(submitted to Time Magazine as a response to David Gelertner's May 25, 1998 article
"Should Schools Be Wired to the Internet? No--Learn First, Surf Later"

May 18, 1998

Dear Editors,

Although David Gelernter considers himself an educator, I must disagree with his assumptions in the May 25, 1998 article, "Should Schools Be Wired to the Internet? No--Learn First, Surf Later." Describing the Internet as great for just "gather[ing] information, communicat[ing] and shop[ping]," but essentially "toxic" and a waste of time, Mr. Gelernter forgets two important components of the plans to wire schools to the World Wide Web. First, it will allow teachers the opportunity to benefit from the wealth of information available. Second, the Web should be used not as a toy, but as an integral part of the curriculum. Chalk, erasers, VCR's, overhead projectors, and computers have no intrinsic educational value. It is what the teachers and students do with them that matters.

Our students may indeed be lacking in several key areas, but the answer is not in having them "shut up and learn" through drill and memorization. The key component to education is application. Again, how can students actually use these skills should be the focus of our attention and concern.

As a teacher of foreign languages to high school students, I was interested in the potential for authentic resources that the Web offered my students. I developed a web page in the summer of 1996 for the students to access from home and our school later added T1 access to the Internet in the summer of 1997 for student access at school. Out of curiosity I have compared the scores of my students for the three year period before the Web (1992-1994) and after the Web (1995-1997). I was surprised to find that my students are now doing better in the more traditional areas such as grammatical quizzes and final exams than before. This improvement is more marked among my younger students (Freshman) than the older (Juniors) probably because of their familiarity with the medium. (This comparison is available on the Web at http://members.aol.com/mat/WWWgrades/gradecomp.htm.)

Yes, there is a lot of junk on the Web, but the same can be said of many libraries, newsstands, and bookstores. Teaching students to think critically and evaluate is the only way to lead them to appreciate the wonders of Twain, Shakespeare, Wordsworth or Copeland. While previous generations may have expected to have the truth revealed to them, this generation expects to be taught how to discern it. It must learn much more, much faster, and then will have to discount and relearn much of what was previously "known" many more times throughout their lives. Their (and our) challenge is the most difficult students and educators have ever had to face.

The "basics" that Mr. Gelernter implies that our children are not learning is nothing new. Let us not forget that less than two hundred years ago, reading a novel was considered to be a sinfully elitist waste of time. Less than one hundred years ago, the study of American writers was considered to be trivial as some label film or television studies today. European history was considered un-American until the outbreak of World War I created a need to understand the complex political situations. American history was not considered a serious or rigorous area of study until after World War II. Even the idea of mandatory, universal public education is only a little over 100 years old. Only in the last twenty years have we recognized that a high school diploma may no longer be enough and encouraged a large majority of our students to pursue higher education instead of a privileged minority.

If "most American children don’t know what a symphony is," the Internet is not to blame nor is it an obstacle. It is our fault, when we, as a community and as a nation, allow music and arts programs to be cut, outdated textbooks to be used yet another year, class sizes to increase, and buildings to consolidate because of insufficient funding or short sighted decisions by school boards and voters. Don’t blame our kids when we can’t make the hard choices. It is not our children’s fault that we want schools to provide so much, but we are willing to pay so little. The problem isn’t out on the ‘Net. It’s on the other side of the mirror.

Milton Alan Turner