Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Power and education

Yesterday was my third evening without electric power. At 8pm this time of year, it's pretty dark in Rhode Island, and candle light is not very bright. What can one do to while away the time when there is no electricity?

Communication relies more on hearing and less on seeing. Music can be played in the dark, but it requires having memorized the piece. Telling stories can happen in the dark, but it requires remembering a story in detail. That is why rote memorization used to be such an important part of education! Information (the text of a piece of music for example) was much less available before the advent of the internet, and even more scarce before electrical light. Information had to be stored in one's brain. Thanks to electrical power, information could then be stored in remote locations such as books and sheet music. Thanks to the internet, information now is in locations that have the dual advantages of vastly increased storage space and of much more ready access.

When I moved to the US, at a parent-teacher meeting I complained that children did not seem to learn any poetry, and that they were missing out on a piece of culture. The Indian parents in the room nodded their head in approval, but the teacher brushed off my remark somewhat dismissively: "We no longer teach in that way. Pedagogy has moved beyond rote memorization. We now know how to focus our efforts more wisely."

Actually, pedagogical values are not timeless. Developing this or that part of our brains is a choice that depends on current needs, and those needs depend on the technology currently available. Rote memorization was valuable 200 years ago, but is out because nowadays, our brains have become superfluous for storage.


  1. how do you blog without electricity?

  2. We have electricity at work. Now you know that I waste time blogging when I should be working!