Non-Tech Teaching in a Technological Age

April 30, 1991

A character in Simonede Beauvior's Les belles images, regretting the loss in this century of "truly human values which gave life a unique savior," asks when the decline began. She answers, "the day knowledge was preferred to wisdom." The abdication of wisdom, I think, is often a by-product of our obsessive adoration of data. Indeed, when the modem obsession becomes the urge simply to acquire more and more information, it is not even a drive toward knowledge. One can only know, and so understand, if one is able to relate information to a wider context and if, as Einstein observed, this information is "alive in the consciousness of men" and not a mere storage system.

Such an obsession is, moreover, inimical to the personal identity of those in its grip, for it splits their personalities, compartmentalizing thought and feeling. Especially damaging is the splitting-off of knowledge from questions of value. And absurd, too, for even those most subject to what Ortega called "the tyranny of the laboratory" require guidelines to select worthwhile research. The austere response of some is to censure discussion of all topics where certainty and precision do not exist, exiling them even to the realm of the "mystical."

Richard Wurman has identified computers as the "ubiquitous symbol" of our current age, "mascots of the information era." He says, "the reverence accorded to them suggests we believe not only that they are modeled after the human mind, but that we would all be much better off if we modeled our human minds after them. The easy linking of machine to mind is p=My due to the easy parallels between computers and cerebral processes. Computers have a memory; they are storehouses of information; they can calculate and predict." Theodore Roszack adds, "thanks to the cultlike mystique surrounding the computer, the line that divides mind from machine is blur-ring.... That is the great mischief done by the data merchants, the futurologists, and those in the schools who I)elieve that computer literacy is the educational wave of the future; they lose sight of the paramount truth that the mind thinks with ideas, not with information .... [Ideas] are born, not from data, but from absolute conviction that catches fire in the mind of one, of a few, then of many, as the ideas spread to other fives where enough of the same experience can be found waiting to be ignited.,,

Music study demands the acquisition of data and labels. But some hold the pernicious, yet prevalent, misconception that learning consists primarily of compiling a body of factual information. Such a restricted view overlooks components of an authentic education, such as ambiguity; comparing arguments; articulating subtle distinctions; judging relevance of supporting evidence; asking questions; learning from experience; exploring tangents; diagnosing mistakes; understanding, refining, and expanding one's interior response to music; and ultimately, interpreting the experience of being human.

The risk of technology is that an answer-key mentality can too easily prevail-i.e., the clear-cut right or wrong responses most "teachable" and "testable" will be weighted at the ex pense of those other more discriminating values that have the power not just to increase our knowledge base but to kindle real musical insight.

One of the most under-rated non-tech methods for transmitting thought is the medium of the conversation. Wurman notes, "the art of conversation has been preempted by technology in almost every area of our lives. The idea that humans are more fallible than machines has turned us toward technology for entertainment, information, problem-solving, and education. Our ability to converse has atrophied through idol worship of the machine. Once our parlors were sanctuaries where we exercised our verbal skills, testing our wits in active exchanges with friends. Now they are entertainment warehouses demanding nothing more than button-pushing."

It is crucial to understand the vital part that simple conversation can play in teaching. Outside the formal classroom and labs, caring and engaged one-on-one dialogues in the hallways, offices, coffee shops, can have as dramatic an impact on students' motivation and growth as those more official requirements @ted in the college catalog. Unlike more programmed activities, conversations are not bound by logic, order, and clarity. The lapses, non sequiturs, and quirky associations that characterize the best conversations would be unacceptable in most teaching environments and impossible to duplicate in technological interactions, yet it is in the human setting that the most profound connections of under standing can best be clinched.

Again Wurman says "Unlike machines, conversations can tune themselves. We make adjustments, simplify, repeat, and move, between various levels of complexity. There is no other communication device that provides such subtle and instantaneous feedback, or permits such a range of evaluation and correctibility. There is nothing we do better than when we do conversation well."

And yet we take this marvel of human exchange for granted. How many who are amazed at computers are also amazed by ordinary talking@r think of it as a pedagogical agent? Do we have national panels on how to exploit more fully this plain and natural teaching tool? There are so few things in life in which the pure intention is to make something understandable. We have conversations all around us, yet rarely prize their capac ity for sharing knowledge. And conversations are just one of many nontech, everyday resources that could become incredibly effective teaching approaches but are often bypassed, either in the rush to join the electronic revolution or because their potential for further development has simply not been imagined.

My challenge, then, is to treasure more fully how the admitted benefits of technology can be complemented by the even more astonishing, but often undervalued, capabilities of human interaction. Our commitment should not focus just on electronic advances but should include a re-commitment to the on-going progress of more traditional, and still under-utilized, procedures. The valid search for future technological improvements should not distract from the creative evolution of less flashy approaches. Our highest commitment should not be to specific methodologies, but rather to reminding ourselves that desire for advancement in all modes of teaching -- new and old -- is an unceasing quest.

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