13.0205 prophylaxis

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Wed, 22 Sep 1999 07:36:29 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 205.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Wed, 22 Sep 1999 07:31:16 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: prophylaxis

Dear colleagues:

This last Saturday as I was cleaning the kitchen and, as is my habit at
such times, listening to Radio 4, I heard a number of professional people
speaking to the issue of whether "the book" or the Internet is a better
source from which children should learn. It was formally a kind of debate,
with a vote at the end from the audience (who voted for the book, 3-to-1),
so the issue was put just that crudely. No objection there -- debates are
that way. What appalled me, however, were the uncritical endorsements given
to the Internet by people who really should know better but clearly haven't
looked very hard at the nature and extent of what's online nor thought
about what they've seen. Apparently they've simply believed what promoters
have told them. To a person they spoke about access to "information" -- as
if that were all that one ever gets either from books or from the Internet.
Furthermore, no one challenged the binary opposition. No one said, the book
is good for this and that, the Internet for these other things.

I will let those with greater knowledge and experience of teaching children
comment on the radical difference between sitting at a computer with a
child, however snuggly and warm the seats, and sitting with that child and
a book. Yes, I know all the arguments, and the engineering of electronic
"paper", etc., etc., but hey, we're living right now, when the physical
difference between the two technologies is enormous, and so the
experiential too. But then I suppose if you regard reading to a young child
as a pedagogical exercise meant to convey information about some subject,
such as the fate that awaits all mischievous rabbits, then you won't be
seeing the experiential difference, or it won't matter. But let me speak
selfishly, as one who loves babies. Of all the joys of parenthood, reading
to one's children just before bedtime, warm from the bath, holds such deep
pleasure as almost to guarantee that we won't run out of babies anytime
soon. (Ah, beware the Tale of the Fierce Bad Rabbit and all its kind! ;-)

If we think that knowledge is technologically mediated, and so the
experience of gaining knowledge, then surely the technology we use with our
children, with ourselves, matters.

Professionally speaking, we clearly have a job to do. I know that promoting
our trade is necessary, but I think we'd be well advised to promote with an
increasingly critical attitude. Much more effective than a cheerleader's
enthusiasm, at least among our colleagues. But how do we reach outside the
established/tenured circle of fellow academics? It's hard enough to be
successful with some senior university administrators (PRESENT COMPANY
EXCEPTED!), who out of ignorance or for strategic reasons feel compelled to
fund rampant technologisation at the expense of book budgets, salaries
etc., etc. Machiavelli possibly has something to tell us here.

We could start, as a very few of us have, by appearing on radio talk-shows,
writing reviews in the right places, developing our talents as
popularizers. The undergraduate classroom is an excellent forum -- not the
how-to-push-buttons "short-course" but the class where the effects and
consequences of pushing those buttons is at least a matter for discussion
-- what the computer cannot do as well as what it can, and what one can do
with the failures of computing. All the daily fare of computer-assisted


- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Dr. Willard McCarty, Senior Lecturer, King's College London
voice: +44 (0)171 848 2784 fax: +44 (0)171 848 5081
<Willard.McCarty@kcl.ac.uk> <http://ilex.cc.kcl.ac.uk/wlm/>
maui gratia

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