Opinion

Don’t smash the machinery

Sudden technological leaps bring social and economic unease. Skills and professions may be rendered obsolete overnight, familiar ways rendered quaint.

The poster boy for anxiety in such times would have to be Ned Lud, a possibly apocryphal figure credited with leading several minor uprisings in England around 1811, in which machinery (primarily in the fledgling textile industry) was smashed to bits by roving bands of displaced workers. The movement even added a word – Luddite – to the popular lexicon, for folks wary of technological change.

Paradoxically, the new ways also bring demand for new skills and technical understanding, and thus create new fields of employment. So it is perhaps this fundamental tension – Do we shape the tools, or do the tools shape us? – that explains some resistance, as school officials seek voter approval for an $8.9 million levy for technology upgrades in our classrooms. We’ve had several letters rueful of the social changes that have come with the newly “wired world,” or suggesting that chalk and blackboard were good enough for past generations, thus good enough for this one.

But the dichotomy – better technology or better education – rings false. More computers and interactive displays will not supplant the human interaction between student and teacher, but can certainly enhance the experience at both ends.

If an instructor can simultaneously type up a lesson on a

laptop, display it for assembled students to discuss, and record the information for kids who are sick at home to access via their own computer, how is this a bad thing? Let us further say that video-conferencing allows a classroom to dial up a real-time tour of a NASA facility, or perhaps the Louvre in Paris. Critics might call this “virtual” learning, but it’s arguably more experiential than a lecture based on static pictures in a musty textbook that’s probably already out of date.

Nothing excites young minds like exciting teachers, and the success of the Bainbridge Island School District suggests that we have those in spades. Why should anyone believe that the excellence of the local curriculum will suffer, just because the tools of instruction change?

If there’s one thing that’s unfortunate about the May 17 tech levy, it’s that the school district allowed a decade to pass since the last one. The community is now asked to make up ground, to bring our classrooms current again. Even so, the cost for the average island homeowner – 55 cents per day for the next 48 months – doesn’t strike us as unreasonable, particularly when the state and the feds give mandates for student technological proficiency but no funding.

Do we shape the tools, or do the tools shape us? We believe the generations that succeed us will go on to shape their own world by the lessons they learn around the community campfire, even if that campfire happens to be a digital display. The technology by which they learn is itself neither good nor evil; the instruments by which technology is defined at a given time are just that – instruments – by which to negotiate the circumstances around us. Denying our teachers modern machines because we’re dissatisfied with some aspects of the wired world is foolish; technology is revolutionizing as many noble fields – science, medicine, environmental study – as it is mind-candy pursuits like video games or chat rooms.

The best education will always begin and end with caring

parents and good teachers, and neither is going to be

displaced by newer, better computers in our classrooms.

So here’s a parting question for our local Luddites: If

you oppose the school levy because you’re uneasy about the

technology of the modern world, why exactly do you keep sending us your letters by email?

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