• Advice & Consent

    Computer Delusion

    In his recent article warning against the use of computers to improve teaching and learning ("The Computer Delusion," July Atlantic) Todd Oppenheimer tries to demolish the notion that technology alone will dramatically improve education. But most sensible people who are working to bring technology into the schools understand that computer learning is not a panacea but one important part of more-comprehensive efforts to improve educational achievement. Technology supplements learning and helps to realize every good teacher's goal -- finding ways to excite students about learning and challenge them to learn more.

    Ironically, Oppenheimer at times doesn't seem to know what, specifically, he should be criticizing. For instance, he acknowledges on more than one occasion that high school students are indeed ready "to confront technology's complexity," and says that the Internet, "when used carefully, offers exciting academic prospects -- most dependably ... for older students." And he further acknowledges the benefits educational technology can offer disabled students. Yet he wants to deny younger students this opportunity to lay the groundwork for future learning. Some are already using computers at an early age; others do not have access to this technology at home or at school, which creates a major new fault line in America.

    The U.S. Department of Education is investing in technology as a form of seed capital to attract state, local, private, and nonprofit investments, and to help close the educational-technology gap between rich and poor. Ultimately, the real story is to ensure quality resources for all students. Computers and other learning technologies are an important tool in achieving this goal.

    Linda Roberts

    As a teacher of ninth-grade science, I must offer my appreciation to Todd Oppenheimer for his perceptive comments regarding the use of computers in the classroom. In my view, computers do not do what their advocates say they will. Their presence in science rooms means that some experiments are not performed because of the danger they pose to delicate electronic circuitry; teachers must take time that could be spent teaching science to show their students how to use the software.

    Most computer time at our school is given over to word processing, an application that, I confess, I am now using to write this letter. Certainly it is easier to edit and rewrite papers electronically than with pencil and eraser. But are machines with Pentium processors required to perform this mundane task? As Oppenheimer asks, at what cost do we provide this technology?

    At our state-of-the-art junior high we teachers have received a salary increase of three percent over the past four years, a period that has seen the growth of a small cadre of systems experts and a technology budget that now leases new machines, thus actively competing with teacher salaries for portions of the operating budget. Clearly, what is sacrificed with the advance of computer technology is people.

    Richard Fidler

    As a former creator of award-winning online documentation systems for Microsoft, I know that some information is perfectly suited for ready online access -- news, weather, stock quotes, government documents, public speeches, and so forth. However, I would challenge anyone to use the Net to explain the situation in the former Yugoslavia. Nothing online can even closely compare to Robert Kaplan's masterly Balkan Ghosts for illuminating this contemporary tragedy.

    Several of our local schools just received a grant of $500,000 for computerizing their classrooms. This translates into roughly $200 per student. For the $6,000 per class this represents, I believe that encyclopedias, atlases, subscriptions to the major news media, and an emphasis on critical thinking rather than mere technology would be a better expenditure of resources.

    Terry A. Ward

    Computers are great supplementary tools -- I use them and enjoy their benefits. But a vibrant educator who is not overworked, who is entrusted to be intellectually creative, and who is supported with educational texts far outweighs the benefits of any machine.

    Catherine Colglazier

    In judging the usefulness of technology it is worth remembering that most classrooms would fall short of Todd Oppenheimer's ideals regardless of technology available. Yes, it is easy to find instances in which computers are used too early, too much, and in place of more important subjects. But it is also easy to find instances in which children sit in rows of chairs too early, too much, and in silence and utter boredom. We need to propagate success, and not disregard new tools because they sometimes fail to live up to our idealistic expectations. Many medicines are initially expensive and work in only a small percentage of cases; this doesn't mean that we should ban all federal funding for medicine.

    Jeremy Roschelle and Douglas Gordin

    Linda Roberts attacks a straw man. My aim, she writes, was "to demolish the notion that technology alone will dramatically improve education." She then observes that sensible experts don't consider computers an educational panacea. I know that. This article was directed against the more nuanced but still excessive and damaging ways in which computers are being advanced in school, particularly in the lower grades. Yes, some computer programs do just what Ms. Roberts says -- excite students about learning and challenge them to learn more. But the evidence is voluminous that most don't go beyond the first step -- excitement.

    Ms. Roberts says that the Clinton Administration is spending billions on educational technology to give poor schools the same access to computers that rich ones have. This raises questions in itself. Of course no school should be left out of the information loop. But if stimulating classroom technology works most dependably -- as I found -- in schools graced with bountiful technical support and unusually sophisticated teachers, who is more likely to end up properly served by computers, the rich or the poor? As an editor at Forbes magazine once wrote, "In the end, it is the poor who will be chained to the computer; the rich will get teachers."

    Jeremy Roschelle and Douglas Gordin rightly point out that traditional classrooms where students passively listen to a teacher's dronings can be numbing too. To say that this justifies filling classrooms with computers is like saying that a losing ball team needs technological assistance. The answer is to rejuvenate the human experience, not dilute it with a mechanical one.

    The AIDS Exception

    "The AIDS Exception: Privacy vs. Public Health," by Chandler Burr (June Atlantic), argues that "it's time to stop granting 'civil rights' to HIV -- and to confront AIDS with more of the traditional tools of public health," because AIDS is a leading cause of death for young Americans. But Burr himself practices exceptionalism by focusing on this disease alone. Each year tobacco, alcohol, rich diets, and firearms kill far more Americans than does AIDS, and the "infected" pose substantial risks to others.

    If Burr is right, then we should use traditional tools vigorously against these more-dangerous public-health threats. We should require that people be tested for a genetic propensity toward nicotine addiction, alcoholism, obesity, or violence. We should report to the health authorities those who smoke, drink, are obese, or own firearms. And perhaps we should resort to a most effective traditional tool: prohibition. We know that we can save millions of lives by adopting these measures. Public health, it would seem, demands as much. Why, after all, should we grant civil rights to cigarettes, liquor, fat, and guns?

    Or perhaps we should take our civil rights seriously. I would no more allow health officials to "search" my blood without my consent than I would let them inspect my home or my diary. The Bill of Rights, moreover, guarantees this: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated...." The Supreme Court reiterates the point: "No right is held more sacred, or is more carefully guarded, by the common law, than the right of every individual to the possession and control of his own person." The Constitution is conspicuously silent on the subject of public health, however, implicitly leaving it to the states as part of their police (note the word) powers.

    AIDS need not be an exceptional disease. Yet rather than using it as an excuse to increase the power of government over individuals, we should instead reconsider the value of traditional measures. And although there are few good reasons to compel people to submit to HIV tests, there are many good reasons to encourage them to do so. As with any disease, knowing your condition can help you to make better decisions regarding your health and your responsibilities toward your family, lovers, and friends. Rather than expanding its police powers, our government can serve both public health and civil rights by working harder to provide individuals and communities with greater opportunities to obtain the tools necessary for prevention and treatment.

    Mark Rom

    I was frankly appalled at your June cover story. As someone who has volunteered in the AIDS community, lost a family member to the disease, and thus seen firsthand its devastating social as well as physical effects, I find the arguments for tracing and testing put forth in your story insupportable. Despite the author's correct assertion that HIV should not be considered a marker for homosexuality (since most cases worldwide are among heterosexuals), in this country those with AIDS are presumed to be in that group and are often treated shabbily and with contempt. Furthermore, Chandler Burr's blithe supposition that those with AIDS are protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act (which has no teeth unless one can afford an attorney to enforce it) and supposed state laws (a vague and specious reference) is indefensible. At our local AIDS service organization we see discrimination being practiced against our clients on a regular basis, and we have to beg the services of attorneys, sometimes fruitlessly, to enforce the so-called protections Burr touts. I find Burr's other presumptions even more offensive, such as his remarking on the "large number of sex partners of many of those who have become HIV-infected." This thinly veiled homophobia makes far-reaching presumptions not just about that community but about anyone with this disease. It is not only offensive and degrading but panders to the basest thoughts and fears of the public.

    Joseph Powell

    Chandler Burr's concern for the public's health and welfare might make some sense if his basic argument were correct. Unfortunately, it's not. HIV is not the virus that causes AIDS, as a growing number of respected research and medical professionals have discovered, following the courageous lead of Dr. Peter Duesberg (Inventing the AIDS Virus, 1996) and Dr. Robert Willner (Deadly Deception, 1994), among others. Indeed, what Burr's effort accomplishes is to alert all of us to the potential dangers posed by the extraordinary (and Constitution-trashing) powers of the governmental medical-scientific bureaucracy.

    The folly of the U.S. government's billion-dollar "war on cancer," which searched for a viral cause of cancer and failed, was switched circa 1984 to the "war on AIDS," which searches for the viral cause of AIDS. It, too, will fail. Is there a virus that causes cancer? No. Is there a virus that causes AIDS? No.

    By the early 1980s it was apparent that the governmental empire built by fraud and deception in the "war on cancer" was about to implode. But hysteria in the gay community because of an increasing number of deaths from non-infectious causes (pneumocystis pneumonia and Kaposi's sarcoma) created an environment in which nonscience and hype prevailed over common sense and scientific methodology. A new virus just had to be the culprit to explain homosexual deaths, or the entire governmental virus-hunting bureaucracy might collapse.

    Steven James

    Mark Rom thinks my reaction will be "Gosh, that's right, we couldn't practice epidemiology and personal responsibility for all these." In fact I agree on one level or another with just about every supposedly off-putting example he has included. Take smoking. I am representative here of a growing number of Americans: I do not smoke in part because of the health risk, and I emphatically do not want to help pay the billions and billions of dollars in medical costs annually created by smoking, the single greatest source of preventable disease in this country. If this means some form of cutting smokers out of insurance or state medical aid, so be it. I am quite serious about this. Why, after all, should we grant civil rights to cigarettes, liquor, fat, and guns?

    Mr. Rom's constitutional argument is both interesting and unconvincing. The Constitution allows government to do what is rationally necessary to accomplish legitimate ends. This includes blood tests to protect public health.

    Joseph Powell accuses me of homophobia. I'm not sure, as an openly gay person, just how homophobic I can be, but this question is rendered irrelevant by a simple epidemiological fact: a large number of sexual partners -- that is, promiscuity -- is a risk factor for HIV infection. When facts become bigotry, we are all in trouble. I will readily grant Powell's valid caution as to the limited utility of anti-discrimination laws with respect to HIV. But this means we need to make the laws as effective as possible, not sacrifice effective public health because the laws meant to deal with the civil-rights problems inevitably engendered by good public health are not 100 percent potent.

    To Steven James, I can only say that the conspiracy theory of AIDS strikes the overwhelming majority of researchers and science journalists as utterly implausible. I am among that majority.

    Advice & Consent

    Not only does Nebraska budget officer Harlow Hyde ("Slow Death in the Great Plains," June Atlantic) fail to acknowledge that perspectives other than his regional-boosterism, population-as-score mind-set may exist and merit discussion, but he neglects to mention the fundamental reason for the population decline in the Great Plains.

    For an environmentalist, a falling human birth rate opens the possibilities that we can more quickly improve the lot of those people already here, that a greater number of plants and animals may endure or flourish, that pollution can be curtailed more easily. For the remaining farmers and the farm-related economy, economies of scale may lead ultimately to greater profit, or at least to long-term survival. For tax-revenue-dependent civil servants, things look a little bleak, but the populations and economies of the South and the West continue to expand, creating new government positions open to migrants.

    Regarding my second point, for more than a century farms in the United States have increased in size and efficiency. This continuing consolidation, particularly strong in the grain-producing regions west of the Mississippi River, means that fewer farmers and less of the supporting economy remain necessary. So Plains residents understandably move to areas with more promising economies in order to find jobs. Unless Hyde would have us limit farm size and subsidize one region's people, his call to "have another baby" seems unlikely to persuade "some of the nation's strongest families and finest communities."

    John R. Ledbetter

    The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
    The Atlantic Monthly; October 1997; Letters; Volume 280, No. 4; pages 10-16.