I can’t get out of my mind how glibly so many among us brush off the loss of literacy as we become more plugged in as just another in a series of history’s trade offs when new technology arises. We lost a lot of memory when books became popular, goes one mantra.
But here’s why that analogy doesn’t work—the “loss of memory” was a tradeoff for the higher literacy that was then available. Books had always been around, but only within the last several hundred years have they—and literacy—become common, so it wasn’t an introduction of a new ability, but rather a spreading of a resource that had been restricted before.
Moreover, the skill sets mentioned here are not equivalent. We may have traded some memory for literacy, but the fundamental, underlying skills of the mind—deep, focused thought; concentration; engagement with language—was always there.
Only now, with electronic entertainment, has that changed. We are losing those basic skills and trading them for…what? My students, when we talk about this, are quick to say that the new skill set is computer skills. Really? Relatively few people are skilled at designing, programming, or repairing computers. The vast majority of users are merely playing games.
The assumption which has successfully underpinned all education for thousands of years is that the skills we practice in school are transferable to infinite activities in the real world. We even teach the way we do with a faith that these skills will prepare students for the unknown, unexpected innovations of the future–a faith that has always been rewarded.
But what is the transference value of computer skills? What basic cognitive functions do games and applications stimulate that will ready children for a wide variety—including those of a currently unknowable nature—of skills for the future? Other than stronger thumbs, I can’t think of any. Certainly no major brain function is trained by computers nearly as well as by traditional learning and books.
We’re trading an egalitarian, literate culture for an elitist, technological culture.
The “it’s just another change and we’ll adapt” mantra is a flaky one at best, as this change has no precedent. We’re exploring a dark, mysterious land, and we must proceed with far more caution, or we might just end up blindly hitting a wall or going over a cliff.