'Why Do We Need the Computers?' INTERVIEW NEIL POSTMAN

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When asked if wiring schools is a good idea, culture critic and author Neil Postman smiles disarmingly and counters with a question - one he thinks educators ought to tackle before barging head-on into technology's "onslaught."

"Does this solve some problem for me that I am plagued with or annoyed about?" he asks.

"If the answer is no, then I think there is no reason to allow the technology to intrude itself upon my life," he says, sitting at his desk that noticeably lacks a computer. But this question is a narrow one, says Mr. Postman, the chairman of New York University's Department of Culture and Communication, and one of the nation's most articulate education critics. In his view, it evades a more fundamental issue that should dominate the debate on making today's ill-functioning public schools work well again: "What is schooling for?" Postman, a former elementary school teacher, says that today's schools are in a state of spiritual emptiness and confusion - and not because they're not hooked to the Internet, but because they've lost sight of their purpose and value. In fact, Postman sees the question of access to the Internet as only one among many. Others rage: Should we privatize schools? Kill testing? Adopt national standards of assessment? None, he argues, address the real question: Why schooling? Often, he says, the role of schools is reduced to preparing students for entry into economic life and helping them accommodate vast technological changes - leaving pupils with an empty feeling. Postman doesn't want schools to get rid of their computers. But he suggests that they treat technology as a serious subject in the humanities. Technology education would involve "something quite different from instruction in using computers to process information, which, it strikes me, is a trivial thing to do...," Postman writes in his 1995 book "The End of Education: Redefining the Value of Schools." It would mean, he says, studying the history of our relationship with technology and its effects on our psychic habits and social relations. …