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No. 1374:
Teaching and the Machine

Today, a disturbing op-ed article. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A history professor's op-ed piece for the New York Times has a headline that shouts, Get Out of the Classroom and Onto TV! That's scary stuff for someone trying to teach history in the classroom.

Still, I spend evenings working in my office with the History Channel running in the background. When I hear something I ought to know, I divert to watch it. I'm almost embarrassed to say how much of much of my own web of context has been spun by TV.

Historians, says the op-ed author, serve as consultants for all those TV history shows. Why don't they take control and use them as primary teaching media! That hits home in many ways.

For one thing, that's what I've been trying to do in a smaller way with radio. For years I've watched the public expecting increasingly sophisticated accounts of history. The people who use public radio, TV, and the Internet retain far more of what they hear and see than we might think.

The second way this piece hits home is more complex. If public media are becoming effective teachers, what does that mean for us who teach in classrooms? Should we simply push the ON-switch for students and let the silver screen do our work? Or maybe we should close our classrooms and say "Go home and push your own ON-switch."

That dilemma marks all teaching today. It's hard to do our advanced engineering material on TV, since it rides on a mathematical framework. But fancy new software does much of that math for students. They react by shrugging off math instruction, and I'm left struggling to see exactly which parts they still need to be taught.

Given the obvious fact that the media can do things we teachers once did, we seem to face intolerable choices. But what we actually face is neither so dire nor so simple. The media demand radical change. The only thing clear about change is that whole frameworks must be rebuilt. We have to invent change.

The physical classroom may go away, but not the metaphorical classroom, the student and teacher in conversation, the famous log with Mark Hopkins on one end and a student on the other. That will remain even if the log appears to've changed utterly.

The problem is so hard because its solution won't be expressible in familiar terms. Classrooms once centered on oral information. Then commercial scriptoria made manuscript books more plentiful in the 13th century, and the great European universities grew up around them. When fast presses provided personal textbooks in the 19th century, Thomas Carlyle reacted by saying that the true university is a collection of books. We in America created a new kind of technical education, for the people, based on outside readings.

Computers and TV will no more do away with teachers than books did. But those teachers still standing will have redefined themselves. They'll be the ones who've figured out what to give away to the media and what absolutely must be retained for the classroom.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Schama, S., So, You Care About History? Get Out of the Classroom and Onto TV. New York Times, Saturday, October 10, 1998, p. A17.

Several colleagues have contributed much to this episode. I am particularly indebted to Judy Myers, UH Library.