Forget Back to Basics, language immersion. New (and newer and newer Math, the seven types of intelligence. Learn by Doing, the Great Books, discovery learning, arts-based education. Core Values, self-esteem, and even phonics. American parents have found a new savior for their children’s imperiled education; the computer.

All across the country, parent-teacher associations and ad hoc parent groups are feverishly raising money and/or jawboning education budgets to install banks of computers in the public schools, wangling space away from other school uses to accommodate such installations, systematically hooking up every classroom to at least one computer, and diverting textbook and other monies to purchase software. PTA meetings resound with the clamor for “computer literacy,” “21st century information skills,” and the like. With a spirit not unlike that of their stoic pioneer ancestors, these parents have accepted what appears to be the inarguable, lowered their heads, and pressed their shoulders resolutely to the new wheel.

Whether this craze for getting schools “on line” will pay off in better educated students is almost never debated. Parents have been instilled with a raw terror of their children being left behind by the economy of technological imperialism—which, after all, is not a futuristic scenario but a palpably brutal ongoing process. Anything promising to lessen this terror is embraced with hot relief.

Parents nationwide are pouring millions of their own money into school computerization. The federal government’s response has been to cry, “No fair!” and point fingers trembling with indignation at school districts where lower incomes (and lower parental commitment) mean less outside money to fund the new cult. And the feds’ solution, of course, has been to create a typical boondoggle with two billion dollars (so far) in taxpayers’ money, called “e-rates,” to subsidize poorer districts.

The two major problems with the computer cult arc, first, die notion that computers can teach something that traditional teaching cannot; and second, the notion that the Internet is an information resource above and beyond anything human society has ever possessed before. Both notions are risibly false.

The uses to which computers are put at the grade-school level are particularly self-defeating. Large amounts of money are spent for software like interactive books, KidPix, Kid Works, Oregon Trail, and Storybook Weaver. KidPix and Kid Works are used to get the students to “read,” “draw,” “write,” and “do math.” After all the “high-tech” folderol is dispensed with, each of these activities would have been more profitably conducted with paper and pencil and a good book. Example: Children are asked to “draw ” a line segment onscreen and label it “AB.’ Because they do this electronically, it is considered superior to a manual exercise. In what way? Quite apart from the extra time involved in lining up and marching down to the computer lab, logging on, opening the program, etc., there is far less teacher supervision of what is supposedly being learned.

Some, such as Clinton apparatchiks, would argue that the computers ought to be in the classroom already, not “down the hall.” When that is the case, however, we witness an even further breakdown of classroom coherence, as kids line up to play at the terminal(s) while the teacher struggles to keep a general lesson going. In other classrooms, volunteers pull small groups of kids out of class tor special computer sessions in a continuous pattern of disruption reminiscent of Short Attention Span Theater.

This suggests another problem with the whole cult: the sheer amount of teaching time being sucked into the sacred black hole of Technology. Across the country, teachers are using instruction time not only to be trained on computers but to plan activities, lessons, pedagogy, and “integrated curricula” around them. Computer systems arc constantly changing, being updated and upgraded; bright ideas for transforming pencil-and-paper lessons into “electronically enhanced” exercises are being lobbed fast, furious, and nonstop at the teaching profession. Many teachers feel they arc on a treadmill, losing ground no matter how they speed themselves up. Welcome to the workforce of the New World Order!

To return to the contradictions inherent in grade-school computer use, interactive books are not interactive. All the term means is that children can click onscreen icons as the computer reads the book to them and watch programmed pixelations or hear sound effects. The Kid Works program reads your own words back to you like an idiot savant, but at least they are your own words. With Storybook Weaver, the child is also supposed to type in his own story, but all the illustrations are provided from a menu of backgrounds and figures. The KidPix program offers such a dazzling array of graphic elements and ways of manipulating them that no creativity whatsoever is required; yet art, math, social studies, and language-arts classes all do “units” on KidFix. The various math programs, minus the bells and whistles, provide nothing more profound than a traditional arithmetic lesson would. And computer math is made to order for students already primed to get the answer by asking a calculator rather than their own brains.

The one grade-school use of computers that conveys an actual skill better than traditional means is the teaching of how to type. In the meantime, however, the teaching of how to write—not to mention how to draw—is heading toward extinction. Typing, which used to be a high-school elective, will be of use to these students when they have to type papers for high school and college, and for future jobs in the “cube farms” of TechnoCo, Inc. But what is lost by bypassing the ancient interaction of hand and eye is almost never considered.

One who has considered it is Gary Chapman, director of a technology and society research project at the University of Texas and former executive director of Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. In a speech delivered in May 1999 to a conference on federal education policy at the Brookings Institution, Chapman noted, “It’s very, very rare for me to run into a [graduate] student who is totally incompetent with computers. But it is, unfortunately, not rare for me to run into students who can’t write or speak well, can’t spell and have huge and alarming gaps in knowledge. I don’t think computers will solve that problem.” Indeed, the computer cult only exacerbates these problems.

The cult’s harmful ideology spills over into everyday life whenever parents, blinded by techno-faith, allow or encourage children to play endless video and computer games. Among the effects of overexposure to this medium: hyperactivity, distractibility, impulsiveness, withering of social skills, poor nutrition and exercise habits, and atrophy of motor skills.

The mantra parents cling to is that such play is good training for the jobs of the future. That’s true chiefly if the job you have in mind is desk jockey for the new push-button military or desensitized executioner of fellow students. In any case, particular job skills should be taught on the job, not in the schools, whose task is to convey cultural literacy. The abilities to read with understanding, to think analytically, to compute and calculate accurately, to write cogently, and to speak expressively are what employers are begging for in job applicants; with those abilities as a foundation, all else can be added as needed. Unfortunately, the government and its schools aren’t generating this kind of “product”—the feds are much more afraid of an educated populace able to think critically than of letting the U.S. economy slide down to Third World status.

The Dallas Morning News reports (May 25) that, “At some schools, vocational programs are so elaborate that calling them ‘shop class’ is like calling a Boeing 747 a glider. There are full-bore auto shops, greenhouses, airplane hangars, day cares, photo labs, and on and on.”

“I teach them things besides photography,” one shop teacher is quoted as saving. “I teach punctuality. I teach honesty. I teach dependability.”

That’s nice, but such virtues should be taught in the home, and job-related skills should be taught on the job. If they can’t be, why don’t we just drop the fiction of higher education for all, revert to the European system of academic versus vocational tracks, and quit pretending that most kids are getting anything more than a grade-school-level preparation for the labor force?

Now for the second major problem: World Wide Web worship. Computers as “channels” of the fabled Internet are believed to grant instant knowledge to web surfers.

Have you ever tried to research something on the Internet? You choose a search engine, enter your keywords, and wait as thousands of pages queue up for perusal. Sometimes, more than half of the items are duplicates under slightly different listings. All times, many items have nothing to do with the object of your search, although you usually only discover this after waiting for the irrelevant page to load. Many sites that look promising either cannot be found, have moved with no forwarding address, or simply are not as advertised: Either they deliver only a disappointing smidgen of what was promised, or they are masquerading as something they are not. Many a site turns out to be the excruciatingly boring homepage of some poor citoyen mondial who, in the course of his virtual life, happens to mention one of your keywords. Many sites are commercial and thus only very selectively informative. And perhaps most important, an enormous number of sites contain documents whose provenance and credibility you have no means at all of judging.

In brief, you would have done better to visit the library. A mere fraction of the knowledge of mankind has been scanned into cyberspace, and too much of that fraction is fragmented, diluted, or vitiated by highly questionable persons for entirely inscrutable or unscrupulous reasons. The published books and magazines available at libraries or bookstores represent a much broader range of views and are far more reliable sources since the process of their production has been juried, refereed, peer-reviewed, and vetted to an extent impossible with Internet postings.

It is, admittedly, convenient to use electronic encyclopedias such as Compton’s and Grolier’s. But online encyclopedias are often abridged and abbreviated compared with their printed editions—and with each update more politically corrected material replaces the telling wisdom of the past, advice. Get hold of an early-20th-century set of the Americana or Britannica and guard it with your life.

It’s true that the Internet makes getting in touch with like-minded persons much faster and easier, but (for example) efforts to conduct campaigns on behalf of various political and social issues via cyberspace have, so far, failed. E-mail bombardment doesn’t faze lawmakers; letters, phone calls, demonstrations, and bad p.r. do.

The worst fallacy of Web worship is the idea that “information” is somehow at one’s fingertips and therefore need not be lodged in one’s head. Schoolchildren are being taught that “it’s just as good to know where to look something up as to memorize it.” This theory renders the attempt to think rather like waving a wand over an empty top hat—if no rabbit’s in there to start with, no rabbit’s going to pop out. Storing facts (or whatever you want to call the mental representations of knowledge) in memory enables association, comparison, cross-fertilization, and development of ideas. Memory is the food of thought. The greater the remembered store, the richer and more complex the mind’s creative process.

This is what critical thinking is all about, ladies and gents of the National Education Association. But we don’t train for that anymore. Distracted from distraction by distraction, our children are the first generation in American history to be less human than the one that came before it.