Cover image for High tech heretic : why computers don't belong in the classroom and other reflections by a computer contrarian
High tech heretic : why computers don't belong in the classroom and other reflections by a computer contrarian
Stoll, Clifford.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Doubleday, 1999.
Physical Description:
xv, 221 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Central Library LB1028.5 .S77 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Central Library LB1028.5 .S77 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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A thorough detonation of the hype surrounding computers in our lives, by the bestselling author ofThe Cuckoo's EggandSilicon Snake Oil. In a book that should spark debate across the country, Clifford Stoll, one of the pioneers of the Internet and a renowned gadfly of the computer industry, takes an insightful, provocative--and entertaining--look at how computers have encroached on our lives.High Tech Hereticpunctures the exaggerated benefits of everything from foisting computers on preschoolers to "free" software to computer "help desks" that help no one at all. Why, Stoll asks, is there a relentless drumbeat for "computer literacy" by educators and the high-tech industry when the computer's most common uses are for word processing and games? Is diverting scarce education resources from teachers and equipment in favor of computers in the classroom the best use of school money? Are supermarket checkout clerks computer literate because they operate a laser scanner? Has no one noticed that the closest equivalent to today's hot new multimedia and Internet Web sites are--(drumroll)--Classics Illustrated, the comic books based on literature? In these fascinating contrarian commentaries, Stoll focuses his droll wit and penetrating gaze on everything from why computers have to be so darned "ugly" to the cultural aftershocks of our high-tech society, to how to turn an outdated 386 computer into something useful, like a fish tank or a cat litter box. As one who loves computers as much as he disdains the inflated promises made on their behalf, Cliff Stoll is nothing less than a P. J. O'Rourke of the computer age--barbed, opinionated, and essential.

Author Notes

Clifford Stoll is an astrophysicist who wrote The Cuckoo's Egg: Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage, a non-fiction work about Stoll's discovery of a hacker accessing sensitive U.S. government networks and then selling the information to the KGB. Stoll has also written Silicon Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information Highway, a book analyzing the present Internet usage. (Bowker Author Biography) Clifford Stoll, an MSNBC commentator, a lecturer, and a Berkeley astronomer, is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Cuckoo's Egg. He lives with his family in the San Francisco Bay Area.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

The great midcentury social critic Paul Goodman said that technology, rightly considered, is a branch of moral philosophy. Precisely that perception animates Stoll's feisty, conversational, commonsensical, and highly amusing commentaries on the technological juggernaut conjured by the cant phrase information highway. Stoll may not think he is a moralist, but he unequivocally says that computers don't belong in classrooms because they stifle human nature, thwart human development, and waste human resources--most notably, money that ought to be spent on teachers, librarians, and books. His strongest indictment of computers, not just in the classroom but throughout society, is that they, like television, constitute an isolating, disintegrative force that weakens human communities, from families to national electorates. As one who has been programming since the mid-'60s, Stoll grants that the computer is a useful tool but feels that making much more of it is folly. As for the World Wide Web and the Internet, Stoll argues that they purvey far more trivia than useful information. Skeptical but not cynical, Stoll speaks right reason to computer enthusiasts. --Ray Olson

Publisher's Weekly Review

Stoll's first book, The Cuckoo's Egg, an exhilarating account of how he brought down a ring of computer hackers, was a 1989 bestseller. By 1995's Silicon Snake Oil, he'd become a digital apostate. He reiterates many of the points made in his second book here, focusing on the increasingly widespread use of computers in nurseries, preschools, classrooms and libraries. Throwing down the gauntlet in his introduction, he states, "I believe that a good school needs no computers. And a bad school won't be much improved by even the fastest Internet links. That a good teacher can handle her subject without any multimedia support.... That students, justifiably, recognize computer assignments primarily as entertainment, rather than education." In the first half of the book, he explains and justifies these beliefs: computers are expensive, quickly become obsolete and require maintenance by an expensive technical staff, usually paid for by eliminating other services (e.g., money for Internet connectivity sometimes comes from library budgets). He contends that computers and calculators work against familiarity with numbers, learning basic arithmetic and an understanding of algebra. Distance learning is a high-tech successor to correspondence schools, and neither has the impact or fascination of live courses, he believes. Stoll takes society's responsibility to educate children seriously, but his excessively anecdotal approach weakens his arguments, which would have been bolstered by a short bibliography. Still, there is much useful ammunition here for parents who share Stoll's views. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Computer gadfly Stoll is a prophet crying out in the high-tech wilderness. In this jeremiad against the cult of computing, particularly in the classroom, he argues that inspiring teachers, library books and journals, and human contact are far more important for students than the latest technology. Countering the clich‚s of Don Tapscott's Growing Up Digital (LJ 11/1/97) and Seymour Papert's The Connected Family (LJ 11/1/97), Stoll proclaims that because of overemphasis on acquiring computer literacy students are missing out on fundamental skills and experiences that make them well rounded. He agrees with Jane Healy, author of Failure To Connect (LJ 8/98), that computers are not good for young children and are used for entertainment more than education. Exceptionally readable, Stoll's book offers numerous anecdotes and research studies to support his argument. Continuing in the provocative vein of his Silicon Snake Oil, this is recommended for all libraries.ÄLaverna Saunders, Salem State Coll. Lib., MA (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



A Literate Luddite? Am I the only one scratching my head over the relentless invocation of the cliche "computer literacy"? Is a supermarket checkout clerk computer literate because he operates a laser scanner, a digital scale, and a networked point-of-sale computer? Is my sister computer literate because she uses a word processor? Are the mirthless robots at the corner arcade computer literate because they reflexively react to Nintendo droids? Our nation now spends about three billion dollars a year to wire our classrooms, with an aim of making our country's students computer literate. But how much computing does a high school student need to know? I'd say a high school graduate, intent on going to college, should be able to use a word processor, manipulate a spreadsheet, know what a database does, be able to use e-mail, and know how to browse the World Wide Web. But not every high school graduate needs to be able to program spreadsheets or lay out databases. It's a waste of time to teach competency on specific programs . . . software taught in high school probably won't be used elsewhere, or will soon be outdated. Instead, we should teach what a database does and where it's useful, so that if that student winds up running a warehouse or keeping an address book, she'll know to turn to a database program. So, how long did it take you to learn a word processor? A day? Maybe three? Aside from the mechanical typing lessons, this just isn't challenging stuff. To cover what I've outlined is hardly difficult--perhaps a few weeks on a computer. Unworthy of much time or academic attention. Learning how to use a computer--as opposed to programming a computer--is essentially a mechanical task, one that doesn't require or encourage creativity. Of course, using a computer requires learning to type. Oops, I mean acquiring keyboarding proficiency. Again, hardly rocket science. Computer literacy doesn't demand the same level of instruction as English, American history, or physics. It doesn't require the same amount of effort, either. Spending semesters teaching computing simply subtracts time from other subjects. Probably because computers are so easy for students to learn, educators love to teach computer techniques. But what are their students prepared for? A lifetime of poking at a keyboard for eight hours a day. It's one more way to dumb down the school, giving the appearance of teaching futuristic subjects while dodging truly challenging topics. Today, practically all office workers know word processing. Most learned it late in life, well past age eighteen. But some subjects, while easy for a child to learn, are impossible for adults . . . languages, for instance. The earlier you start, the easier to become fluent. Same with playing a musical instrument. Or drawing. Or public speaking. Gymnastics. Plenty of people wish they'd learned a musical instrument or a foreign language as a child. But I've never heard anyone complain that they were deprived because they weren't exposed enough to computers or television as a kid. Which gives you more advantages in business: having a long history of computer experiences, going back to programming Logo? Or fluency in Japanese, German, French, and Chinese? Which is more likely to lead to a rich, happy life: a childhood of Nintendo and Playstations, or one of hikes and bikes? When I point out the dubious value of computers in schools, I hear the point "Look, computers are everywhere, so we have to bring them into the classroom." Well, automobiles are everywhere too. They play a damned important part in our society and it's hard to get a job if you can't drive. Cars account for more of our economy than do computers: General Motors' revenues are many times those of Microsoft. But we don't teach automobile literacy. Nor do we make driver's education a central part of the curriculum--indeed, many schools are now dropping driver's ed, recognizing that teenagers can learn to drive without intensive schooling. Sure, cars and computers play a prominent role in our lives. Hey--soft-drink ads dominate our skylines and our globe's awash in a syrupy, brown sugar solution, yet we don't push Coca-Cola into elementary schools. At least, we didn't until educators invited Channel-1 and the advertising-laden Internet into classrooms. But since computers seem ubiquitous, don't we have to bring them to school? Well, no. Television, which is certainly omnipresent, has been relegated to a fairly minor role in education, and politicians aren't funding new initiatives to buy more classroom TV sets. Want a nation of dolts? Just center the curriculum on technology--teach with videos, computers, and multimedia systems. Aim for highest possible scores on standardized tests. Push aside such less vocationally applicable subjects as music, art, and history. Dolts are what we'll get. Mathematician Neal Koblitz recognizes the anti-intellectual appeal of computers: "They're used in the classroom in a way that fosters a golly-gee-whiz attitude that sees science as a magical black box, rather than as an area of critical thinking. Instead of asking whether or not technology can support the curriculum, educators try to find ways to squeeze the curriculum into a mold so that computers and calculators can be used." Computers encourage students to turn in visually exciting hypermedia projects, often at the expense of written compositions and hand-drawn projects. Pasting a fancy graphic into a science report doesn't mean an eighth grader has learned anything. Nor does a downloaded report from the Internet suggest that a student has any understanding of the material. Yet the emphasis on professional reports sends students the message that appearance and fonts mean more than content. Kids stuck with pencils feel somehow inferior and out of place next to those with computer-generated compositions. The computer-enabled students spend more time preening their reports, rather than understanding the subject matter. At a high school science fair, I saw a multicolor map of the Earth, showing global temperature distributions. I asked the report's author why the Amazon rain forest seemed so cold--the map showed the jungle to be thirty-eight degrees. "I don't know," he shrugged. "I found the map from the Internet." The guy never considered that the data might be in Celsius, rather than Fahrenheit. Excerpted from High-Tech Heretic: Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroom and Other Reflections by a Computer Contrarian by Clifford Stoll All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introductionp. xi
1. Why Computers Don't Belong in the Classroomp. 1
A Literate Luddite?p. 3
Makes Learning Funp. 11
The Hidden Price of Computersp. 23
Loony for Laptopsp. 35
Multimedia Comicsp. 53
CRTs for Totsp. 61
A Question of Balancep. 69
Calculating Against Calculatorsp. 75
Education by E-Mailp. 91
Cyberschoolp. 103
2. The Computer Contrarianp. 109
Arrogance of the Techiesp. 111
Software Guinea Pigsp. 127
The Tyranny of the Ugly Computerp. 135
"Information Is Power"p. 141
Help! I'm Stuck at a Help Desk!p. 149
The Connected Libraryp. 155
Planned Obsolescencep. 165
New Uses for Your Old Computerp. 171
The Plague of PowerPointp. 179
Junk Food and the Internet: The Economics of Informationp. 185
Rule Number Twop. 195
Isolated by the Internetp. 197
All Truthp. 211
Index with an Attitudep. 215

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