Friday, May 16, 2008

Economist Article Response

I have been an Economist subscriber since shortly after I stumbled across an issue while waiting for a sandwich at the Shoreline Park Lakeside Cafe in 2001. I vividly remember standing next to the trash receptacle, reading over the "World This Week" section of the magazine that appears at the front of every issue, and just being stunned by the realization that I knew so little about what was happening in the world.

My favorite part was how the section gave equal footing to the United States and what I regarded at the time as "countries of little consequence" like Sri Lanka or Finland. Here are a couple of snippets from this week to illustrate the point:

A computer hacker published on the internet confidential records belonging to 6m Chileans, including their ID-card numbers, academic records and telephone numbers. He said his aim was to demonstrate Chile's poor level of data protection.

Several bombs were set off in the Indian city of Jaipur, killing at least 61 people and injuring more than 200. A little-known group, Indian Mujahideen, claimed responsibility. See article

As expected, Hillary Clinton won the Democratic primary in West Virginia by a whopping margin, 67% to 26%, underlining Barack Obama's lack of support among blue-collar voters. But the party began to unite behind Mr Obama and he secured the endorsement of John Edwards, who pulled out of the presidential race in January. See article

Here is the link to all the snippets if you are so inclined.

For the most part the articles covered in the economist address issues I have little to no knowledge of or expertise in. This leads me to oftentimes accept their view on a given issue as law, as it frequently represents the only point of reference I really have on the issue. The only subject with which this does not regularly occur is education.

Education is the one subject in which I feel I have enough knowledge and experience to really effectively engage with what the Economist writes about on the topic. Sometimes I agree completely with what the magazine has to say, but most of the time I find myself in a position of slight to severe disagreement that has caused me many times to question the magazine's expertise in the other areas it writes about and that I am less knowledgeable in.

One example of the latter situation begins with the recent article, "From Literacy to Digiracy" wherein the magazine derides the rise of personal computers, and links their proliferation to falling literacy scores in the United States. It may be true that literacy scores in the United States have fallen over the same time as computer use has risen, but correlation is not causality as the Economist well knows. This association is an egregious example of journalistic failure the likes of which is uncommon for the magazine. Could the falling literacy scores not be associated with rising immigration patterns, decreases in traditional family units, or reductions in per pupil spending over the same period? I'm not a journalist so I don't know the answer to these questions, but it seems a shame that article leaves the reader wondering.

Likewise, a section quoting statistics purporting to show a decline in leisure reading among teenagers does not even bother to define what "leisure reading" is. Is the definition reduced to printed material only, like novels and magazines? If so then I would say that I fall into the same category as my reading of magazines and novels has declined significantly in recent years while my computer use has increased significantly. This does not mean that I am reading any less though. Quite the opposite in fact. Earlier this year I had such trouble managing the deluge of articles sent to me through Google Reader each day that it was a strain on my marriage. Even after reducing my number of RSS feeds considerably I still receive several dozen articles each day and read close to twenty of them on average. It's too bad the article did not give enough background to tell me whether I was in the majority or minority because of this.

Neither of these points is not the most aggrevating part of the article unfortunately. That is saved for the end where it is written:

In Mr Federman’s view, the quest for truth has given way to the quest for making sense of the world as experienced. For anyone under the age of 20, the world being experienced is one where the internet has always existed, and where everyone who matters is only a click, speed dial or text message away. “Tomorrow’s adults,” says Mr Federman, “live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” Their direct experience of the world is wholly different from yours or mine.

So, no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest and flunk their literacy tests. They are skilled in making sense not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Teachers must recognise that our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed to survive in a world where people are always connected to everyone and everything. In such a world, learning to think for oneself could well be more important than simply learning to read and write.

It is appalling how often such bland and generic illustrations as these appear in modern educational writing. What exactly is being said over these three paragraphs? That times are changing? That advancements in technology are having an effect on new generations of human beings? That individuality and independence are important things for a person to possess? At what point in the history of mankind could these things not have been said? At what point in the future of mankind will these things not be said?

To it's credit the article does relate the Internet and the rise of computers to the telegraph of the last millenium. It is an apt comparison because in the classroom (where students are "incarcerated") all three simply become tools with which to grow citizens. In education the Internet, the book, and the pencil are all only as valuable as the owner is capable in wielding them.

So this is the teacher's job, to prepare the children of today to be citizens in the world of tomorrow. It is a job description that has not changed ever, and just because Johannes Gutenberg invents a printing press or Al Gore invents the Internet (yes I know he never actually said he did this but it illustrates my point better to say it this way) does not mean that students are going to fundamentally learn any differently than you or I or our parents and ancestors did. Nor does it mean that students needent learn the same lessons that you and I and our parents and ancestors learned. It simply means that we have newer and possibly better tools with which to teach them.

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