Educators offer many reasons for investing in technology at school: it builds 21st-century skills; it prepares students for college and careers; it leads to higher test scores; it makes them creative and critical thinkers; it saves paper. I've heard all these many times as I help schools plan their futures. But, all of these miss the point. We can understand the issue better if we go back about 235 years, to the days of Thomas Jefferson.
Our third President was a scientist, and engineer, and a technologist. He understood the importance of human invention that enabled us to reach farther, communicate better, and produce more. He invented the pantograph, a way of writing two letters at once. He took a trip down the Canal du Midi to learn how the locks allowed boats to travel across France from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. He invented new plows and clocks and furniture that made his farm more efficient. He did this not to make money, but to enlighten others, spread knowledge, and arm more citizens to succeed.
Ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition...the moment an idea is divulged, it forces itself into the possession of every one, and the receiver cannot dispossess himself of it. Its peculiar character, too, is that no one possesses the less, because every other possesses the whole of it. He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me.
(Read Jefferson and Technology as well as his Letter to McPherson for an explanation of this concept.)
The enlightened, self-reliant citizen was seen by Jefferson and his fellow founding fathers as the goal of the American experiment. And the public schools were seen as the mechanism for creating such people in the new nation. Let's read back and consider the evidence.
The constitution of the State of Vermont in 1777 set forth clearly the rationale and requirement for public education:
...for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality... a competent number of schools ought to be maintained in each town ... for the convenient instruction of youth.
To implement this requirement, and explain it further, lawmakers in the Green Mountain state enacted a statute in the late 20th century that states,
education is fundamental for the success of Vermont's children in a rapidly-changing society and global marketplace as well as for the state's own economic and social prosperity. To keep Vermont's democracy competitive and thriving, Vermont students must be afforded substantially equal access to a quality basic education.
Most of the other 49 states harbor similar words in their founding documents and laws.
The eighteenth-century social engineers who wrote the first paragraph were dead serious about the obligation of government to nourish a virtuous and democratic society. Neither socialists nor utopians, they recognized that lack of education among the masses was an invitation to demagoguery and tyranny. They had studied history, learned from it, and acted to prevent its repetition. They were, at the same time, vehement free-market capitalists. In their founding documents, they selected a few essential items for government to handle -- schools, roads, post offices, and in some cases libraries and hospitals -- and left the rest to the people to manage for themselves in the commercial marketplace.
The twentieth-century legislators who wrote the second paragraph inherited happily the obligation of public education for all, rationalizing the same spirit in different words. For neither group is the goal of school limited to passing tests in reading and arithmetic. For neither group is the purpose of school limited to preparing students for a career or for college. The government establishes public schools, and requires students to attend them, in order to encourage virtue, prevent vice, and to keep democracy thriving.
The public obligation to develop an educated populace may be even more important today than it was in 1777. Read the front page of today's newspaper and count the examples of virtue, social prosperity, and thriving democracy that you encounter. Then, count the examples of vice, immorality, social poverty, and democratic ineffectiveness. And think of how much worse it would be if the general public were totally uneducated.
Public education rests as a core of our common beliefs about maintaining and building a virtuous society. So, when we develop a rational for incorporating technology into school, we should see those beliefs reflected clearly. Technology must be conceived and dedicated to help students deal directly with virtue, vice, immorality, prosperity, and social relations. Technology in school should prepare students to perform their roles as active, educated citizens, unsusceptible to demagoguery and propaganda.
One of the things I learned from studying Shakespeare's Julius Caesar in high school was to understand the difference between ambition and leadership. I learned this in my English class, through the technologies of reading, drama, and discussion. Every citizen needs to develop this same understanding if our democracy is to thrive, especially in an election year. This is important stuff. But, too often, our technology is aimed at lesser goals, such as vocabulary drills and spellchecking and drills on the difference between a simile and a metaphor.
What's more important to our Common Core:
- Understanding the difference between ambition and leadership?
- Identifying the difference between a simile and a metaphor?
Thomas Jefferson served as our ambassador to France from 1784 to 1789. It is there, while witnessing the disintegration of French society, that his belief in the value of public education turned urgent. He wrote back from Paris to his colleagues in the Virginia assembly about the need to establish public schools:
I think by far the most important bill in our whole code is that for the diffusion of knowledge among the people. No other sure foundation can be devised for the preservation of freedom, and happiness. If any body thinks that kings, nobles or priests are good conservators of the public happiness, send them here. It is the best school in the universe to cure them of that folly. ...Preach, my dear Sir, a crusade against ignorance; establish and improve the law for educating the common people. Let our countrymen know that the people alone can protect us against these evils, and that the tax which will be paid for this purpose is not more than the thousandth part of what will be paid to kings, priests and nobles who will rise up among us if we leave the people in ignorance.
Today the kings, priests, and nobles have been replaced by Wall Street tycoons, talk show hosts, and media moguls. Jefferson's advice rings true. Let's listen to him as we set our goals for how technology should be used in school. Aim the digital tools at the higher goals of preparing competent citizens who will recognize when the present-day kings, priests, and nobles are pulling the wool over their eyes.