as the next fellow: when somebody has used a computer to write work that is demonstrably better than Dante’s, and when this better is demonstrably attributable to the use of a computer, then I will speak of computcr with a more respectful tone of voice, though I still will not buy one.
To make myself as plain as I can, I should give my standards for technological innovation in my own work. They are as follows:
1. The new tool should be cheaper than the one it replaces. 2. It should be at least as small in scale as the one it replaces. 3. It should do work that is clearly and demonstrably better than the one it replaces. 4. It should use less energy than the one it replaces. 5. If possible, it should use some form of solar energy, such as that of the body. 6. It should be repairable by a person of ordinary intelligence, provided that he or she has the necessary tools. 7. It should be purchasable and repairable as near to home as possible. 8. It should come from a small, privately owned shop or store that will take it back for maintenance and repair. 9. It should not replace or disrupt anything good that already exists, and this includes family and community relationships.
You can find the whole essay here.