THE INVENTION OF AN EDUCATION

P.E. ROWE

 

A few years after we graduated college, one of my high school friends developed a billion-dollar idea. That’s billion with B. Nobody knew it at the time—not him, not me, not any of our friends. It wasn’t self-evident back then. I remember one of our other friends giving Nick a hard time about his “little dog walking business,” but having struggled building my own small business around that same time, I quietly admired his willingness to put his time, money, and hard work on the line in the hopes that he could see his business idea through to a profitable fruition.

My friend Nick is the best example I personally know of a maxim I introduce to my students when I ask them to think about their education. It goes like this: “An invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it is started.” You may not have heard of the speaker of that quote, Ray Kurzweil, but his inventions are ever-present in the world around you. Every time you talk to your phone or listen to an audiobook, you interact with Kurzweil’s programming, which was reading books to the blind through far more cumbersome hardware as far back as the 1970s. Kurzweil himself doesn’t dabble nearly as much in pedagogy as he does in programming, but in his groundbreaking 2008 book The Singularity Is Near, he made a strong case for the ever increasing pace of technological progression, observing that for many technologies—especially information based technologies—progress isn’t linear but exponential. In other words, the pace of progress (as you may have noticed in your lifetime) is speeding up at an ever-increasing rate.

You may be wondering what this ever-quickening rate of technological progress has to do with writing pedagogy. Bear with me for a moment and I’ll explain. I happened to read Kurzweil’s nonfiction futurist opus directly after reading a seminal work in the field of education—The Education of Henry Adams, written almost exactly a century before Singularity. Nonetheless, Kurzweil’s observations about civilization’s quickening pace are mirrored in Adams’ reflection on how his formal training left him ill-prepared for a 20th-century life. Adams noticed at that time (in the third-person, mind you) that, “Before the boy was six years old, he had seen four impossibilities made actual—the ocean-steamer, the railway, the electric telegraph, and the Daguerreotype; nor could he ever learn which of the four had most hurried others to come.”[1]

But come they did, and one can only imagine what Adams would have thought of the semiconductor, the jetliner, the Saturn 5 rocket, the fleets of satellites, the smartphones, and the internet servers coordinating all those smartphones, jetliners, and satellites. Adams had noticed in 1904 not only that the number of near-miraculous technologies that had come about in his lifetime far surpassed the numbers in the several previous centuries, he also saw that far more people than ever before were working to bring far more and far better technological miracles into the world.

He called this phenomenon “a law of acceleration,” and he lamented that his classical (read sixteenth century) Harvard education left him entirely unprepared for a world of steamships, railroads, and automobiles. Adams’s essay was essentially a long, philosophical musing on the place of education in a modern life. Ultimately, his tone became melancholic, wondering if the institutions of formal education, which he valued greatly, would ever be able to catch up to a technological world galloping full steam ahead.

Over a hundred years on, technology no longer gallops. It breaks the sound barrier by orders of magnitude. 

Daily life as a college educator temptingly lulls instructors into thinking that the world progresses from week to week and then semester to semester, simply because ours does. Adams and Kurzweil would surely protest. I recall one summer day a few years back, after taking a long swim at the university swimming pool, emerging from the gym and realizing that Pokémon Go had happened—literally emerged seemingly from nowhere—sometime between laps twenty and forty! Suddenly scores of random people had appeared on campus as if from nowhere, smartphones at arm’s-length, goofy smiles affixed just below somewhat distant, half-vacant, searching eyes. Augmented reality had added to the complexity of our world—an arrival for which I had not prepared in the least, even having faithfully followed several technology and futurism blogs and YouTube channels. I wonder what poor Henry Adams would’ve said about that. What could we as 21st-century educators tell Adams about how we prepare our young students to catch up to such a world?

The history of technology is rife with dramatic stories of inventors racing to the patent office only to realize they were hours behind their competitors. Most of us know that Alexander Graham Bell was a famous winner in just such a patent race. Fewer of us remember his competitor’s name (I’ll save you the Google: Elisha Gray).

In the case of my friend Nick with the billion-dollar idea for an internet-based dog walking business, he was just too far ahead of his time. It was the early 2000s, just before the dawn of the smartphone. The pioneering gig-economy models of Lyft and Uber were still a decade down the road. Nobody knew anything about apps, much less ordered and paid for services on them yet. Nick’s invention, brilliant as it was, just wasn’t as useful in the world it was born into as it would become ten years later when apps like Wag! and Rover became massive freelancing smartphone-based service sites.

I haven’t checked in with him for a while, but I think he’d given up on it by then. It’s difficult to say, even with hindsight, whether any amount of research into existing internet-based business models could have predicted whether his business model should have worked in 2005. Regardless, Nick was forward thinking, testing the new landscape, trying to catch something new in the world a decade before Pokémon Go.

If our job as teachers is good for anything, it should be good for training our students to function in the world they’re graduating into—whatever that means. The speed of our shifting technological landscape cries out for modern thinking, just as Adams did. A 20th-century education will not cut it anymore. The hard skills we teach must be transferable from current to future technologies we can’t yet envision, whether that means composing in new media or teaching how composition in current media can be transferred to new landscapes. Second, the onus is on teachers to emphasize to our students the degree to which the current technological landscape is shifting both within our fields and outside them—to prepare students to think in the terms that Kurzweil proposes—that an education, like an invention, must be useful in the world in which it is finished, not just the world in which it is started.

Students need to begin thinking both short-term and long-term simultaneously. They need to begin anticipating how the skills they learn during their formal education will serve them in an increasingly accelerating world, whether their futures lie in academia or, far more probably, the private sector, where semesters were just those funny little units of time that marked off the distant memories of their college years. Ideally, if we do our jobs, they’ll remember those years as useful.

[1] Adams, Henry. The Education of Henry Adams. Random House, p. 494, 1931.