Nugget #3: Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib/Dream Machines”

In that case the obvious question would be, how can computers help? How can computers usefully supplement and extend the traditional and accepted forms of teaching? This is the question to which present-day efforts in “computer-assisted instruction” —called CAI—seem to respond.

But such an approach is of no possible interest to the new generation of critics of our school system—people like John Holt (Why Children Fail), Jonathan Kozol (Death at an Early Age) and James Herndon (The Way It Spozed to Be). More and more, such people are severely questioning the general framework and structure of the way we teach.

These writers describe particularly ghastly examples of our schooling conditions. But such horror stories aside, we are coming to recognize that schools as we know them appear designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education. A child arrives at school bright and early in his life. By drabness we deprive him of interests. By fixed curriculum and sequence we rob him of his orientation, initiative and motivation, and by testing and scoring we subvert his natural intelligence.

Schools as we know them all run on the same principles: iron all subjects flat than then proceed, in groups, at a forced march across the flattened plain. Material is dumped on the students and their responses calibrated; their interaction and involvements with the material is not encouraged nor taken into consideration, but their dutifulness of response is carefully monitored.

While an exact arrangement of intended motivations for the student is preset within the system, they do not usually take effect according to the ideal. It is not that students are unmotivated, but motivated askew. Rather than seek to achieve in the way they are supposed to, students turn to churlishness, surliness, or intellectual sheepishness. A general human motivation is god-given at the beginning and warped or destroyed by the educational process as we know it; thus we internalize at last that most fundamental of grownup goals: just to get through another day.

Because of this procedure our very notion of human ability has suffered. Adult mentality is cauterized, and we call it “normal.” Most people’s minds are mostly turned off most of the time. We know virtually nothing of human abilities except as they have been pickled and boxed in schools; we need to ignore all that and start fresh. To want students to be “normal” is criminal, when we are all so far below our potential. Buckminster Fuller, in “I Seem to Be a Verb,” says we are all born geniuses: Sylvia Ashton-Warner tells us in Teacher of her success with this premise, and of the brilliance and creative potential she was able to find in all her schoolchildren.

The nugget above that I choose foe my discussion is a long one. For convenience, I have printed in bold those parts of the nugget that I would like to respond to most. Ted Nelson provides a harsh criticism of the US educational system in 1974. Unfortunately, I think that the current state of affairs of education got much worse than that. In the beginning of my nugget he asks two important questions:

“In that case the obvious question would be, how can computers help? How can computers usefully supplement and extend the traditional and accepted forms of teaching?”

Unfortunately, Ted Nelson falsely hopes that hopes that computers may provide a solution to bad educational system. I believe that they made it even worse. In the rest of this blog I will try to give reasons.

Most of the subjects are still taught “flattened out.” History is usually taught as a list of dated events. Geography is taught as a list of geographical, agricultural, industrial and demographical facts. Sciences tend to isolated from both history and geography and from each other. Mathematics is taught as a list of formulas that are then applied to various types of examples according to given schemes. This is a completely boring and debilitating experience for any curious student. I wish when I was in grade, middle school and high school I would learn about Pythagorean Theorem in history class while studying Old Greek history. I wish that I was taught about parabolas while learning about Archimedes’ burning mirrors in the siege of Syracuse. I wish that in geography, when learning, for instance, about India, instead of , population (number), land area (number), the most grown agricultural plant, (name), most mined mineral (name), etc., we learned about Himalayas (lots of interesting geology about how India crashed into Asia), about the dangers of Nanga Parbat (Killer Mountain)), about the first white man who probably reached the summit of Chomolungma (Mount Everest) and it was not Sir Edmund Hillary. It would be much more interesting to learn about India through the rock-cut temples of India, the legend of Taj Mahal, Yoga, cashmere wool, the mathematics of Brahmagupta, the ideas of Ghandi, the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore, the genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan, etc. Of course, this list includes geology, geography, history, literature and mathematics and is therefore much more demanding for the teachers, who usually specialize in one or two disciplines. I wish that more time was given studying the lives of people who really contributed to enhancement of mankind, such as Archimedes, Euclid, Hippocrates, Socrates, Diophantus (the father of algebra), Eratosthenes (the man who measured the Earth), Newton (invented calculus), Leibniz (also independently invented calculus), Ole Rømer (a man who measured the speed of light) Fermat (see Fermat’s principle in optics), Giordano Bruno (who paid the ultimate price for promoting science), Galileo Galilei, Copernicus, Kepler, Bach (a genius who dis-tuned the piano and influenced music much more than Beatles did), Beethoven, Euler, Gauss, Mendel (the father of genetics), Fleming (not the one who wrote James Bond books), Emmy Noether, Marie Curie (the only person (man or woman) to be awarded two Nobel prices in two different areas (physics and chemistry)), Roentgen (the first X-man 🙂 , received the very first Nobel price in physics in 1901) , Einstein, Alan Turing (single-handily cracked German code used in WWII, invented a generally accepted theoretical model for computers), John von Neumann (the last of the renaissances men), etc., instead of learning about psychopaths, sociopaths, fanatics, perverts, misogynists and crooks such as Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Hitler, all of the sect/religious leaders, pharaohs, generals and Kings that ruled any piece of land in the history regardless of the roman numeral after their name. They had been the same useless parasites of the society as are most of today’s heads of countries, presidents, all dictators, etc., without whom the world would be a much better place.

Since 1974, personal computers, laptops, notebooks, tablets etc., have become part of the school curriculum. But the new generation is not on average smarter or more knowledgeable than the class of 1974. The problem is not with the computers. Computer is of course an excellent tool and one can use it extremely effectively to do things that would not be possible to do without it. One example that stands out recently is how the structure of the HIV virus was decoded with the help of an online game. Another example, that I mentioned in my inquiry project, is a fascinating invention of a young genius named Jack Andraka. Computers also opened Pandora’s box of passive/dumbing games entertainment that is only a click away. I don’t want to generalize, so I will only focus on mathematics. Mathematics curriculum did not change significantly since 1974. Students are not asked to solve more complicated problems with the help of computers. They are solving essentially the same problems as in 1974, but with the help of computers. So their task is now much easier, since the computers can differentiate, integrate, solve differential equations and much more (no need to buy specialized software, just type “integrate online” into “Google”). Many solutions to problems in widely used textbooks are now available on youtube. Also writing assignments can be many times reduced to copy and paste exercise. As a result of this, an average student is more passive than he/she was in 1974. I am at loss what can be done in this case. Maybe it is a natural tendency of the human race to self destruct (viz misuse of atomic energy), or it will naturally evolve into Brave New World society. Another option is that we are just preparing to submit our leadership role on Earth to cyborgs and thereafter to higher forms of intelligence that will develop by itself as the dumbing of the human race will continue through laziness and genetic deterioration. The fact is that people are naturally lazy and so given better computer they will become on average even lazier. As they say, you can take a monkey out of the jungle, but you cannot take the jungle out of the monkey.

Let me end this blog by a folklore story about a freshmen and his instructor called Barometer Question to demonstrate what is wrong with our educational system. This happened some time ago in a far away country, but I believe the story has the same relevance today as it had 100 years ago. It will metaphorically address the concerns raised in the last bold text of my nugget.

In a first-year physics class an instructor asked a student question how to measure the height of a building using a barometer, expecting the correct answer: “the height of the building can be estimated in proportion to the difference between the barometer readings at the bottom and at the top of the building”. The student provided a different, and also correct answer: “Take the barometer to the top of the building. Attach a long rope to it, lower the barometer to the street, then bring it up, measuring the length of the rope. The length of the rope is the height of the building.”

The instructor and the student got into argument. According to the format of the exam, a correct answer deserved a full credit, but issuing a full credit would have violated academic standards by rewarding a student who had not demonstrated competence in the academic field that had been tested (physics).

The instructor and the student agreed that in order for the student to get an “A” for the answer, he needs to come up with another solution of the problem. The student than sat for several minutes thinking. Seeing this , the instructor approached the student and said; “You don’t know any other answer, do you?”. Upon which the student answered:”In fact I know several of them, I am just deciding which one to write down.” The student then wrote that he will tie the barometer on one end of the rope and swing it holding the other end. He will measure the period of the swing both on the ground and on the top of the building and based on the difference of these periods he will use a well known formula (to him) to determine the height of the building. The instructor did gave him “A” for this answer but was not happy. So he asked the student what are the other ways of measuring the building. He received a wealth of different answers from the student including dropping the barometer from the top of the building, timing its fall with a stopwatch, comparing the building’s and the barometer’s shadows and trading the barometer to the building’s superintendent in return for the information wanted. The student ultimately admitted that he knew the expected “correct” answer but was fed up with the professors “teaching him methods how solve problems, rather than teaching him how to learn to understand and analyze the subject”.

One thought on “Nugget #3: Ted Nelson’s “Computer Lib/Dream Machines””

  1. The student wanted to be taught methods to solve problems, rather than teaching him how to learn to understand and analyze the subject.
    How to SOLVE a problem — interesting and requires thinking, analysis and research.
    What research problem do you hope to solve?

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