Imagine if you had a time machine and could travel back to a era when people were excited about the future — say, 1955 — and talk to a group of knowledgeable, educated Americans.
You could share the disappointing news that, in the future, there are no flying cars. Meals don’t come in pill form. And, no, we haven’t gotten around to that colony on Mars. Sorry!
The good news, you’d tell them, is that just about everybody’s got a home computer. You can buy robots that clean floors. And TVs of the future are gigantic, high-quality and, yes, in color!
The most amazing part of your conversation would be your description of the Internet. In the future, you’d say, all those home computers are connected to each other, and you can use the computers to instantly access nearly all human knowledge.
You could also tell your incredulous audience another kind of future computer is so small it fits in a pocket. Because this too connects to nearly all knowledge, it’s usable as a kind of always-available Knowledge Machine. And here’s the most amazing part: Everyone’s got one. Even teenagers.
Wait a minute, they’d say. Everyone walks around with a device that can tell them just about anything they’d like to know? Push a couple of buttons, and they can read articles in thousands of newspapers? They can automatically search entire encyclopedias, history books and reference works of every description?
They would see the future as a kind of utopia as the result of this Knowledge Machine.
And finally, you would tell them something they literally could not possibly believe. In the future, students generally don’t use these Knowledge Machines for accessing knowledge, generally don’t know how to, and — worst of all — schools don’t teach kids how to use them. In fact, in the future, Knowledge Machines will be looked at broadly with suspicion, ignorance and hostility by schools and teachers.
How is it possible that we as a civilization have invented an inexpensive, universally available Knowledge Machine, then fail to teach students how to use it?
The root cause of this unacceptable state of affairs is a flaw in our collective logic.
The problem is that cell phones, as well as media players and other electronic devices, are often used by students for distraction and mischief. Teachers want them banned, because kids are using gadgets to tune out their classrooms, pass around porn and cheat.
What teachers and schools don’t seem to understand is that there is no connection between the disruptive and counterproductive use of cell phones by students, and their use for learning.
In fact, schools could make an equally insane argument against paper. Students are passing around notes on paper, viewing porn on paper, and using paper to roll joints and smoke them in the boys’ room. Ban paper in schools!
Whether schools ban objectionable uses for paper is entirely unrelated to the usefulness of paper in classrooms for reading books, jotting down notes and taking tests.
Likewise, banning the disruptive use of cell phones is unrelated to the usefulness of phones for learning.
The reality is that these Knowledge Machines are here to stay. The students in school today will almost never know a moment of their lives where Internet connected gadgets are unavailable. Wasting time on the memorization of just about anything is now and will always be obsolete. The ability to find reliable information via cell phone, and judge it, synthesize it and use it are now among the most centrally important skills anyone can possess — far more important than many of the required areas of study.
It’s time we stop ignoring reality and recognize that a total knowledge-access revolution has taken place. Don’t let any more high school students graduate without demonstrating mastery at using the universal Knowledge Machines they all have in their pockets as they collect their diplomas.