I’m in the Sierra Mountains skiing where the altitude has replaced sleeping with hallucinating.

So, unable to sleep, I read Will Richardson’s latest blog post at 4AM. Will expands upon a blog post by David Weinberger in which Weinberger asks breathlessly,

“Why did the world shatter at the touch of a hyperlink?”

Weinberger is a Web philosopher, so one can expect that in his world view, the universe is made of “the Web.” It is the answer to every question. He also makes the mistake (IMHO) in believing that human behavior, culture and institutions may be reduced to information access.

Weinberger, admittedly one of the smarter “Web philosophers,” nonetheless uses the bits vs. atoms analogy first expressed by Nicholas Negroponte in his 1996 book, Being Digital, not to predict technological innovation, but in order to paint a dystopian vision of the present in which “every discipline” is now “a fiction.”

Will Richardson expands on Weinberger’s theme and writes the following:

“And I’m wondering, deep down, have we known all along that this idea of an “education” was really a fiction, something we created out of necessity with the implicit understanding that in a world limited by atoms, it was never really the end all, be all, but it was the best we could do under the circumstances? And if we didn’t know that, can we admit that now?

The circumstances have changed. We’re no longer constrained by atoms. For 125 years we’ve been making the learning world small, and now the world is all of a sudden big…huge. All of a sudden, the walls have been obliterated. Learning is unbound, and “an education” is next.”

I fully appreciate Will’s impatience with the educational landscape, but I think I disagree with his thesis.

There was no omnipotent power forcing us to make learning small. Besides, some pretty great freakin’ stuff was invented over the past 125 years – including the World Wide Web. Diseases were eradicated and great social movements triumphed. The past century gave us Dewey, Patri, Papert, Malaguzzi, Piaget, Kohl, Kozol, Kohn, Sizer, Littky, Meier, Holt, Postman and countless others who reinvented education.

The 1826 book, “Last of the Mohicans,” was the most popular book in America at the time of its publication, but is barely readable by literate Americans today. 100-110 years ago, millions of Americans could read and play Ragtime sheet music on their piano. That feat surely “atomizes” the ability of a lot fewer people to demonstrate a whole lot less talent with a much simpler instrument like Garageband today.

We might turn President Obama’s recent proclamation, “We do big things,” into the question, “We do big things?

It’s weird playing the role of the conservative, but isn’t there a hell of a lot we (all) can do to make schools more productive contexts for learning? Can’t we teach interesting things in meaningful ways? Can’t we develop genuine expertise and share it with our peers and the next generation? Can’t we be receptive to the intentions of young people and learn from them – if not skills and facts, perhaps intensity?

It seems to me that the “blow up the past,” “extinguish everything that brought us here (good and bad)” stuff is really a cheap parlor trick – pure rhetoric.

Kids may discover how to play with a cello on the Web, but they’ll never become a cellist that way. We see how well factual knowledge is obtained when half of America is sympathetic to birtherism. We live in a society where most Caucasians don’t know someone of a different race, yet we embrace the “diversity of the blogosphere,” which is less diverse than a public bus. How does culture sustain itself and progress? Democracy?

So many questions…

Why do we congratulate ourselves for using Skype? Why do we limit children’s computing to keyboarding instruction, Internet research or burping into VoiceThread? Is nothing fixable? Do we need 21st Century skills to supplant time-honored intellectual processes?

Why do we so lack the capacity for self-correction. Why is it safer and more comfortable to behave in a way contrary to the interests of ourselves and the kids we are supposed to serve? Why has the slightest act of disobedience against the curriculum or administrative edict taken on biblical significance? What’s wrong with US?

Who can we trust to invent a future when so few of us have the courage to teach as well as we were instructed the first night of teacher-ed? The only reason for despair is if we are truly “the change we’ve been waiting for.”


If you’re interested in learning more from the wisdom of our predecessors about how to “educate” better, check out this collection of books provided by The Constructivist Consortium.

You should also check out The Daily Papert and Constructing Modern Knowledge!