Two teachers discuss the new technology their students are obsessing over. One states that people are taking it too seriously to fully understand the issues and dangers that come with it. The second agrees.

The first goes on to claim that technology is ruining his students’ perception of the world; they think that they know everything because they can access others’ experiences. And besides, he continues, it will ruin their memories. The second agrees again, adding that new technology does not possess the same soul that the old ways do.

The first finally asserts that it is all just self-gratification anyway.

So much information is at our fingertips these days. It’s up to educators to make sure that technology enhances what they teach rather than making them obsolete. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We could imagine this conversation happening in a teacher’s’ lounge today; the ruminations of how the internet and smartphones are ruining our students.

But this conversation is over 2,300 years old. And the internet is not the subject of these teachers’ scorn — writing is.

In a dialogue with Phaedrus, Socrates dismisses writing as ruinous to original thought. He believed that by reading: “(Students) will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”

Annoying know-it-alls who think they understand everything just because they looked it up? Socrates must have had a time machine.

Could you imagine if Socrates’ attitudes toward writing were still given play in our modern school system? If literacy was considered controversial? Would we have specialized schools that prohibit any print within their walls?

Times have changed and we have moved forward in understanding that while oral histories and dialogue are important skills that require immense training and focus to master, writing is simply more useful for the world we live in.

If teachers are not the active voice on the future of technology in education, we leave ourselves vulnerable to other forces taking charge.

But that does not mean we entirely gave up on verbal learning. We recognized that although it is much more efficient to store data on paper, we still need to develop students’ abilities to speak publicly and the power of debate to mold ideas.

This is the balance we must strike with “traditional learning” and digital literacy.

Unfortunately, this reckoning needs to occur at a much quicker pace than the debate on print. The virtues of writing were allowed to be questioned from Ancient Mesopotamia until the invention of the Gutenberg Press in the 1400s, which allowed more universal access. The internet had only been around about 15 years when the smartphone made instant, portable access widely available.

We are still in the exploration phases of what the internet can do for education. Why make students sit through lectures when they can simply search Google for all the facts they need to know? Hand a child a tablet and let them explore at their own pace and often with greater depth than a traditional classroom environment can provide.

I just used YouTube to learn how to make sunny-side-up eggs, and then explored a database of former enslaved people searching for their families. Services like Khan Academy are making strides in digital teaching, hosting free classes on almost any subject.

Most Hawaii private schools issue computers to their students, and charter schools like Hawaii Technology Academy are making strides in blending online coursework with face-to-face interactions.

But more has to be done in the greater public school system, and teachers have to facilitate the transition.

We cannot continue to act like teaching will be immune to the encroachment of a computer. The rest of the labor force is becoming automated. We need to examine what we do better than a computer and begin moving our practices and standards toward those ends. We know that we do more than stuff students full of information, and we need to be proud of that.

It also means a greater investment in using technology in our classrooms. We have to rethink many of our traditional classroom practices and experiment with different hardware and software. Why are we using interactive whiteboards to display notes like an overhead projector? Is there a better way?

If teachers are not the active voice on the future of technology in education, we leave ourselves vulnerable to other forces taking charge.

It is going to be hard to look in the mirror individually and ask ourselves to change our philosophies about our profession, but we have to remember the ultimate irony of Socrates’ hatred of writing. His dialogues were written down by Plato, and those writings are what we study today.

Not a subscription

Civil Beat is a small nonprofit newsroom, and we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content because we believe in journalism as a public service. That’s why donations from readers like you are essential to our continued existence.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help keep our journalism free for all readers. And if you’re able, consider a sustaining monthly gift to support our work all year-round.



About the Author