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After decades of being beaten down by a series of curricular fads and stingy funding, schools have now been offered their biggest and most expensive promise ever—the miracle of computers and the Internet, at a cost of approximately $70 billion. As attractive as this change seems, whenever schools have tried to adopt the latest tools of electronic technology— films, radio, then television—it has caused mostly trouble. Computer technology is proving to be no exception. By now, computers have transformed nearly every corner of the academic world, from our efforts to close the gaps between rich and poor, to our hopes for school reform, to our basic methods of developing the imagination. The promise of high technology is also upsetting the balance of power in the relationships schools strike with the business community; distorting public beliefs about the demands of tomorrow’s working world; and reworking (and sometimes corrupting) the nation’s systems for researching, testing, and evaluating academic achievement. The totality of these changes have so deteriorated youngsters’ abilities to reason, to listen, to feel empathy, among many other things, that we’ve created a new culture—of the flickering mind. It is a generation teetering between two possible directions. In one, youngsters have a chance to become confident masters of the tools of their day, to better address the problems of tomorrow. Alternatively, they can also become victims of commercial novelties and narrow measures of ability, underscored by misplaced faith in standardized testing. Computers and their attendant technologies did not cause all of these problems, but they are quietly accelerating them.

To assemble the compelling tales in this book, Oppenheimer visited dozens of schools across the country—public and private, urban and rural. He consulted with experts, read volumes of studies, and came to strong and persuasive conclusions: that the essentials of learning have been almost forgotten, and that they matter much more than the novelties of technology. He argues that every time we computerize a science class or shut down a music program to pay for new hardware, we lose sight of what our priorities should be—what he calls “enlightened basics.”

Image: book cover, The Flickering Mind. Art by Jamie Keenan.

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