Education, Entertainment, Innovation

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2013


This thought was inspired by a 29 Jun 13 Economist article, E-ducation: A long-overdue technological revolution is at last under way, which talks about upcoming changes in how we teach people.

The article points out that the teaching process has been surprisingly resistant to integrating new technologies. It quotes Thomas Edison in 1913 saying, "It is possible to teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture." but such change hasn't happened. The article further states, "But the core of the system has changed little since the Middle Ages: a 'sage on a stage' teacher spouting 'lessons' to rows of students." Movies, TV, computers, Internet were all touted in their early stages as game changers for education. All ended up as game changers for entertainment instead. Will this 2010's decade we are in be any different?

So here is the mystery: Why can entertainment embrace these new technologies rapidly, quickly and wholeheartedly, but education cannot? Both are about communicating ideas to many people at once, and all of the above are technologies for doing just that. Why the difference in acceptance?

Instinctive Thinking

Both education and entertainment have been part of human existence since pre-history. This means both involve a lot of instinctive thinking. In entertainment this shows up as the limited range of ways to structure the story telling. The "three act play" format is an example. This was touted as the correct way to structure plays in Ancient Greek times, and is still strongly touted in screen writing classes today. As mentioned above, the "sage on a stage" format in education has been around just as long.

The difference between education and entertainment is that education is closely linked to The Curse of Being Important and familiarity, while entertainment is closely linked to commerce and novelty. Minstrels traveled a lot more than priests and professors, and their income sources and social status were different as well. Educating children is something that parents and neighbors constantly monitor, and they are comfortable when it is the same ritual as what they got when they were growing up. Entertainers are popular when they bring something novel and exotic to the stage. Another difference: Historically teachers got a lot more respect than entertainers.

The Industrial Age upheaval

The Industrial Age made the world topsy turvy as far as a lot of instinctive thinking is concerned. Who makes wealth is different. How it is made is different. What kinds of wealth is made is different. And education and entertainment have been split apart by this difference.

In the 1960's top-flight entertainers started routinely making a lot more money than top-flight educators and all entertainers were getting a lot more attention as well. Think Beatles. This is the era when "I'll join a rock and roll band that needs a helping hand" became a more common aspiration than becoming a teacher. (Although being or marrying a doctor stayed better than both for a few more decades.)

Entertainment was grabbing what new and improved technology was offering with both hands. Education was ignoring it.

In some ways this split resembles the Ante-Bellum era in the US, with education being represented by The South and agriculture, and entertainment being represented by The North and industry. Both sides had enthusiastic supporters. But the technology advances eventually pushed Southern culture into irrelevance, and it took over a century for that culture to finally wholeheartedly embrace what advancing technology had to offer. The change was difficult.

Roger's Forecast

Established education is likely to have similar problems to those The South faced. It has enthusiastic supporters and it's not going to change easily. Because of the enthusiasm of its supporters, and its strong resonance with instinctive thinking, gradual steady change is not the likely outcome. What will happen instead is some kind of dramatic sweep, a for-real revolution, that will dramatically push formal education systems as we know them today into irrelevance.

This revolution is going to cause a lot of shouting and pain, and a lot of silly waste as it unfolds. There will be panics and blunders and scars. But what emerges on the other side will function a lot more effectively at filling all the people of the community with good ideas and good ways to put them to good use.

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