Sunday, February 20, 2011

what you know vs. who you are...

The media has made a big deal this week about the TV program Jeopardy and the super computer named "Watson" beating two very smart human contestants. Is it any surprise that a computer could be programmed with huge amounts of trivia, far in excess of normal human capacity? But give that computer a pipe wrench and see if it takes pride and pleasure in successfully fixing your pipes.

In schools we have become so focused on turning our children into knowledge feedback mechanisms through standardized testing that we have forgotten that they will need to live in the real world and take part in the fixing and making of things. It is not what you know that makes you who you are, but what you can do, and what you have done.

Another important component of education is that of creativity. It has been said that every human creative advancement has come through the use of metaphor: "If this works as so, then that might work as so, also." Even when things don't work the same as projected from experience, the use of metaphor establishes the direction of exploration and investigation through which creative developments are achieved.

You remember the story of John Henry? There is a song about his competition with the mechanized steam drill. Sadly, I doubt that there will be any songs about Watson's competitors. We already know that Google is smarter than we are and watching two competitors attempting to beat Watson to the buzzer is not as heroic an exercise as John Henry swinging his heavy spike hammer all day to the point of collapse in utter exhaustion. But will computers be trained to take pride and pleasure in their craftsmanship and creative capacity?

Yesterday, I used my Kubota to pull logs from the woods that had fallen and are a good source of free firewood. So now I have a ready supply of wood for chain sawing and splitting for next year's warmth. There are children whose parents think that every thing in their lives needs to be bought and paid for and delivered without physical effort rather than accomplished through more direct means. What a disservice we have done!

And so, with that, I've said enough for one day. We know that the use of the hands makes us smarter, more deeply connected to human culture and more fully alive in confidence and creativity. So regardless of how smart our computers have become, and regardless of what happens or is not happening in schools,
Make, fix, and create...

You may have been watching the education crisis taking place in the Wisconsin State House, as teachers and supporters of education rally against the Republican governor' plan to cut teacher salaries, and strip them of collective bargaining rights. An editorial by noted educator Diane Ravitch tells the story. Why America's teachers are enraged:
There has recently been a national furor about school reform. One must wonder how it is possible to talk of improving schools while cutting funding, demoralizing teachers, cutting scholarships to college, and increasing class sizes.
Much of the conservative Republican strategy can be understood through their concept, "starve the beast." They believe that government should do as little as possible, and their best means to see that strategy come to fruition is for government to be pushed to the brink of bankruptcy rather than raising taxes and fixing the deficit. We witnessed the "starve the beast" strategy as the last administration pushed us into two wars which were unfunded by tax revenues, leading us into an economic crisis which the Republicans intend to use to force their dreams of limited and powerless and ineffective government to come true. And sadly, they are willing to use our children and schools and poor and middle class as pawns in their ideological Armageddon.


  1. Missed Jeopardy. Doug, did Watson self-assimilate? Is Watson self-programming?

    " But give that computer a pipe wrench and see if it takes pride and pleasure in successfully fixing your pipes."

    If mankind survives long enough, what with war, pestilence, famine, etc., it is conceivable, that one day, there will be a robot you can give a wrench to, and indeed, it will take "pride and pleasure" in successfully fixing your pipes. It will have been programmed and trained to do so, for this may be a key, be it a human or a robot, in doing the best possible job. Yes, thinking computers!

    Therefore, the question becomes, what will we be doing with our minds, bodies, and HANDS by that time? Think of it as "freeing the hands;" although this may also free you to sit down on your porch next to a robot, both, with pocket-knife and a piece of wood in hand, to whittle your own...whatever, in an artistic challenge to see which of you can whittle the best of the same object.

    ;-) Live long and prosper.

  2. Freeing the hands from what? Service to others? Cooking, cleaning and making? Where is the zen in that, I wonder. We can become thumb-twiddlers, I guess.

  3. Anonymous5:33 AM

    My timing was perfect as far as retirement, it seems. Not because I can now back away from the whole mess, which I could, but because I can now devote time to pointing out the stupidity of the "starve the beast" crowd, without worrying about that causing me problems at school.


  4. These guys seem to want a world with no libraries, no fire protection, no police, and where their children are educated by machines and schools impart no human values. They also want to carry guns wherever they want for their own protection, and since they have created a world lacking in human values THAT will guarantee they get to fire a few rounds and kill a few people and feel smug about it.

    I just cannot understand why they would want that, but it seems to be the world they are pushing towards.