Monday, August 23, 2010

not for memory, but reminder

I came across this footnote the other day in a book on the history of humanity's developing understanding of the universe:
In Plato's Phaedrus, Socrates recounts an old story of how the legendary King Thamus of Egypt had declined the Theuth's offer to teach his subjects how to write. "What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder," says King Thamus. "And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they know nothing, and as men filled, not with wisdom, but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows." This remains one of the most prophetic denunciations of the peril of literacy ever enunciated - although of course, it is thanks to the written word that we know of it.

(Coming of Age in the Milky Way, Timothy Ferris, p.31)
It strikes me that much the same thing could be said of computers - that rather than helping people to think, they encourage shortcuts, shallow learning and laziness. This is something I see in my classrooms all the time, and which concerns me. On the other hand, the amount of knowledge has increased incredibly since Plato's day, and it would be impossible and probably undesirable to return to a reliance on memory alone. And indeed despite the kernel of truth of Plato's words, you would have to be particularly obtuse to deny that the written word initiated the growth of and sophistication* of human civilisation* and has been essential for many of the great achievements* of humankind. No doubt computer technology is in the same category. In years to come (and perhaps already) people will wonder how we ever did without it.

(*I realise that these are problematic concepts.)

For some more interesting reflections on computers see this post, over on Michael Gilleland's blog.

(And yes, I get the irony of blogging about this topic.)

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

hey sir, laura here. can you put up a copy of the latin for aeneid ii on the intranet?

nick said...

Have you read Plato and the Internet which discusses how Plato might react to such a wealth of information? http://www.amazon.co.uk/Plato-Internet-Postmodern-Encounters-Kieron/dp/1840463465

jm said...

laura, done.

nick, sounds interesting, i'll check it out.

alexander said...

Hello jm,

Do you have an e-mail? I wanted to ask you a few questions but I didn't know where to contact you. And I didn't want to ask them on the comments section where it wasn't relevant to this particular blog.

Thanks

Alexander

jm said...

alexander, try joel[dot]morrison1[at]det[dot]nsw[dot]gov[dot]au.

Elvish Ally said...

Hey Mr Morrison!

Alice Matthews here...I've been exploring RSS feeds since doing a unit on "Learning with Technology" last year - how ironic that within this I would come across this post!

It's a debate that has come up a lot at uni (I'm studying Primary Ed), but the general consensus is that computers, whether beneficial or not for the current educational style, are the way of the present and future. Perhaps we need to adjust how and what we teach to cater for the new technology rather than worrying about how it is unhelpful to what is already in place?

Not sure how that would work so much with Latin which, in itself, is not a particularly flexible or "futuristic" subject ;)

jm said...

hi alice, what a pleasant surprise. you're right of course, computers are here to stay (at least until climate change/peak oil starts to effect our ability to produce electricity... but that's another story), and whether i like it or not i've got to adjust my teaching to reflect that.

at the same time using technology just because they're there is not a great educational strategy. smart boards are one example. when i was at uni (oh so long ago) student centred learning was all the rage. one of the effects of using a smartboard is that it can often draw the focus of the lesson away from the students, back towards the teacher.

that's not in and of itself a bad or a good thing, but it's something that is not necessarily considered very carefully (in my observations), and i do think that technology applied without careful thought can be unhelpful.

i guess what i'm saying is, yep use the technology, but think carefully about why and how you use it. that's how i try to approach it anyway.