Columnists > From the Publisher

Tools or tasks?

We can't let the computer craze distract us from true education

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

I can't quite decide whether our nation's huge emphasis on computer education is wrong because it distracts from true education, or because it teaches a false philosophy of life. In virtually any school, public or private, you'll find computers to be the fad that won't go away. While educational budgets of every other kind tend to languish-look especially at teachers' salaries and libraries-it seems easy in every setting to find someone to step forward with megabucks to make sure the school's computer lab is "state of the art."

I'm not a Luddite when it comes to computers. I am composing these words on a handy Macintosh laptop which is probably more crucial to my life than our family car. Especially since 1984, when the early Macintosh computers began to revolutionize the field of publishing, I have marveled that God brought along such highly leveraged changes just in time for us to apply them to WORLD magazine, which we started in 1986, and to our series of children's magazines, which were first published in 1981.

For example, I remember the time in publishing when the use of a color photo or illustration (like the one on this page or on the cover of this issue) minimally represented a $300-500 decision, and a likely 5-10 day wait. The costs for producing a color magazine, even with the modest scope of WORLD, were enormous. Now, because of computer technology, we use black-and-white photos only to produce a special effect.

We see you’ve been enjoying the content on our exclusive member website. Ready to get unlimited access to all of WORLD’s member content?
Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.
(Don’t worry. It only takes a sec—and you don’t have to give us payment information right now.)

Get your risk-free, 30-Day FREE Trial Membership right now.

In typesetting, too, the changes go far beyond the word dramatic. When I was 16, I bought a Linotype machine to help earn my way through college. The machine itself (30 years old at the time) was $2,000-and each font of type, in each size, was an additional $1,500. To have Times Roman, for example, in just four sizes took an investment of $6,000, plus the machine to set the type! Now, for the same amount, I can equip several typesetters, each with 100 fonts or more and each in dozens of sizes and styles.

So I know from personal experience how strategic a computer can be, and I'm ecstatic about the leverage they give us in our work.

Yet still, I have questions about frontloading our schools' curricula with an emphasis on computers.

My first concern is that an overemphasis on computer education distracts us from more important interests. So how, you may ask, if computers have already demonstrated the ability to bring about such beneficial changes in our lives, could there be more important interests? The difference has to do with the distinction between a tool and the task the tool is meant to make easier.

Computers, in the end, are only tools. They are wonderful tools, to be sure, but still only machinery to expedite our handling of more profound tasks in life. To allow a focus on those tools to distract a student from history and literature and the wonder of the natural sciences or mathematics is to shortchange that student.

If a high-school senior knows how to connect a computer through a modem to the Internet, but can't give a summary of how the American Revolution differed in spirit from the French Revolution, that senior has not gotten a good deal in his or her schooling. If a student has become a whiz at word processing but doesn't know how a dangling participle weakens the force of a sentence, that student has been cheated-even if the cheating took place in an up-to-date computer lab.

I know from personal experience how little it takes for the average person to gain a working acquaintance with the computer as a tool. After 15 years pounding away on various computer keyboards, I'm persuaded every young person should be taught the basics of word processing and of spreadsheets. But most people can master those two tools in a few weeks or months and quickly become acquainted with the processes and habits of a modern computer. With word processing and spreadsheets, they're ready for a great variety of assignments. (Since I flunked out of my high-school typing class, and have typed ever since with just three fingers, I also know the handicap of not mastering the basics.) There's no point sacrificing the best things in education just because we are spending too much time on what is merely good.

In another sense, though, there's an even more profound reason for questioning an overemphasis on computer technology in the educational offerings of our colleges, high schools, and elementary programs. When we put our biggest emphasis on and throw our biggest money at technical solutions, we suggest to everyone around that our biggest problems in life are technical problems.


You must be a WORLD member to post comments.

    Keep Reading


    Troubling ties

    Under the Clinton State Department, influence from big money…