Education for all, even the rich

Some disturbing trends are rising to the surface in the education arena. Dr Alan Kay, one of the founders of the Xerox Parc research centre, gave a keynote speech at the Mercury Interactive user conference in October 2000. To illustrate his topics, which was about how we learn things, and innovative thinking, he showed the results of a small survey he made at the graduation day ceremony of an Ivy League university. He asked a random selection of graduates, who had all taken some science subjects, what they thought was the cause of warm weather in summer and cold weather in winter.

All the respondents, including one academic, said that it was because the earth's orbit is elliptical and thus we are closer to the sun, and therefore warmer in summer. The fact that they were so wrong in their explanations was compounded by their subsequent in-ability to use logic instead of relying on remembered "facts". Dr Kay followed up by asking if they were aware that it was winter in the southern hemisphere when it was summer in the northern, and if so, would they now like to change their elliptical orbit theory based on this fact? Only half of them thought their theory was now in trouble and might need a better answer!

What Dr Kay was upset about wasn't that they were wrong. We need to accept that our first response to a problem isn't always the correct answer. What upset him was that when it was made clear to them that their answer was wrong, based on easily observable phenomena, they had graduated without the skills to step logically to an acceptable answer. This, he said, meant that an entire generation of future leaders of industry and politics, which is where these Ivy Leaguers all end up, were lacking in the basic skills needed to sort fact from opinion. No wonder so many voted for Dubbya.

Yet all over the Western world, education institutions are being forced to chase the dollar to keep their doors open, and are sailing perilously close to the edge of the world and are in real danger of falling off. Recently, the ACT Government announced that it would soon be using coursework designed and developed by Cisco Systems as part of its senior high school syllabus. This might prove to be a fabulous way for young people to step straight into a highly paid job in router-land, but what on earth will it have done to educate them in the life-skills needed to survive the 21st century?

A senior VP from Microsoft told me that his company is working closely with curriculum designers at colleges and universities to make sure that students get the "necessary skills" to prepare them for the workforce. Is that what we are going to call an education in this century? Knowing how to use Office 2000? Being able to configure Exchange 2000? I asked the VP if he was given the bum's rush when he pitched this twaddle but, alas, he assured me he was greeted with open arms by the "switched on educators" at these "modern" campuses.

I have no doubt that everyone in the Western world will need to know how to use Office 2000 - it is that pervasive at the moment. But there's no way on earth that anything from a single vendor should form part of any curriculum except their own. The very smart people who founded Cisco and Microsoft might well pride themselves on dropping out of college, but they obviously acquired their analytical skills someplace. They certainly didn't attend classes built and designed by hardware and software makers, or else they'd never have gone off and built something new.

Yet these same companies are now trying to create a learning environment that teaches only what is already known. Of course, I'm going to get truckloads of hate mail telling me just how 'open' and 'non-vendor specific' this courseware really is. Bullshit. If there was no message from the sponsor what possible reason could they have for wanting to infiltrate the syllabus? If these IT mega-companies are truly interested in better education for all, there are any number of foundations at which they can throw money, that will put their millions to good use. But don't for a minute think this lot care a fig about education. All they want is a steady supply of drones who don't think for themselves, but respond instantly to the sound of the bell.

The answer to Dr Kay's question is obvious. The earth is warmer in summer than winter because all the Cisco routers get turned off during the Xmas holidays and generate less heat. I'll send you the full treatise that explains it. You'll need a copy of Office 2000 if you want to read the attachment. You want fries with that?

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Ian Yates

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