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Children, Literacy, and the Computer

For the joint Presidents' Program of the Library and Information Technology Assn. (LITA) and the Assn. for Library Service to Children (ALSC) at the American Library Assn's. (ALA's) Summer meeting, 2:45-4:00 PM, Monday, June 30, 1997, San Francisco Hilton and Towers.

by John H. Lienhard
Mechanical Engineering Department
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-4792
jhl [at] (jhl[at]uh[dot]edu)


Two things turned us from apes into a hi-tech species. The first was what the Greeks calledtechn -- the art and the skill of making things. Techn is the work of a sculptor or a stonemason, of a healer or a painter. Before anthropologists decide whether an old skull was ape or human, they search the area around it for evidence of techn -- evidence of serious tool making. 

When we did our first tool making, some 2.4 million years ago, our brains were only half the size they are today. Our capacity for thought started increasing only as we began creating more than the most rudimentary implements. 

The second great factor appeared only 25 or 30 thousand years ago. That's when we believe speech became fully evolved. It's also when we date the first cave paintings. That's when we radically improved our means for communicating ideas. We began telling one another about our techniques. We developed a lore, or a science, or an "ology" of technique. We combined techn with its ology. We became technologists.

This afternoon we meet to talk about the technology of computers and about that special communication that we call education. So, to begin, I ask who on this planet would be clever enough to invent a microcomputer? Who did invent the microcomputer? The answer is, nobody did. It invented itself. At each stage of its evolution, the computer revealed more of its potential. At each stage it exposed one more step that this or that person recognized and leaped to complete.

One Christmas we gave a small Commodore home computer to our then 15-year-old son. He vanished into his room for two weeks and emerged, about Epiphany-tide, able to program inBasic. Who taught him? The computer did. It expanded his mind. It made him more than he was. He came out of his room changed.

Like all of us, he was being shaped by a two-fold inheritance: one genetic, the other cultural. The lore of making and using implements, is the primary part of our cultural heritage. The tools, implements, and machines around us enfold and instruct us from birth to death.

So, you see, I'm hardly guilty of hyperbole at all when I say that the computer invented itself. We instinctively build machines that resonate with us, and which teach us. The evolution of any machine rises out of that synergy and not out of conscious human contrivance. The automobile, for example, led to things that'd never crossed the minds of its inventors. It led us, for good or for ill, to create highway systems and to change the form of cities. The invention of the telephone likewise altered the whole texture of human interaction.

Now, with that in mind, let's ask how the synergy between the computer and our minds is working today. What's the texture of technological change going on around us? I'll begin with three loci of change -- call them: Pointillism, Memory, and Visualization. First, Pointillism:

I like pointillism -- Seurat's paintings, newspaper photos emerging from clouds of tiny black dots. But what happens when the whole fails to emerge and we're left with only dots? What reference librarian hasn't noted the way students using our rich electronic sources fall into a trap of unmerged dots.

Computers do an odd thing with knowledge. Ask a question and they immediately highlight the precise answer -- the citation, the definition. We're handed answers stripped of context. We no longer need to read a whole article or book to find what we want. We don't see the nearby words in a dictionary. As we lose context, knowledge grows sterile and the forms of serendipity that we've used in the past evaporate. When we really set out to learn, we have to see relationsamong points in space.

I've learned so much in the process of looking up something else -- adjacent pages in a dictionary, reading a whole book to learn one specific thing. The computer turns context into anavoidable waste of time. And that is a far greater loss than we first imagine.

The next victim of the computer is memory: When I used a slide rule, I had to do a lot of the calculation in my head. That meant memorizing decimal placements and roughing out the calculation as I went along. Now that dimension of thought is wholly gone. Once I had to memorize spelling. Now the machine spells for me.

But creativity is precisely a matter of having enough context in the RAM-storage part of brain to let us recognize ideas that are out of context. Our dusty attic of randomly remembered stuff: names, dates, lyrics and melody. That's what creativity feeds on. Piece by piece the computer chips away at that legacy.

After WW-II, we began -- systematically -- to downplay memorization. The public schools said students won't understand anything if they only memorize. We want them to learn concepts, not just facts. For a generation, memory fell out of fashion.

All that used to suit me fine. But looking closely at invention, and at the nature of concepts, has changed my mind. Now I tell students, "Memorize! Memorize everything in sight -- batting averages and poetry, faces and equations." Another movement also gained momentum after WW-II -- Montessori education for children. Maria Montessori believed that creativity is a matter of association. She said:

What we call [creativity] is in reality a composition -- a construction raised on
material of the mind, which must be collected by the senses. We are unable to
"imagine" things that don't actually present themselves to our senses.

Montessori originally dealt with disadvantaged children and she recognized their need for intellectual grist. She heaped sense data upon them -- games, apparatus, things, experience. She steered them away from anything smacking of fantasy. I don't know if she spoke the forbidden word, memorization, but she certainly gave her students much to remember.

Montessori's creative construction is based on sense data, but it's also built from material of the mind. We don't just experience the world around us. We also experience our own knowledge -- dates, faces, and poetry. Invention occurs when we connect data from two unrelated pages of our mind. To do that we have to make a habit of recollection. Why were Leonardo, Newton, and Franklin so clever? They all had voracious appetites for knowledge, but they also had a prodigious habit of retaining knowledge. They had huge contexts of remembered fact to connect and expand ideas.

Now memory comes under a new threat. Computers detach memory from our minds. Children once memorized geography; now computers tell them instantly where St. Augustine or Pierre are to be found. Now word processors remember how to spell for us. We once knew how to remember numbers while we did arithmetic in our heads. Now, why should we remember numbers, words, or anything else? The effect is palpable in our schools. Smart students are losing the habits that support memory. They have more and more trouble making the connections that constitute understanding.

Memorization is drudgery only until we forge the habit of association -- of recognition. That's why, when students ask me, "Will I have to remember formulas in this course? Will I have to remember dates?" I smile and say, "Oh yes, indeed, you will."

Perhaps the most serious casualty of the new computers is spatial visualization: We've built the rules of perspective, geometry, and mathematical graphing into our computers. What we once did in our heads, computers now do for us. They simply hand us the result on a two-dimensional screen. Today's TV and computer images let us fall into space. We wheel and turn in three dimensions, seeing an object as though we were some mad dervish swirling above it, below it, around it. We couldn't've dreamt those displays forty years ago. Now we've built the mathematical logic behind geometry and perspective into our machines. Once we used drafting to translate the pictures in our mind into pictures on paper. Now we build the picture on a computer screen with out first seeing it in our heads.

Eight hundred years ago medieval masons built Gothic Cathedrals without working drawings. They translated mental vision into glorious structure without its ever touching paper. Then, in 1525, Albrecht Dürer showed how to use the new Italian rules of perspective to create pictures mechanically. Since then we've gone through mechanical drawing, camera obscuras, photography, TV, and finally come to a world where every kind of design is computer-aided. Today's designers need do very little mental construction. Instead they call up finished images on 2-D screens. When that happens the gains are so great that we once more forget to count thecost.

Creative thought means building in our minds. We erect strings of logic and we frame poetic images. We sift and rearrange recollection. We construct every kind of relation among objects or shapes or quantities. The computer has taken on only a small piece of all that. For millennia, we've done far more than just drafting in our mind's eye. What will now become of generations who've never formed the habit of visualizing -- to math students who've never built graphs in their minds, to medical students who've learned gross anatomy on a 2-D computer screen. The computer has, in a word, suckered us into throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Computers and all they do for us! They're here to stay, and thank God for them! But in their near wake, education does face disarray. Our thinking is moving away from the old conceptual models our schools are based on. And that gulf will grow wider. For the new electronic media are leaving a great vacuum which we have not yet figured out how to fill.

Twenty-five years ago I sat in an outdoor cafe with four colleagues. We wondered aloud whether or not we should let students use pocket calculators when they took tests. How would they ever learn to use their slide-rules! That sounds so foolish today. Slide-rules immediately went the way of dinosaurs. As we sat in that cafe, their death was as certain as yours and mine, and it was far more imminent. But, from another perspective, our worry doesn't look quite so silly today. You had to do mental arithmetic when you used a slide-rule. Slide-rules gave us a mental picture of logarithmic, exponential, and trigonometric variations.

Our students today are smart, make no mistake. They can work wonders with their computers. But they have far more trouble estimating numbers. They have trouble in a graphical world. They don't know how to sketch pictures. And as they lose context it becomes harder and harder to negotiate the empty space between the dots.

Of course there never was any hope of keeping slide rules, any more than there can be any doubt about fully and rapidly embracing the computer. Our task as teachers is to give our students the multi-dimensional, multi-textured context that they lose as they leave slide rules, paper graphs, and all the rest behind.

Pointillism, loss of memory, and the decay of spatial visualization are fairly obvious direct effects of the computer. But computers are also having some serious effects on education as a social process. Ask yourself, do computers fragment our students' vision or unify it?

Since the 19th century, public education and school textbooks have steadily drawn our culture together. Remember The Weekly Reader in grade school. Early network radio -- fireside chats, Orson Welles, and The Lone Ranger. They all drew us together as a nation. Then network TV: Who among us didn't hear, again and again on TV, Martin Luther King's dream of little Black children and little White children playing together!

Yet education is fragmenting today. You see it splintering into new private schools that serve our different political and religious views. Public schools are becoming bilingual. Once we tried to celebrate our diversities by stirring them into a common pot. Forces today are acting to protect and isolate differences. We face loss either way. We don't want to be homogenized. Nor do we want to lose global community. Common experience vs. fragmentation has become an essential tension during the 1990s.

Where do the computer networks fit in this tension? On the nets, I speak with friends in Japan and England, a scholar in Toronto, and my far-flung offspring. The thin wire of a modem becomes a penstock, gushing its flood of shared information. Surely computers are building community. But they also fragment us: Each of us signs on to different sets of listserves. The computer leads us off into a thousand tiny splinters of specialization. I'm on a Rare Books listserve, and it's woe betide the member who strays off a specified range of topics into some unbusinesslike side context.

Like so many technologies, the new media are both dividing and uniting us. Since machine-human interactions are synergies, new technologies intensify what we already are. For example: a century ago the new automobiles began scattering the extended family at the same time they made the country smaller and drew us together. That's because we sought to bemobile and united at the same time.

Now the electronic media give us new means for fulfilling those same two deep and often contradictory cravings. They help to draw us into communion with one another. And they help to give us greater isolation from one another. First cable TV (with all its diversity), and now the internet (with even greater diversity), are intensifying that same old tension. As teachers turn to these two kindred media, the forces of fragmentation rise.

The new media seem only to provide more information. But the way they do it changes what that information says. As the internet enters schools, it ties into all that's wrong about TV. TV has already paved the way for the internet to bring commercial interests into schools.

I know what a huge concern the question of censorship has been for all of you at this meeting -- censorship that's being driven by the availability of sexual pornography on the net. But I fear we have a far worse kind of pornography to worry about. This January the New York Times told a chilling tale about the Seattle school system. Its budget had been cut by 12 percent and it was seriously short of money. The School Board solved that problem with a simple policy change.

They voted to accept corporate advertising in middle and high schools. Advertisers have known how effective it is to reach kids for a long time. Now they have new means for getting in. As you and I worry about the decay of science and math education, advertisers offer to solve our problem, and it seems too good to turn down. So Hershey Foods gives Seattle kids a science video, along with a curriculum guide for their teachers called The Chocolate Dream Machine. Elsewhere third graders are using Tootsie Rolls to practice math. Children are learning to read with software featuring logos for junk food. Prozac people even spoke to a school assembly on National Depression Screening Day.

Alex Molnar talks about these inroads in his book, Giving Kids the Bu$iness. One widespread advertising gimmick is Channel One -- a 12-minute daily TV show transmitted to classrooms, ten minutes of current events and two minutes of ads. In return for free TV receivers and a satellite dish, schools promise to run the program in 90 percent of their classes for three years.

In the most insidious of these assaults, the R. J. Reynolds Company bought the Weekly Readerin 1991, and it actually carried the Old Joe Camel logo into our schools. Since then, the Weekly Reader's anti-smoking messages have been reduced by a factor of three. It'll be interesting to see what the Federal Government's new pact with the Devil will do to all that.

Molnar quotes research results which show that Camel sales to children rose from six million dollars in 1988 to an astonishing 476 million dollars in 1991. Tobacco companies depend absolutely on making addicts of our children before they reach an age of responsible choice.

All this calls to mind Gresham's Law: "Bad money drives out the good." When essential civic services grow desperate for support, the people trying to run them turn a blind eye to the damage bad money does. And there can be no doubt this is bad money. We badly need to beef up public education in America -- especially in math and science. It'd be far cheaper to accomplish that with simple tax money.

One Seattle teacher said she'd made her plans for using The Chocolate Dream Machine, "I'll [ask my students] ‘Why do you think Hershey's sent this to teachers?'" Well, once we've let the Trojan horse in, the best anyone can do is try to keep the guards from falling asleep.

It should be no surprise that students might understand, better than we do, where learning should be centered. Five years back, The University of Houston library ran a workshop for inner-city honor students. They began by handing the students a questionnaire. One pair of questions (What do you like least about libraries? What do you like best?) got a very telling answer. Of course many students gave obvious answers: Libraries are places to get information. They house books and friendly information-givers.

But two-thirds of the students said something else entirely. Two-thirds said they liked libraries because they're a quiet place -- a peace-filled environment. Like the students that Montessori designed her program around, these were disadvantaged kids -- smart teenagers from a tough school. Their lives were not filled with quiet. These students meant to study science, engineering, medicine and law and they knew they'd need a mental oasis. The library was theirmetaphor for that need. It reminded me of what Jean Paul Sartre once said:

Let us not look for the door, and the way out, anywhere but in the wall against
which we are living. Instead, let us seek the respite where it is -- in the very
thick of the battle.

Those students reflect a tension that any creative person feels. Pain and trouble are grains of sand in an oyster. Without disturbance we don't grow. But neither do we grow, or create, without internal quiet. The trick is to come to that peace in the middle of the marketplace. A poem by Yeats catches the idea.

My fiftieth year had come and gone. 
I sat, a solitary man, 
In a crowded London shop, 
An open book and empty cup 
On the marble table top. 
While on the shop and street I gazed 
My body for a moment blazed, 
And twenty minutes, more or less, 
It seemed, so great my happiness, 
That I was blessed, and could bless.

Still, we have to go, now and then, to a real quiet place. Endless distraction kills something inside us. We might find our quiet place in nature, with another person, or in physical exercise. But find it we must. And we won't find it in the middle of the whirlwind until we've first learned to find it in a quiet room. The library became these students' metaphor for a place apart. And they knew they must find such a place on the way to forming themselves.

Twelve hundred years ago, Charlemagne hired the English scholar Alcuin to bring literacy to his empire. Alcuin might well be the single most important figure in Early Medieval history. And he said something that perfectly reflects those high school students. 

O quam dulcis vita fuit Oh how sweet life became
dum sedebamus in quieti When we sat together in quiet
inter liborum copias. Midst all these books.


That brings me to one last way technology is dragging education off on what may or may not be a tangent. My first real awareness of this problem came in 1990. I was on a lecture tour in Sydney Australia.

One day I visited the highly-touted science museum there, and the place set off warning bells. The Museum was a thoroughly modern hands-on exploratorium for school children. Here and there, mimes did little theater pieces. It offered children the same experiments I did as a college freshman: Turn a knob and measure gravity -- or the period of a pendulum. Place a ball in a stream of air and learn Bernoulli's principle. It was all so sensible, so user-friendly.

So I watched the children. They ran about, randomly throwing balls and pulling levers. All they saw was motion. Meanwhile, their unrewarded excitement drove them to a fever pitch of chaos. I watched and remembered my own visits to the museum. Mine was quiet and mysterious. I didn't understand everything there, either. But I knew it held secrets I must one day learn. I knew the force ran in that eerie place -- filled with skulls, sarcophaguses, and minerals.

Libraries face a similar issue. Most of us already have access to library catalogs, major reference sources, even many journal articles –- right in our own offices. But not books, that's not the way we use books.

Librarian Michael Gorman asks what that means. Will libraries change utterly? What'll become of the inner space that so touched those high school students? He talks of moving book shelves, robot assistance and videoimage storage. He recites all the hi-tech means for handling information; then he reminds us: we have hi-fi's at home but we still go to concerts.

New technologies don't replace the best old technologies. They supplement them. It's an easy temptation to rush in and replace an old technology while its function is still vital. The newfunction of museums and libraries is a working interaction with learning. The old function is to retain, even to celebrate, knowledge. The old libraries once told the mysterious power of knowledge. We tiptoed and whispered as much to honor that presence as to avoid disturbance. Children and adults alike knew that instinctively. They reminded us that the ancient lore of our people is precious. Forget that, and the learning process becomes empty.

Museums are moving away from the mystery of artifacts and into new dimensions of programmed learning. No longer do they offer rocks and bones -- paintings and sculpture, but rather computer screens and push buttons. You see, a whole new enterprise has arisen under theold name, museum. This new institution is no longer a place to store and display pictures and artifacts. It is, instead, a place where we come to learn in new ways. It should be called avirtual museum or a learning center.

So we find I-MAX theaters, artificial rain forests, exploratoriums, children's museums -- all kinds of new displays. As these places appear, they often displace the old museum content. Many are experiments that will fail. Many give us much to criticize. Yet some are truly spectacular, and some are finding radically new ways to touch us and to teach us. These new museums are embryos. They seem to threaten the old art and science museums because that's where they first appear. But it's not old museums that they really threaten. What they'll reallychange is education as we know it.

All that experimenting will eventually yield long-range pedagogical successes which will end up influencing classrooms. Meanwhile the new learning centers will break free of the artifact display museums and leave them largely intact. Twenty-first century minds and senses will still be fed by the physical presence of beauty, history, and our origins, you can bet on that.

Of course all this can also be said for libraries. Libraries will survive as repositories for paper books and as quiet places. You can bet on that, as well.

But the computer will be an integral part of education, libraries, museums, and the new learning centers. So let's get back to the matter of using the computer well –- to the matter of letting it shape new metaphors and letting it mold us into a new people.

Last year, Vice President Al Gore wrote a wonderful editorial for Science Magazine. In it he put forth his metaphor of distributed intelligence. Gore began by talking about computers. Twenty-five years ago, computer pundits expected a few huge machines to handle all our computing needs. No one saw the personal computer coming. No one saw how machine intelligence would be distributed today.

Gore reminded us that we live by metaphors. The factory was once our metaphor for making things. Our livers were blood factories; our minds were idea factories. The metaphor of the factory, the large central production unit, has been breaking down ever since Henry Ford. Where are computers made today, or automobiles? Pieces are made all over the world: China, Mexico, Taiwan, the US. My computer was assembled at a little shop down on the corner.

Not just computer manufacture, but computer use as well, has decentralized. Ten years ago the last vestige of the large central computer was the so-called super-computer which we used only for our huge computations. But each new generation of PCs has taken over more super-computer turf. At the same time, super-computers themselves become smaller and more affordable. Besides, we can now do many large calculations with blinding speed using arrays of cheap PCs wired to work in parallel with one another. The upshot is that machine intelligence actually gains in effectiveness as it distributes itself into the population.

Now, Gore says, that's the way human potential also works. Large central organizations can't think. Only individuals can think. We must capitalize on individuals thinking in parallel.

Yet we cling to the metaphor of the factory. The purpose of a large central factory is to maximize the production of a standard product at the lowest unit cost -- just as the purpose of a super-computer is to maximize the speed of a very-long calculation. By the metaphor of the factory, research is a waste of time. But society faces problems that cannot be met with the output of factories. They must be met with human intelligence and intelligence must be applied by many of us working in parallel.

Henry Ford's cheap Model-T's had far less road life than today's cars. They were fuel-inefficient and they needed constant maintenance. Ford's factories ultimately proved unable to give the public what it began wanting in a car. The next generation of automobiles had to emerge from the distributed intelligence of competitors and users -- not from the old Ford factory.

So, Gore said, we have to feed intelligence at the grass-roots level. We need to fund education and research. The worst thing we can do is let an educated over-class develop. The worst thing for all of us is a super-computer model of intellectual elitism. He finished with another wonderful term. Our survival, he concludes, depends on our ability to create a learning society.

But how do we make a learning society when the computer is changing the game too fast for us to keep up. Every time I speak to an audience, I get the question, "How do we fight sagging math abilities in our schools?"

Well, I've said what I think is happening to us -– that you and I did so many things in school that students no longer have to do. We memorized poetry. We plotted graphs. We did arithmetic in our heads. Books and radio were our entertainment. Now the new electronic media are not only doing the arithmetic -- they're solving the differential equations. In a recent TV spot about special effects for the movie, Anaconda, a woman said, "Because of computer graphics we can do so much more. We can open up the imagination."

But when she makes an oversize serpent materialize, she does less to open our imaginations than she does to show us her imagination. Consider how that works in teaching. We teachers once memorized poetry, imagined dragons, and invented solutions to calculus problems. But our students have not. We're trying to share the hard-earned fruits of our own imagination and memory.

Students have calculators (as we do), computers (as we do), and TV sets (as we do.) But they lack our experience of life without those things. All this high-tech is one thing to us. It's something else entirely to them. It's a delight for us when the computer creates conic sections on the screen that look just like objects we once visualized in our minds. But the student who's seen them only on a screen is baffled when we ask him to sketch diagonal sections of, say, an airplane fuselage or a human skull -- items that don't happen to be stored in the computer.

It's a delight for me when the computer hands me the context of Shakespeare's line, "My library was dukedom large enough." Prospero said that to his daughter in The Tempest. He was praising the inner life he now led in his private island world. But for students who never remembered the line in the first place, the computer's ability to find it is quite empty.

We teachers face a formidable task. First we have to reduce the two-dimensional screen back to its proper role as a tool. It belongs in the background. Then we have to find new means for training the mind when we have at hand a machine that can replace so much of the mental exercise you and I used to grow strong.

We teachers and librarians need to forget the novelty of our computers. After all, they'll be as ordinary to our children as the new cars and electricity were in our lives. We need to find ways to walk around our two-dimensional screens -- ways to take our children back to Prospero's rich three-dimensional island of the mind.

We'll never survive a revolution by pretending it doesn't exist. And we ignore the ongoing revolution at great peril. The only people who can ever preserve those values of the old regime that need preserving are the ones who live at the center of the revolution.

So: Be at the center of the storm. Know what the computers can do and what can be done with them. Then ask yourself what human qualities you want to preserve into the 21st century and what human qualities you are ready to let go of -- for we will have to relinquish some of the old virtues.

We are being changed by the machine. And we are being changed radically. But let us not be changed absolutely,. Let us help one another to draw just a few crucial lines in the sand. 


Most of what I say here, I've said many times, in many ways, on my daily radio program, The Engines of Our Ingenuity. The program is distributed without charge on the NPR Satellite Feed to any station that wishes to air it. A full set of transcripts and a searchable index may be found at: The transcripts include a great deal of reference material. A few sources specific to what I have said here follow:

Spence, J. D., The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci. New York: Viking Press, 1984.

Berryman, J., Montessori and Religious Education. Religious Education, Vol. 75, No. 3, May /June, 1980.

Ferguson, D. S., Engineering and the Minds Eye. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992.

West, A. F., Alcuin and the Rise of the Christian Schools. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1892, 1909.

Howell, W. S., The Rhetoric of Alcuin & Charlemagne. New York: Russell & Russell, Inc., 1965.

Gorman, M., The Academic Library in the Year 2001: Dream or Nightmare or Something In Between. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, Vol. 17, No. 1, March 1991, pp. 4-9.

Stead, D., Corporations, Classrooms and Commercialism. The New York Times, Education Life, January 5, 1997, Sect. 4A, pp. 30-33, 41-47.

Molnar, A., Giving Kids the Bu$iness: The Commercialization of America's Schools. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1996.

Parker-Pope, T., Most Ad Executives Say Tobacco Firms Target Children. The Wall Street Journal, Sunday, December 18, 1996, B5. Gore, A., The Metaphor of Distributed Intelligence. Science, Vol. 272, 12 April, 1996.