From Slate to Silicon?

Everyone loves to hate school. Jean-Jacques Rousseau certainly did. In Émile (1762), his treatise on the nature of education, he declared vociferously that he “hate[d] books” and that reading was the “curse of childhood.” The irony ...

Everyone loves to hate school. Jean-Jacques Rousseau certainly did. In Émile (1762), his treatise on the nature of education, he declared vociferously that he “hate[d] books” and that reading was the “curse of childhood.” The irony of committing these thoughts to writing was lost on him. Pink Floyd’s ungrammatical 1979 refrain, “We don’t need no education,” gave way to Bill Readings’s lament, The University in Ruins (1997), and “The Vanishing University” (a series of articles in Quartz last year). In 2006, the Indian government capped the acceptable weight of a backpack at 10 percent of a schoolchild’s.1 The bill responded to a study finding that the average child carried almost half of his or her weight to class: education was literally crushing them.

For Norm Friesen, a professor of educational technology and author of The Textbook and the Lecture: Education in the Age of New Media, these complaints are neither new nor exceptional. In fact, they are part of a tired pattern in the history of education. People argue about how we’re giving students the wrong books for the wrong reasons (or giving them books to read when we shouldn’t). They launch into rallying cries for change and reform only to have their hopes unrealized. Complaints accumulate, but nothing ever changes.

Even what might seem like radical transformations in the field still hold within them the kernels of older educational imperatives. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) or podcasts are still lectures. Students may be using Adobe Acrobat’s Sticky Notes instead of paper Post-Its, but we still call what they’re annotating on screen “textbooks.” And, of course, the proliferation of reading and writing tablets—the iPads and Kindles—cannot but recall their ancient predecessors, made of clay or slate instead of silicon. The “new media” of Friesen’s subtitle are already destined to become old. In fact, they were never all that new.

Reading and writing are skills that have to be taught and learned all over again by every generation.

The Textbook and the Lecture emphasizes the durability of the ways we transmit, preserve, and acquire knowledge. Friesen argues that the reason we are in a rut when it comes to educational reform is that we are asking the wrong questions of its history. Like Rousseau and Pink Floyd, we’ve been wondering when education will be given a much-needed overhaul. Instead, we ought to turn our attention to why, despite all the time we spend talking about it, education never changes. What do the persistence of its aims—to teach us to read and write—and the repetition of its tools—whether reed pen or electronic stylus, hardback or digital textbook—tell us about the long cultural history of humanity?

Friesen’s book is framed by an ambitious historical span. Starting four thousand years ago, it traces back to Sumerian civilization the basic elements that still define school: an emphasis on reading and writing, the designation of spaces for learning (in Sumeria, it was the edubba’a, or “tablet house”), techniques of dictation, list learning, tables, and memorization. These percolate across cultures too. Friesen finds evidence of similar practices in both early Hebrew and Chinese instruction.

As he points out, reading and writing are skills that have to be taught and learned all over again by every generation—meaning that the collective mastery of these skills has only occurred, generationally speaking, about 150 times. Compared to four millennia, 150 is a small number. Friesen’s claim, therefore, is not that education won’t ever change in the future. It’s that the time frame with which we’re dealing is too short to predict when that change will come.

Friesen skims two and a half centuries of thought about reading and learning, from Rousseau’s romantic distrust of the written word to the phonetic learning methods of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, all the way to the rationalist leanings of Noam Chomsky’s “rule-bound ‘information processing’” methods of learning and Marc Prensky’s comparison of the ways in which individuals acquire linguistic and digital fluency. All these remind us that writing and reading can never be separated and are, for better or for worse, particularly inextricable when it comes to the roles they play in education and learning. Students scribble in the margins of textbooks and parrot back their contents. Lectures, beginning as professorial notes, go on to circulate in the published form of books or the written form of student notes.


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But a lecture, as those of us who have been inspired or bored in classrooms know, is not merely an “information dump,” any more than a textbook is, as Friesen puts it, “inert content.” He points out that the word “textbook” is only about three hundred years old; however, the instructional characteristics we associate with it—economy of expression, use of images, collaborative authorship, emphasis on repetitive reading, and establishment of a dialogue between the text and the reader—appear much earlier, most strikingly in Christian didactical volumes and anthologies during the Protestant Reformation. By the early 19th century, the textbook had evolved from a container for information to a truly dialogic form, one that emphasized self-exploration and independent thought.

Similarly, lectures (a term that in medieval times meant “to read or read aloud,” Friesen notes) were delivered in universities during the Middle Ages as a means of preserving knowledge in the minds and books of others. This function of the lecture in educational contexts did not change until the Romantic era, when the lecturer became a figure of authority and a fount of originality. The concept took on a performative form in the world of postmodernism, exemplified in Friesen’s account by the lectures of Michel Foucault.

The surprising takeaway from these histories is that signs of change actually can be seen in the evolution of education practices, contrary to Friesen’s initial claim. Those changes, however, happen for reasons we didn’t expect. Friesen emphasizes that education has never resisted technologies new and old, but he also argues that technological innovation plays less of a contributing role in change than is often believed. For instance, we’d expect the printing press to be the galvanizing force for the textbook industry in Europe. Yet Friesen stresses demand rather than supply, highlighting that it was the Protestant Reformation’s emphasis on making esoteric texts legible that created demand for didactic religious anthologies.

Friesen’s fascinating case studies aside, it is worth remembering that, despite some similarities, the histories of the textbook and the lecture are radically different across cultures and languages, and across disciplines too. Different pressures constrain history textbooks, for example, in the United States and in Japan. Nor does Friesen consider lectures given outside the space of the university: literary readings, for example, or political speeches.

The textbook evolved from a container for information to a truly dialogic form, one that emphasized self-exploration and independent thought.

Friesen’s arguments draw on German media theories, Foucauldian postmodernism, and theories of education. Alternatively, thinking through his claims as a book historian generates a different set of questions: how were these texts, written and spoken, received? One wonders what marginalia hides in copies of Jesse Olney’s 1830 Modern Geography (one of the textbooks Friesen considers), scattered, I assume, in libraries, archives, and private collections across the world. Did readers respond to the exercises and questions Olney posed to them? Or did they ignore his instructions? Did Foucault’s students in the Collège secretly yawn and wish he’d stop talking? These are intriguing questions that consider the flip side of knowledge transmission: the barriers, gaps, and secret rebellions. Schools and universities, lectures and textbooks, have always had them.

As a student at the University of Delhi, in India, I sat through upward of 10 hours of lectures a week and carted around the Norton edition of just about every work of literature in existence. Friesen tells us that neither of these experiences—straining to keep one’s eyes open in a lecture hall on a Monday at 8:40 a.m. or dog-earring pages of an assigned novel—is likely to disappear. But both promise, or threaten, to be transformed.


This article was commissioned by Leah Price. icon

  1. Rayomand Engineer, “Kids Weighed Down by School Bags? Here’s What the Future of Education Can Look Like,” Better India, December 14, 2017.
Featured image: Proto-Cuneiform tablet with seal impressions (ca. 3100–2900 BC). Metropolitan Museum of Art