(originally delivered to a meeting of the Saint Ignatius High School Fathers' Club on January 12, 1998 and published in the January 1998 edition of the Saint Ignatius High School Coeli)

Pearl ex cunabulis


Milton Alan Turner

Unlike many of my classmates, I truly enjoyed reading The Scarlet Letter as a high school sophomore. My interest was not in the characters of Hester Prynne, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, or even Roger Chillingworth, but rather in Hester's illegitimate daughter Pearl. Dressed in bright red contrasting with the drab garb of the Puritans, screaming wildly at other children, and throwing rocks at animals, she captured my imagination from the start. The inhabitants of Salem call her the demon offspring. Since she has no knowledge of her past and does not know who her father is, she believes the townspeople and acts accordingly. Nearly from birth Pearl has identified with her mother's scarlet letter and asks Hester if it is the mark of the "Black Man of the Forest" (or the Devil). Hester answers that it is and so Pearl believes herself to be the child of the Devil. However, at the novel's end, after learning that Rev. Dimmesdale is her father and that she is indeed of "natural" birth, she calms down. In fact, she moves to Europe, marries, and is described as "happy." (This is no doubt aided by the fact that she received a large inheritance from Hester's husband, Roger Chillingworth).

While we may find it quaint or even strange that a child would seriously consider herself a child of the devil, we should keep at least two facts in mind. The first is that the 17th century Puritans believed that the Devil could have intercourse with humans in their sleep. Secondly, Pearl was a child. Her experience, or rather her history, was too limited for her to understand many other possibilities.

According to British historian Sir Lewis Namier, the crowning attainment of historical study is a historical sense-an intuitive understanding of how things do not happen.(1)

Recent debates over American education, specifically over the curriculum and the use of technology, have caused me to wonder whether we have attained this intuitive sense, or if instead we are acting like Pearl constructing truth from histories that we do not fully understand. Writers such as Allan Bloom, Ed Hirsch, and William Bennett have said that the American curriculum is moving away from the "classics" and is being "dumbed down." We have also heard concerns that children spend too much time on computers, isolating themselves from others, and are losing the ability to socialize. Or even worse that modern technologies are pushing us away from reading and the literary tradition as we know it. These are issues over which we should rightly and seriously be concerned. But what I have found most troubling is the lack of scientific or studious research into these areas. Like Salem's automatic acceptance of Pearl's demonic origins, and in the words of historian Lawrence Levine, some truths, it seems, are too obvious to require the needless paraphernalia of scholarship.(2)

Books printed between 1455, the invention of Gutenberg's press, and 1501 are described as incunabula (or in a "cradle" stage) to show that the technology of printing was still in its infancy. Conventions which we now take for granted, such as paragraphing, pagination, chapter divisions, and title pages were born of this fifty year period of experimentation. (3)

With this in mind, I would like to briefly examine two areas of concern: the use of technology and its effects on education. While I quite obviously do not hold a distopian view on the place of technologies in education, I sincerely hope that I do not come across as a utopian either. Technology is not the great cure for all ailments in education. It is merely one of many tools. Instead, I intend to suggest that in many ways the curriculum and digital technologies are also in cunabula or early stages of development and, like Pearl, searching for an identity. As such, we must carefully plan and give much attention and guidance, while also being prepared for the occasional failure and the inevitable bumps, cuts, and bruises.

A debate between literary critic Sven Birkerts and MIT English professor Janet Murray recently aired on C-SPAN2's "About Books" entitled Narrative, Reading, and the Technological Future.(4) The contrasting views of Birkerts and Murray frame the range of concerns surrounding this issue.

Birkerts, in his book The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, expresses concerns over the effects of what he calls the current "proto-electronic" era. In particular, he fears language erosion.

The complexity and distinctiveness of spoken and written expression, which are deeply bound to traditions of print literacy, will gradually be replaced by a more telegraphic sort of "plain speak." ... Neal Postman and others have already suggested ...how the complex discourse patterns [of the nineteenth century] were flattened by the requirements of communication over distances.(5)

As a linguist, my "intuitive sense" forces me to ask myself: How can we know? To study discourse patterns, one must have access to primary resources. Unfortunately, video and audio tapes of speakers of the era are not widely accessible. Our sole information is based on the "written" observations of a literate educated minority. Assuming that these "complex discourse patterns" were the standard would be equivalent to stating that the writings of George Will or William Safire represent the way the average modern American speaks.

Birkerts is also concerned over the loss of literature due to technology. By interacting via the mouse and screen instead of the book and page, the very essence of literature will change and the culture of books may be lost. An "intuitive sense" reminds me again that this is not the way that things happen. It is easy to forget that writing is a technology itself.(6) All children naturally develop oral or gestural language unassisted in much the same way they learn to crawl, then walk, then run and jump. In contrast, children must be explicitly taught to write. Fears similar to Birkerts were expressed as cultures began moving from orality to literacy. The Druids forbade writing about religion for fear that all things sacred would be forgotten. Plato recounts the legend of the Egyptian king Thamus who was wary of writing believing it contributed to forgetfulness. Even Nicholas Negroponte, one of the most optimistic proponents of technology, views books as necessary and very "high resolution."(7) It is still awkward to use your laptop on the rapid or in the bathroom to read the daily news from USA Today's web site.

Fearing the loss of literature echoes the dismay over the popularity among youth of dime novels and comic books in the Forties and Fifties. The pertinent question is not one of medium, but material; not if students read, but what they are reading.

Concern over the effect new technologies have on existing ones in quite natural. Many people feared that telephones would keep people apart. Musicians originally feared magnetic recording, playwrights and novelists feared the motion picture, and theater owners feared the advent of videotapes.

As Janet Murray points out, technologies also tend to work with and borrow from the innovations of their predecessors:

Decades before the invention of the motion picture camera, the prose fiction of the nineteenth century began to experiment with filmic techniques. We catch glimpses of the coming cinema in Emily Brontė's complex use of flashback, in Dickens' crosscuts between intersecting stories, and in Tolstoy's battlefield panoramas that dissolve into close-up vignettes of a single soldier.(8)

As is the case with the printing press, the invention of the camera led to a period of incunabula, of "cradle films"...Narrative films were originally called photoplays and were at first thought of as a merely additive art form created by pointing a static camera at a stagelike set...The key to [the] development [of filmic storytelling] was seizing on the unique properties of film...By aggressively exploring and exploiting these physical properties, filmmakers changed a mere recording technology into an expressive medium.(9)

While computers may at times appear to be at odds with the literary tradition, in this context they can be seen as a true product of this tradition and will eventually help to promote and advance it. Like Pearl in her "cradle stages," they are searching for an identity and a sense of purpose. Rather than supplanting reading and writing, computers actually support it. While advances in multimedia have been great, the textually based keyboard remains the principal form of input. We are still far away from the dream of a Star Trek style computer that talks and understands speech.

Applications such as word processing rather than "dumbing down the curriculum" or lowering student expectations, will serve to raise them. The AP exam essay grading rubric allows for what I call an "epiphany exception"-a student may, without penalty, directly contradict his thesis in the middle of an essay if he comes up with a better idea or analysis. This is because the essays are timed and handwritten. I noticed this same leniency in many undergraduate and graduate professors in the early and mid eighties because of the difficulty in making major changes to handwritten and typewritten work. With the advent of word processing and the increased ease of editing, such contradictions in thesis are now widely unacceptable.

Adaptations in the curriculum to allow the most productive and educationally sound use of technology in schools are imperative. Such change should not be seen as radical. Historian Lawrence W. Levine in The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History describes the history of American education as a series of such adjustments to meet both the requirements of its students and society at large. In fact, much of the curriculum as we now know it is no more than seventy years old. One hundred years ago, history and British literature were considered non rigorous or "soft" academic areas as some view film or television studies today. Levine writes:

The rise of industrial America finally led to the demise of the classical curriculum [consisting of only Latin, Greek, mathematics, philosophy, and logic] and the adoption of the elective system; World War I promoted a sense of Western civilization; World War II and the Cold War heightened the sense of Americaness and a concern with things American.(10)

Janet Murray further points out:

Shakespeare and Jane Austen were once considered to be working in less legitimate formats than Aeschylus and Homer.(11)

She adds:

We forget that Shakespeare did not write books; he wrote plays and spent his life in the collaborative medium of theater, shaping his characters to fit the strengths of his acting company.(12)

Like Shakespeare, we need to maximize the strengths of our students, educators, institutions, and tools at their disposal. The process of discovering these new paths however can be as unpredicatable as Pearl's personality. National Public Radio's Science Friday recently featured a discussion on computers and education.(13) The panelists presented a paradox commonly found in schools. Research is not complete on the educational benefits of computers and related technology and once available, the technology studied is often too antiquated to be effectively implemented. Many institutions will install systems anyway (due to competitive, administrative, and legislative pressures, or based solely on anecdotal evidence) and hope that a core of "pioneer" teachers will help lead the way. But unfortunately sufficient provisions are rarely made for adequate training or time to discover and document workable solutions among the myriad possibilities.

The future is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to predict. Experience may show us that the most productive uses of these technologies may be very different from those we now envision. After all, the modern handshake evolved from showing that one is unarmed. Our major language organs, the mouth, teeth, tongue, and lungs, evolved primarily as ingestive and respiratory systems and were only later adapted for linguistic use. Writing largely evolved from a system of accounting. One of the most widely used teaching aids, the overhead projector, was originally developed for bowling alleys. A second widely used teaching aid, the VCR, originally created as a video cassette recorder, is most often used (in the wider public as well as academia) as a video cassette player. I remember videodiscs originally failing in the marketplace because of their inability to record only to find new life a decade later in audio CD's and now as DVD players. It is only natural that we, like Pearl, may become frustrated in our unsuccessful attempts at making sense of the unknown.

Much of the great promise and attraction of the Internet lies in its powers of collaboration and community. The most popular use of the Internet is still e-mail. Before the arrival of the WWW five years ago, the second most widely used area were Usenet groups. One of the principal reasons why America Online has reached over 10 million subscribers and enjoys a wide lead over its competitors is due to its communal nature and its emphasis on chat rooms. AOL CEO Steve Case recently reported that 4.5 million people used AOL as a result of Princess Diana's death, not so much to get the latest information, but more to mourn collectively.(14) But in these nascent communities can lurk unpleasant and dangerous neighborhoods and characters.

In face of such uncertainty, our guidance, as parents and educators, is crucial to students safely and effectively using technology in this incunabular state. Just as we try teach children how to answer a phone, how or when to talk to strangers, when to open the door, when and what to watch on TV, we need to teach them what is and is not appropriate online. What often makes this such an uncomfortable and daunting task is that often we, as parents and educators, may lack the experience from which the necessary wisdom is gained. We must often learn with or from our sons and students and often at the same time.

The maturation process has never been easy or comfortable. But with a realistic knowledge of the past, and a sound sense of purpose in the present, we can pave a path towards a productive future. While we must necessarily pass through this period in cunabula, it need not be as prolonged and turbulent as Pearl's. With sufficient guidance, direction, and patience, we can confidently lead the next generation ex cunabulis, out of the cradle, into an adulthood as productive and "happy" as hers.

(1) As quoted in Levine, Lawrence W. The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996. Page 29.

(2). From Levine, page 24.

(3). Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. New York: The Free Press, 1997, page 28.

(4). Janet H. Murray and Sven Birkerts, "About Books" ­ Narrative, Reading, and the Technological Future (recorded 11/13/97; aired on C-SPAN2 12/20/97). This debate is available for in RealAudio format on the World Wide Web at

(5). Birkerts, Sven. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Boston: Faber & Faber, 1994. Page 128.

(6). From Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London, New York : Methuen, 1982.

(7). Negroponte, Nicholas. Being Digital. New York:Vintage, 1995.

(8). from Murray, page 29.

(9). From Murray, page 66.

(10). From Levine, pages 99-100.

(11). Murray, page 273.

(12). from Murray, page 276.

(13). The discussion between Alan Cromer, Bill Tally, Jim Schnitz, and host Ira Flatow can be heard in RealAudio format via the World Wide Web at http://www.npr.org/ramfiles/971219.totn.02.ram .

(14). Keynote address by Steve Case (introduced by Adam Clayton Powell III), Conference on Journalists and the Internet, January 9, 1998, Arlington VA sponsored by the Freedom Forum and the National Press Club. This speech can be seen in RealAudio format via the World Wide Web at http://www.cspan.org/ram/010998v2.ram.