Commentary

Why Johnny Can't Read, But Can Beat SOCOM II

Now that Intel has effectively cornered the U.S. microprocessor market, they have set their sights on world domination. In a 30-second TV spot that won't run in the United States, Euro RSCG New York attempts to suggest that Intel's Pentium 4 processor can help turn your offspring into a genius. In a typical public school hallway, teenage versions of Mohandas Gandhi, Ludwig van Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Amelia Earhart, and finally, Albert Einstein are seen. The spot's tagline: "Bring home a PC with Intel technology inside and see how your child grows." Apparently, the ad is tweaked for local tastes in the nations where it will be seen--for example, in Russia, the ad includes the 19th-century poet Aleksandr Pushkin.

While this seems to make about as much sense as suggesting that the brand of spark plugs in the car your kid occasionally drives can help him get into Harvard, it is nevertheless a clever idea. But were I a developing-world viewer of this spot, wouldn't I assume that if Intel could actually deliver on this promise, the U.S. market would be crawling with kids who actually listen to Beethoven instead of Ludacris and read Shakespeare instead of Cosmo Girl?

The Pentium 4 processors in the computers I let my kids use are little pressed to download Faulkner or find out more about the Dred Scott decision, but rather to keep open multiple chat rooms where Sarah can refute the claims made by Emily that she told Jeff that Ben told Mike he really liked Amanda, who is no longer speaking to Barbara because she had a sleepover at Sarah's, and..whatever!

I think there is a clear case to be made that computers are making kids dumber, not smarter. "Go to the library and look it up"--once uttered as frequently as "Because I'm your mother!"--is passing into the twilight of familial oratory, since once there, no one has a clue how the Dewey Decimal System works, and you can't (or shouldn't, anyway) cut and paste from the offline encyclopedia. But one-click research is just the tip of the iceberg.

You can buy entire term papers online. You can use your handheld during exams to send out for correct answers to test questions. You can email your homework answers to everyone in the class with a mouse click. You can appropriate sections of--or entire--documents, and rearrange the sentences in order to give them your own voice. You can even log on to sites where out-of-work teachers help you with your homework.

While the online age might open up a whole new world of information to Third World kids who are starved for resources, in this country it is simply homogenizing information as kids repurpose the same "scholarship." The day will come, if it hasn't already, when an eighth-grade history teacher sees the same opening line 28 times.

The Internet, rather than opening up a new world of different cultures, is instead enforcing conformity as kids use email and IMing to project their views of what is "cool" and what is not. Anyone who disagrees with the predominant perspective is marginalized. The oppressive milieu of the hallway and lunchroom has been electronically ported into the home.

Let's face it--the only thing Intel brings to the party is enough processor speed to play online games and download music. Word processors, perhaps the only really productive school tool on a PC, work perfectly fine with a Pentium 1.

But I'm sure that Bill Shakespeare's parents thought quills were just lost bird features.

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