December 9, 2004

From Gerald R. Lucas

Educational Conditioning

Perhaps one of the reasons why many students have difficulty with online literature courses is that their educational experiences do not train them to meet the expectations that distance education courses of this type demand. From the day they crawl into daycare, our children are taught, first and foremost, how to be students. I often suggest to my new now-in-college students, somewhat flippantly, that the work they do for their professors is only about 50% of what college is all about: the rest is political. How they interact with faculty and administrators has quite a bit to do with whether or not they will succeed in college. It frequently amazes me how some students are so disrespectful, when I’m the one fingering the gradebook.

Ted Nelson Computer Lib Dream Machines 2.png

Students who do not learn to act the way they should will be pegged early as discipline cases, as “special,” or even as ineducable. Yet, these extreme cases are not really what I’m talking about. It’s the people, who for one reason or another, do not learn how to show respect to the teacher, do not learn when to keep one’s mouth shut, or do not learn that assignments should be done a certain way. Education at an early stage is about indoctrination more than it is about academics. Once the little humans learn how to behave, then the real education can begin.

Now I’m not suggesting or advocating some fascistic main course of Here’s-How-You-Should-Act before a rigorous helping of Here’s-How-You-Should-Think, but I’m making the observation that humans are social creatures who must be governed by certain sets of mores if we are to get along. We begin teaching our children these values at an early age, and while traditions vary—based on many criteria, like geography, ethnicity, education, etc.—most seem to agree on certain modes of decorum that are acceptable. These values are then augmented by early educational experiences, where it might be proper to say something about “stupid girls” at home, but Mrs. Jones has another lesson in kindergarten that forces us to revise—not our thought, necessarily—but whether or not we should articulate it in certain instances. While we learn to finger paint, then draw, then write, we are also learning how to act toward our classmates, our teachers, and adults—at least in an official capacity. It’s this official capacity that I’m talking about, the one the Machiavelli was so interested in. Yet, most don’t look at this integral aspect of education as insidious, but just the way it is and the way it has to be. There have to be standards, dammit!

Instead of learning the way our penchants seem to direct, we are taught that there are certain ways to learn, so that if we choose not to or are unable to adopt the official ways, we are called unmotivated, apathetic, or even stupid. Indeed, the SAT tests how well we’ve learned to learn just as much, if not more, than it tests our knowledge. If you don’t train your mind as close to the ideal as possible, then you cannot pass the ideal measure of the ideal: take your pick, the SAT, PSAT, ACT, GRE, etc. These are all measures of how well we have bought into and naturalized the educational system rather than what we might have otherwise have learned on our own: rote payoff rather that true insight. I argue here not for anarchical educational system, but for one that might encourage students to seek and find their own knowledge.

In “No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks,” from Computer Lib / Dream Machines, Theodor Nelson questions these very structures of education. Like social indoctrination, we also teach our children the correct way to learn. He suggests that “schools as we know them appear designed at every level to sabotage the supposed goals of education” based on how information is fed and regurgitated, how students’ own interests and abilities are not considered, and how their responses are carefully monitored and evaluated.[2] If the supposed goal of education is to enlighten, or to teach knowledge (I feel another blog entry forming), then we need to consider whether the structures of our curricula are indeed efficacious. What is the role of creativity, especially when we do our best to ostensibly eliminate any degree of free-thinking or imagination by imposing draconian standards that all must follow, a sort of dress code for education, not only what should be learned, but how it should be learned? As Nelson points out, students cannot figure out their own approach or orientation toward a subject, but they must adopt the official approach to the question and the answer.[3]

Nelson continues:

Part of starting fresh is not insisting on traditional notions of education when discussing computer-assisted pedagogy. While Nelson suggests that traditional distinctions like “subjects” and “curricula” are not needed if students bring their own motivation and desire to materials that are clear and available.[4] Well, the Internet makes materials available, but it’s up to the pedagogue and student to clarify and order them, each according to her desire. Indeed, some guidance is necessary; our current system makes this an unavoidable fact, but this fact does not preclude educators allowing students the freedom to explore a subject in any direction that interests them. Maybe the official ideal of a subject needs to be de-emphasized in lieu encouraging students to seek their own paths and connections in and around the material.

The computer can be a key tool in allowing students to relate directly and personally with the subject matter without interference from the conventional expectations of learning. Nelson sees this approach to education as “clear, inviting and enjoyable, without booby-traps, humiliations, condescension, or boredom.”[5]

Idealistic? Perhaps, especially in a system that frequently rewards conformity and condemns creativity while pretending to do the opposite. Yet, I think there’s something interesting here. Perhaps instead of seeing the computer as an obstacle in literary education, maybe it would help if I saw it as a way to cleanse myself of my traditional views of what one needs to get out of literature. Maybe the Wiki can help.


  1. Nelson 1974, p. 307.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Nelson 1974, p. 308.
  3. Nelson 1974, pp. 308–09.
  4. Nelson 1974, p. 309.
  5. Nelson 1974, p. 310.

Work Cited

  • Nelson, Theodor H. (2003). "Computer Lib / Dream Machines". In Wardrip-Fruin, Noah; Montfort, Nick. The New Media Reader. Cambridge: The MIT Press. pp. 303–307.