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A Moron with a Computer Is Still a Moron

"In the Classroom of the Future, Stagnant Scores" is the headline of a New York Times account of the uselessness of high-tech education. Since the Clinton administration, liberal "experts" have argued that giving every kid a laptop, "educational" software, and Internet access will produce a generation of geniuses. That has to be the stupidest idea in the history of education. Of course, it hasn't worked. But that doesn't discourage the New Age nerds who run the Obama adminstration's education policy.

The Times reports on the miserable performance of students in Arizona's Kyrene School District, where taxpayers have spent $33 million to digitize classrooms since 2005.

Since 2005, scores in reading and math have stagnated in Kyrene, even as statewide scores have risen.

To be sure, test scores can go up or down for many reasons. But to many education experts, something is not adding up — here and across the country. In a nutshell: schools are spending billions on technology, even as they cut budgets and lay off teachers, with little proof that this approach is improving basic learning.

This conundrum calls into question one of the most significant contemporary educational movements. Advocates for giving schools a major technological upgrade — which include powerful educators, Silicon Valley titans and White House appointees — say digital devices let students learn at their own pace, teach skills needed in a modern economy and hold the attention of a generation weaned on gadgets.

Some backers of this idea say standardized tests, the most widely used measure of student performance, don’t capture the breadth of skills that computers can help develop. But they also concede that for now there is no better way to gauge the educational value of expensive technology investments.

“The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data,” said Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and an investor in educational technology companies. When it comes to showing results, he said, “We better put up or shut up.”

And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: “It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”

Just what are they doing with their computers?

Amy Furman, a seventh-grade English teacher here, roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s “As You Like It” — but not in any traditional way.

In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius.

How idiotic is that? What about trying to understand what Shakespeare actually said? At my kids' Waldorf school, the seventh-graders performed "Twelfth Night" in costume, alternating major roles so that all of them had to memorize a couple of hundred lines of the Bard. They learned about the characters by acting the roles, that is, reading the play through the eyes of its author.

“This is such a dynamic class,” Ms. Furman told the New York Times. “I really hope it works.” She recalls the ethnic joke about the prospective chicken farmer who buries chicks in the soil with a bit of manure and is disappointed when chickens fail to sprout.

But what about the educational foundations, the Silicon Valley sages, and the Obama administration? They bring to mind the second half of the joke; the farmer reports his methods in detail to the Agriculture Ministry, which sends him a telegram: "Send soil samples." The education gurus at the White House really are that dumb. Obama's National Education Technology Plan calls for a "transformation of American education" that will be "powered by technology":

The National Education Technology Plan, Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning, accelerate and scale up the adoption of effective practices, and use data and information for continuous improvement.

Obama's report echoes a 1997 Clinton administration plan urging the same thing. There isn't a lot of research to support the notion that saturating classrooms with high-tech toys improves education, but the American counterparts of the Slobovian Agricultural Ministry don't have any other ideas.

Aldous Huxley, whose marvelous dystopia Brave New World appeared seventy years ago, couldn't have imagined how bad it would get. All the Adderall  in the world won't cure the Attention Deficit Disorder that blinking screens and screeching speakers inflict on American kids.

Consider what the competition is doing:

Fifty million Chinese kids are studying a Western classical instrument. That's almost an order of magnitude more than the American number. As I wrote in 2008:

It must be a conspiracy. Chinese parents are selling plasma-screen TVs to America, and saving their wages to buy their kids pianos- making American kids stupider and Chinese kids smarter. Watch out, Americans - a generation from now, your kid is going to fetch coffee for a Chinese boss.

There is little doubt that classical music produces better minds, and promotes success in other fields. Academic studies show that music lessons raise the IQs of six-year-olds. Elite American families still nudge their children toward musical study. At Brearley, New York’s most exclusive girl’s school, playing in the orchestra is a requirement. American medical schools accept more undergraduates who majored in music than any other discipline (excepting pre-med).

Any activity that requires discipline and deferred gratification benefits children, but classical music does more than sports or crafts. Playing tennis at a high level requires great concentration, but nothing like the concentration required to perform the major repertoire of classical music. Perhaps the only pursuit with comparable benefits is the study of classical languages. It is not just concentration as such, but its content that makes classical music such a formative tool. Music, contrary to a common misconception, does not foster mathematical ability, although individuals with a talent for one often show aptitude for the other.

Western classical music does something that mathematics and physics cannot: it allows us to play with time itself.

Chinese parents pay for their kids' music lessons and buy expensive instruments (China already accounts for 60% of world violin production), not because they expect their children to make a living at it, but because they know that it will help them to succeed in academic pursuits. But Asians also are coming to dominate the arts. More than 60% of the student orchestra at the Mannes College (the great New York conservatory where I briefly taught music theory) is Asian; 40% of the students at the Rhode Island School of Design, the country's most prestigious art school, are Asian.

Meanwhile, the moronic liberal elite tries to keep kids "engaged" in the classroom with video games. It is the antithesis of education, which begins with discipline and extended concentration span. A tsunami of talent is spilling out of Asia -- not just musicians and artists, but mathematicians and engineers and physicists who are as comfortable with Mozart as with quantum mechanics. The entry of Asia into the global economy and world culture has raised the bar. It's a bit like the American Jews of two generations ago, who worked harder than the WASPs and succeeded disproportionately, to the discomfiture of admissions committees at Ivy League universities. The difference is that there are a thousand times more Chinese than Jews! The average level of Chinese education is still pretty poor, but the absolute numbers are so great that we can expect a few million top-notch creative minds to hit the job market over the next ten years.

I used to hire Chinese mathematicians and programmers on Wall Street. The brass used to joke about "Chinese quants" as if they were a generic entity -- "just throw more Chinese quants at the problem." They worked in the background, logging improbably long hours, and earned a fraction of what the frat-boy salesman took in peddling toxic waste. The Chinese weren't nerdy in the least. To get into an American university and then Wall Street, they had to compete ferociously. Given the chance, many of them became brilliant entrepreneurs.

Beat up on the Chinese all you want. I deplore the one-child policy, human rights violations, patent violations, and many other aspects of the People's Republic of China. Nonetheless, in one critical field -- the education of the next generation -- the Chinese show far more interest in the cultural heritage of the West than do we. They are embracing the best of our culture in vast numbers while we let it gather dust in the attic.

Wall Street frat boys are no longer wanted, and the derivatives business is busted. MBA's are wondering how to pay their student loans, while PhDs in electrical engineering get a dozen job  offers. It's the revenge of the nerds, and China is setting the world standard in nerds.

If the Obamoids remain in charge, our kids won't know what hit them. If you want your kid to compete, throw out the video games, block the Internet, and start the music lessons.

Editor's Note: Also read "Reflections on the first day of school in Israel"