Q: What, if anything, do you think should be the role of the computer in education?
A: Yours is an often-asked question. In a sense, it is upside-down. You start with the instrument; the question makes the assumption that of course the computer is good for something in education, that it is the solution to some educational problem. Specifically, [your] question is, what is it good for?
But where does the underlying assumption come from? Why are we talking about computers? I understand [you asked because] I’m a computer scientist, not a bicycle mechanic. But There is something about the computer – the computer has almost since its beginning been basically a solution looking for a problem.
The questioning should start the other way – it should perhaps start with the question of what education is supposed to accomplish in the first place.Then perhaps [one should] state some priorities – it should accomplish this, it should do that, it should do the other thing. Then one might ask, in terms of what it’s supposed to do, what are the priorities? What are the most urgent problems? And once one has identified the urgent problems, then one can perhaps say, “Here is a problem for which the computer seems to be well-suited.” I think that’s the way it has to begin.
It is terribly important to ask the reasons the schools are failing so miserably. I think that even if one could show that the introduction of the computer into schools actually effected an improvement, say for example in reading scores, even if one could show that, the question, “Why can’t Johnny read?” must still be asked.
There is a very good reason that questions of that kind are uncomfortable. When we ask this question, we may discover that Johnny is hungry when he comes to school, or that Johnny comes from a milieu in which reading is irrelevant to concrete problems or survival on the street – that is, there is no chance to read, it is a violent milieu, and so on.
You might discover that, and then you might ask the next question: “Why is it that Johnny comes to school hungry? Don’t we have school breakfast programs and lunch programs?” The answer to that might be, yes, we used to, but we don’t any more.
Why is there so much poverty in our world, in the United States, especially in the large cities? Why is it that classes are so large? Why is it that fully half the science and math teachers in the United States are underqualified and are operating on emergency certificates?
When you ask questions like that, you come upon some very important and very tragic facts about America. One of the things you would discover is that education has a very much lower priority in the United States than do a great many other things, most particularly the military.
It is much nicer, it is much more comfortable, to have some device, say the computer, with which to flood the schools, and then to sit back and say, “You see, we are doing something about it, we are helping,” than to confront ugly social realities.
Q: What about computers and the military?
Other people say, and I think this is a widely used rationalization, that fundamentally the tools we work on are “mere” tools; This means that whether they get use for good or evil depends on the person who ultimately buys them and so on.
There’s nothing bad about working in computer vision, for example. Computer vision may very well some day be used to heal people who would otherwise die. Of course, it could also be used to guide missiles, cruise missiles for example, to their destination, and all that. You see, tthe technology itself is neutral and value-free and it just depends how one uses it. And besides – consistent with that – we can’t know, we scientists cannot know how it is going to be used. So therefore we have no responsibility.
Well, that is false. It is true that a computer, for example, can be used for good or evil. It is true that a helicopter can be used as a gunship and it can also be used to rescue people from a mountain pass. And if the question arises of how a specific device is going to be used, in what I call an abstract ideal society, then one might very well say one cannot know.
But we live in a concrete society, [and] with concrete social and historical circumstances and political realities in this society, it is perfectly obvious that when something like a computer is invented, then it is going to be adopted will be for military purposes. It follows from the concrete realities in which we live, it does not follow from pure logic. But we’re not living in an abstract society, we’re living in the society in which we in fact live.