Sunday, July 18, 2010

Conspiracy Theories

When Archimedes discovered how to prove the purity of a gold object, the story goes, he ran naked through the streets of Syracuse shouting “Eureka!” The anecdote illustrates the depth of emotion a person feels when resolving a problem. Some neuroscientists contend that the pleasure center of the brain is activated when it solves a tough problem.

I make no claim to medical knowledge, but as a scholar of the humanities I do understand the power of stories. Neuroscience is but one factor in explaining the persistence of a folkloric narrative genre in our culture: the conspiracy theory.

Of course, pleasure isn’t the first emotion that springs to mind when thinking of conspiracy theories. But conspiracy theories take disparate pieces of information—sometimes even fictional information—and put them in a satisfying framework. They offer an explanation for the true (if hidden) nature of reality. And for those who believe in them, they tickle the pleasure center by answering the riddle of the real way that things are. They also appeal to a second, related emotion: hubris. Reality simply must be more complicated than what it appears on the surface—and I have figured out what you lesser minds cannot see!

Although stories similar to conspiracy theories have existed for centuries, their modern form has its roots in a nineteenth-century book. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was purported to be the true document of the Jews’ plans for global domination. Their tools were the banks, governments, and the modern media, all of which they supposedly controlled. The book thus offered a simple explanation to the social changes caused by the capitalist system and industrialization. It took unrelated cultural phenomena and gave them a narrative—and more importantly someone to blame. In reality, The Protocols was a forgery composed by the Russian security services at a time when Eastern Europe was racked with pogroms.

Not all present-day conspiracies are anti-semitic. But they still share the characteristic of presenting historical events as controlled by small, powerful cabals. They present a definable group of individuals posing a threat to us and to our society. And this leads to yet another emotion they play upon: self-protection. For adherents of the theory, we must defend ourselves from them. Of course, the history of the twentieth century illustrates that it’s a very quick pass from defending ourselves to assaulting them.

After you’ve seen a few conspiracy theories, however, it becomes quite easy to spot new ones. There is a monotonous sameness to them, although their characters and plots may change. Reality is often too prosaic to inspire people from shouting “Eureka!” It also may not induce people to acts of violence.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Computer-Assisted Learning

A news story in the New York Times summarizes a recent study that challenges the accepted wisdom of the past two decades. It shows that computers in the home cause students’ grades to go down, not up. The belief had been that internet use—with all the information of the world just one Google-search away—would be an instructional boon. But proponents of the transformational power of computers forgot a couple of things.

First, they forgot history. As I man in my forties, I remember the audio-visual revolution of the 1970s. Yes, audio-visual technology was touted as innovative for educators, much like the more recent hype about computers. But I experienced “filmstrip days” as a child, not as an educator. I remember that sense of relief I felt whenever I walked into the classroom and saw the machinery—here was a day I wouldn’t be working (read: learning). Computer-assisted education isn’t really any different.

And this leads to the second major element that the proponents of computers forgot: the teacher. Tools are just that—tools. They are meant to enhance the education process. But in the rush to get the latest technology into the classroom, no one stopped to think how it would get integrated into a broader plan of education. Instead, in the case of “filmstrip days,” the program for a unit was stopped and an extraneous element—the technology—was thrust into the classroom. No one knew what to do with it, neither the students nor the teachers.

But in my opinion, the real problem with technology is human nature. As a professional teacher of Italian, I’m always fielding questions about which computer program is best for teaching a language. The truth is, none of them. Don’t get me wrong, the programmers can put together good explanations, and accompany them with well thought out activities. But in years as a language-instructor, I’ve never seen them work. Simply put, they fundamentally misunderstand what it means to educate.

“To teach” is a dative verb that requires an indirect object: a person teaches something to someone. This linguistic point underscores a deep truth about education. Students learn from teachers who motivate them. A fundamental component of the educational process is the human element: the interaction between one person with another. In the case of language learning, you learn a language to communicate with other human beings. It makes sense, then, that you’d learn a language from human beings, and not from a machine—after all, you’ll need to practice talking to people in that language from the start!