BackTalk: The 21st-Century Dynamo

By Thomas Washington

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In Everything Bad Is Good for You (Riverhead Bks.), Steven Johnson argues in his 'Sleeper Curve' theory that new learning modes and their attendant devices are improving the cognitive faculties of young people today, not making them dumber. Things like video gaming, and reality television, Johnson argues, are, in fact, a force for good.

As much as I want to believe Johnson and stay forever hip, my instincts side with George Will, whom Johnson quotes on the book's opening page. 'Ours is an age besotted with graphic entertainments,' Will writes. 'This is progress: more sophisticated delivery of stupidity.' I, for one, am having a lot of trouble concentrating these days.

Tech talk

I am the school librarian, so our technology committee, an ad hoc team of K - 12 teachers, librarians, and techies, includes me in its meetings. We gather intermittently, whenever the latest ambush of gadgetry threatens to muscle its way into our educational mission. Our round table is doing its best to maintain a grip, but, in fact, when I leave these meetings, I'm often no longer certain what the plan is.

In our last meeting, for example, our webmaster introduced protocol for our web accessing systems. Subtopics included the use of attachments, threaded discussions, blogging tools, drop boxes, and navigation tools.

Our students will have school email accounts next year, apparently to ease the communication flow. Naturally, a slew of questions ensued. Who will administer the email accounts? Who will do the training? Can content be filtered? Will parents have access? What do we do in a case of email bullying? We might need a whole other committee to deal with these issues.

Social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace are getting heavy traffic, far more than my dusty book collection. Until this meeting, I'd never even heard of Facebook. I was nearly as foggy on our other strands of talk: video streaming, gaming, and web 'portaling.' I kept thinking of portaging when I heard this word. I pictured LaSalle and those French explorers carrying canoes across the Chicago River's mud flats.


It was at the 2005 American Library Association conference in Chicago, standing in the center of the exhibit hall, when the wave of unease first struck. Besides the many workshops on information literacy, inquiry-based learning, and further strategies to deny Google's preeminence, the hall throbbed with a colossal sales putsch of technolearning: flat screens, inflatable screens, ebooks and TabletPCs, handhelds, HDTV, and other toys for 'reducing our launching time and optimizing preferences.'

Now, it's not as if I obtained my library science degree a quarter-century ago. I finished two years ago. The University of Illinois outfitted me well. But as much as I wanted to believe that my primary mission was to dispense books to teens, the truth is my job title no longer goes under the term librarian. When I pin my badge on my lapel at professional conferences, it reads 'information specialist.'

Judging from the show floor and the scores of blank date due sheets pasted inside our library book covers, it's not about the books anymore. Still, the collateral damage of this information bomb continually brings waves of uncertainty. If the curriculum is no longer about the book or pencils and paper, then what are we teaching and why are we teaching it?

Dynamo revisited

On the way back to my conference hotel, I thought of The Education of Henry Adams. When Adams visited the Great Exposition of 1900 in Paris, he ignored the industrial and art exhibits and went 'directly to the forces' to see the electric turbines that would shape the 20th century as steam had shaped the 19th.

Adams understood well the power shift that stood before him. The electric dynamo promised an even more intense disorientation of social and cultural life than anything that had preceded it. The dynamo was an appropriate image for the onset of the 20th century because of the raw power it heralded. I can relate.

For me, however, this electronic wonderland, this hypermedia venue - the computer-stored text warehouse as dynamo - is less a display of brute force than a question: How do we apply the power? What exactly are we to do with all this print and the gizmos that are now supposed to increase our power as educators and administrators? Is there one salesman in the room, one librarian for that matter, who can tell us where this concentration of force is taking us, or what is its ultimate aim?

Author Information
Thomas Washington is Upper School Head Librarian, Potomac School, McLean, VA.

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