Today, a notion about why education seems to be in
chaos. The University of Houston's College of
Engineering presents this series about the machines
that make our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
People ask if education is
going downhill. It isn't really, but something is
out of tune. The way students think is slipping
away from teachers. A fine example is the way we
visualize things. Watching TV images has become
like falling into space. We wheel and turn in three
dimensions, seeing an object as though we were some
mad dervish swirling above it, below it, around it.
We couldn't have dreamt those displays 40 years
ago. Now we've built the mathematical logic behind
geometry and perspective into our machines. Once we
used drafting to
translate the pictures in our mind into pictures on
paper. Now we build the picture on a computer
screen without first seeing it in our heads.
Eight hundred years ago medieval masons built
Gothic cathedrals without working drawings. They
translated a mental vision into glorious structure
without its ever touching paper -- much less a
computer screen. Then, in 1525, Albrecht Dürer
showed how to use the new Italian rules of
perspective to create pictures mechanically. Since
then we've gone through refined mechanical drawing,
camera obscuras, photography, television -- until
we live in a world where every kind of design is
Today's designers need to do very little mental
construction. Instead, they call up finished images
on 2-D screens. When that happens, the gains are so
great that we forget to count the cost.
Creative thought means building in our minds. That
takes many forms. We can build strings of logic or
poetic images. We can sift and rearrange
recollection. We can construct every kind of
relation among objects or shapes or quantities. We
can do what the computer has learned to do. But
we've also been doing far more.
For millennia, we had to use that spatial
ability. That's meant much more than just drafting
in our minds. But what's to become of generations
that've never formed the habit of visualizing -- to
math students who've never built graphs in their
My mother once did mental miracles with crochet
needles. I'd watch 3-dimensional flowers rising up
on her bedspreads. Now you can buy a computer
program for mapping quilts.
Computers and all they do for us! Spatial thinking
is only one piece of it. Computers are here to
stay, and thank God for them! The question isn't
whether to take them up. We'd be crazy not to. But,
make no mistake, they're changing the way we think.
So: education is in disarry. Our thinking is moving
away from the models of thought that schools are
based on. And that situation can only get worse in
the short term. The new electronic media are
leaving a great vacuum. And it is a vacuum that we
have not yet figured out how to fill.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds