Playing With Fire

In the Wikipedia discussion of nuclear weapons, we are told that “A thermonuclear weapon weighing little more than 2,400 pounds (1,100 kg) can produce an explosive force comparable to the detonation of more than 1.2 million tons (1.1 million tonnes) of TNT. Thus, even a small nuclear device no larger than traditional bombs can devastate an entire city by blast, fire, and radiation.” We are also told that there are approximately 17,000 nuclear weapons worldwide.

While you surely know about the concerns world-wide over the leak of nuclear waste from the damaged nuclear plant in Fukushima, Japan not long ago, you may not have read about the revelation that a near-calamity was avoided when, some years back, a plane carrying two nuclear bombs had engine trouble and had to release its bombs in North Carolina where they fell harmlessly to the ground. Apparently there are three “triggers” that must be tripped before the bomb will ignite but they discovered that two of the three triggers in one of the bombs had tripped leaving only the third one as a last-ditch safety measure against certain calamity. As the Guardian recently reported:

A secret document, published in declassified form for the first time by the Guardian today, reveals that the US Air Force came dramatically close to detonating an atom bomb over North Carolina that would have been 260 times more powerful than the device that devastated Hiroshima.

The document, obtained by the investigative journalist Eric Schlosser under the Freedom of Information Act, gives the first conclusive evidence that the US was narrowly spared a disaster of monumental proportions when two Mark 39 hydrogen bombs were accidentally dropped over Goldsboro, North Carolina on 23 January 1961. The bombs fell to earth after a B-52 bomber broke up in mid-air, and one of the devices behaved precisely as a nuclear weapon was designed to behave in warfare: its parachute opened, its trigger mechanisms engaged, and only one low-voltage switch prevented untold carnage.

Each bomb carried a payload of 4 megatons – the equivalent of 4 million tons of TNT explosive. Had the device detonated, lethal fallout could have been deposited over Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia and as far north as New York city – putting millions of lives at risk.

Goethe's version of The Sorcerer's Apprentice

Goethe’s version of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice

You may also have read Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein that focuses attention on the determination of one man to create another in his image: Jacques Ellul called it the “technological imperative.” If we can do it we should do it.” This is the reverse of David Hume’s formula for ethical action: “ought implies can.”  If a person cannot do something we cannot say he or she should have done it — save a child’s life if they cannot swim, for example. The technological imperative reverses this formula and tells us that “can implies ought.” If we can do it, we should do it. Ethical questions are simply not raised. Thus is born the determination to create another human being, as Shelly suggests. The genie comes out of the bottle, the sorcerer’s apprentice messes with things he doesn’t fully understand and creates a broom to do his work that goes completely out of control. Things are in the saddle and ride mankind. In a word, we have gone so far down the path toward control of nature and the determination to demonstrate our own technical ingenuity that we are now unable to put the genie back into the bottle. We are very good at asking the question “how?” but we completely ignore the basic question, “why?”

I have always wondered if the story in the Bible about the Garden of Eden was a parable for our times. The earth as we have come to know it is the Garden in all its glory. But we have eaten of the apple of knowledge (technical knowledge) and are about to destroy the beauty around us and ourselves in the process. We will not only be cast out of the Garden of Eden, we will annihilate ourselves in the process. It’s a sobering thought and one that is hard to dodge when we read about nuclear accidents and near-misses like the case of the nuclear weapon that nearly went off in North Carolina not long ago and which would have caused untold human and animal life. And to what end, we might ask? But that is a question that is never asked by the technical experts. They only ask: can we do it?

Is SOLE The Answer?

A curious article turned up on HuffPost recently, written by a man named Sugata Mitra. The man advances a thesis about education that sounds awfully familiar, though it pretends to be brand, spanking new. In fact, it is “Summerhill” on steroids — or computers, which amounts to the same thing in this case. And A.S. Neill’s Summerhill  is as old as the hills. Mitra stresses creativity and turning kids loose with computers to become self-learners, which is precisely what Neill proposed (without computers) in the early 1900s. After a brief history lesson in which he claims that the traditional educational system came out of Victorian England where it was designed to turn out factory workers (wrong!), Mitra tells us that

But what got us here, won’t get us there. Schools today are the product of an expired age; standardized curricula, outdated pedagogy, and cookie cutter assessments are relics of an earlier time. Schools still operate as if all knowledge is contained in books, and as if the salient points in books must be stored in each human brain — to be used when needed. The political and financial powers controlling schools decide what these salient points are. Schools ensure their storage and retrieval. Students are rewarded for memorization, not imagination or resourcefulness.

For one thing, phrases like “outdated pedagogy” beg the question, which is precisely whether or not traditional teaching methods can be effective. The answer, contrary to Mr. Mitra, is that they can —  they have been and they continue to be. And the Victorian educational system that he claims was designed to turn out factory workers produced people like Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill. Furthermore, it is not clear to me that students today are not rewarded for “imagination or resourcefulness,” and, heaven knows, they are asked to memorize very little. Mr. Mitra’s claims are rife with errors.

The main issue here, aside from the fact that Mr. Mitra is actually selling a package he designed himself and which he calls “Self Organized Learning Environments,” or “SOLE” (a bit of a conflict of interest there!), is that he reduces education to “salient points” which is another word for “information.” It is clear that the internet is full of more information than one can assimilate in a lifetime — even if they spent all of the time sitting down staring at the screen. And that is the key: assimilation. Education is a complicated process that takes information and translates it into action by means of thought. And it is precisely thought that is missing in Mitra’s equation. One cannot teach young people how to think by sitting them down in front of a computer, and education is more about thinking than it is about the information they may or may not download from the computer.  Information is merely a means to an end.

One is reminded of Mary Shelly’s monster in Frankenstein who is supposed to have learned to read by staring at a newspaper day after day: it is absurd. There needs to be interaction, give and take. In a word, there needs to be a teacher to ask key questions and guide the students through the impossibly confused jumble of information on the internet to that information that is relevant — another key word. How does one determine unguided what is and what is not relevant by simply staring at a computer screen? Answer: you can’t. Relevance and the ability to assimilate information require interaction with teachers.

To be sure, we live in an electronic age and it makes sense to incorporate electronic equipment, such as computers, into the curriculum. But as Jane Healy has shown, excessive reliance on these gadgets can actually stunt the growth of the left-hemisphere of the child’s brain thereby making future learning nearly impossible. What is required is a selective use of electronic toys and a lively imagination on the part of the gifted teacher to draw young people from the frantic rapid-fire world of electronic toys into the world of words and ideas where real learning takes place. And let’s not burn the books quite yet. SOLE is not the answer: good teaching is the answer, and teachers are precisely the ones who would be shoved aside by Mr. Mitra’s plan — known as “the bad plan.”