The Flickering Mind
Saving Education from the False Promise of Technology
By Todd Oppenheimer
(Random House Trade Paperbacks, Paperback, 9780812968439, 528pp.)
Publication Date: December 7, 2004
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The Flickering Mind, by National Magazine Award winner Todd Oppenheimer, is a landmark account of the failure of technology to improve our schools and a call for renewed emphasis on what really works.
American education faces an unusual moment of crisis. For decades, our schools have been beaten down by a series of curriculum fads, empty crusades for reform, and stingy funding. Now education and political leaders have offered their biggest and most expensive promise ever—the miracle of computers and the Internet—at a cost of approximately $70 billion just during the decade of the 1990s. Computer technology has become so prevalent that it is transforming nearly every corner of the academic world, from our efforts to close the gap between rich and poor, to our hopes for school reform, to our basic methods of developing the human imagination. Technology is also recasting the relationships that schools strike with the business community, changing public beliefs about the demands of tomorrow’s working world, and reframing the nation’s systems for researching, testing, and evaluating achievement.
All this change has led to a culture of the flickering mind, and a generation teetering between two possible futures. In one, youngsters have a chance to become confident masters of the tools of their day, to better address the problems of tomorrow. Alternatively, they can become victims of commercial novelties and narrow measures of ability, underscored by misplaced faith in standardized testing.
At this point, America’s students can’t even make a fair choice. They are an increasingly distracted lot. Their ability to reason, to listen, to feel empathy, is quite literally flickering. Computers and their attendant technologies did not cause all these problems, but they are quietly accelerating them. In this authoritative and impassioned account of the state of education in America, Todd Oppenheimer shows why it does not have to be this way.
Oppenheimer visited dozens of schools nationwide—public and private, urban and rural—to present the compelling tales that frame this book. He consulted with experts, read volumes of studies, and came to strong and persuasive conclusions: that the essentials of learning have been gradually forgotten and that they matter much more than the novelties of technology. He argues that every time we computerize a science class or shut down a music program to pay for new hardware, we lose sight of what our priority should be: “enlightened basics.” Broad in scope and investigative in treatment, The Flickering Mind will not only contribute to a vital public conversation about what our schools can and should be—it will define the debate.
Todd Oppenheimer won the 1998 National Magazine Award for his Atlantic Monthly story on this subject and has received numerous other awards during roughly twenty-five years in journalism, for both his writing and his investigative reporting. His articles have appeared in various local and national publications, including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Columbia Journalism Review, and National Journal. He lives with his wife, Anh, and his son, A.J., in San Francisco.
“This is the most important book of its kind since Jonathan Kozol’s Savage Inequalities, and it carries the same torch—telling us what’s really going on inside the public education system. The Flickering Mind is a powerful work and a must-read for anyone who cares what will be within the minds of the next generation of Americans.”
—Gregg Easterbrook, senior editor of The New Republic, author of The Progress Paradox
“Todd Oppenheimer brings two great strengths to the subject he explores in The Flickering Mind: an understanding of technology’s possibilities and limitations, and an appreciation for the day-by-day realities of the way children learn. He also has a good eye for what is working, and why, in the classroom—and for what is hucksterish in the sales tactics used to promote high-tech learning. The combination makes The Flickering Mind authoritative and original, clear in its main message but also nuanced and fair.”
—James Fallows, national correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, author of Breaking the News
“Todd Oppenheimer addresses the implications of computers in the classroom in a work of impressive scholarship and balanced judgment. He reviews evidence of how political leaders and some ambitious educators have ‘oversold’ the value of computers at the cost of the human features of learning, the challenge and excitement of teacher-student interaction, and the stimulation of imagination. This is a provocative but potentially constructive contribution to education for our time.”
—Jerome L. Singer, Ph.D., professor of psychology and child study at Yale University, co-editor of Handbook of Children and the Media
“A splendid book, humane and smart, with the authority that comes only from lots of patient reporting. For those who care about children, this is an important—and impressively sensible—guide to what has gone wrong with schools and how we can put matters right, if parents and educators can get free of inflated promises.”
—William Greider, National Book Award nominee, author of The Soul of Capitalism