Outsourcing Ourselves

Crabby wonders what’s left for us to do ourselves…

A recent article in the New York Times suggests that teaching handwriting may be losing ground to teaching typing in elementary school, the better to ensure that young people become chained to computers at earlier and earlier ages. The article cites studies suggesting that handwriting may actually help students think better, but that only proves the point that it’s on the ropes: What was once a given now has to be supported by brain scans and experiments.

Substituting mechanical devices for personal efficacy isn’t new. Many years ago, when Crabby was a college counselor at an “elite” private high school, he asked his class of very smart seniors to calculate their GPA to help with their college research. To a person, they got out their calculators for a simple math process. And of course the SAT has allowed for calculator use for quite a while.

In Los Angeles, iPads have been purchased for many elementary schools, with more to come. Not only will they be used for lessons, students will be expected to take state-mandated standardized tests on them. Literature has become “content,” research has become “borrowing” from Wikipedia, which is itself a crazy quilt of a mishmash of “data.” The proposed Common Core Standards downplay fiction, which requires interpretation and sometimes emotional or visceral interactions, in favor of non-fiction, which is more data and standards friendly, taking the muss and fuss out of reading.

Crabby doesn’t advocate returning to the era of rote learning and the one-room schoolhouse or the coal-powered, room sized computer, but he does worry that one of the main purposes of education, building brainpower (not to mention encouraging genuine interaction between intellect and the world), is being undermined by another purpose, creating subservience to computers. Or, if you want to avoid demonizing the technology, students are being taught how to outsource their thinking and doing. The result may well be a crippling of students’ ability to think for themselves.

Surely every sentient being should know how to write by hand. Yet there are critics who challenge this assumption, arguing against having children learn much more than the basics of handwriting. The debate has come up on Diane Ravitch’s blog here and one should be sure to distinguish handwriting generally from cursive. But throwing over good handwriting for typing is one more loss for advocates of a good education; handwriting carries with it the imprint of the individual in a way that typing can’t. Regardless of what the CAT scans say, the accomplishment a child feels when learning to write, then learning to write in cursive (the grownup version of handwriting for many), can’t be compared to learning to type, which just makes us all dependent on the machine.

Outsourcing our calculating and writing abilities to machines makes us that much more helpless without them. That’s good for machine manufacturers but bodes ill for high schools and colleges where some of us still expect students to think for themselves, have opinions, and use their organic as opposed to their electronic brains to grapple with problems and issues. It also devalues the marks of individual personality and idiosyncrasy in favor of rigid adherence to the rigid demands of computer technology. We end up working for it instead of vice versa. Crabby isn’t arguing against technology per se, but against the assumption that it will take care of all our needs in the thinking department.