A Positive Approach to Technology

Brandon Booth encourages teachers to take an active role in instructing students to use the internet wisely.
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“Today, there’s a new elite schooled in an entirely reconstituted classical education…. [These students] stuck on the dark side of the new media digital divide will be as out of luck and out of touch as those who cursed Johannes Gutenberg as an agent of the devil when that first printed Bible came off the press in 1452.”

— Richard Rapaport, Edutopia.org.

According to progressives, the ferocious pace of technological advance changes all the rules. They believe that an education holding to old traditions is worse than useless; it’s negligent. Success in the modern world requires a “new literacy;” students need new skills, new tools, and new norms.

Are the progressives right? Will classically trained students be as out of luck in the new world as those who cursed Johannes Gutenberg? Of course not! Our students cannot only survive the digital age, they can lead it. Well- prepared students can bridge any divide, but we must keep our wits about us!

But keeping our wits is difficult. Modern technology frightens us, especially as we see it motion- blurred by rapid change. It’s like watching a bullet train speed past our platform. Even if we wanted to get on, we couldn’t catch hold now–not without having our arm ripped off. So why even try?

Thankfully, things aren’t that bad. Yes, our gadgets evolve at breakneck speed, but humans haven’t changed since Adam’s lips first touched the apple in Eve’s hand. Men’s tools may change constantly, but the purposes for which they create those tools never change. Man will always be man, and a classical education’s cardinal goal is to train humans to be good humans, not good gadget operators.

This principle directs our approach to teaching in the digital age. Change is constant, but so is the virtue required to survive it. The greatest challenge our students face in the digital age is not acquiring basic technical skills. Any student with a modest amount of self-determination– and who can read–can teach himself these skills in a long afternoon. No, the greatest challenge our students face
is acquiring wisdom. After all, even if I can type at 400 words per minute, what good is that? The critical question is “What will I type that quickly?” Will it be a ceaseless stream of narcissistic drivel (in 140-character chunks), or will it be something of weight and consequence? From this perspective, classical educators do not need to change anything in order to prepare their students for the digital age. We’re already preparing them. If the rapid change of technology requires anything of us, it requires wise decisions based on stable principles. And cultivation of wisdom is the very soul of our education.

Yet wisdom is not merely apprehending timeless principles; it is also willing and acting according to them in concrete circumstances. We cannot, therefore, ignore advances in technology. Specifically, we cannot shun the Internet. More than any other advance, the Internet is pervasively altering our modes of communication. Man’s nature hasn’t changed, but the Internet is a constantly changing space in which man acts. We can call it the “virtual world” or the “digital world,” but whatever its name, it’s a new and distinct circumstance that warrants the attention of prudence.

On the positive side, the Internet grants us unprecedented access to each other and the archived corpus of human writing, and this access is growing all the time, but this is only the beginning. Take for example the humble search tool. Never before have men been able so quickly and precisely to search the contents of the great human library. Oh, without a doubt, danger lurks in this tool. Google can indeed make us dumb; Socrates condemned books for the same reason. The Internet can become “an elixir not of memory, but of reminding,” offering “the appearance of wisdom, not true wisdom.” But, like books, the Internet can also make us much wiser. Our choices make the difference. As with the Great Books themselves, we should plunder the Egyptians.

On the negative side, because the Internet is a new and changing space, we cannot simply assume that students growing up in the digital world will “just know” how to live in it well, any more than we can assume that students growing up in the real world will “just know” how to live in it well. Yes, mere exposure teaches them to manipulate the tools of the digital world, but not how to do so wisely. They might be able to fix a computer, but they don’t know how to behave on Facebook, or search responsibly, or how to handle the Internet’s dangerous mix of freedom and anonymity. It’s like knowing how to work a car’s gas pedal without knowing wise driving habits. Simple experience can teach the former; another person must teach the latter. Which, incidentally, was Socrates’ point about books as well.

Free men–virtuous men–must be others-focused, not self-focused, and this is what Christian classical education cultivates in our students’ hearts. But students need practice in order to learn virtue, and we cannot depend on our students to draw the connection between virtue in the real world and virtue in the digital world. We need to provide guidance and opportunities for them to practice. That means using technology, particularly the Internet, in our curriculum. Of course, this will also help our students reap the great benefits of wise use of the Internet.

Please understand me! I am not arguing for touch- typing classes in the second grade or for a computer lab at every school. Nor am I arguing for integrating Facebook into your class. I’m simply arguing against absolute negation of technology and arguing for a considered, realistic, and positive approach to using technology in our schools. It is a part of our world, and we cannot ignore it, nor should we want to, since there is so much good to be gained from it.

Part of a realistic approach, however, means carefully counting the cost. I do not believe we should go on a shopping spree like progressive educators who hope that owning fancier gizmos will resolve their snowballing failure. Instead, we need to weigh our educational goals, our teachers’ time, and our school’s budget against the cost of buying technology. Sacrifices must be made, and I firmly believe in sacrificing flashy hardware over precious time in class or salary dollars.

Ironically, many educators overlook the most significant costs of technology: time and training. Even if your institution can afford a fleet of new computers, you must consider the time it will require to secure and maintain them. More importantly, you must weigh the cost of initial and ongoing training, especially for your teachers. If you neglect training, any money you spend will be wasted. If your teachers do not know how to use technology virtuously, how can they train the students to do so?

Practically, however, many institutions can avoid large investments in hardware. Most of your students already have their own computers or have access to one at home. So you don’t need to buy computers. Instead, when it’s time to teach responsible search skills, have students bring their own devices to class, or use only one computer (perhaps the teacher ’s or a student volunteer ’s) and do small group tutorials. A teacher who knows what he or she is doing, both with the technology and with the assignment, is more effective than one laptop per child.

Clearly, the most important factor is teachers who know what they are doing. Administrators, we need to train our teachers, and, teachers, it’s time to stop excusing your refusal to learn by complaining about technology’s harmful effects. You must lead by example. Show your students how to be excellent students and learn to use the tools virtuously yourselves. Only then will you be able to teach your students to do the same.

Finally, if we think creatively, we can find ways to kill many birds with one stone. Our teachers need training and so do our students. It makes sense to bring these two together. Again, you do not need a computer lab. Instead, recruit a tech savvy parent to offer after school workshops and advertise them as BYOC: Bring Your Own Computer. The basic skills can be taught in hours, so a few weekend courses can accomplish a lot, and the conversations you can have about technology’s role in our lives will be invaluable.

The good news is that a classical education will prepare students to lead in the digital age. Indeed, a good classical education meets students’ greatest need: the need for wisdom. Yet we cannot assume that our current curriculum is sufficient. If we believe in practicing virtue in all areas of life, we must practice it in the digital world as well. Incorporating technology into our curriculum does not require us to give up our principles. On the contrary, it is our unique principles that compel us to incorporate technology wisely.

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