Thursday, October 19, 2006

Why Doesn't Anybody Want to Learn?

I keep encountering the same story over and over again. At a recent town hall meeting someone came up to me [they'll remain anonymous] and said that they have no use for computers or the internet. I walked away wondering how farmers just like him could use power tools on their farm and not be disgusted with the use of such technology.

If power tools supplement manually intensive labor then computers save intellectually intensive activities. Likewise, exploring the internet is like having the world's greatest libraries at your disposal to instantly gratify any curiousity you may have. These technologies represent the first nanoseconds of a golden age of man yet some men and women reject the informational sunlight.

At a recent open house at EO Smith, I was taken aback by the absence of computers in most classrooms except for teacher's desks. They appear to be so under-utilized as to render them non-existant. A PBS documentary from a few years ago, recounted a story that certain explorers starved to death in a western state that teemed with salmon. The explorers only ate animal meat. I sometimes think our schools are starving our children because our teachers either don't understand technology or refuse to integrate it into the irrational expectations of NCLB.

This past week Google executive Eric Schmidt said, 'Those in the know about technology must spend more time reaching out to governments and helping them understand the Internet's role in society. The average person in government is not of the age of people who are using all this stuff,' Schmidt said at a public symposium here hosted by the National Academies' Computer Science and Telecommunications Board. 'There is a generational gap, and it's very, very real.'"

I see it differently. The use of technology requires personal initiative, curiosity, and intellectual inertias that stimulate the desire to learn anew. Government and schools no longer encourage, reward, or value learning, experimentation, or esoteric tangents. You know, the stuff that generates new ideas, better processes, or discovery. The gap Schmidt is addressing is not generational, it is chronically institutional.

I spend a lot of time trying to stimulate new ideas and excitement about using technology in schools and business. I often get the feeling that the people I talk to are interested in listening only so that they can invent excuses NOT to ever have to try anything like what we're discussing. After all, if there isn't an existing policy, union clause, or speculative risk that can be magnified to crisis proportions - one can always be cooked up.

Learning in America has been redefined in recent years to be difficult to quantify and therefore of no consequence in this country's obsession to "hold schools accountable". So, for the sake of accountability rather than learning, we test, test, test. And what good is testing if we aren't testing THE BASICS?

And we all know how important the basics are, right?

Well, this op-ed piece in the New York Times makes plain why we are losing the war in Iraq, can't secure our homeland, and why American media spouts continuous streams of meaningless and nonsensical gibberish.

Can You Tell a Sunni From a Shiite? by Jeff Stein, New York Times.
FOR the past several months, I’ve been wrapping up lengthy interviews with Washington counterterrorism officials with a fundamental question: “Do you know the difference between a Sunni and a Shiite?”

A “gotcha” question? Perhaps. But if knowing your enemy is the most basic rule of war, I don’t think it’s out of bounds. And as I quickly explain to my subjects, I’m not looking for theological explanations, just the basics: Who’s on what side today, and what does each want?

After all, wouldn’t British counterterrorism officials responsible for Northern Ireland know the difference between Catholics and Protestants? In a remotely similar but far more lethal vein, the 1,400-year Sunni-Shiite rivalry is playing out in the streets of Baghdad, raising the specter of a breakup of Iraq into antagonistic states, one backed by Shiite Iran and the other by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states.

A complete collapse in Iraq could provide a haven for Al Qaeda operatives within striking distance of Israel, even Europe. And the nature of the threat from Iran, a potential nuclear power with protégés in the Gulf states, northern Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, is entirely different from that of Al Qaeda. It seems silly to have to argue that officials responsible for counterterrorism should be able to recognize opportunities for pitting these rivals against each other.

But so far, most American officials I’ve interviewed don’t have a clue. That includes not just intelligence and law enforcement officials, but also members of Congress who have important roles overseeing our spy agencies. How can they do their jobs without knowing the basics?

My curiosity about our policymakers’ grasp of Islam’s two major branches was piqued in 2005, when Jon Stewart and other TV comedians made hash out of depositions, taken in a whistleblower case, in which top F.B.I. officials drew blanks when asked basic questions about Islam. One of the bemused officials was Gary Bald, then the bureau’s counterterrorism chief. Such expertise, Mr. Bald maintained, wasn’t as important as being a good manager.

A few months later, I asked the F.B.I.’s spokesman, John Miller, about Mr. Bald’s comments. “A leader needs to drive the organization forward,” Mr. Miller told me. “If he is the executive in a counterterrorism operation in the post-9/11 world, he does not need to memorize the collected statements of Osama bin Laden, or be able to read Urdu to be effective. ... Playing ‘Islamic Trivial Pursuit’ was a cheap shot for the lawyers and a cheaper shot for the journalist. It’s just a gimmick.”

Of course, I hadn’t asked about reading Urdu or Mr. bin Laden’s writings.
Isn't it curious that we demand more of our children than we do of our adults?

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