Sunday, May 10, 2009

John Sutherland: fool?

Just read this weird nonsense about Sir Jim Rose's report on primary school education by columnist John Sutherland.

I'll just highlight a few of the more ridiculous pronouncements:

In a library, you choose the book. Put another way, you control the book. I can't get over the feeling that, somehow, the computer controls the kid - he or she becomes nothing more than an information servo- mechanism. Or an empty file in which knowledge is not being discovered but (hateful word) downloaded. And computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code. Many skills have been enhanced by the computer but vocabulary, I suspect, has been shrunk, rigidified and deadened.

Deary me. Where to begin?

1) "You control the book" - no. As far as a child is concerned, the book is written, published, and printed by adults they have never met. The books they have access to are chosen by their school.

2) "the computer controls the kid" - no. With a computer connected to the Internet the child has the option of creating their own blog, editing Wikipedia, or interacting with their friends over social networking websites. If the child is particulary precocious they may even by able to write their own code, thereby truly taking control of the computer.

3) "computers, it seems to me, work best with what George Orwell called “Newspeak” - no. I don't see how anyone can make this claim without fundamentally misunderstanding what newspeak is. But wait...

4) "language stripped down to skeletal simplicity. Language, in fact, that is not language at all but code." - no. Although newspeak is "simplified English" the objective of the totalitarian governments of 1984 is to remove the capacity of the language to describe rebellion in terms anything other than negative. Newspeak is about control, not simplicity. It is about replacing ambiguity with certainty, and leaving no room for doubt.

Anyone who has read Orwell's essay Politics and the English Language will know that Orwell decried the lazy use of metaphor, as it substituted rational thought with mindless sloganeering.

Precisely the kind of mindless sloganeering that Sutherland uses when he talks of language "that is not language at all but code." It is not clear if Sutherland is referring to actual computer code or to leet speak or to the asanine babbling of most high-profile blogs. And that is part of the point.

Sutherland is unconsciously shutting down debate by making unfounded cliched statements that he has heard others utter about computers.

Sutherland's basic point is that he agrees with the general conclusions of Jim Rose's report: that "play" is a necessary and valuable part of a child's education. This can be filed in the "no shit, Sherlock" cabinet.

On a more cheerful note this discussion allows me to reference the Monkey Dust sketch that summarises the problems of education in the UK far more succinctly than Prof. Sutherland manages.

No comments: