Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A People, Once Liberated...

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Mar 24, 2004

I have had my debates with Steve Eskow in the past and will not linger overly long with this one. I appreciate his faith in my technological insight, and respect his doubts about my prognostications. And as always, I recommend that anyone reading my thoughts do so with a reasonable degree of scepticism.

The metaphor of a pendulum is often a useful one, and there is no doubt many oscillations that may be seen in society, from political temprament to economic fortunes to preferences in fashion and style. But not everything oscillates; there is also progress, and some things are left permanently behind, and some systems and beliefs, when advanced, do not need a conservative countervail.

To be sure, there is often a nostalga associated with the former way of doing things. The advent of machine shops brought a new appreciation for hand-crafted carpentry. Electric lighting accentuated the intimacy of the candle. The printing press presaged a desire to preserve the art of calligraphy.

But nobody would have suggested that, in the main, furniture ought to be hand-crafted, lighting ought to depend on candle power, or that the daily newspaper ought to be hand written. The appreciation for the more traditional arts is continually overwhelmed by the desire to share the benefits of furniture, lighting and knowledge with a much wider audience.

Progress - useful, irreversible progress - occurs not only in technology but also in society. Over the last centuries we have experienced here in the West and more broadly worldwide a gradual increase in the social, political and economic liberties enjoyed by all. To be sure, there are those who long for the days when privilege was reserved for a few, but a people, once liberated, does not easily return to bondage.

In my mind, technological change gives us the capacity to bring a fuller and more rewarding education to the large majority of the population. And just as the printed word may not be as beautiful as the handwritten, the use of computers may be a little rough around the edges. But while no doubt some make prefer to read their hand-written copies of the Bible or Das Kapital, the vast majority are able to choose only between the printed version or nothing at all.

And in my mind, technological change often enables, and is accompanied by, social change. In my view, the provision of an accessible and affordable education to the majority of the world's population is a form of enfranchisement, of emancipation. And though this new form of universal suffrage is not a technological revolution, but rather a social movement, it is also not possible without technology.

Attempting to provide an education to a global population without the use of technology is like attempting to create a literate population with only handwritten texts. Scribes, though talented and valued, are and always will be in too short a supply to meet the demand. People must be given the means to write or print for themselves. And in order to produce the volumes of printed text and writing machines required for such a feat, technology must be employed.

Steve Eskow's response to the sorts of changes I describe is two pronged. On the one hand, he is concerned that technology-supported writing is inferior to calligraphy. In that, he is almost certainly correct. And he is concerned that, as writing becomes commodified, as it certainly would with the use of typewriters and the printing press, it will also become commercialized. In that, too, he is almost certainly correct.

But he mistakes the implications of this. He believes that we will lose what is of genuine and underlying value if we accept an inferior and commoditized form of writing. But the value, in writing as in learning, is not found in the illumination of the beautiful manucripts of the Middle Ages. It is found in the content, the knowledge, which is now available, for the first time, to all.

What is important, again, is not the technological change, but the social change. In the years after the Renaissance, what transpired was not merely a change in the way scribes went about their work, but in how the work itself was done. And most significantly, we moved from an era where reading and writing was once done for us, to an era where reading and writing was something that we could do for ourselves.

And Eskow needs to understand, that this was not merely a desirable change, nor was it a change made solely for the sake of rebellion, but because it was, even with the new technology, the only way the benefits of the written word could appreciate to the population as a whole. And it was a change, once undertaken, that could not be reversed, so much so, in fact, that the corresponding liberties associated with public writing - freedom of speech, freedom of the press - were enshrined in the constitutions of nations around the world.

And we would not want to return to the days when literacy, and writing itself, was the domain of a privileged few, and those who wax nostaligic for such days are, quite rightly, regarded as heralds of a darker time.

So it is with learning. The capacity to learn, the right to learn, is a new form of freedom, and it is only in the last generation or so that we have seen the effects of a genuinely educated population. Universal education, the democritization of the university, the advent of the learning culture - these are only recent developments. They required, in the richest societies in the world, enormous effort and expenditure, yet even this achievement - limited to only about one percent of the human population - has revolutionized knowledge and society.

But they cannot be sustained. Eskow, while in one breath talking about the enormous demand for education, talks with the next about the shrinkage in the university system, the pressures on public school funding, "the withdrawal of thousands of classes." Though demand continues unabated, access is - and has been, gradually, over the last decades - eroded.

It should be apparent that the enormous effort to educate a population through traditional means cannot be sustained without extraordinary effort, even in the world's richest democracy. But it is also true that a people, once liberated, does not easily return to bondage. And though many may be banging at the doors of academia, many more, especially those always beyond the reach of educational emancipation, are taking the matter of education into their own hands.

Eskow does not respond to the evidence I adduce in my previous post - the students who are 'voting with their feet', parents who are opting for alternatives, the success of institutions like Athabasca University (and I may add, the Open University and the University of Phoenix), the massive use of MIT's OpenCourseWare, and the millions of self-help and self-learning sites online. He simply pretends it does not exist.

He says that "if there is shrinkage in classroom enrollment, it is forced by public policy and support," seemingly unaware of increasing reports in the university business press of increasing competition between universities for enrollments. It is a willful blindness, it seems, though it is not surprising. he sees the demand for learning, the aspirations of a population to become educated, but cannot imagine how else it could be accomplished except through traditional means.

So while Eskow, with all the good intentions in the world, calls for more scribes, I, with some current understanding of the technology, call for the printing press, because it is better than no press at all. And more, and most (it seems) controversially, I call on the right of people to write for themselves, and to learn for themselves. Because that's the only way to reap the benefits of the new technology.

When I say that the purpose of technology is not to save the classroom, I mean it in the sense that the purpose of the printing press is not to save the scriptorium. And I mean it not merely in a technological sense - though, of course, I mean it in that way as well - but also in a social sense. Writing, when restricted to the monastary halls, is not free, is not accessible, is not liberating.

Eskow says that this change will not come, cannot come, because it is not good enough. I say that it is here, and that it will have to be good enough, because it is all we've got. Eskow warns that learning will be commodified, will become crass and corrupt. I say that if our hands are dirty and our manners coarse, it is only because we have for too long been excluded from cleaner and more cultured places.

In all that Eskow writes - and he writes a lot - he can not or will not address the question of access, of the right of all people to an education, regardless of their nationality, their social status, or their income level. And while Eskow perceives a steady stream of the affluent and the privileged lining up at his door, and concludes that there is no desire on the part of the people for change, he ignores the gathering storm, as by and by, more and more, people learn to learn for themselves. The days of the scriptorium are dead, yet Eskow, the scriptmaster, sees only the bent heads in front of him.

It is ironic that Eskow is willing to listen to Downes the technologist, whose skills are entirely self taught, but not to Downes the philosopher, the product of a formal and traditional education. But more significantly, what he has not seen is the third Downes, the Downes who for many years was denied access to higher learning, who to this day is paying back student loans, who carries with him more than just the learning of the self taught and the culture of the educated, but also (and forever) the rage of the dispossessed.

Eskow is the Master, sitting on his throne in the castle, denying that his exclusive hold on right and privilege is shaken, unaware that his walls are surrounded by the newly literate demanding the right not only to think and speak for themselves but the right to freedom itself. He yearns for the days of old, barks contemptuously at the idea of the uncouth and unclean mob governing itself, certain in the conviction that the quality of leadership they give themselves could never equal the cultured and deep wisdom only those skilled in the traditional arts could provide. But flickering torches paint the night sky red, and he thinks of Prometheus, and he exercises his outrage as he hears the pounding on the gates.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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