ONE OF THE ODD historical footnotes lodged in my brain has to do with dictators and their electricity fetish. I read somewhere that most of the dictators of the 20th century, beginning with V.I. Lenin, undertook massive electrification projects as one of their first orders of business. It was as though they believed that by ordering enough power lines strung up, all of their country's problems--which were caused by command economics in the first place--would magically disappear.
Today, we have a command system of education that is coming apart at the seams. The politicians are riding in to save it with the 1990s version of the electricity fetish--the computer fix. From the President on down, the call goes out: Computer accessibility for every child, an Internet connection in every classroom. Our modern cargo cultists naively imagine that a terminal on the desktop will finally and miraculously deliver the educational goods.
Now, I'm a technophile of the first order. This newsletter is produced through the collaboration of people all over the country, using email and fax. When I need some recondite bit of information, I surf the web instead of drive to the library. Hoping to raise a computer-literate child from the get-go, I hold my seven-month-old daughter in my lap while she bangs on the keyboard and squeals at the garbage she "writes" across the screen. (Uh-oh! And encouraging inventive spelling?) I expect that the computer will play a big part in our homeschooling efforts.
Computers and the Internet are just tools, though. So are books and libraries. So are bunsen burners in the chemistry lab, language tapes in Spanish class, and basketball hoops in the gym. They do not produce education. Nor can their presence make up for the philosophically irrational and morally rotten foundation which underlies the force-based school system.
The cargo cultists of the Pacific built impressive looking "ships" and, later, "airplanes"--but the cargo refused to materialize. Soviet planners built factories that, to all appearances, were duplicates of those in the West--but economic prosperity eluded them. America's education planners, smitten with the wondrous powers of the cybergenie and determined that it be installed in every school, are setting themselves and their constituents up for similar frustration.
We should all keep in mind the computer admonition about garbage in and garbage out. Through all the forgotten educational fads of the past, through all the fixes that didn't fix, the basic input into our schools has remained the same--coercion. What's needed to make education work is not another gizmo, but radically different input--in a word, freedom. That is what separating school and state is all about.