Chris Hobbs
English Argument
December 8, 1995

Technology and Damage to Literacy

Technology makes our lives easier. People can be contacted with telephones and if they own a cellular phone they can be reached anytime. In an emergency computers and radio communication allow emergency vehicles to respond in a few minutes. To find out what is happening in the world all one needs to do is turn on the television. However, our dependency on technology can also make us lazy. Why bother to strain our eyes reading when the television will tell us about important occurrences and entertain us? Why write a letter when your family member or friend can be talked to directly over the telephone? Avoiding the practice of certain literacies will eventually lower the level of one's literacy. To avoid decreasing levels of literacy caused by technology certain precautions must be taken.

The authors Hirsch, Raskin, and Ogbu all have views about education and literacy which can be affected by technology. Hirsch thinks that culturally literacy can be narrowed down to a group of ideas. If this is so, then the group can be stored in a database and people will not be forced to know details of their culture. Raskin argues this point and also states that computers as teachers may be a bad idea. Students may never acquire adequate social skills and also may not learn efficiently if computers are the main sources of instruction. Ogbu writes that minorities may have a disadvantage in educational institutions. Because technology can be used in classrooms more often there is more potential for inequality. The schools with more resources will be able to offer students more technology and an even better education. Technology can damage education and literacy but there are ways that damage can be prevented and education improved.

Hirsch, in "Literacy and Cultural Literacy," states that standard education is important in creating literate adults. Hirsch believes that "we will achieve a just and prosperous society only when our schools ensure that everyone commands enough shared knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with everyone else" ( Hirsch, p. 32). If everyone has a similar education then communication is made easier because certain things can be assumed. Hirsch uses examples which occur in the US such as knowing about currency and which side of the road one is supposed to drive on. For more complicated ideas, schools are responsible for supplying the knowledge. These direct comments about education and literacy strengthen his position. Schools are the primary sources of background for most people. For instance, Hirsch says that in his father's generation his father could say to his colleagues, "there is a tide" ( Hirsch, p. 9), and because his colleagues all had been educated in Shakespeare's writings his colleagues would know to make some important business decisions.

Hirsch says that in order to be culturally literate one only needs to know a certain amount of specific ideas. If there are 5,000 ideas that when known are adequate for understanding a culture then if it were easy to look up these 5,000 ideas on demand the culture would be understood. Raskin proposes that a computer could store a list of these ideas along with descriptions making "it easy for an uncultured person encountering one of the expressions to look it up in the database and get the general picture" ( Raskin, p. 202). Hirsch believes that schools provide the common background, but if a database of cultural references existed then schools would not need teach what the students already have easy access to. The schools could teach the students how to use the database and the students would never need to become culturally literate.

Technology does have the potential to destroy cultural, literacy but that is only if cultural literacy depends on a select group of ideas as Hirsch believes it does. The select group of ideas important to a society must also exist before technology can make memorizing the list pointless. It is only possible for students to be taught so much information in their academic lives and for all schools to collaborate and decide what should be taught would be impossible. In the generation of Hirsch's father the amount of knowledge the world possessed was not as great. The more the world learns the more options there are for subject material taught and the harder it becomes to unify subject material. It is probably true that teaching methods are improving while we learn but it seems like unless there are incredible improvements in teaching there will always be vast amounts of knowledge which cannot be taught in an academic life. Also, if schools go in the opposite direction of Hirsch's desire then the population will have a diverse knowledge instead of equal. Communication may not be as good but there are obviously benefits to diversity. If we ignore certain subjects then we may miss out on making possible discoveries. If Hirsch were successful in getting schools to agree on subject material, then schools might agree that studying certain types of cells in trees is unimportant because more time should be spent on Shakespeare so references and communication could improve. The world of people would lose out on some specific areas of study so people could communicate better. It is possible that by studying a specific tree cell less for the sake of communication could cause a disease cure not to be found if the extra study of cells would lead to a discovery.

If a balance is worked out between unity and diversity then it might be possible to prevent miracle-cure misses but then technology still might keep people from becoming truly culturally literate.

Ogbu, in "Literacy and Schooling in Subordinate Cultures, The Case of Black Americans," believes, like Hirsch, that standard education is important in creating literate adults. Ogbu wishes education to improve in order to increase literacy and thinks that education is unbalanced. Instead of unbalanced course material taught, Ogbu is concerned with allowing all students to have a good education. Ogbu looks at black students and explores why they may not be educated as well. Ogbu rules out some counter-arguments by citing studies. For instance, performance is not hindered regardless of whether or not a student's culture is predominantly oral since "children of illiterate Chinese immigrants have done quite well in American schools" ( Ogbu, p. 4). So if a student of a certain race can become literate independent of what culture he is from then literacy must depend on education. Schools teach the literacy skills needed to compete for jobs: "in modern societies the school is the principal institution adapting children to bureaucratized industrial economy" ( Ogbu, p. 32). If a group of students is not receiving a fair education then that group will not be able to compete in the work-force. If the discontinuities in education are fixed then literacy will improve for the groups which were being hurt. Ogbu has a strength in that he believes that educational institutions provide means for later survival but he also makes it seem like our schools are unfair and it is impossible for everyone to get a good education. Maybe Ogbu was only looking at a few poor cases and on the average everyone has a good opportunity for becoming educated.

However, as technology continues to improve the imbalances will only increase. The schools which have adequate money will be able to buy computers and other technology which improves education. All public schools are supposed to receive near-equal money from governments but public schools can receive donations from parents and other organizations. Depending on the location of a school the school might receive a lot of money or only a little. Schools located in poor, predominately minority areas such as the schools in Ogbu's examples would be likely to not have adequate money for new technologies. If other students are benefiting from being taught from computers and also are becoming computer literate, a skill applicable in the work-place, then the students lacking technologies will not be able to compete outside of school. The fortunate students will have a definite advantage and the unfortunate students will be even further behind.

A solution to the imbalance is to not allow any students to benefit from technology, but that is not a good solution. Technology should be used as much as possible in order to improve the current level of technology and improve our lives. Another solution is to have successful government programs for providing technology to lacking schools. This would probably be expensive but it would result in stronger, more literate adults.

Carnegie Mellon University is currently working on creating computers that will interact with young students and teach them to read. The students will be able to talk to the computer and the computer will listen to the student and give corrections in pronunciation and teach the student new words. The computer will be able to talk back to the student almost as if the computer were a normal, human teacher. Raskin fears that a computer could damage students, claiming that "computerized instruction robs the student of the warm human guiding hand, thus dehumanizing the process of education and cognitive development-possibly with unimaginably monstrous long-range consequences" ( Raskin, p. 32). Young students are likely to mimic and acquire attitudes from teachers and experiences, so if the computer "teacher" were to appear mean the student may acquire mean attitudes and act violently towards other students. The computer could act friendly but it would be difficult for a computer to appear personal. The student may learn that computers are friendly and begin to lose trust in humans. Damage such as this, if done at a young age, could inhibit a successful social life for the student. Nonetheless, in the case where human teachers are abusive or violent the computer teacher may be an advantage even if the student acquires some alienation towards other people. Still, the best scenario for young students is for them to have friendly, human teachers. This way the student becomes familiar with interacting with people and receives a "warm human guiding hand."

As technology advances the people who create it or extensively use it are forced to learn new methods to be able to operate it. Computers are continually changing and as storage capacities grow software becomes larger and more complicated internally but at the same becomes easier to use. The software can keep track of many processes letting the user pay more attention to the specific details of the work. The first computers were very difficult to use and required much training. Even when monitors and keyboards existed it still took quite a bit of work to maintain the computer. Now, much software and many computers are mass produced and marketed specifically for their ease of use. With just a few instructions a person can plug a computer in and go right to a word processor or other package.

This progression has led software developers to become more advanced but allowed common computer users to be less advanced. The developers' computer literacy must be very high so that the full capabilities of the computer can be taken advantage of and a profitable product can be made. The common user is willing to pay for products which are easy to use but that takes the user farther away from what the computer is actually doing. A user can be naive about how computers work, thus being less computer literate, and still be able to use computers effectively. It is good that technology is becoming more accessible to people but it is bad that this is allowing literacy to decrease. However, it is possible that this decrease in literacy may be acceptable. Higher technologies can be used without the literacy and instead of people spending time learning how to use technology they can spend their time acquiring other knowledge.

Technology does have the potential of damaging literacy. If Hirsch is correct about cultural literacy depending on a certain set of ideas then technology may advance to the point where we can use databases constantly and not need have as much knowledge as we do now. If Hirsch is wrong then we will not need to worry about technology destroying that literacy. Raskin says that computer teachers may result in negative results. Computer teachers can be optimized and once an optimum computer is developed it would be easy to distribute duplicates. The drawback is that students do not need to develop social skills to interact with a computer and may even be damaged from this lack of human interaction. To prevent this, schools should not use computer teaching a majority of the time. Ogbu is concerned about all students receiving an equal education and if computers can aid education, either in teaching fundamental subjects or in teaching computer literacy, then students who have access to this technology will be advantaged. To ensure equality, government programs could supply schools with fair levels of technology. Technology may be able to damage education or literacy but if technology is monitored it can be used to aid education and literacy in great ways.

Chris Hobbs is a freshman at Carnegie Mellon, in the School of Computer Science.

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