Whatever else can be said about it, the Internet is certainly a godsend to politicians looking for new ways to spend the public’s money. It offers everything: a seductively mystifying technology, the vague promise of unlimited “educational” benefits, and the potential for creating dozens of new regulations, permits, certification requirements, and training programs—along with, of course, a vast new government bureaucracy to oversee it all.

A recent Associated Press story brought this home to us. Reporting on President Clinton’s promise to link “every American classroom and library to the computer Internet” by the year 2000, the story noted that the Department of Education had released the first $200 million—note the ominous word “first”—in grants for computer equipment and training. In his weekly radio address, the story continued, President Clinton lamented the fact that only a fifth of public school teachers were using advanced telecommunications for teaching and only 13 percent of public schools required that teachers be trained in using the Internet. The story also noted that the President’s 1998 budget—which includes $51 billion for “education”—had earmarked $500 million for “technology literacy.”

In fact, the two most overrated words in the educational establishment just now are “computer” and “Internet.” To be sure, computers are wonderful tools, and the Internet provides easy access to untold amounts of information. But, as always, it is important to distinguish between an excellent means of communication and excellent communications. Computers offer the former; only educated men and women can manage the latter.

The cult of fostering “computer literacy” is little more than the latest bureaucratic boondoggle—an entrance not only onto the information superhighway but also onto the bureaucratic superhighway. Its chief effect will be to relieve the public of as much money as possible by invoking the irresistible talisman of “education.” Never mind that the educational benefits of “computer literacy” programs are dubious at best: the word “education” acts like a magic charm on many people, causing them to lie down, dissolve into a trance, and open their wallets.

As anyone who actually uses computers and the Internet knows, the whole mystique of “computer literacy” is nine-tenths techno-babble. It bears roughly the same relation to ordinary literacy as “free love” does to the genuine article. It is important to recognize that what really is meant by “computer literacy” is nothing more than learning to use a few popular word-processing and number-crunching programs —programs whose designers have spent millions upon millions of dollars making them easy for laymen to use. Being “computer literate” does not mean understanding how computers really work or learning how to write high-level code. It simply means being able to manipulate the latest in home appliances. As the phrase is generally used, being “computer literate” requires less physical coordination than learning to ride a bicycle and only slightly more conceptual dexterity than learning to program a video tape player.

We wonder how long it will be before the public cottons onto to this educational scam. One Senator, commenting critically on President Clinton’s proposed educational programs, noted that there were already 760 Federal education programs in place, 32 of which were devoted to literacy. To hear some politicians wail on about education, you would never know that the United States already spends far more per pupil than any other country on earth. But with what results? Every other day, it seems, we get a new report about American students’ poor performance in mathematics, their inability to read, their appalling ignorance of major historical facts. But, as the example of parochial schools has shown again and again, the problem is not money. Real improvement in education requires not lavish spending and technological gimmicks, but committed teachers willing to spend time insisting that students learn the basics: how to read, write, and calculate effectively. Parochial schools spend only a tiny fraction per pupil of what public schools do; but their students consistently emerge both better educated and better behaved because they battened not on the latest educational and sociological fads but on materials and ideas that have stood the test of time.

What is needed is not a crash program in “computer literacy” or linking schools and libraries to the Internet but a return to the fundamentals of good education. These are to be had not by sitting in front of a video display terminal but from the pages of history, literature, and science—what used to be called a liberal education. An educated person may well know how to use a computer effectively; but, aiming to be literate, he would disdain “computer literacy” as the chimera that it is.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 15 Number 7, on page 1
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