Why a Computer Cannot Replace a Teacher

April 2001

My high school English teacher, Mrs. Picquet, taught me how to think.

Not that I’d never thought about anything before, but she really taught me how to do it well – how to make connections among different ideas, how to question the texts and issues presented to me, how to understand rather than memorize. She also encouraged me to write, to think on paper in poetry and prose, to create new works instead of only reading those of others. She believed in me, and her confidence made me believe in myself. Even though she’d been teaching English for probably twenty years or more and had taught hundreds of students, she still found ways to make me feel unique and valuable.

I saw her for the last time four years ago, just before my high school graduation. Now I am preparing to graduate again and begin my new job as a technical writer for an airline. I am ashamed to say that at twenty-two years old, with only a bachelor’s degree, I will be making as much or more money than Mrs. Picquet at an easier, less stressful, and more prestigious job. In another four or five years, I might be outearning my high school principal, another educator whom I greatly respect.

Why? Because of my inherent goodness? My dashing good looks and charming personality? Unfortunately, no. Unlike public schools, which sometimes struggle to secure funding even for basic facilities, my airline turns a profit year after year, enabling it to pay good salaries even to its entry-level computing professionals. Although a writing major, I also have a working knowledge of computer programming, and will write instructions for my company’s internal software.

My fate illustrates the American culture’s devotion to what Neil Postman, chairman of the Department of Culture and Communications at New York University, calls the “god of Technology” in his essay “Virtual Students, Digital Classroom” (140). The explosive growth of computer technology and the Internet over the past decade has deluded many Americans into believing that technology is the answer to most if not all of our problems. It is the Information Age, they say, and once we have enough information at our disposal, we’ll be able to make the world a better place. People who know how to use – or better yet, create – information technology are the priests of this new religion. These geek-priests faithfully bring the god of Technology to the people who wait quietly to receive their silicon wafers.

This belief in the near-omnipotence of technology has carried over into the sphere of education. Indeed, Postman claims that “nowhere do you find more enthusiasm for the god of Technology than among educators” (140). In his 2000 presidential campaign, then-Vice President Al Gore offered a rosy vision of classrooms where every child, regardless of socioeconomic status, was connected to the Internet, as if Internet access were the one barrier between our children and Enlightenment. Schools are racing to install new computer labs for their students and upgrade old ones, put computers in every classroom, and train their teachers to use them. Family PC Magazine publishes a list of the 100 “most wired” high schools in America, and many schools on the list advertise their achievement like a car company might advertise its latest victory as Motor Trend Car of the Year.

Is it wrong to admire and harness the power of computers? Are computers inherently evil? Should they be kept out of the classroom? Not at all. But we need to look realistically at their limitations and consider what we are sacrificing to worship them. Despite their value to both education and business, people can still do many things that computers cannot, and we cannot allow them “to reduce the function of teachers to that of ‘coaches’ in the uses of machines” (Postman 146).

Computers can check a paper’s spelling and grammar, but they cannot teach someone style or help clarify an idea. They can give a grade, but cannot pat someone on the back. They can display a novel chapter or poem to the screen, but cannot sit in the middle of a group of children and read it with the right voices. They can display a three-dimensional model of a sodium chloride molecule, but cannot answer a question about it unless the programmers who designed the model had anticipated the question beforehand. They can tell the story of the Alamo, complete with pictures and sounds, but cannot tell what it feels like to walk inside the room where Jim Bowie died. They can tell a student that his or her answer is wrong, but cannot wipe away the frustrated tear that may follow. They can record whether a student is present in class, but cannot ask why the student looks nervous or angry or depressed. They can print a story that a student has written, but cannot recognize its potential and encourage the student to keep writing. At least, not if the student is expected to believe it.

Computers provide information and tools to manipulate that information. They can do many amazing things when their designers and programmers tell them how. But “schools are not now and have never been largely about getting information to children” (Postman 142). Yes, an important function of schools is teaching the ABCs and multiplication tables and why World War II occurred and who William Shakespeare was; however, education is most valuable because it teaches students how to think.

I have already forgotten many of the things I have learned in college. For example, I cannot remember what the hippocampus in the brain does, even though I studied it in a neuroscience class during my freshman year. I cannot remember exactly how to conjugate conditional verbs in French, even though I just had a French course last semester. But I remember the processes I went through to understand these. If I want to learn something, I know what I need to do – read about it, mull it over, talk to people who know more than I, make mental connections between it and other topics. How do I know how to do this? Not because my high school and college had computer labs, but because teachers like Mrs. Picquet showed me how to learn, challenged me to learn, and proved to me that I could.

The state of Texas is currently facing a shortage of over 40,000 public school teachers. By comparison, in my hometown of 170,000 people, our entire school district employs perhaps 1400. Many factors contribute to this shortage. Teaching, for one, is a difficult profession. A teacher must deal patiently but firmly with troublemakers, find ways to explain concepts to students of varying levels of ability, motivate students who often would rather be at home watching television or playing with their friends than learning, gently deflate the big egos and strengthen the fragile ones, and perform a host of other duties in the classroom. After classes are over, whereas many people can leave their work at the workplace and enjoy leisure or family time in the evenings, teachers must frequently take home papers to grade. Many people either cannot or will not assume such responsibilities. Even those who would must face students who supposedly respect them less than students did in previous generations. Also, in light of the recent barrage of school shootings, they must live in fear that their school will be the next one featured on the news with bodies, possibly their own, being carried from it.

We ask our teachers to handle all these difficulties, difficulties that many would refuse to accept, given a choice, and yet we pay them less than people like me who will sit in a fabric-covered box and work with computers all day. What do people say when someone brings up teacher salaries? “There’s no money in teaching.” “We sure don’t do it for the money.” Former Texas governor George W. Bush’s plan to give all Texas teachers a $3000 bonus each year was a good start, but it didn’t come close to raising their salaries to a competitive level. When students can find starting salaries in other, frequently easier, professions that rival the maximum salaries available to teachers, most will enter those other professions.

I entered my university as an English education major, intending to become a high school English teacher like Mrs. Picquet. I wanted to give to a new generation of students some of the things she had given me. But after the first day of my first education class, I changed majors for various reasons. I had seen Mrs. Picquet’s struggles during the three years I studied with her. I heard about a few of the many times she had marched down to the principal’s office and quit, only to change her mind later and return. I pictured myself in front of a classroom full of children not much younger than I was at the time, staring up at me blankly, ignoring my efforts to engage them or discipline them. I didn’t like the picture I saw. I decided that this wasn’t what I wanted after all, and the pay was far too low to convince me to live a life as difficult as that one would have been for me.

In my career as a technical writer, will I be molding young minds, mentoring and encouraging new creative and academic writers, or getting students excited about learning? No. I will be helping a large company make money. I doubt that I will change many lives by writing lines like, “To save your document, click the floppy disk icon at the top of the screen.” Mine will be a necessary position that will help make my coworkers’ jobs easier, but my position will certainly not be as influential or important as that of a teacher.

I wonder what would happen if the schools collectively began shifting some of their money from computer purchases to teacher salaries. If we started to respect our teachers as much as we respect our doctors, lawyers, and software gurus. If we let the silicon scales fall from our eyes to see the god of Technology for who it really is – a mere machine, the power of which we can harness, but which cannot replace the teachers who show us how to use the most powerful machine of all – the human mind.