George Walford: Teachers to the Barricades

To say the computer is producing a revolution in education has become almost a cliche, but those who say this seldom have more in mind than, firstly, education in the use of computers and, secondly, the use of computers as educational aids. These are certainly changes, and big ones, but they are rather addition than revolutions. The computer is going to produce a revolution in a deeper sense than this, a real nasty revolution, an upset that will shock and horrify those attached to the old ways, one that will seem to them a change immensely for the worse, a step back toward barbarism. In order to see what is coming three points have to be accepted.

Firstly, that the invention of the computer has not yet been completed. It will be complete when computers generally are voice-operated by ordinary speech and can give their answers verbally.

Secondly, that the computer is one part of the electronic revolution, of which the other main components are the telephone, radio, TV, videotapes, the tape recorder and the pocket calculator. Putting these together gives a complex of facilities making it possible to operate a sophisticated technological society without the need for general literacy or numeracy.

Thirdly, that in our society there is competition for available resources which will affect education in two ways: Firstly, that as general literacy and numeracy become less necessary so requirements outside the educational system become relatively more necessary and acquire a correspondingly stronger claim on resources (This is already happening). Secondly, it will become necessary to stop teaching general literacy and numeracy in order to devote the limited resources available to teaching the skills that will be needed to operate the new technology.

Add it all up and the conclusion is inescapable: literacy and numeracy will cease to be generally taught. We may not like the prospect, but that is beside the point. Sensible people, whatever their politics, do not look forward to revolutions with pleasure, but that does not stop them happening.

from Ideological Commentary 10, January 1982.