Like many of us, I didn’t end up in the career I thought I would. I became a technology consultant and computer science teacher, but I wanted to be a journalist and actress in middle school. At the end of high school, I wanted to major in women studies and win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. I ended up majoring in English, did an M.A. in English, and spent the first 11 years of my career as an English teacher. Peppered in there were freelance gigs as an improv comedy teacher and a graphic designer. How on earth, people ask (and I ask myself) did I end up in computers?
“How on earth did I end up in computers?”
It’s funny to me that my colleagues don”t see me in these roles now. In fact, I dare say that I’ve experienced some mistrust emanating from a few of the people I work with. There is a huge swath of thinkers and dreamers out there who dislike the technologists. We are cold and heartless, they say, concerned only with flashy efficiency, giving our lives over to “the machine.” Isn’t increased machination and automation how we got ourselves into this mess in the first place? And by “this mess,” they usually mean something related to cold-hearted, Ford-ian, Taylor-esque vision of Assembly Line culture, where all variables are simplified, codified, and digesti-fied by some algebraic formula and manipulated at light speed by a tiny silicon chip. Looking for a mortgage? Forget those old paper applications where there was a box in which you could explain, inked in natural language, some blips on your credit record, hoping to twang the sympathy string of your file”s reviewer. It’s all number crunched now. Job hunters are coached on how to make their uploaded text resumes “bot” friendly; a human no longer reads about your qualifications. Instead, a computerized recruiting engine uses optical character recognition to scan your resume for horrifying buzzphrases like “mission critical applications” and “relationship marketing” and “return on investment.” If the variable of you–the variable that is you–somehow falls outside the confines of this algorithm, you’ve missed your chance.
“If the variable of you somehow falls outside the confines of this algorithm, you’ve missed your chance.”
I have to admit, I don”t like how people look at me when I tell them I teach computers. When I say it, I see it… they think I don’t have a heart, don’t have a soul, and don’t have any creativity.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In truth, I find teaching computers to be closer to my vision for education. With a few tweaks, of course, it could, quite potentially, be the perfect subject to teach.
Let me explain.
Strangely, at a recent training session for a computer summer camp, I met two of my fellow site directors, both graduate students who will be running our company’s camp on various university campuses. Neither of these women (Yes, I did say “women.” There are plenty of us in technology.) is pursuing a PhD in machine learning or statistical language processing or hardware architecture. No, both of these women are studying divinity. Divinity.
Harnessing computers and their power does so much to fuel a sense of wonder. A sense of “what if?” And once that it unleashed in a student, there is no telling where the world will be in ten, twenty, or thirty years.
But there is a key component to the curriculum that is missing. Creativity can be coached, but not necessarily quantified. Researchers have tried; in the 1960s, J.P. Guilford and his team attempted to include creativity as something that could be measured through psychometric testing. But quantification belies creativity.
“Quantification belies creativity.”
There is a remarkable place at one of the top STEM universities in the world. The Media Lab at The Massachusetts Institute of Technology. MIT’s Media Lab is responsible for improving the mobility of the disabled with advancements in prosthetic limb sensors. They are responsible for improving the education of autistic kids by inventing affective robots that teach social skills. The founder, Nicolas Negroponte, is the brain behind One Laptop Per Child, an initiative that brings crank-powered, Internet-ready laptops to kids in the developing world at a cost of roughly $100 each.
MIT”s funding model is unique. They do not draw the funds for their budget through the larger MIT institution. Instead, the Media Lab is funded almost entirely by corporate sponsorships. I know, I know. This may seem like a perfect example of nefarious corporate infiltration into intellectual life. But listen to how the Media Lab gets around that: Corporations are not allowed to fund specific projects; they must fund one of the Media Lab’s themes. This prevents industry from tapping MIT”s brain power for specific inventions; rather, corporate funders must trust that their money will be funneled in a worthy direction. Since the overaching theme of the Media Lab is “inventing a better future,” they have successfully channeled millions from the wealthiest tax demographic of our country–lawsuit-protected, person-less incorporated entities–towards philanthropic goals. Guided at the helm by some very bright minds.
I don’t think I”ll tell anyone anymore that I teach computers. I teach the future. No… let me put that another way… I teach for the future. What the future holds is unknown. But unless we infuse school with a cross-disciplinary curriculum of empathy, the deluge of the information age will get us nowhere.