Education and the Information Explosion

James R. Johnson

I spend early mornings reading for pleasure.  Today’s selection was a few chapters in P.D. James’ recent Dalgliesh epic “The Private Patient.”  It suddenly became obvious to me that the massive discontent with the US’ school system may be but a symptom of a wide-spread plague of unease about the existing educational system.  Of course, I am extrapolating, since I only have one international quote which started me on this bit of mental meandering that led me to this morning’s “aha!” experience.

But follow me:  It is generally believed that the world’s knowledge increases logarithmically, i.e., every ten years the amount of knowledge doubles.  By knowledge, I include both facts which have been uncovered, but man’s interaction with those facts, as in engineering and information processing, including communication thereof.

Unfortunately, education has not kept pace with the information explosion.  I believe that the limiting factor in learning is the student’s native intelligence.  I think that over the years, we have reached the limit of speed with which an individual can learn new things—not just data but also processes, viewpoints, and understandings. A great deal of educational water has flowed under the bridge since a school was a student on one end of a log and a teacher at the other end of the log discussing ideal governments, the properties of triangles, and the principles of logic.  A lot of well-meaning politicians, and some not so well-meaning, have developed schools to their present state, and made them adequate for the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries.

But now we begin to wonder, “Why Johnny can’t read,” “Why are we behind the Russians in the Space Race?” “Why can’t high-school graduates run a cash register?” “Why are so many students dropping out of public school before graduation?” and so on ad infinitum.

The first remedy tried was to begin education earlier in a student’s life.  There is only so far you can go with that because of the language barrier.  Next came summer work-shops for teachers, probably the most successful attempts of all to improve teaching skills –RIP, killed by politicians.  Then, comprehensive testing of student achievement before graduation—a real step backwards toward lock-step education.  And now, the ultimate, the darling idea of the political world: NO STUDENT LEFT BEHIND!

And all because no one seems to realize that human intellect cannot keep pace with the information explosion with the educational tools at our disposal.

On the other side of the coin, educators have tried to keep pace by eliminating the classics, the basics of our civilization, and by pandering to the desires of the critics.  For example, most high schools now teach mathematics clear through calculus, but no longer teach cursive penmanship in grade schools—probably no great loss except that some teenagers can no longer sign a distinct signature, but print their name on documents. And Latin? What’s that?  Most educators have forgotten the Cardinal Principles of Education, probably the most important and least believed document in the archives of education.

I have a suggestion. It is no panacea, but might actually accomplish a few things. A friend and colleague Herb Grosdidier used to say, “High school is NOT a finishing school.”  So, ever mindful of the Cardinal Principles, we must teach our children to be good, productive citizens, not only with an appreciation for the past of humankind, but with the ability to pursue those things of interest to them and of value to society, and do it in twelve years.  Now, if a student prefers a trade, he should now aim for such a school.  If he wants a technical education, a vocational school.  If he wants to enter the workforce, a junior college. At this point, reality steps in, and the question is, how much is free to the student? I think we know where the political parties will split on this.  A topic for another diatribe.

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