The way of the dodo.

6 12 2011

You saw “WALL-E,” right? Everybody always gushes about the first forty minutes or so, the part set on the trashed future earth which feels like a Buster Keaton movie. My favorite part of the movie, however, takes place on that orbiting space colony of obese consumers. It’s when the captain runs a bit of dirt that dropped off WALL-E through the ship’s computer and as he gets the computer to define these terms he’s never heard of before, the computer gradually explains what earth used to be like. The captain then becomes determined to take his hover-chair bound passengers back to their home planet because of his growing obsession with dancing, farming and especially pizza. While a film about how awful it is to trash the earth isn’t all that radical in this day and age, a film about how we lose essential knowledge by letting technology do everything for us really is.

I thought of my favorite scene from WALL-E when I read Tenured Radical’s post about the need for the post office near Zenith to offer a sample filled-out envelope in order to illustrate to students there how to properly address snail mail:

This helpful aide, undoubtedly invented by our Zenith postal clerks in response to incoherently addressed envelopes, has truly convinced me that the US Postal Service will die. It has been generationally lapped by the digital world and it may, in fact, simply disappear as an institution in my lifetime.

That would be a shame, as despite the increasing percentage of junk mail in my mail box over the last few years, real hand-written letters do have their quaint charms. So does e-mail, the danger to which I can attest to from direct experience. Indeed, I have to come close to threatening my now 18-year-old daughter with bodily harm in order to get her to check her inbox despite the fact that that’s the way that her college acceptance letters are going to be delivered any day now.

In a similar vein, the nice folks at New Faculty Majority alerted me to this rather cute meme on Twitter that imagines a world where pencils are re-introduced into school classrooms as a new technology. This is from a blog post that breaks that 140 character wall:

Then there are the objections from the Tax Payers Alliance, and other pressure groups who have even gone on to the local TV station to complain that we are being irresponsible, and are wasting valuable tax payers money on purchasing a pencil for every child. ‘In my day’, said the TPA spokeperson, ‘we used slates and styluses, and shared them around, and we were happy. One pencil per child is simply a gimmick’. To be blunt, I think they are missing the point. I strongly believe that pencils are the future of learning, and the more untethered they are, the greater will be the flexibility of learning for all subjects across the curriculum.

Don’t you think it’s funny that in all this talk about progress, nobody in the edtech world wants to think about what is getting lost? Maybe we can we keep a “seed” bank somewhere so that we can revive perfectly good education ideas after they go extinct, the same way that those hover-chair people in WALL-E learned how to walk again.

The terrible thing about species extinctions is, of course, that they’re never coming back. As I understand it, after the last dodo died in 1662, people doubted whether such a creature ever even existed. Only after Lewis Carroll put one in Alice in Wonderland did the dodo begin to find its now firmly-entrenched spot in western culture as a symbol for extinction. Too bad there weren’t even any stuffed dodos left to give people a feel for what the world had actually lost.

If you pay close attention to the movie, you’ll see that the kids on that colony in WALL-E are being taught by a machine. I think the one line that their robot teacher delivers is something like, “Buy ‘n Large is your best friend.” Will that be on the (inevitably standardized) test?

I wonder if we as a society will remember enough about how teaching used to be in order to do it well again after education becomes the exclusive online purview of the Buy ‘n Large Corporation.

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