May 4, 2020

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Consider All the Impacts of Digital Learning

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To the Editor:


We live in the present: Conservatives look backward at the good things that existed in an imperfect past and progressives look forward at the better things that might be achieved in the future. Universities today are overwhelmingly progressive, and we see ourselves as leading society towards an ideal. The progressive ideal often is based on information technology. In the 21st Century, Cornell has progressed by creating Cornell Tech and Cornell AgriTech.  But the Age of Information is not necessarily the Age of Wisdom, and good things from the past may be lost in the progressive technological advance. Books that you can hold, turn the pages with your fingers and look up from as you create soul-satisfying mental images of what you are reading, are one of the things that is being lost.

In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, infant Deltas were taught to shun books to ensure that they would grow up to become automatons. To accomplish this, the infants were presented with picture books, which they looked at naturally and joyously. Then, the Director gave a signal to turn on a loud shrieking siren and gave the infants an electric shock. After 200 repetitions, the books, loud noises and electric shocks became inextricably linked in the infants’ minds, and, as Huxley wrote, “What man has joined, nature is powerless to put asunder.” The Deltas grew up to be automatons with an “instinctive” hatred of books.

How do we know if the technology used for virtual instruction conditions us to be free thinkers that love reading or automatons that shun books? Neil Postman ends his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, with a way of telling us when we have become automatons: “For in the end, he [Aldous Huxley] was trying to tell us what afflicted the people in Brave New World was not that they were laughing instead of thinking, but that they did not know what they were laughing about and why they had stopped thinking.”

I took this picture of books in a dumpster behind Mann Library almost three years ago. I entitled it: Big Red goes Digital. It serves as a reminder that something is lost when something else is gained — an important image as we debate virtual online instruction and real classroom instruction.

Prof. Randy Wayne, Plant Biology