In a consumption economy, a belief in progress must necessarily be a canon of the faith. New things must be better than old. The latest innovation, reform, or technology must inevitably surpass what preceded it. A belief in progress spurs achievement (and sells the upgrade).
Being descended from pioneers and immigrants, most of us are not naturally complacent. As Americans, we tend to be optimistic by nature. The sun’ll come out tomorrow, some of us sing. The NASDAQ will bounce back in the second half, some of us pray.
It could be that the search for fresh solutions is one of the things that separate humans from the rest of the animals, and we’ve gotten to be pretty good at it. Just look at this latest issue of eSchool News.
Page One: Two struggling tech giants hope to morph into a single Colossus, cauterizing the wounds of the old in a glorious transformation to the new. So fervent is their belief in the new, in fact, that the corporate chieftains in charge of these behemoths have bet something like $18 billion on a happy outcome.
Then there’s the Philadelphia story, also on Page One. This one is even more dramatic and poignant. The controlling political factions in the City of Brotherly Love are placing their trust and considerable treasure in a radical departure from traditional public education. This latest “reform” pits corporate culture against a history of bitter disappointment in urban education, betting not just the budgets of 42 individual schools on the outcome, but the well-being and futures of tens of thousands of students as well.
And emblematic of the new global economy we’re rapidly growing used to, five scientists in the Netherlands have announced a “photo-enforced stratification technique” that eventually will give students textbook content projected on flexible surfaces. They’ll be able to read from these supple displays and then roll them up and stuff in their pockets. The Dutch technology will, that is, as we report on Page One, unless a competing but no less remarkable American technology known as “flexible organic light-emitting devices” beats the scientists of Royal Philips Electronics to the backpacks of American students.
Either of these emerging display technologies might hold the antidote for what ails the eBook. You can get some sense of the industry’s disappointment about the chronic underachievement of this highly heralded technology in our report on Page 26. But the growing skepticism about eBooks, now the target of an industry information campaign, might just be the exception that proves the rule about our generally promiscuous embrace of the new and new-fangled.
Take the perils the internet poses for children, for instance. Thwarted by the U.S. Supreme Court in an effort to ban “virtual child pornography” (Page 37), one group of determined federal lawmakers is hard at work crafting new legislation its members hope will meet the standards set by the latest ruling. Another group of lawmakers in the U.S. House of Representatives wants to try a completely fresh approach (Page 21). They’ve come up with the idea of a brand-new web domain dubbed Dot Kids. Sites safe for children, under this new plan, would sport URLs ending in “kids.us,” with the two-letter suffix indicating the United States country code.
Such innovative thinking is central to our faith in the power of progress. Yet now comes a development reminding us that not everything old is tired and worn out. That, at least, was my reaction to the news of the 420-page report, “Youth, Pornography, and the Internet,” issued by the National Research Council (Page 20). This report had the old-fashioned common sense to suggest that perhaps the genuine solution to the perils of the internet is not new, fancier content filtering or even newly burnished legislation. In fact, the report said, there is no single answer.
Instead of a brand-new panacea, the report actually is inviting us to try a longstanding, decidedly low-tech strategy: Student education coupled with and reinforced by adult supervision.
How about that! In the rush to discover the new, it’s a good thing once in a while to encounter a homely old truth. What’s really important is not ultimately the process, the reform, or the technology. What matters most at the end of the day are the people. If we all could just keep that in mind a bit more often, now that would be genuine progress, don’t you think?