Education and the Internet: A New Hope

This paper examines views of American Founders on education, and applies them to the Internet’s role as a catalyst for improving the American education system.

Overview

Creativity in technology, the urge to innovate is often driven by visions of new worlds, ideas of rational order. Such forces, idealistic in their nature, can be very dangerous unless constrained by response to social need and ethical principles.1 Yet, restrictions that are to shape the developing technology should be chosen with great care, so as not to hinder its innate potential.

The technology on which this paper focuses is the Internet. Leading its roots as far back as the nineteen-sixties,2 today’s Internet is rapidly changing from a collection of research-oriented information islands to a unified body of diverse knowledge. Extensive content, exciting and challenging environment, variety and diversity of opinions, ease and low cost of self-expression are among the many characteristics that make the Internet an effective vehicle for Education.

The American educational system is a mess. Our schools “achieve much less than they promise, are frustrating for students, and generally fail to help children become adults who can think for themselves.”3 Children lacking motivation to learn are no different than adults locked into boring, irrelevant meetings. If they do not understand how something relates to them, they will simply not care about it.4 Relying on inertia inherited from of our own teachers, we are transmitting knowledge from text books to students without realizing why and what for. Somehow, education became the ultimate end, as opposed to a way of achieving certain goals.

Thomas Jefferson, for instance, after authoring the Declaration of Independence,5 placed relatively little faith in institutional structures to preserve freedom. Instead, he considered public education to be a carrier of ideals of liberty and justice, that will safeguard such principles through generations of Americans.6 If the Internet is to serve as an educational tool, we need to establish which ideals we want it promote. Political decisions concerning such ideals are always controversial, and should be made with great care. Too often, it seems, the US government fails to fully consider the implications of its Internet-related legislature.

Founders’ Ideals of Education

English philosopher John Locke strongly influenced the Founders’ views on education. His works emphasize beginning to teach children as early in their lives as possible, which was an unusual perspective at the time. To Locke, human beings were by nature almost pure potential, which must be actively developed through the molding power of education.7 Concentrating on moral education, Locke wanted to “instill in children a capacity to master their natural inclinations—their natural wrong inclinations.”8

Following Locke’s ideas, Benjamin Franklin expressed his views on the issue in Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania of 1749:

The Idea of what is true Merit, should also be often presented to Youth, explain’d and impress’d on their Minds, as consisting in an Inclination join’d with an Ability to serve Mankind, one’s Country, Friends, and Family; which Ability is … to be acquir’d or greatly encreas’d by true Learning; and should indeed be the great Aim and End of all Learning.9

To the Founders, education was the means of enlightening people, liberating them through modern philosophy and science from “age-old states of tutelage and subordination to authority. This liberation was to be effected in the name of the individual’s natural rights to security and to the pursuit of happiness.”10

Thus, “the difference between nations that cherish and enjoy natural rights and those that allow them to be violated is one of education.”11 In this light, Jefferson summed up the major goal of his educational proposals in 1810, which was “to enable every man to judge for himself what will secure or endanger his freedom.”12

Freedom of the Press

One of the more important educational tools at the time was the press. Since most of the American citizens were able to read, the newspapers became the most relied on carriers of information. As suggested by Noah Webster in the opening issue if his paper Minerva, the press was the common instrument of social intercourse, by which the citizens of the country could discourse and debate with each other on subjects of public concern.

“The foundation of all free governments,” Webster continued, “seems to be, a general diffusion of knowledge. People … must have just ideas of their own rights, and learn to distinguish them from the rights of others… To know that we have rights, is very easy; to know how to preserve those rights, to adjust contending claims, and to prescribe the limits of each; here lies the difficulty.”13

Indeed, placing limits on the press became a controversial issue. Franklin, for example, anxious about the danger of unregulated press, called it “the supremest court of judicature,” able to “judge, sentence, and condemn … with or without inquiry or hearing.” To prevent this from happening, Franklin proposed a law to explicitly mark the limits of the press, to prevent assaults to people’s reputations.14

Counterbalancing their potential danger, the newspapers gave people a way to publicly censor the government. In fact, Jefferson deemed that a way to prevent “irregular interpositions of the people” was to give them “full information of their affairs through the channel of the public papers.”

“Were it left for me,” Jefferson continued, “to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” For, once the people become “inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress, and Assemblies, Judges, and Governors, shall all become wolves.”15

Devoted supporter of the freedom of expression, Jefferson was willing to tolerate error of opinion where reason was left free to combat it. Responding to Franklin’s fears of unregulated press, he spoke in his Second Inaugural Address that

the press, confined to truth, needs no other legal restraint; the public judgement will correct false reasonings and opinions, on a full hearing of all parties, and no other definite line can be drawn between the inestimable liberty of the press and its demoralizing licentiousness.16

Yet, newspapers, as vehicles for education, were unable to meet the high expectations of American Founders. Inevitably, they rarely published articles of any serious value. They were (and still are) lacking essays confronting “the most fundamental questions of politics and morality—what true virtue is, or what the sources of rights are, for example,” in a way that can be informed by genuine philosophy.17

The Role of Parents

The Founders attributed a significant part of American education to parents. This viewpoint was somewhat novel at the time, considering that most of the respectable institutions in Britain were boarding schools.

Locke was probably the first notable figure to promote parental involvement in their children’s education. Preaching that the youth should be “led by habit, praise, and example to learn to enjoy exercising mental self-control,”18 he believed that responsibility of educating children is “the duty and Concern of Parents, and the Welfare and Prosperity of the Nation … depends on it.”19

Yet, the Founders realized that education is not merely a family concern. Jefferson’s friend and a philosopher of his own, Joel Barlow, warned that “parents are sometimes too ignorant, and often too inattentive or avaricious, to be trusted with the sole direction of their children… The legislator and the magistrate neglect an essential part of their duty, if they do not provide the means” for education.20

The “means for education” that the government were to provide would be the free public school system. The Founders advocated schools that were local, administered at least in part by parents and the community, and gave children a chance to remain as close to home as possible so that they might, in Webster’s words, “live in decent families, be subject in some measure to their discipline, and even under the control of those whom they respect.”21

When defining a balance between roles of parents and government in American education, Jefferson wondered whether the society should “take care of their infant members in opposition to the will of the parent.” Later, he concluded that “it is better to tolerate the rare instance of a parent refusing to let his child be educated, than to shock the common feelings and ideas by the forcible education gratis.”22 The final say about children’s education was to be left to their parents.

Censorship on the Net

The glorious era of computers and telecommunications detracted people from idealistic philosophies of American Founders. Yet, the society recognizes the educational value of the Internet. In an attempt to make the “information highway” less polluted, so that it can be safely accessed by children, the U.S. Congress passed the Communications Decency Act,23 that gave the Federal Communications Commission 24 the power to regulate “indecency” on the Internet.

The provision, whose intentions are quite noble, carries alarming consequences. First, the “vague and overly broad definition of what speech is unacceptable online, criminal prosecution, and large monetary fines,” can “set off a tidal wave of censorship to avoid real and perceived liability.”25 Furthermore, by limiting access to materials on the Internet, despite that they are lawfully available in American bookstores, the government is infringing on the most basic rights that granted to us by the first amendment to the Constitution, for “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.”26

Constitutional issues aside, let us examine the Act in the light of educational goals and ideals discussed in prior sections. Above all, the Founders treasured individual freedom, desiring to enhance people’s ability to judge for themselves. For education to pursue that goal, for its tools to remain effective and free of hypocrisy, their expressive power should not be suppressed.

Locke and Franklin stressed the importance of teaching children to master their natural (wrong) inclinations. In his works, Locke pointed out that children learn self-control by habit and example. Such process can not possibly occur if the adults screen out all “inappropriate” to children materials, pretending that they do not exist.

Moreover, no one is more qualified to provide moral guidance to the children than their parents. Recognizing that, the Founders designed the public school system to emphasize proximity of students to their parents, so that parents can take an active part in educating the youth.

Finally, when trying to establish the role and limits of American newspapers, Jefferson was willing to “tolerate error of opinion, where reason was left free to combat it.” In such environment, he deemed, the public will be able to filter inappropriate materials without the government’s constraints.

Conclusion: Internet as the Catalyst of New Hope

The gradual movement away from the Founders’ ideals is an ongoing phenomenon. This took place, for example, when Oliver Wendell Holmes designed the infamous standard of “clear and present danger”. The Founders, on the other hand, insisted that the principles of democratic government must be followed even though the consequences might often be harsh. It is such concept of unlimited free speech that allowed Abraham Lincoln to “insist that there should be no compromise with the principle of equality, that… slavery was impermissible, even if it would enable us to avoid the clear and present danger of a bloody civil war.”27

According to the original interpretation of American ideals, by recognizing and accepting individuals’ natural rights, the country obtained a “fundamental basis of unity and sameness. Class, race, religion, national origin or culture all disappear or become dim when bathed in the light of natural rights.”28 For better or for worse, the American democracy has shifted its focus from natural rights to openness and acceptance of people’s opinions. According to such doctrine of relativism, people are entitled to their opinions, and are not expected to follow any common principles. Thus, fundamental agreement or abandonment of old beliefs in favor of the “natural ones” is unnecessary.29

The scenario of humans coexisting without any compromise of their individuality is an intriguing one, yet, “when there are no shared goals or vision of the public good, is the social contract any longer possible?”30 If some force is to keep people together, it should be that of education. In particular, the Internet can serve as an effective forum for learning and academic discussions.

By bringing views of the world to the students, the Internet can become a tool that, with proper guidance, can teach them to form their own opinions, and give them an opportunity to express them. Often, “students can be their own best teacher if they just have someone around to listen to the ideas they are coming up with.”31 Along with providing the youth with means to be heard, the Internet will also offer feedback, with is so invaluable to education.

The American government, realizing the importance of the Internet, is attempting to computerize schools of the country. According to Vice President Al Gore, “in order for us to ensure that all our children have their shot at the American dream, we need to empower them with the technological literacy they’ll need to succeed in a new and ever-changing information economy.”32 Indeed, technology occupies such a large part in our lives, that fulfillment of the modern “American Dream,” were it stripped of its vagueness, would be impossible without technological skills. Yet, much like education, technology is not an end in itself.

Instead of attempting to rectify decaying educational system by spicing it up with computers, we should use Internet as the catalyst to develop a better model. While current educational system no longer corresponds to its original purpose, the universality of Internet offers to bring us a bit closer to a harmonious state of society. How unfortunate it would be if we let this opportunity pass us by.

References

“The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology,” Arnold Pacey. Published by MIT Press, 1993.

“History of the Internet,” Reitz & Lewis. URL: http://falcon.cc.ukans.edu/~wlewis/project/history.html. May 1995.

“Why Schools Fail to Teach Our Children,” Schank & Cleary. URL: http://www.engines4ed.org/hyperbook/nodes/NODE-40-pg.html. January 2005.

“Motivation in the Classroom,” Schank & Cleary. URL: http://www.engines4ed.org/hyperbook/nodes/NODE-62-pg.html. January 2005.

“The Declaration of Independence,” Thomas Jefferson, 1776. URL: http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/ charters/declaration.html. January 2005.

“The Learning of Liberty: The Educational Ideas of the American Founders,” by Lorraine Smith Pangle & Thomas L. Pangle. Published by University Press of Kansas, 1993.

“The Communications Decency Act,” 1996. URL: http://www.fcc.gov/telecom.html. January 2005.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC). URL: http://www.fcc.gov. January 2005.

“Statement on 1996 Telecommunications Regulation Bill,” Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). URL: http://www.eff.org. January 2005.

“The Bill of Rights,” Constitution of the United States. URL: http://www.archives.gov/national_archives_experience/ charters/bill_of_rights.html. January 2005.

“The Closing of the American Mind,” Allan Bloom. Published by Simon & Schuster Inc, 1987.

“Children as Teachers,” Schank & Cleary. URL: http://www.engines4ed.org/hyperbook/nodes/NODE-163-pg.html. January 2005.

“White House Internet Service for Kids,” White House Press Release. URL: http://www.ed.gov/PressReleases/01-1996/whpr22.html. January 2005.

End Notes

1 Pacey

2 Reitz & Lewis

3 “Why Schools Fail to Teach Our Children,” Schank & Cleary

4 “Motivation in the Classroom,” Schank & Cleary

5 Thomas Jefferson

6 Pangle, p. 106

7 Pangle, p. 59

8 Pangle, p. 6

9 Pangle, p. 78

10 Pangle, p. 5

11 Pangle, p. 206

12 Pangle, p. 108

13 Pangle, p. 222

14 Pangle, p. 215

15 Pangle, p. 111

16 Pangle, p. 221

17 Pangle, p. 224

18 Pangle, p. 66

19 Pangle, p. 54

20 Pangle, p. 99

21 Pangle, p. 93

22 Pangle, p. 115

23 “The Communications Decency Act,” Yahoo

24 The Federal Communications Commission

25 “Statement on 1996 Telecommunications Regulation Bill,” EFF

26 “The Bill of Rights,” Constitution of the United States

27 Bloom, p. 27

28 Bloom, p. 27

29 Bloom, p. 27

30 Bloom, p. 27

31 “Children as Teachers,” Schank & Cleary

32 “White House Internet Service for Kids,” White House Press Release

Post-Scriptum

This paper was written in 1996. The reference to the Communications Decency Act may be outdated by now.

Updated

About the Author

Lenny Zeltser is a seasoned business and technology leader with extensive information security experience. He builds innovative endpoint defense solutions as VP of Products at Minerva Labs. He also trains incident response and digital forensics professionals at SANS Institute. Lenny frequently speaks at industry events, writes articles and has co-authored books. He has earned the prestigious GIAC Security Expert designation, has an MBA from MIT Sloan and a Computer Science degree from the University of Pennsylvania.

Learn more