Thursday, August 5, 2010

"Computer Literacy" and Education

The following rather disquieting report showed up on the BBC News Web site last night:

Information technology lessons in UK schools are so dull they are putting pupils off the subject and careers in computing, top scientists warn.

The Royal Society said the situation would lead to an unskilled workforce and threaten the UK's economy.

Launching a study of how lessons might be improved, the society said the number of pupils in England doing ICT GCSE had fallen 33% over three years.

And there was a 33% fall, between 2003 and 2009, in ICT A-level candidates.

Now the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, is embarking on a new study: Computing in schools and its importance and implications for the economic and scientific well-being of the UK.

Researchers will look at curricula for ICT and computer science in schools, current exams and assessment processes, training for teachers, as well as the facilities and resources available in schools and colleges.

The study will report back in the autumn next year.

The study will be chaired by Professor Steve Furber, whom the report quoted as follows:

The UK has a proud history of leading the way in the field of computer science and associated disciplines, from the development of the world's first stored-program computers to more recent innovations such as the invention of the world-wide web.

However, from this bright start, we are now watching the enthusiasm of the next generation waste away through poorly conceived courses and syllabuses.

If we cannot address the problem of how to educate our young people in inspirational and appropriate ways, we risk a future workforce that is totally unskilled and unsuited to tomorrow's job market.

I used to have a dog in this particular hunt, at least on the American side of the pond; but that was a long time ago when I was on the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Association for Computer Machinery's Special Interest Group in Education. That particular SIG was a rather motley crew, many of whose members were simply there to apply lobbying techniques to make sure that the material they knew had a secure place in the "approved" computer science curriculum. As a whole the group had little interest in broader questions of education, such as methodology or, for that matter, the contributions that an education in computer science would make to society at large. As a result, my experiences with this group were so unpleasant that, even from a distance of many decades, they may jaundice my perceptions of the effort now being undertaken in the United Kingdom.

However, more recent events also make me skeptical of just where these good British intentions may lead. Most importantly may be the extent to which computer technology (and probably also "information technology," presumably the source of the "I" in "ICT") are contributing to an overall deskilling of workforces that may be a greater threat to national economies than uninspiring curricula. To put the matter in the bluntest of terms, just about anyone who works behind a keyboard connected to a computer these days is acting as a mindless drone, no matter how hard the consciousness industry tries to conceal this ugly truth by invoking phrases such as "knowledge worker." Basically, this is an affirmation of the risks that Jürgen Habermas identified in the writings of Max Weber: the risks of loss of meaning and loss of freedom. That the semantics of a phrase like "knowledge worker" has been ravaged to a level of meaninglessness speaks for itself; but it entails the corollary that workers who are skilled in name only have become the basis for a new supply of slave labor, the second of Habermas' risks, which Karl Marx characterized as "wage slavery."

One consequence of this dual loss of meaning and freedom is that, beyond the shallowness of propagandizing cant, we have lost touch with any meaningful semantics for the very concept of "skill." By the end of the seventeenth century, skill was important enough to identify a "third estate" of society, clearly distinguished from both nobility and peasantry. In our current reworking of the concept of a "ruling class," we seem to have regressed to two estates in a world where the "new nobility" feels that skills can be assumed by technology, manipulated by the "new peasantry" without any knowledge that might impede the efforts of the rich to get richer.

From this point of view, the undertaking of the Royal Society may be futilely short-sighted. The question is not whether today's young people can be educated about computers "in inspirational and appropriate ways." The question is whether our prevailing ruling classes (be they explicit or implicit in our social orders) want young people to be educated at all or whether they want nothing more than a "new peasantry" ("serfs" in the language of Friedrich Hayek) that will follow orders without question in return for which a "new paternalism" will see to their daily needs.

Yesterday in Lake Tahoe, Google CEO Eric Schmidt issued the proclamation that "society is not fundamentally ready" for the next round of technology innovations. This seems like a rather naive way to posit a not-our-fault argument to defend those responsible for what is now the world the Internet has made. The sad truth, however, is that those who have dedicated themselves to technology innovation with little regard to the insights of social theory are now reaping a whirlwind in which the very nature of work has been devolved into wage slavery. It is not that "society is not fundamentally ready" for powerful technologies but that those who promote new technologies are not now (nor have they ever been) "fundamentally ready" to mess (when Book TV recorded Ken Auletta's talk about his Googled book at the Googleplex, he used a stronger word knowing that the talk would be aired on cable) with the workings of society. Unfortunately, society has now become so dependent on what those technology promoters have provided that it is unlikely that the genie will ever be put back in the bottle; and it is just as unlikely that either Schmidt or any others of his ilk will ever be held responsible for the consequences of the impact of such technologies on the social world.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Its a shame most people don't read this. What a world we live in....