Children of the Machine

This is Chapter 14 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see

One wants so badly to like what Seymour Papert has done. In his book The Children's Machine he deftly limns the stiff, repellent, institutionalized absurdities of conventional education. His emphases upon the child's natural proclivities, informal classroom settings, the integration of education with life, and the sheer fun of learning all bear on what is wrong with education today. He condemns the idea of teacher-as-technician. And best of all, he repeatedly stresses a “central theme” of his book: the “tendency to overvalue abstract reasoning is a major obstacle to progress in education.” What we need, he tells us, is a return to “more concrete ways of knowing” (p. 137).

Papert made his reputation in education by introducing computers in the classroom -- and, particularly, by creating the Logo language, which enables young children to learn through programming. That may help us understand why he places the computer at the heart of his educational program. But it does not ease our perplexity, verging finally on incredulity, as we read that computer technology is to be the primary instrument for overcoming abstraction, reintegrating education with life, and embedding the student in concrete learning situations. Yet this is precisely Papert's thesis.

It is true that the computer is a concrete object -- a magnetic focal point around which the schoolchild may happily revolve. It is also true that we can, if we choose, assimilate innumerable learning activities to the computer, interest the child in them, and thereby enable him to learn “concretely,” in the course of pursuing his interests.

But it is a strange definition of “concrete” that places all its stress upon the student's active involvement, and none at all upon whatever it is he is involved with. The only fully concrete thing a computer offers the student is its own, perhaps enchanting presence. Beyond that, it hosts a mediate and abstract world. The image on the screen, the recorded sound, the “output behavior” of a program -- but not the world itself, apart from computer technology -- constitutes the universe of the student's learning.

It is rather as if we decided to make an encyclopedia the basis of the child's education. Except that the computer, as Papert points out, can be much more engaging than an encyclopedia, appealing as it does to more of the senses, while also inviting the child's interaction. This makes it easier for the child to remain caught up in the computer's presentation of “reality” -- and therefore inserts a more distracting, more comprehensive veil between him and the world into which he was born than an encyclopedia ever could.

Unfortunately, many schools have relied upon what one might call the “encyclopedia model of education.” In decisive ways -- although they are not the ways he has considered -- Papert's employment of computers in the classroom strengthens this model.

How do children learn?

Because Papert's views are highly influential both in the United States and abroad, it is worth the effort to track the painful contradiction running through his book. In order to do that, we need to begin with some of what is most right about his approach to education:

The unity of knowledge

The pursuit of a single interest, if allowed to ramify naturally, can lead to all knowledge. Papert cites his own adult experience with the study of flowers, which led him to Latin, folk-medicine, geography, history, art, the Renaissance, and, of course, botany. This potential unity, however, is destroyed as if deliberately by the traditional, rigid division of subjects and the fragmented schedule of the school day.

School should develop a child's capacities, not fill him with facts

This is the cry of every would-be reformer. Nevertheless, in our day it is a conviction remarkably hard to honor under fire in the classroom. Somehow we can't shake the feeling in our bones that knowledge is something we can collect and regurgitate (what else is the “information” everyone lusts after today?) rather than a discipline of our faculties and character. Papert, however, with his personal commitment to lifelong learning, does seem to grasp in quite a practical way that the classroom must engage the student if it is to develop capacities rather than bury them.

We learn through immediacy and direct exploration

Opposing a one-sided doctrine of scientific objectivity, Papert argues that schools distance the child too much from the object of study. Children, he says, “are at risk because they do not have access to a wider immediacy for exploration and have only very limited sources to which they can address questions” (p. 11). When we teach them mathematics, we should encourage them to draw on their own interests, as well as their direct experience of number and space. (He illustrates how cooking leads to a practical facility with math.) “Geometry is not there for being learned. It is there for being used” (pp. 16-17). Even more pointedly, he chides an imaginary critic this way: “The reason you are not a mathematician might well be that you think that math has nothing to do with the body; you have kept your body out of it because it is supposed to be abstract, or perhaps a teacher scolded you for using your fingers to add numbers!” (pp. 31-32)

Abstract reasoning is overvalued

Papert dismisses as “perverse” the effort to give children a facility for abstraction as early as possible, and tries instead to “perpetuate the concrete process even at my age. Rather than pushing children to think like adults, we might do better to remember that they are great learners and to try harder to be more like them” (pp. 143, 155). By concrete learning Papert means learning that is inseparable from some activity, as “kitchen math” is embedded in cooking. He claims that “it is not natural, even if it is possible” to teach practical mathematics as a separate subject. In sum:

The construction that takes place “in the head” often happens especially felicitously when it is supported by construction of a more public sort “in the world” -- a sand castle or a cake, a Lego house or a corporation, a computer program, a poem, or a theory of the universe. Part of what I mean by “in the world” is that the product can be shown, discussed, examined, probed, and admired. It is out there.

Other principles

Papert has much else to say that is valuable. For example, he appreciates the importance of humor in learning. He does not believe teachers should be bound by rigorous, standardized curricula. He wonders whether the “opacity” of modern machines might discourage learning. And he rejects uniformity among schools, preferring instead the “little school,” the principle of diversity, and the opportunity for “a group of like-minded people -- teachers, parents, and children -- to act together on the basis of authentic personal beliefs” (p. 219).

Seeking a counterbalance to abstraction

Papert writes with grace and good humor, effectively combining anecdote with exposition as he circles his subject. From his own experience and that of others, he searches out the sort of “intuitive, empathic, commonsense knowledge about learning” that he says we all possess, and that a wise teacher relies upon when trying to help a student. “Perhaps the most important problem in education research is how to mobilize and strengthen such knowledge” (p. 27).

He embraces “concrete science,” contrasting it with the highly rigorous, formal, and analytic ideology “proclaimed in books, taught in schools, and argued by philosophers, but widely ignored in the actual practice of science.” This ideology badly prejudices education against concrete constructions, play, serendipity, and the pursuit of direct interests. We need to give our children “a more modern image of the nature of science” (p. 150).

Papert is no doubt right about this. Or, rather, half-right. If a false picture of science as immaculately formal and analytic proves tenacious in its grip on us, it tells us something important about ourselves. The falsehood is not so easily correctable precisely because it represents an entrenched ideal toward which many of the sciences -- and certainly the “hardest” ones -- continue to strive. So even when the scientist recognizes the qualitative, intuition- ridden, serendipitous daily reality of his work, this recognition has little effect upon his theorizing, which is driven toward the extreme of formality, abstraction, and analysis by all the acknowledged principles of his discipline. Few physicists, in their published papers, are about to downplay traditional, abstract modes of analysis in favor of some new manner of qualitative description. And those published papers are the purest statement of the reigning ideals.

Which is to say that the “false” picture is not so false after all; it is the goal toward which a great part of science continues to move according to a necessity few have managed to escape. (Incidentally, the computer-- logic machine, number cruncher, and formal system -- was originally conceived as not much more than the perfect fulfillment of the urge toward calculation and analysis.)

So it is not merely that we must give children a more modern image of the nature of science. First, science itself -- and our culture, in all its habits of thought -- must change. Otherwise, scientific practice will progressively approach the established ideal, and there never will be a “more modern” picture to give our children.

How fundamental are differences in programming style ?

Papert's own arguments suggest how sticky it can get when one attempts, with less than radical resolve, to break with the ruling canons of abstraction. He tells about a class of teachers who were learning to draw with Logo. This programming language allows one to construct increasingly complex images from a few simple, geometrical shapes. At the most primitive level, for example, a house could be drawn by placing a triangle on top of a square. This, in fact, was how the class began. But at a certain point, one of the teachers discovered how to combine very small-scale geometric constructs so as to produce a squiggly-looking set of lines that served well as the smoke rising from a chimney. Subsequently this became the model for a variety of softer effects. Papert goes on to discuss how the teachers began to appreciate different programming styles, two of which he dubbed the “hard-edged” and “smoky” styles.

The hard-edged style is closer to the analytic, generalizable ways of thinking valued by the traditional, “canonical” epistemology ....Moving from the hard-edged to the smoky style involved a step away from an abstract and formal approach to one that invites all the words that Piaget (taken as representative here of a far wider span of psychological thinking) would attach to the thinking of younger children: concrete, figural, animistic, and even egocentric.

This, however, is misleading. It may be true that the hard- edged/smoky distinction represents a significant difference of style. It may also be true that different types of people will consistently be drawn to one or the other approach. And it may even be true that the stylistic differences are in some respects fundamental. But there is something else to notice here: Logo is requiring that, at bottom, both styles be conceived identically. That is, both hard-edged and smoky programmers must think of their artistic constructs, in the first place, as programs. Whatever result they visualize at the start, they must analyze it so as to derive a step-by-step (“algorithmic”) method for producing a higher-level effect from a series of almost perfectly abstract, lower-level ones -- all hung out on a Cartesian grid.

What this means is that the attempt to create a smoky style at a high level reduces to a hard-edged undertaking at a lower level -- the level of actual implementation, which is to say, the level at which the student is directly engaged. The smoke, analyzed closely, is seen to be manufactured in much the same way as the house fabricated from square and triangle; it's just that the scale of the effects has changed.

My point, however, is not how the drawing looks (presumably it will be easy to make the scale of analysis so small as to conceal the basic drawing elements completely), but rather what is asked of the artist in order to produce it. Given an image he wants to create, he must break it down conceptually into geometrical “atoms,” and then assemble these atoms in a logically and mathematically articulated structure. He operates primarily in an analytical mode that gives him numerically defined, quality-less constructs for manipulation. It is with such analysis -- and not with an eye for imaginal significance -- that he is encouraged to approach every image.

What has happened here is that the artistic task has been embedded within a programming task. While it may be legitimate to speak of the hard-edged and smoky effects the programmer aims at, the programming itself -- which is the child's immediate activity -- possesses a fundamental character that remains the same regardless of the style of the effects. The programmer may start with an interest in some aspect of the world, but the act of programming forces him to begin filtering that interest through a mesh of almost pure abstraction. To draw a figure with Logo, the child must derive a step-by-step procedure (algorithm) by which he can construct the desired result: tell the cursor to move so many steps this way, so many that way, and repeat it so many times. For example, the following Logo code draws an equilateral triangle with sides fifteen units long:


This is a long way, on its face, from a triangle! The mental algorithm bears only a highly abstract relation to the actual figure. As programmer, the child is encouraged away from a direct, qualitative experience of form, entering instead a web of mathematical relationships. These relationships are exactly what count when it comes to teaching algorithmic thinking and the nonqualitative aspects of mathematics itself. But, as we will see, they are not what the younger schoolchild needs.

Papert sincerely wants to escape the one-sidedness of an overly analytical, abstract approach to learning. But his discussion of hard-edged and smoky programming styles at least raises the question whether -- for all his appeals to the intuitive, the concrete, the personal, the immediate -- he has indeed found the proper counterbalance to abstraction, or whether abstraction has consolidated its triumph by assimilating the proposed remedies to its own terms. I ask this with some trepidation, since Papert's own urging against overreliance on abstraction couldn't be stronger. He cautions us at one point to be “on the lookout for insidious forms of abstractness that may not be recognized by those who use them” (p. 146).

The only reasonable course here is to honor his counsel by turning it respectfully upon his own work./1/

What is immediacy?

Papert believes that computers afford the child a “wider immediacy for exploration.” He takes every opportunity to show how children plunge into this immediacy, propelled by their natural interests. They even give rein to their fantasy as they interact with the world on their screens. But how immediate is this world?

All re-presentations of the world must be, to one degree or another, abstract. Representing requires selectivity -- an abstracting of particular features from the broad “given” of experience -- as well as a translation into some sort of representational language. For example, a photograph reduces the landscape to a two-dimensional pattern of pigments on a flat surface. This pattern approximately captures certain color relationships of the landscape, while also encoding some of the mathematical relationships given by the laws of linear perspective. Despite the limitations, we can learn to see the reduction as if it were the real thing. But, of course, it is not the real thing.

The same holds true for a computer. Only the illuminated screen itself -- along with the mouse, keyboard, and other physical apparatus -- is an immediate reality for the student. Papert repeatedly celebrates the concrete presence of the apparatus, and the student's active involvement with it. No one will deny him this. But the virtue of immediacy possessed by the technical device as such is not a virtue of the content mediated by that device. The difficulty so many have in making this distinction -- or in finding it significant -- is remarkable, and suggests that the computer's greatest danger may lie in its power to alienate us from the world, unawares.

All this merits elaboration, which I will attempt by considering the primary uses Papert envisions for computers in the elementary school classroom. These are three, having to do with the computer as an interactive repository for knowledge, as a programmable device, and as a controller for “robots” built with Lego blocks. The first and last of these receive attention in the following section; computer programming, already touched upon, is taken up again later in the chapter.

Education by hypermedia

Jennifer, a four-year-old preschooler, asked Papert where a giraffe puts its head when it sleeps. “My dog cuddles her head when she sleeps and so do I, but the giraffe's head is so far away.”

The question sent him scurrying through his books for information about the sleeping habits of giraffes. But then he wondered why Jennifer could not conduct this kind of investigation herself. Obviously, she couldn't do so by reading treatises on wildlife. It is in our power, however, to create a “Knowledge Machine” -- a computerized database that would give her “the power to know what others know.”

Such a system would enable a Jennifer of the future to explore a world significantly richer than what I was offered by my printed books. Using speech, touch, or gestures, she would steer the machine to the topic of interest, quickly navigating through a knowledge space much broader than the contents of any printed encyclopedia. (p. 8)

The Knowledge Machine can certainly be built. Doubtless one of its strongest points would be its incorporation of film footage of the sort now appearing in the best televised nature programs. Jennifer could call up moving images of a giraffe in all the glories of its natural environment -- and, if she were lucky, perhaps even catch sight of a giraffe sleeping. That such images are the most frequently cited benefit of television may signify just how far immediacy has departed from us.

Snakes -- real and onscreen

Addressing these issues in the Net's “waldorf” discussion group, Barry Angell wrote:

Yesterday my 11-year old son and I were hiking in a remote wood. He was leading. He spotted [a] 4-foot rattlesnake in the trail about 6 feet in front of us. We watched it for quite some time before going around it. When we were on the way home, he commented that this was the best day of his life. He was justifiably proud of the fact that he had been paying attention and had thus averted an accident, and that he had been able to observe this powerful, beautiful, and sinister snake.

Angell then asked exactly the right question: “I wonder how many armchair nature-watchers have seen these dangerous snakes on the tube and said ‘this is the best day of my life.'” And he concluded: “Better one rattlesnake in the trail than a whole menagerie of gorillas, lions, and elephants on the screen.”

Jennifer's teacher, of course, could not respond to her inquiry by taking her on a safari. Neither can most of us encounter rattlesnakes at will -- even if we want to. But this is hardly the important point. The issue has to do with the nature of immediacy, whatever we happen to be experiencing. In this regard, any emphasis on dramatic, “footage-worthy” content is itself questionable. In the words of Kevin Dann, another contributor to this same Net discussion:

As an environmental educator leading field walks for many years, I found I often had to wrestle with the fact that kids (and adults) who had been raised on lots of this programming expected the same sort of visual extravaganza to unfold before their eyes; they expected a host of colorful species to appear and “perform” for them.

And a third contributor, high school teacher Stephen Tonkin, added:

I have precisely the same problem with astronomy. The kids no longer seem to want to learn about the movements of the stars and planets, but want to get onto the small end of a telescope as soon as possible. They are then disappointed when the somewhat blurry image of Jupiter, although optically many times better than what Galileo saw, does not match up to the space-probe shots they see on the goggle-box or in encyclopedias.

It's not just a matter of unrealistic expectations and consequent letdown. The real question about the Knowledge Machine -- as also about television -- is whether the expectations it induces, and the experience it offers, have anything to do with a healthy, knowledge- producing participation in the world. For the world mediated by the screen simply is not the world. The skills needed to navigate the technical device are not at all the skills needed for a discipline of nature observation. Nor is the experience and understanding that results from the one context equivalent to the experience and understanding that results from the other. What takes shape upon the screen is reduced, translated, abstract, and therefore remote from the child, however entrancing it may nevertheless be.

Papert is correct in saying that the student learns through involvement. But surely an essential part of this truth is that the learning relates to the nature of the thing one is involved with, and the mode of involvement. It is simply backward to immerse the elementary school student in an artificial, computerized environment before he has learned much at all about the world. How can he translate the terms of artifice, the language of representation, back into a reality he has never known?

When the Scientific Revolution began, practical experience of the world tended to be extensive, while theory was making its first, tentative conquests. The need was for more and better theory. Today the situation is quite otherwise: we tend to be full of theoretical knowledge, and only weakly familiar with the world our theory is supposed to explain. The greatest need is for direct experience.

This sort of concern applies to more than just theory. Almost the entire range of computer use is characterized by one degree or another of virtual reality, wherein the computer is thought to give us, not a theoretical model of the real, but some sort of parallel experience virtually like the real. Yet, how will we continue to make the judgment, “virtually like,” once we have fully exchanged the world for virtuality? We will have nothing from which to distinguish the virtual.

Lego constructions

Early on, the Logo programming language was married to the Lego building block. With embedded computer chips, Lego toys can be controlled, robotlike, by Logo programs.

The main burden of what I want to say about Papert's enthusiasm for computer-controlled Lego robots will follow shortly. Here I will only point out that these plastic Lego blocks, compounded of various geometrical shapes, stand at a considerable remove from the branches and stones, reeds and burrs, with which a child in more immediate contact with nature might play. The child's imaginative use of the blocks is already constrained -- if only by their shapes -- toward “engineering” applications. The pursuit of design is nudged toward artificial regularity.

The difference between a sand castle and a Lego fortress; between a carved, wooden boat and a computer-guided, motorized, Lego boat; between a puppet of stick, cloth, and stuffing, and a Lego figure -- these differences are worth reflecting upon. That natural objects might speak to the child in a rich, sympathetic language foreign to more sterile (even if more “realistic”) objects is something we today have a hard time appreciating. It remains true, however, that our ancestors knew the world as ensouled, and certainly the younger child still today has something like the same experience. We should at least ask what developing capacities of the child feed upon the forms and substances of nature before we casually substitute for them our latter-day artifices./2/

In any case, there is no doubting that the regularly shaped, plastic Lego blocks fit particularly well with Papert's emphasis upon the algorithmic and programmable. There is no neat algorithm for either carving or sailing a little wooden boat in the usual, childlike manner -- and yet these activities offer a great deal of worthwhile experience, from which a later appreciation of mathematics and engineering can most healthily arise.

The upshot of all this is, I think, that the Knowledge Machine, Logo programming language, and robots do involve children in a concrete learning environment possessing genuine immediacy -- but they do so only when the “subject” is the most abstract: mathematics and the quantitative aspects of engineering, science, and computing. All other subjects are approached either indirectly through these primary abstractions (just so far as the emphasis is on programming) or through a complementary, televisionlike abstraction (just so far as the emphasis is on the computer as a knowledge resource).

Of course, children, being irrepressible, will tend to make of every context a concrete one -- whether this involves playing “ball” with Lego blocks, creatively crashing their elaborate constructions, or simply focusing on the immediate construction process. My argument here has to do only with the distinctive claims made for the programming experience and for the computer as a knowledge resource. These claims, after all, are central to Papert's book, and are one reason for the widespread pressure to introduce computers into the primary school classroom.

Insofar as the proponents of Lego/Logo are simply advertising the benefits of concrete learning environments, I have no quarrel with them. But, as every good teacher knows, there is little difficulty in getting children to work concretely and creatively with whatever materials are at hand! The expense of computers is hardly necessary for this. And when computers are imported into the classroom, then we need to recognize that their distinctive contribution is to move the child's experience away from the concrete, and toward the abstract.

The remainder of this chapter will, I hope, fill out this statement.

How fast is zero?

Dawn, a kindergarten student, was playing with a computer program that made objects move across the screen at a speed determined by a number she typed. Papert relates her excitement upon realizing that zero, too, was a speed. She had recognized, as he puts it, that “standing still is moving -- moving at speed zero” (p. 126). He sees in this a replay of the Hindu discovery that zero could be treated as a number. Moreover, he tells us that many children make the discovery on their own -- without aid of a computer -- when they hit upon the familiar joke, “Are there any snakes in the house? Yes there are, there are zero snakes.” So

this is not a strange oddity about computers; it is part of the development of mathematical thinking. The computer probably contributes to making the discovery more likely and certainly to making it richer. Dawn could do more than laugh at the joke and tease the teacher and her friend: Accepting zero as a number and accepting standing still as moving with zero speed increased her scope for action. A little later she would be able to write programs in which a movement would be stopped by the command SETSPEED 0. Even more interesting, the joke can be extended. [An object] will obey the command FORWARD -50 by going backward fifty steps. (p. 127)

Dawn's experience may not be “a strange oddity about computers,” but Papert's satisfaction in it definitely testifies to an extraordinary, if unexamined, urge to push the child's learning toward abstraction. Two things need saying about this particular anecdote:

First, Dawn was being trained to see a moving object as a purely abstract quantity -- what we call its speed. Why abstract? Because, for the sake of her revelation, the nature of the object itself had to fall completely out of the picture; whether it was a light bulb or a zebra made no difference to the numerical speed she was learning to “see in her mind.” Nor did it matter much whether the object moved up or down, in a curve or a straight line, to the left or to the right. And, finally -- which is Papert's main point -- it didn't even matter whether the object was moving or resting.

This is the height of abstraction. It turns this kindergarten girl's attention away from everything but a certain quantity. It starts her on the way toward that pure “head world” that is almost the entire world of our era. But, apart from the sheerest abstraction, rest is not movement. It is more like the source of all movement -- a fact attested to not only by the ancient notion of an unmoved mover, but by our own physical and psychological experience of the various meanings of “rest” (experience that will rapidly become irrelevant to all Dawn's theorizing about the world). Nor is vertical movement the same as horizontal movement, or circular movement the same as straight movement, or movement to the left the same as movement to the right.

Are all these distinctions meaningless, or at least irrelevant to Dawn's intellectual growth? Certainly the ancients would not have thought so, for their qualitative cosmos was thick with felt differences between rest and movement, right and left, up and down. And surely every modern dancer and every artist still has a direct experience of these differences, finding in them material for expression. Children themselves live in their movements, and can readily be taught to bring the various qualities to fuller awareness -- if, that is, they are not instructed early and systematically to ignore these qualities, which we have long been convinced have no place in scientific descriptions.

Second, as to the claim that Dawn's computer was simply assisting and making “richer” a discovery frequently occurring to children without computers: this is just not true. The “zero snakes” business -- so typical of the wordplay children love -- centers on peculiarities about the meaning of “zero.” These, however, are not normally elaborated by the child as ruling abstractions. In a natural learning environment, the joke is highly unlikely to result from a systematically trained observation in which one learns to look past the immediately given object and see in its place an abstract, numerical property. A child so trained will indeed pick up an early ease with mathematics, but will not know the world to which she subsequently applies her mathematics -- an imbalance that admittedly may fit her well for the adult society into which she will move.

In actual fact, I suspect that the joke usually occurs when the child is scarcely thinking about particular objects at all. She is simply struck humorously by the discovery that people use “zero” like other numbers -- which is a long way from any profound grasp of their theoretical reasons for doing so. The usage wouldn't be funny if she wasn't fully aware of the real, qualitative differences between zero and other numbers -- the differences Dawn is being trained to lose sight of.


Papert introduces cybernetics by distinguishing between an artillery shell and a smart missile. The shell rides upon a single explosion, all the conditions for which must be precisely calculated in advance. As the distance for the shot increases, it is harder to allow correctly for temperature and wind conditions.

A smart missile, on the other hand, operates on the principle Papert calls “managed vagueness.” Launched just roughly in the right direction, it relies on continual feedback to make midcourse corrections. In this way it can home in with extreme accuracy upon the remotest of targets -- as those who watched television coverage of the Gulf War are vividly aware.

Papert sees in this cybernetic principle of feedback an opportunity for children “to invent (and, of course, to build) entities with the evocatively lifelike quality of smart missiles” (p. 181). He tells us of one eight-year-old girl who constructed a “mother cat” and “kitten” from Lego blocks. When the kitten “wanted” the mother, the girl would make it beep and flash a light on its head. The mother was programmed to move toward the light. That is where smart missiles come in:

The Lego cat never “knows” at all precisely where the light is located; all it “knows” is vaguely whether it is more to the left or more to the right. The program makes the cat turn a little in the appropriate direction, move a little forward, and repeat the cycle; turning one degree or ten degrees on each round will work equally well. (p. 20)

Papert's conclusions from all this are dramatic. The cybernetically motivated cat is “more in tune with the [child's] qualitative knowledge ... than with anything precise and quantitative. The fact that it can nevertheless find its way to the exact destination is empowering for all qualitative thinkers and especially for children. It allows them to enter science through a region where scientific thinking is most like their own thinking” (p. 20). Or, again, the shift to cybernetics “widens the focus from prototypes of behavior with a primarily logical flavor ... to include prototypes with a more biological flavor.” It even encourages fantasy, he says, since children describe many of their devices as dragons, snakes, and robots (p. 182).

All this needs emphasizing. Papert is not simply engaged in the questionable task of teaching this eight-year-old the mathematical principles of cybernetics (for which there could hardly be a more fit tool than Lego constructions harnessed to Logo). He is seizing upon the claim that this kind of programming gives the child a first, scientific approach to biology. The robot engages in “purposeful” behavior (he puts the word in quotes), and provides “insight into aspects of real animals, for example, the principle of ‘feedback' that enables the Lego cat to find its kitten” (pp. 19-20). Indeed, he considers the biological realism here sufficient to require a kind of semidisclaimer about reading anything metaphysical into the devices:

The pragmatic discovery that the [cybernetic] principle can be used to design machines that behave as if they are following goals is basic to modern technology. The fact that the thermostat seems to have the goal of keeping the temperature in the house constant does not stir me particularly. But however much I know about how such things work, I still find it evocative to see a Lego vehicle follow a flashlight or turn toward me when I clap my hands. Is my reaction a streak of residual metaphysics? Is it because the little thing seems somehow betwixt and between? I know that it isn't alive, but it shares just enough with living beings to excite me -- and many others too. Whatever the reason, such things are intriguing and making them is an exciting way to engage with an important body of knowledge. (pp. 194-95)

Motherly solicitude ?

There is no denying the body of knowledge to which Papert refers. It finds expression in all those disciplines striving to understand the human being as a mechanism -- albeit an extremely complex one. It is no surprise, therefore, to find that here -- as in the matter of hard-edged and smoky programming -- the attempted leap toward more flexible (biological, qualitative, imprecise) strategies turns out to be a heightening of the original (physical, quantitative, precise) approach.

If the programming of explicit trajectories requires an abstraction from real objects and real propelling forces, the programming of “smart,” cybernetic objects is a yet more extreme abstraction. For now it entails the attempted reduction even of purposive behavior to a simple, quantitative algorithm. The child, far from gaining any immediate experience of directed attention (whether of a mother cat toward a kitten, or a human mother toward her toddler), is taught to make the translation, “this attention is captured and expressed by a numerical algorithm governing motion in space.” Shall we wonder if a child so instructed grows up estranged from her own directing will and motherly solicitude?

I am not denying that the use of cybernetic principles yields any gain. In their apparent results (as long as we look with reductionist eyes and are willing to deal in quantitative approximations) the new programs are in some sense “better” than the old ones -- “more lifelike.” This is obvious on the face of things. What is not so obvious is that -- because it remains within the sphere of analysis and abstraction -- the gain comes at a price. Yes, we manage -- in an external way -- to simulate a higher function (purposive activity), but we achieve the simulation only by first having reconceived the function in stilted, mechanical terms. We change in a profound way what “doing something purposefully” means, draining it of everything the child knows directly, which is then replaced by a patina of abstraction.

It is no wonder Papert likens his children's efforts “more to what has recently been called ‘artificial life' than to artificial intelligence” (p. 182). The flourishing discipline of artificial life is based on the most remarkably pure abstraction imaginable. Chris Langton, perhaps its leading theoretical guru, has surmised that “life isn't just like a computation, in the sense of being a property of the organization rather than the molecules. Life literally is a computation.”/3/

Finally, as to the exercise of fantasy in constructing “dragons, snakes, and robots”: of course, children being children, they will employ their computerized devices in the service of an irrepressible fantasy. The question is whether, as they do so, they will find their fantastic impulses progressively darkened, obscured behind the brittle compactions of logic with which they are forced to play.

Respecting the child

It is appealing to see how naturally Papert accepts the child as his partner in learning. But acceptance means little unless we accept the child for who he is. Papert seems willing, on many counts, to take children for small adults. Quite apart from his passing remark that “seventh-graders are scarcely children” (p. 174), he shows himself eager to let even the very young child establish her own educational agenda. There is, in this, an intimate mixture of truth and potential disaster.

The disaster is uncomfortably close to the surface. In discussing four-year-old Jennifer and the Knowledge Machine, Papert observes that children of this age combine “a remarkable capacity for making theories with a nearly helpless dependence on adults for information that will test the theories or otherwise bring them into contact with reality” (p. 7). But children of four do not make theories and test them, if by those activities one means anything remotely like the logically sophisticated, intellectually centered activity of the adult. The child is not looking for what we tend to think of as “relevant facts,” but rather for a coherent image. And the coherence is experienced, not as explicit logical consistency, but rather as a pictorial unity of feeling and meaning./4/

Furthermore, the child's “nearly helpless dependence” upon the teacher is not something to be scorned or avoided. It is, rather, the natural order of things, whereby the adult bears a grave and inescapable responsibility to help the child enter as fully as possible into her own nature. The fact that the era of dependence for human offspring is vastly longer than for animals is not a disability; it is the prerequisite for development of our general, “nonhardwired” capacities. The child is not born already adapted to a specialized niche, but must gradually develop the universal potentials of her freedom.

In today's world, the critical thing is to slow down the child's accrual of information and facts derived from sophisticated adult intellects. These facts fit too closely together -- like the geometrical “atoms” of the Logo programmer -- in a rigid mesh that causes the child's thought processes to crystallize into fixed forms prematurely. The child loses -- never having fully developed it in the first place -- that fluid, imaginative ability to let experience reshape itself in meaningful ways before she carves out of it a set of atomic facts. Even the creative scientist requires this ability, if she is ever to escape current theories and see the world afresh. Otherwise, all she can do is to recombine the basic terms already given to her. The ability to reimagine those terms themselves -- as an architect might reimagine a building to harmonize with a different setting -- disappears.

The heart of the matter, then, is nearly opposite to what Papert makes it. The information the child can receive from a Knowledge Machine -- or any other source, including the encyclopedia -- is hardly what matters. What counts is from whom she receives it./5/ The respect and reverence with which a subject is treated, the human gestures with which it is conveyed, the inner significance the material carries for the teacher -- these are infinitely more important to the child than any bare, informational content. Her need is not to gather facts, but to connect imaginatively with the world of the adult -- which is necessarily to say: with the person of the adult -- and to find that her own lofty fantasy (which makes an animate toy of every stick or scrap of cloth) can progressively be instructed and elevated so as to harmonize with the adult's wisdom even while remaining true to itself.

To lose sight of the child's healthy dependence upon the teacher is to forget that all knowledge is knowledge of the human being. It is true that we've tried to structure many fields of knowledge as if their content were wholly unrelated to the human being -- but not even in physics has this effort succeeded. As to the child, her need is not for facts or information of the sort a machine can convey, but for seeing human significances. And she is given these in the person of a teacher whose broad compassion, devotion to the truth, inner discipline, and imaginative reach embraces and creates a fitting home for whatever new things approach the questioner -- a home that can be shared.

It is, however, painfully difficult for most of us to accommodate the child's need, if only because we are no longer possessed of her imagination, and have striven to eliminate the very terms of imagination from our science. We may bask in the child's evident need for us, but we fail to realize that this need is the very heart and hope of her education. It places a grave responsibility upon us to become like little children, so that we can guide her like an elder child leading a younger.

Because a logic of intellectual questioning is always implicit in the inquiries of childhood, we can choose to construe those inquiries as if the child's mind were actually puzzling over a bit of missing information, rather than over the picture-coherence and drama of an imaginative content. Moreover, we can train the child to put her questions in the form we find most natural, and can even force her to mimic us in her own thinking at an exceptionally early age. But this is also to force her abandonment of childhood, while at the same time depriving her of her richest potentials as an adult.

Fun and authority

Papert argues that, by comparison with a Knowledge Machine or video game, “school strikes many young people as slow, boring, and frankly out of touch.”

Video games teach children what computers are beginning to teach adults -- that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding. The fact that they are enormously demanding of one's time and require new ways of thinking remains a small price to pay (and is perhaps even an advantage) to be vaulted into the future. (p. 5)

He asks why schools don't fasten upon the ways children learn most intensely outside the schoolroom. And he suggests that schools may soon have no choice in the matter, for the explorers of the Knowledge Machine “will be even less likely than the players of video games to sit quietly through anything even vaguely resembling the elementary- school curriculum as we have known it up to now!” (p. 9)

I am no defender of the established curriculum and teaching methods. But my first impulse is to respond by offering the parallel reading, “will be even less likely than children raised on television to sit quietly....” What is obviously right about Papert's argument is that there is never an excuse for education that does not captivate the child and give full reign to her developing capacities. What is just as obviously overlooked is that the mere fact of sparking a child's enthusiastic assent does not prove an activity healthy. Will the computer-trained child be as bored as the television-trained child when it comes to the struggle to understand and constructively interact with the less predictable, less yielding, less algorithmic, and therefore less programmable real world?

Papert cannot help liking the impact of Logo in the primary school classroom because he sees children gathered around their computers and Lego creations, absorbed, guided by their own interests, doing things in a self-directed way -- and no longer under the tyrannical thumb of a technician-teacher. Much in this picture is good, but I hope you can see by now how it might add up to an extremely worrisome whole.

Surely the child is not sovereign in the sense that her own preferences can reasonably define the educational agenda. Her interests are there to be engaged by the teacher, not to replace the teacher. And if the teacher has misconceived his task to be that of information shoveler, we do not save the situation by exchanging the shovel for a computer. There simply is no solution for inadequate teachers except to help them become adequate. To think otherwise is like believing the child of failing parents would be better off raised by machines -- it misses the essence of what education is about. The problem can only be fixed where it occurs.

The authority of the teacher, like that of the parent, must issue from a recognition of the child's emerging self and a wise devotion to her needs. Such a wisdom is what the child longs for. To make of the child an adult is to place a burden upon her that she cannot rightly carry. On the other hand, to treat her as an adult-in-the-making -- bearing potentials we can scarcely hope to honor as fully as she deserves, and for which we must sacrifice something of ourselves -- this is to create a human environment in which she can belong and blossom.

In search of imagination

I suggest in a later chapter that true imagination seizes upon the qualitative and phenomenal rather than the abstract and theoretical./6/ Imagination is a profound power of synthesis which, at the most fundamental level of its operation, gives us the “things” of the perceptual world -- trees and clouds, streams and rocks. It is also the means by which we apprehend new meanings and obtain our most basic, revelatory insights regarding the world, for these insights always require us to see the world with new eyes. Operating at an unconscious level, the imagination is responsible for those different ways of “carving up” the world that we all inherit, based on the languages we speak. But the imagination can also be disciplined and employed consciously -- as we all must at least begin to do when we undertake the sensitive understanding of a foreign language.

Papert seems to glimpse the real challenge of imagination when he writes that

the deliberate part of learning consists of making connections between mental entities that already exist; new mental entities seem to come into existence in more subtle ways that escape conscious control. (p. 105)

Unfortunately, he nowhere pursues the second part of this statement, apparently setting the matter aside as unapproachable. Such reticence is understandable, for the puzzle of imagination (and its correlate, meaning) resists solution in our day. And yet, so long as we lack any approach to this problem, we inevitably reconceive the imagination's true operation -- that is, we reconceive this fundamental, world- creating principle of synthesis -- as nothing more than the discursive synthesis of ideas upon a framework of logic. This is to lose the imagination in favor of those rational and analytical operations by which (quite properly, as far as they go) we are in the habit of articulating complex ideas.

So it is that the promise of Papert's “relational, concrete thinking” -- which might have employed the imagination centrally -- dissolves, as we have seen, into logical, analytical thinking. His “emergent explanations” are simply the other side of higher-order abstraction. He applies both these quoted phrases to the cybernetic programming style, where the child must “imagine” herself inside the object, and where the object's performance does not seem, in any direct way, to be “what the computer was told to do” (pp. 194, 200-1). However, this cybernetic programming simply places another level of computational abstraction between the child and the phenomena she is supposedly coming to understand. The distance between visible output and algorithm is even greater than in the more direct, less flexible sort of programming. There is no true imagination directed at the behavior itself as sentient or conscious activity (speaking of the mother cat / kitten example), but rather an analysis of it in one-dimensional, mathematical terms. This is the assimilation of imagination to analysis with a vengeance.

I believe we will remain indebted to Papert for his respectful stance toward the child, and for his richly conceived learning environments, among other things. As to the problem of imagination, one hopes for exciting results should Papert seek to explore further his dangling allusion to those “more subtle ways” by which “new mental entities” are formed. The task is urgent, for one thing is certain: we will not manage to preserve the imagination of childhood until we at least make a start at recovering it in ourselves.

Stalking the wild kitten

We can discover occasional pointers toward imagination, even if in odd places. What immediately occurs to me regarding the cat and kitten -- via a few associational links -- is the work of the remarkable tracker, scout, and wilderness expert, Tom Brown, Jr. Brown spent some twenty years of his youth in the outdoors, honing to an almost unbelievable pitch his animal tracking and other survival skills. He learned to romp playfully with many wild animals, and allowed deer to scratch themselves, unawares, against his outstretched fingers, as if against hanging branches. Over the past two decades, he has been demonstrating his skills and teaching many thousands of students to develop similar -- if more rudimentary -- capabilities of their own. Law enforcement agencies have employed his tracking prowess against criminals./7/

But the point is this. Under the tutelage of Stalking Wolf, the Apache scout who was his childhood mentor for 10 years, Brown was set numerous tasks of the imagination. Above all else, he was taught a penetrating and participative awareness of his surroundings. He had to understand them so well from the inside, and to merge so completely with them, that he passed through the woods without leaving the slightest ripple -- even while taking in the significance of every disturbance on the breeze for miles around. He remarked of his advanced tracking exercises that, finally, he had to forget all the technical details (he studied literally scores of minute “pressure points” in each fragmentary track) and become the animal. In the end, he says, it was a matter of “tracking the spirit” -- knowing the animal so well, and entering so deeply into the meaning of its tracks, that he could say what it would do next even where no physical evidence of the track remained.

Needless to say, “what it would do next” varied greatly from one species to another. The fox, the deer, and the raccoon each had its own way of being. Would the animal head upstream or downstream in a particular circumstance? Go around or over a barrier? Move toward its “home” or away -- or execute a pattern of complex indirection? To grasp the individual animal's character, to take hold of its “archetype” in such a way as to predict its behavior in a previously unobserved circumstance -- this is indeed to employ the imagination as an instrument of knowledge. And such knowledge, such training, appropriately framed, can engage even the small child in a wonderful way.

I wonder: once we have seen a child so engaged, could we ever again tolerate the reduction to a “cybernetic algorithm” -- or any other algorithm -- of the cat's motherly approach to her kitten?


1. Much that I will say here depends for its positive force upon a familiarity with the general pedagogical approach outlined in appendix 0app28], “Education Without Computers.” The reader is encouraged to review that appendix in conjunction with the current chapter.

2. See appendix 0app28], “Education without Computers.”

3. Quoted in Waldrop, 1992: 280.

4. For an elaboration of this point, see appendix 0app28], “Education Without Computers.”

5. I discuss this further in the section, “Beyond Shoveling Facts,” in Chapter 25, “What This Book Was About.”

6. Speaking of Owen Barfield's work; see Chapter 23, “Can We Transcend Computation?”

7. For more on Tom Brown's story, see, for example, Brown and Watkins, 1979, and Brown, 1982.

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