Academy One

A version of this piece appeared in the Spring, 1998 issue of Independent School magazine.

The Microprocessor and the Stick: Rummaging for Technologies


        In Plato's Menon, Socrates guides an unschooled slave through a geometric proof to demonstrate the principle that learning is a process of bringing back knowledge that is innate but latent.  From the manner in which the scene is described, it seems that Socrates must be drawing diagrams in the dust of a courtyard or marketplace somewhere in Athens.  A patch of level, packed clay and a stick on a hot, dry Athenian afternoon was all the educational technology he needed to make his point.  But mostly Socrates eschewed props and tools altogether.  He simply asked one question after another, step by step, with the precision of geometry -- no stick, often not even a roof over his head.  His voice was his tool.  His teaching was effective enough to appear subversive and threatening to the authorities, for which great achievement he was executed.

        Our term, Academy, comes from the name of a grove of trees in Athens where teachers and learners met to talk. The Peripatetic school of philosophers got their name from walking back and forth in a stoa, a roofed, open portico. The technology employed in both cases was shade from the Mediterranean sun.  Without that technology, little learning could have taken place.

        In the Classics Department of The Episcopal Academy, "recitation texts" are still in use.  These are unmarked books that stay in the room, are handed out at the beginning of class and collected at the end.  From these clean copies students translate and explicate Vergil, Catullus or Horace, relying entirely on their preparation for class. This technology dates back to the nineteenth century. Writing on the blackboard, that descendent of scratching on cave walls, is still very popular.  Overhead projectors, standing up and reciting, 3x5 cards, dramatic presentations, artistic renderings are all still carried in our quivers.  Our introductory textbook was printed at the turn of the century.  We plan to transform our primer, by the end of this century, into a more readable, printed text and into some form of digital, hyper-linked tool as well.  It will have all of the timeless, spare rigor of the original, but in color, with clickable assistance and with some automated drilling.  Computers are now what we have at hand as we see the need to refresh our methods.  Our technologies do not replace one another; they accrete.

        Andrew Grove, head of Intel and Time Magazine's Man of the Year, said in his interview with Time, "Technology happens.  It's not good, it's not bad.  Is steel good or bad?"  Computers will neither dramatically improve, nor irreversibly damage education in independent schools.  Socrates, determined to convince Menon, rummaged about for whatever resources were at hand.  He grabbed a stick and started drawing.  Computers are simply what we have at hand and what we have to use to teach.  Some of the greatest teaching in history has happened without them; with them, creative teachers have one more way to build their proofs.