The exponential rise in computer education in the 1980s is usually attributed
to the technological innovations which made the microcomputer an affordable
machine. Yet, there were many other forces which contributed to the widespread
adoption of computer literacy into the curriculum. This chapter focuses
in on corporate needs and political aims which united to convince educators
and much of the general public that we were all suffering from a previously
unknown "disease" (computer illiteracy) and that curriculum reform
was necessary before this reached epidemic proportions.
This chapter will concentrate on the twin needs for a trained workforce and to keep our country ahead of others in the areas of economics, research, and science/technology. First it will set the historical context by showing that these needs were driving forces behind the first public education programs, through early vocational training, to the increase in science and technology education in the wake of the launch of Sputnik. It will then look carefully at the moves towards computer education in the 1980s, looking both at which groups of people were the leading advocates and what they stood to gain by this, as well as examining the curriculum itself and whether in retrospect one could say that it was really designed to meet such a pressing need as that vocalized by the leading proponents of computer literacy requirements.
This piece will show that the rush towards computer education is merely a continuation of the history of schooling in the service of economic interests, of the influence of science and technology on education, and of the dominance of the notion of "progress" since the beginning of the industrial age.
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The suddenly popular movement for educational reform in the early 1980s
coincided with the mass marketing of the personal computer as a needed new
tool and the consequent surge in computer sales. Through the mass media,
computers had became part of popular mythology, and people believed that
they needed to know about these machines: they purchased them for their
homes and businesses, they watched documentaries about them on television,
and they began thinking that their children should learn about them in the
"Computer literacy" fit in well with the educational reform movement sweeping the country at that time, and most of the reports recommending curricular changes incorporated some elements of "computer literacy" into their recommendations.
But it is my contention that this movement towards teaching about computers in the schools was not based on a concrete need for people to learn about computers in order to become well functioning members of the society. As I have pointed out elsewhere (Besser 1988), polls of computer use indicated that the people buying them weren't quite sure what kind of new or interesting use they would put these to. Just as people continued to buy computers for reasons other than a clearly demonstrated utilitarian function, forces continued to press for computer education in the schools without any kind of clear demonstration of how this would make students into better functioning members of our society.
The pressure for "computer literacy" did not come from some clear and pressing need for "good citizens" to have to know about these machines. Rather, this movement came from the traditional forces which had shaped public education since its very beginnings. In this chapter we will see how the corporate need for a trained workforce and the competitive need to keep America ahead of other countries economically and politically have always been key forces shaping our educational system, and were no exception in this case. We will also see how themes such as progress and the primacy of science and technology -- themes that came to prominence as a result of the industrial revolution -- contribute heavily to placing issues like "computer literacy" so high on the educational agenda in this "post-industrial" age.
Changes taking place in the late 19th and early 20th century necessitated
new forms of social organization. The rise of modern technology and the
increase in urbanization (a sevenfold increase in urban population between
1860 and 1910) required a kind of reconstruction of the entire organizational
framework of American life. Individualism (which had been a key component
of American life since before the Jacksonian era) could no longer be stressed;
it just didn't work well in large cities or in factory-oriented workplaces.
Prior to the Civil War, progress was expected to come from lone individuals (explorers, inventors, etc.) trying to move ahead of others. The Progressive era, on the other hand, assumed that progress would come from cooperative rather than competitive efforts. Society would center around large organizations from corporations to unions to social/political organizations. People would not act as individual agents within these organizations, but instead would cooperate with others within these organizations to realize change and to move society forward. Even the formation of corporate trusts and monopolies, which first came to prominence during part of this period, was rationalized on the basis that eliminating competition in favor of cooperation was best for progress and for the health and future of the country.
Formal education was a key component of the socialization necessary to move from an individual-oriented society to one based upon large organizations. Business leaders were among the first to recognize this and began to push for the establishment of schools. Large corporations such as the Colorado Fuel & Iron Corporation actually established their own schools in all their major sites. (Spring 1972, page 31)
And the establishment of schools was viewed much as the establishment of factories was: they were supposed to be symbols of "progress" which would bring economic health to their communities, and arguments made for them were done on the basis of their productivity and efficiency.
The development of the first public schools in the 19th and early 20th century attempted to answer two basic primary needs: to habituate children to the way of life they would face in the workplace and to give them the skills they would need in order to be more productive workers. In the following pages we will examine these two points and then look at the then dominant view of education as an agent of productivity.
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Early American efforts at public education were designed to keep the
masses of poor children off the streets and "out of trouble".
The wave of new immigrants during the industrial revolution could not really
be forced to smoothly adjust. Because it was difficult to retrain adults
from the "old country" to our "modern" way of life (particularly
when many of them could not speak english) it seemed more productive to
focus on their children, and to make them ready for a productive adulthood.
One of the most popular models for schooling poor American children in the early 19th century was the British Lancasterian system. According to founder Joseph Lancaster, "in a school conducted on my plan, when the master leaves the school, the business will go on as well in his absence as in his presence, because the authority is not personal" -- exactly the type of training needed to keep industrial workers working hard without close supervision.
In Nasaw's review of newspaper reports and fundraising drives for the Infant, Lancasterian, and Sunday schools of this time, "what was emphasized time and time again was not what the children learned but their clean and orderly appearance, the precision with which they marched into and out of school and classroom, the readiness with which they obeyed their teachers ... the habits of industry, of regularity, and of obedience which they imbibed." (Nasaw 1979, page 24)
Even young children's exercise and play were seen as forms of socialization preparing them for the workforce. Addressing employers about kindergartens, Tolman wrote, "The children are coming into your shop in a very few years; how much better for you that their bodies have been somewhat strengthened by exercise, and their minds disciplined by regulated play." (Spring 1972, p. 36)
The educational preparation that schools were called upon to give were as much in the form of behavior modification as in actual instruction of skills. "To the merchants the ideal school would be anything but a place of leisure since it was to provide an arduous preparation for a life in the counting room." (Katz 1970, page 36)
One of the leading teacher training texts during the first quarter of this century was William Bagley's Classroom Management. In it Bagley claims "One who studies educational theory aright can see in the mechanical routine of the classroom the educative forces that are slowly transforming the child from a little savage into a creature of law and order, fit for the life of civilized society." According to Spring, "The training in Bagley's classroom was preparation for becoming an efficient and productive worker on an industrial assembly line. The important job of the school was to build good industrial habits." (Spring 1972, p. 46) He advocated that "students be given drills in packing their desks in a certain order, in going to assigned places at the blackboard, in leaving the room, and in marching through the cloakroom to collect wraps. To reduce the problem of children interrupting class activities he wrote that `regular habits should be speedily established with regard to the bodily functions'" His method was to regulate the times when children could go to the bathroom, having them stand in lines before going to recess. (Spring 1972, p. 47)
Schools would prepare future workers to arrive at a precise time in the morning, start and finish lunch at the sound of a bell in the afternoon, and leave for home at a predetermined time every evening. Students would learn to sit still and listen to authority figures even if they were surrounded by their peers. They would learn that deviations from rules of "proper" behavior would not be tolerated. In short, they would learn to be good industrial era workers.
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The schools also were expected to provide some of the basic skilled manpower
that businesses were beginning to need. Changes spurred by industrialization
necessitated some new basic skills like reading. At the turn of the century,
the National Civic Federation (composed of corporate giants) and the National
Association of Manufacturers (NAM) (small to moderate-sized firms) began
clamoring for high school reform in order to insure a well-trained workforce.
(Nasaw 1979, page 121-122)
Corporate America was fearful that without a skilled workforce, our economic output would fall behind that of other countries. According to Nasaw, businessmen "claimed that without vocational and industrial schools American industry would inevitably fall further and further behind in the battle for exports." (Nasaw 1979, page 153)
NAM felt it had two enemies: the Germans who were their chief competitor in export markets, and the unions who they blamed for keeping the workforce small and wages high. In their 1905 report, NAM's Committee On Industrial Education proposed answering the threat from abroad by mimicing the German's educational system: "The German technical and trade schools are at once the admiration and fear of all countries. In the world's race for commercial supremacy, we must copy and improve upon the German method of education. Germany relies chiefly upon her [high school] trained workers for her commercial success and prosperity. She puts no limit on the money to be expended in trade and technical education." (Nasaw 1979, page 123)
At the same time, NAM attempted to move the apprenticeship system from the factories to high schools so that the unions couldn't have control. (Nasaw 1979, page 122-123) In general, the public schools were seen as a way that businesses could avoid certain kinds of training and responsibilities that they had already been providing. "It can easily be assumed that corporations which developed their own cooking classes, kindergartens, physical training programs, literary activities, and trade classes would put pressure on their local communities to have the schools assume some of these functions. It was cheaper, of course, for corporations to have present and future workers trained at public expense. Corporations could also view these educational activities as being of benefit to the entire community . . . . The National Association of Manufacturers passed resolution after resolution calling for high schools to teach modern languages and commercial courses and calling for the opening of trade schools. The N.A.M.'s interest in modern languages was the result of a general business interest in foreign trade. (Spring 1972, page 40)
According to Nasaw, businessmen in the mid-1800s were critical of high schools that taught subjects like literature because they filled students' heads with "inappropriate expectations." They pressed for "manual training," wanting to "replace the traditional high school program of outmoded, irrelevant, and dull 'booklearning' with practical courses that taught 'real' skills: sewing, cooking, and drawing for the girls, and carpentry, metal and machines work for the boys." (Nasaw 1979, page 116) They felt that this would help them become better workers and see more dignity in their labor.
The coming of industrialization had created changes that required new forms of organization. Both the corporate organization and the rapidly urbanizing cities needed a division of labor where people developed skills and expertise in particular areas. Specialization became necessary and along with it came the need for learning job-related skills. The passing on of increasingly complex job duties from one person to another also necessitated an increased degree of literacy.
George W. Perkins, an organizer of Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive party 1912 campaign contended that technology was creating a situation that forced men to cooperate. Perkins, who had engineered mergers for International Harvester and US Steel that attempted to eliminate competition in their industries, claimed that new and faster forms of transportation and communication made it impossible for individual farmers and artisans to compete. (Spring 1972, page 9) They just couldn't realize the economies of scale necessary to utilize the modern technological developments.
"The public schools of the twentieth century were organized to meet the needs of a corporate state and consequently, to protect the interests of the ruling elite and the technological machine." (Spring 1972, pages 1-2)
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Schools were seen as important to economic development. They were promoted
as keys to increasing community wealth (by attracting more business), and
were evaluated in terms of their efficiency and productivity.
Of course business leaders were the key promoters of education. Nasaw says, "As Samuel Hays has argued so persuasively, it was the `upper-class' businessmen and allied professionals who `initiated and dominated municipal movements'. Nowhere does this generalization hold truer than in the case of school reform". (Nasaw 1979, page 108)
In his study of educational reform in mid-nineteenth century Massachusetts, Michael Katz points out that the rich and powerful were the people promoting public education. "The supporters of education wrote the legislation, invested the money, and ran the enterprises that brought about the economic and social transformation of Massachusetts." (Katz 1970, page 35) They felt that public education would provide a workforce prepared for labor in the industries and businesses that would be attracted to the town precisely because of this educational preparation.
Katz found that, though "the high school was billed as the harbinger of communal wealth, individual prosperity, continued industrialization, and social mobility," there was no statistically significant correlation between communities with high schools and communal wealth. (Katz 1970, pages 37-38) Yet the lack of evidence that schools actually improved the economic health of their communities did not prevent powerful figures from continuing to promote this popular myth.
But beyond the economic abundance that was supposed to return to the community as a result of investment in public education, there was the more important concept of a productive society. Educator William Badley promoted the idea that "social efficiency" should be the major objective of education.
This idea was promoted by industrialists and corporate leaders who tried to develop not only schooling, but other social programs and services for their workers in order to better increase their productivity. Factories added bathrooms and hired health care workers not because of social consciousness but because of social efficiency. As the Waltham Watch Company reported after hiring a trained nurse for their plant, "It is almost impossible to estimate the ground which has been gained in preventing absences from work, prevention of contagion and infection, especially at times when there is a prevalence of disease or possibly a threatened epidemic".
The view of the worker as a machine was promoted by people such as Fredrick Winslow Taylor (Taylor 1911) in his time-and-motion studies. The worker was seen as a machine, and scientific management techniques could be used to try to get the highest efficiency and most productivity out of him. If care was given to certain of his needs, he could perform like a well oiled and maintained machine. This was carefully acknowledged by leading industrialists. For example, the president of Illinois Steel was quoted as saying that "while they had been planning and contriving for the improvement of their mechanical forces, they had omitted to provide for the repair of the other great and essential power the flesh and blood of the men".
Even kindergarten children were seen as "machines" who could be adjusted and altered to improve their productivity. Tolman reported the philosophy of the National Cash Register company: "The Lessons of order and neatness, the discipline of regulated play ... are acquisitions, making the child of greater value to himself, and, if he can follow up the good start which has been made for him, tending to make him of greater wage earning capacity. ..."
And of course these same measures of productivity and efficiency were put against the schools. American educators were impressed with how "efficient" the Lancasterian schools were. According to Nasaw, "De Witt Clinton, president of the Free School Society, described Lancaster's system as a 'blessing': both economical and effective because it achieved for schooling the same standards of efficiency that labor-saving machinery had pioneered in the production of factory goods." (Nasaw 1979, page 21)
By 1890 less than 10% of high school age youth had any kind of institutional supervision. Community leaders were concerned about the idle time of teenagers. Nasaw has observed, "Problem adolescents were not going to become model wageworkers; they were much more likely to become problem workers. ... Increasing the enrollments in secondary schools would not only remove potentially troublesome teenagers from the streets, it would provide them with the preparation and training they required as future manual and industrial wageworkers. (Nasaw 1979, page 115)
Groups like NAM pressed for the institution of a different kind of schooling
for children of workers from the schooling for children of professionals.
In a section of NAM's Committee on Industrial Education 1912 report headed
"Three Kinds of Children--Three Kinds of Schools", they tried
to classify children into: (1) "abstract-minded and imaginative"
-- can learn readily from books, "children whose ancestors were in
the professions and the higher occupations"; (2) "conccrete of
hand-minded" -- have difficulty learning from "abstractions of
the printed page" -- "these children constitute at least half
of all the children of the nation"; and (3) "the great intermediate
class". (Nasaw 1979, page 127) They gave support to educators like
Ellwood Cubberly, Dean of Stanford's School of Education, who had been pressing
for a "differentiated" educational system. In 1909 Cubberly wrote
that it was high time that the schools "give up the exceedingly democratic
idea that all are equal, and that our society is devoid of classes ... Increasing
specialization ... has divided the people into dozens of more or less clearly
defined classes, and the increasing centralization of trade and industry
has concentrated business in the hands of a relatively small number."
"No longer can a man save up a thousand dollars and start a business
for himself with much chance of success. The employee tends to remain an
employee; the wage earner tends to remain a wage earner." (Nasaw 1979,
page 130) Schooling should take this class difference into account, and
train students for their proper role in life.
Leading educators became proponents of differentiated education -- even calling it democratic. They assumed they knew what vocations different groups of students would go into and prepared them only for those jobs. Yet in increasing numbers students chose subjects such as Latin, algebra, geometry, and German, subjects of a traditional schooling. Educators were concerned about raising the hopes of working class children; when they failed, there would be greater class unrest. Schools took on the responsibility of differentiating students; weeding out those not "intellectually suited", and this led impetus to those advocating standardized tests. This was a logical continuation of the "social efficiency" model (Nasaw 1979, page 130-145)
The stratification brought on by the specialization that arose from industrialization was not done exclusively on the basis of class. Stratification by gender and by national origin were common as well. According to Nasaaw, "Industrial training programs in the public schools would direct American boys into the supervisory factory positions and `American' girls into the `more wholesome trades.' The necessary but low-paying, unskilled jobs in the `sweat shops' and on the factory floor would be left to the immigrants." (Nasaw 1979, page 125)
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The Soviet's launching of Sputnik in 1957 sent shock waves through American
government, military, and industry. The recognition that the Soviets were
ahead of us in space exploration prompted an immediate response to pour
enormous resources into science education. The direct effects of this response
were felt throughout American Education for a decade afterwards, and residual
effects still predominate in many areas. In this section we will briefly
examine the fact that a competitive situation prompted a particular kind
of educational reform, and how this tended to stress both science education
and a scientific approach to all disciplines.
Americans were stunned to learn that the Soviets were the first to launch a probe into space. Headlines in Life magazine proclaimed "Soviet Satellite Sends U.S. Into a Tizzy", and the Christian Science Monitor claimed "Space Era Advent Jolts Washington". After having exploded the atom bombs in Japan at the end of WWII, it was clear that our new role as a world power was at least in part due to our mastery of advanced technology. In the middle of the Cold War it was unacceptable to let our prime "enemy" surpass us in the technoscientific race. A prominent U.S. Senator called the launch "a devastating blow to the United States scientific, industrial and technical prestige in the world". Newspapers repeatedly raised these concerns. The Christian Science Monitor titled a story "U.S. Prestige Takes a Battering Abroad". The New York Times claimed that the space launch "appeared calculated to impress the uncommitted nations. The Soviet Union is thought to be making a conscious effort to persuade people, especially in Asia and Africa, that Moscow has taken over world leadership in sciences". According to government officials and the news media, much more was at stake than a scientific breakthrough; our world position was threatened, and our chief rival for world leadership was pulling ahead of us.
As soon as the shock of disbelief wore off, analysts began examining how this could have happened. There was almost universal agreement that we had fallen behind in the "technological race", and that we had to do something about it. Governmental officials, the military, and industry immediately began clamoring for increased expenditures on space exploration and on science education to make sure that we would have a pool of scientifically prepared workers for many years in the future. Educators who urged a greater emphasis on science and technology education were given prominent media exposure. According to the NY Times science correspondent, for scientists and educators "the vital problem facing the nation and the free world as a whole is the fact that Russia is training scientists and technological personnel at a pace four times that of our own and that, unless something is done about it as a large-scale, national effort, Russia will definitely surpass us in the near future, with consequences too tragic to contemplate."
Previously scheduled education conferences turned their attention to this "technological lag". At the Combined College Conference, John R. Dunning, Dean of the Columbia University School of Engineering warned that the United States must meet the challenge of the Soviet Union in an "age of technological imperialism" if our strength and progress are to be maintained. "While the Soviets have already begun their exploitation of this new and awesome age, ... we have not, because our people, our Government and our schools have not yet grasped its full significance." This country, he urged, must find ways "to divert more of the national income and effort" toward the problems of technology and technological education in order to counter the threat of a "vastly more powerful Russia".
In a guest column in Life magazine, Dr. C. C. Furnas makes four recommendations to turn back the "defeat" that the U.S. suffered with the launching of Sputnik. Among these are: "(1) We must revise our naive attitude toward basic research. ... Congress, now that it has created the National Science Foundation, should have the courage to vote it the funds it needs to carry out its many important programs. (2) We must give much more aid and encouragement to our educational institutions in turning out more engineers and scientists, especially at the graduate level. (3) We must change our public attitude toward science and scientists. At a time when Russia was building a scientific elite, we were treating our patriotic scientists with hostility and suspicion. No one can accurately estimate the amount of damage that was done."
In 1958, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act (NDEA), which provided $1 billion for training America's youth in areas where the Soviets seemed to excel: science, math, and modern foreign languages. According to the Congressional Quarterly, "Passed in reaction to Russian achievements in space technology, symbolized by the 1957 orbiting of the first earth satellite ('sputnik'), and to several reports to Congress that the U.S. needed more scientists, the NDEA reflected Congress' tendency to accept Federal Government responsibility for education mainly as a reaction to a national 'crisis'." (Congress and the Nation 1965, page 1200) The overt goal of this and other funding bills over the next decade was to train a large enough segment of the population so that there would be a large pool of people with sufficient background to become scientists. Coupling this with increased spending for scientific research and development (which just in higher education tripled from $172 million in 1956 to $540 million in 1961) (Congress and the Nation 1965, page 1199) would help us to remain competitive with the Soviets.
But this enormous financial investment in science education had a tremendous impact on the entire education system and its curriculum in a number of ways. By emphasizing a few key subjects, the rest of the curricula was seen as subordinate (or ancillary) to these. As Mary Lee Glass has observed,
Thusfar we have examined two major periods of educational change and
reform: the establishment of public education, and the changes in the post-sputnik
era. Having established that much of the discourse around educational reform
in those periods was motivated by economic and nationalist interests, we
will now turn our attention to a third major era of upheaval: the introduction
of computer literacy into the curriculum.
The mass production of personal computers in the late 1970s (and particularly the introduction of the IBM PC in 1981) shifted these machines from hobbyist tools to tools of business. As small computers became firmly entrenched in the business community, pressure began to mount for computer instruction in the classroom -- first as elective or supplementary coursework, and later as actual requirements. Usually the need for this was rationalized by the "our children need this in order to be good citizens" argument, but sometimes the more accurate "our children need this to get jobs" argument was used. But in all cases, the underlying argument of "progress" was prominent; computer education was needed to keep our children (as well as our country) from falling behind (particularly the Soviets politically and the Japanese economically).
In this section we will first review the movements for educational reform in general in the early 1980s and see how these mirror the movements for the establishment of public education as well as the reform movements of the late 1950s. We will then examine the arguments for computer education, who was making those arguments and why. Finally, we will look at the actual curriculum itself.
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The early 1980s saw both a rise of computer use in the schools and an
outpouring of special reports on the crisis in American education. The first
of these was the 1983 report commissioned by the Secretary of Education,
A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983).
This was followed by: Educating Americans for the Twenty-first Century (National
Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science
and Technology 1983); Action for Excellence (Task Force on Education for
Economic Growth 1983) from the Education Commission of the States; and Making
the Grade: Report of the Twentieth Century Fund Task Force on Federal Elementary
and Secondary Education Policy (Twentieth Century Fund 1983).
The literature is full of analyses of these and similar studies, and how they primarily emphasize "back to basics" education. But by "basics" they do not mean merely traditional curriculum, but focus more on traditional values and approaches. In fact (as we will see below), many of these studies call for the institution of a (modern) computing requirement at the high school level. And, in a message to the national PTA, then-President Reagan (who appointed the commission that wrote A Nation at Risk), linked "back to basics" with U. S. accomplishments in space exploration -- hardly a "traditional" field.
What most of these reports do emphasize is a more structured curriculum, longer days and longer school years, a minimum number of hours per day to be spent on specific disciplines (particularly math and science), ... -- the kind of socializing themes that we saw in early moves towards compulsory education combined with the maximalization principle and the emphasis on science and technology which we saw in the post-sputnik era.
In the following pages we will first describe how the general recommendations of these reports dealt with the twin themes of education's relation to business and falling behind, then we will turn to their specific recommendations on computers in education.
As in the two previous periods we examined, all of these reports presume
that the state of education reflects America's place in the world, and that
because of problems in education we are falling behind. In their review
of ten of these reports, the Education Commission of the States states that
"All (the reports) agree that education is inextricably tied to larger
social, political and economic issues and that education renewal is key
to American renewal" (Education Commission of the States 1983, page
A Nation at Risk opens with a clear statment that education is directly related to the United States' position in the world, and even makes a direct comparison to the post-sputnik period:
The Education Commission of the States summary indicates that the advocacy
of computer use in these studies is "fairly widespread" but "uncertainty
remains about how computers are best used in the curriculum. In general
the use of technology seems to receive less emphasis in reports that deal
extensively with how students learn than in reports prepared by groups that
have less direct contact with schools" (Education Commission of the
States 1983, pages 3-4).
Both Educating Americans for the Twenty-first Century and A Nation at Risk call for the institution of a half-year computing requirement at the high school level. The former also advocates that both elementary and secondary teachers become computer literate, that they incorporate computers into math and science instruction, and that the states establish regional computer centers for teacher education and encourage computer use in the classroom. Making the Grade calls for computers to be made a part of the core curriculum. And the National Science Foundation report recommended that K-12 student teachers become computer literate (National Science Board Commission on Precollege Education in Mathematics, Science and Technology 1983).
Local education plans and studies made similar recommendations. For example the 1983 California Education Reform Plan (scheduled to start in 1987) required high school students to pass a "proficiency" test in the operation of computers before graduation. (Bancroft 1983)
It is interesting to note that all but one of the education reports reviewed by the Education Commission of the States took a quantitative approach to both their analyses and recommendations. When they reported on the current "crisis" in education, they relied upon quantitative measurements (primarily standardized tests), and when they made recommendations, these were generally in the form of x years of mathematics and y years of science or in the form of greater (unmeasured) quantities (such as "more homework"). There was no talk of "humanizing" education, and no focus on rethinking or redesigning curriculum; just quantitative recommendations primarily around increasing hours for "basics". The Paideia Proposal stood out like a sore thumb in urging curriculum changes that resembled critical thinking. "Didactic instruction", "development of intellectual skills", "exercising critical judgement", "enlarged understanding of ideas and values by means of Socratic questioning" (Adler 1982) were phrases found in this report and no others.
Another interesting point noted by A Nation at Risk is that though "the average citizen today is better educated and more knowledgeable than the average citizen a generation ago", the crisis facing our nation is due to the fact that the average college graduate is not as well-educated as the previous generation when a smaller proportion of the population completed high school and college (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, page 11). The purported crisis stems from the fact that a smaller percentage of the most educated in our society appear as well-prepared as their parents' generation, even though the total number (both in absolute numbers and as a percentage of the total population) of most-educated has risen dramatically! The fact that we are educating more people to a higher level is swept under the rug to make way for the "crisis" caused by the contention that our most-educated elite are less prepared than their predecessors a generation before.
A second wave of reports on the state of American education were released several years later (Green 1987). These reports are very similar to the first wave of reports in the early 1980s. For instance the Carnegie Report (chaired by the vice president of IBM) argued that economic success "depends on achieving far more demanding educational standards than we have ever attempted to reach before" (Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy 1986). And the National Governors Association report admitted why education had become a high-priority issue for the states: "More than anything, it is the threat to the jobs of the people who elect us" (National Governors' Association 1986).
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It is revealing to examine who was pressing for increased computer education
in the 1980s, what kind of arguments they were using, and what sort of ulterior
motives they may have had. In the following pages we will look at the key
forces advocating computer education and see how their reasoning fits in
with the arguments we have made earlier about business, progress, and science
and technology. We will examine the arguments used by corporate leaders,
Higher Education officials, the science and technology community, the military,
the federal government, and the media.
Corporate leaders have always been key players in educational reform.
As we have seen, they were the major advocates of 19th and early 20th century
schools, they served on committees recommending educational reform in the
1980s, and those committees frequently recommended an increasing role from
them in education. We will now take a brief look at some of the statements
and actions taken by corporate America in the 1980s regarding education.
Corporate America still saw education as a source for the skilled labor it needed, particularly in an international marketplace. In a speech delivered at the National Forum for Youth at Risk in D.C. in 1987 Kay Whitmore, President of Eastman Kodak urged more training and public education: "America's industry and its ability to compete in the world economy is severely challenged by yet other startling figures. . . . With 700,000 high school dropouts a year and a growing need for skilled labor, I firmly believe that not only will we have people without jobs, we'll have jobs without people. Indeed, if we fail to respond to the needs of American business today, we will fail to respond to the needs of American business tomorrow." (Whitmore 1988, p. 360)
The notion that business needs education as a training ground for skilled workers in order to compete in the future still holds in the 1990s. A national survey of small-business owners commissioned by IBM found that the most important thing they felt that government could help them with beyond cutting taxes was to better educate and train potential employees. According to the IBM executive who commissioned the study, "These findings provide further evidence that educational efforts need dramatic improvement to increase opportunities for potential employees and to help American businesses do a better job of competing in the global marketplace". ("Small-business owners want lower local taxes" 1991)
It was not unusual to have computing firms promoting high technology as the key to our country's future success, not just in a competitive world market, but as a way of creating the resources to provide for social programs as well. "America's future is in high technology," said W. J. Sanders, chairman of Advanced Micro Devices. "On our success or failure rides the nation's ability to provide a safety net for the less fortunate, to assist the developing nations of the world and to assure our own national security ... No matter what your profession or occupation, you are going to be affected by our success or failure . . . Leadership in information technology equates to leadership in commerce." (Eckhouse 1985)
Computer manufacturers were vigorous advocates of computer education in the schools. As Douglas Noble pointed out, "Not surprisingly, computer education has become very big business. Although its focus has recently shifted from the child to the adult, computer literacy educators are in fact advancing on many fronts . . . . Atari, Apple, IBM, and Radio Shack all are pouring money and free computers into teachers' colleges, school districts, and universities across the country. One observer notes that `securing shares of the education marketplace may be critical in determining which computer manufacturers will still be in business several years from now.'" (Noble 1984, p. 37)
The number of computers in K-12 schools rapidly increased in the early 1980s. Between 1981 and 1983, the number of elementary schools using computers increased from 11% to 62%, and the number of high schools using computers increased from 47% to 86%. (Hanson 1985, page 79) Noble quotes the chairman of one computer hardware firm, "We're looking at an infinite market." (Noble 1984, page 60) Schools began instituting formal computer education courses, and the explosion got so large that Noble warned "We are witnessing the installation of an enormous computer education infrastructure in this country." (Noble 1984, page 37)
Apple began donating their computers to schools throughout the country, and lobbied heavily for Congress to pass a tax incentive (commonly dubbed the "Apple bill") for companies to donate computers to the schools. According to Jack Anderson, though Apple gave away computers to 83,000 public schools throughout the country, because of tax breaks, Apple really only ended up donating 8% of computers' costs. This was more than made up for by free publicity as well as freezing other computers out of the market. "And in addition to the obvious publicity advantages, the training of thousands of young people on Apple computers would presumably predispose them to that brand name." (Anderson 1982)
Apple helped get a similar bill passed in California: called "Kids Can't Wait" program, and gave away over 9,000 PCs to California schools in the first year. The following year, 5 similar bills supported by Apple's competitors were introduced in Congress. Hewlett-Packard, Tandy/Radio Shack, and IBM all began giving away computer systems to schools. Tandy even proposed giving away free computer training to all US teachers. (Merton 1983, page 39)
It is very clear how the computer hardware vendors directly benefit from these donations to schools: first in terms of public relations, then in terms of getting students and teachers to rely on their particular brand of equipment, and finally through a secondary market -- by insuring that the next computer hardware or software bought by the school or families of the students will be compatible with the ones originally donated to the schools. Noble has called the computer literacy movement "propaganda which parades as public enlightenment." (Noble 1984, page 60)
Higher Education Leaders
Higher Education officials use similar arguments to those used by the corporate sector when trying to justify their pleas for increased funding for high technology programs. They tie the use of computers in education to American staying competitive in the world market and to the need for providing a highly skilled workforce.
Speaking before a House of Representatives subcommittee, University of California VP William B. Baker expressed concern that obsolete university facilities and equipment are "jeopardizing academic programs and America's leadership in technology." The nation relies on higher education to conduct "over half the country's basic research effort." He concluded his testimony by saying: "`The task of refitting our nation's laboratories is both national in scope and central to the country's long-term scientific, economic and technological well-being.'" ("Vice President Baker Calls . . ." 1985)
This was similar to remarks made the year before by his superior, UC President David P. Gardner (chairperson of the commission that wrote A Nation at Risk) to his governing Board of Regents. "Our ability to recruit excellent faculty depends not only on salary but also on the adequacy of our laboratories, the quality of instructional equipment, and the availability of seed money for research. The Governor's Budget enhances the University's attractiveness with respect to all of these. It provides funds that will permit us to replace instructional equipment when it becomes obsolete. It will allow students greater opportunities to work with computers. It permits the University to expand graduate programs in fields where California needs trained professionals in order to keep the economy strong." [The Daily Californian, Jan. 23, 1984, p. 18]
An interesting sidelight to the drive to keep America ahead of its foreign competitors is a kind of jingoism or prejudice against foreigners in general. This can be seen in the report on the subject made by a committee headed by former UC Berkeley Dean Sanford S. Elberg. "In view of rising concerns that the United States is losing its lead in high technology, we are very concerned that so much of our education effort in these fields is expended on foreign students" (Curtis 1986)
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A Nation at Risk cites "chilling observations" made by educational
researcher Paul Hurd "that within the context of the modern scientific
revolution, 'We are raising a new generation of Americans that is scientifically
and technologically illiterate.'" (National Commission on Excellence
in Education 1983, page 10)
The National Science Foundation's efforts to take over portions of the Defense Department's Arpanet and to secure funding for a new computer "super-highway" -- the National Research and Education Network -- have been justified in terms of maintaining America's competitive edge.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration funded the nation's first center for training students to use supercomputers at Colorado State University "to help alleviate a critical national shortage of supercomputer experts." ("NASA Backs Training for Computer Pros" 1985)
The business sections of American newspapers are full of articles about the race between the Japanese and the American research communities to build the fastest most powerful computers. Many of these articles express the view that whichever country wins this race will enjoy a distinct economic advantage in international competition.
The military has been actively involved with encouraging computer education. At the simplest level, they have basic training needs similar to those of business. According to A Nation at Risk, "Business and military leaders complain that they are required to spend millions of dollars on costly remedial education and training programs in such basic skills as reading, writing, spelling, and computation. The Department of the Navy, for example, reported to the Commission that one-quarter of its recent recruits cannot read at the ninth grade level, the minimum needed simply to understand written safety instructions. Without remedial work they cannot even begin, much less complete, the sophisticated training essential in much of the modern military." (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, page 9)
Apparently, the general populace believes that education is necessary to keep the country militarily secure. A Nation at Risk cites a 1982 Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools, "People are steadfast in their belief that education is the major foundation for the future strength of this country. They even considered education more important than developing the best industrial system or the strongest military force, perhaps because they understood education as the cornerstone of both." (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983, pages 16-17)
The U.S. Defense Department is also fearful that other countries will get ahead of us in computer developments. A pentagon task force concluded that the potential of the Japanese surpassing us in the semiconductor market created an "`awesome' implication for national security." To respond to this they recommended: the establishment of 8 research centers for semiconductor science at US universities ($50 million/year); $50 million/year in research funds to companies doing Pentagon work; and the establishment of a "`government-industry-university forum' to assess the progress being made." (U.S. Losing . . . 1987)
The Defense Department is already a major funder of computer research in higher education. Writing in the Sept 1986 issue of Public Interest Report., John Holdren and F. Bailey cite their findings that "DOD funding in computer science, for example, now makes up 54 percent of all federal support for university research in this field." (R&D and the Military 1986) They express fear that military-oriented research "channels students into highly specialized fields that can contribute little to the kinds of technical innovations needed to improve the country's economic position." For example, "The civilian economy can use lasers, but it has little need to burn holes in metal plates at a distance of 3,000 kilometers." They found that 25% of scientists and engineers are engaged in military activities, diverting efforts away from creation of civilian products and productive technology. They expressed fear that the military was draining creative talent.
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The federal government in the 1980s saw technology as the savior of our
world standing (vis-a-vis the Soviets politically and the Japanese economically),
and they saw education as the key component to those technological advances.
They also envisioned a reciprocal agreement wherein technological advances
would in turn aid education.
In 1984, Secretary of Education Terrel Bell announced "a four-year initiative to bring our educational systems into the technological age with recent advancements with the microcomputer leading the way. Without doubt the potential is enormous as the computer can respond rapidly and cheaply to almost the full range of the learning process, from drill and practice to complex problem-solving simulations. The goal is the mass delivery of instruction which will address both the shortage of mathematics and science teachers as well as the low-level of student achievement." (Hanson 1985, p.76)
Bell was not alone in seeming to be much more concerned with perceived threats from abroad and with applying technological fixes to education, rather than with social issues such as ethnic, racial, or economic stratification and disparities. According to Mark Hanson, "In the all important areas of science and mathematics, the policy makers at the national, state and local levels, were counting on the microcomputer to lead the way toward rapid advancement. That expectation seems to be shared by all sectors of society. The belief that our advanced technology can lead us out of troubled times has long been an American credo." (Hanson 1985, p. 79)
The mass media has been extremely important in convincing people of the
"need" for computers and computer education. The populace has
been bombarded with advertising, news articles, and television programs
touting the necessity of computer literacy. But as Traugh has observed,
"The opposite of literacy is illiteracy and, while people may not use
the term explicitly, the images they have formed or have had created for
them of being computer illiterate are similar to those connected to illiteracy
generally--those of backwardness, of something to be feared. While not saying
so directly, advertisements for computers play on parents' fears of having
children who will not be able to compete, to keep up with the times. In
other words, adults are told they are letting time pass them by if they
don't buy a computer. Schools and school people are told their image will
be one of competence only if computers are in classrooms." (Traugh
1985, p. 89)
As I have shown elsewhere (Besser 1988), advertisements for computer products do not tout their capabilities; rather they appeal to concepts that Berger et. al. claim entered into human consciousness from the technological production process (Berger, Berger, & Kellner 1974) --particularly the desire to appear to be staying ahead of others. Implicit in marketing them as tools of progress is the notion that without computers we, our children, and our country will fall behind others who are keeping up with progress, and that we will be worse off if others are "ahead" of us.
Ads for computers suggest that parental responsibility begins and ends with buying a computer for the child. Villegas has pointed to ad images such as that of the father holding a 1-year old who touches the keyboard over a caption reading "1st step towards Rhodes Scholarship". She also cites the ad of the "dumpy, bewildered" teenager who leaves home for college and comes home, still a failure because he didn't know computers. If only the parents had bought one. (Villegas 1984)
Bors contends that the media have virtually become "marketing agents" for the computer industry. (Bors 1987, pages 59-61) "It does not take a flaming Bolshevik, nor even a benighted neo-Luddite, to wonder whether all those computer companies, and their related textbook publishers, that are mounting media campaigns for computer literacy and supplying hundreds of thousand of computers to schools and colleges really have the interests of children and young people as their primary concerns." (For the Record 1984, p. 541)
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Arguments made in favor of early public education hailed it as a kind
of "great equalizer" that would insure equal opportunity for all
students. Yet the actual implementation of curriculum led to differentiation
(or tracking) and a further stratification of the populace along the lines
of class, gender, and national origin.
Similar "equalizer" arguments were made for computer education in the early 1980s with similar results. Richer school districts were more able to afford equipment like computers, so students in these districts had more access to them (Kozol 1991, Collis 1985a). Except in the wealthiest school districts, a ratio of 30 students per computer was not uncommon, and those whose parents were rich enough to afford a home computer obviously had far more time to practice their computer skills.
Even within the classroom, the way computer instruction was handled differed greatly between richer and poorer districts. According to Bors, "Despite the claim that classroom computing will equalize educational experiences and outcomes, research already indicates ominous differences between working-class and middle-class schools in relation to computers and computer use. It has been reported, for example, that instructional applications of microcomputers were differentially distributed; ethnic minorities and working-class children received a different form of instruction on the computers than did white and middle-class children. While white and middle-class students spent most of their time programming, working-class and ethnic minority students spent more time with computer-assisted-instruction. Further, other research noted that urban schools with a high proportion of poverty-level families have fewer classroom computers per student than either suburban or rural schools. (Bors 1987, page 62)
Special efforts have been made to train minorities in the use of computers specifically in order to improve their job prospects. But when representatives from high technology firms recruiting graduates of such a program at Boston's Roxbury Community College were interviewed about how beneficial the training was, they claimed that "teaching work attitudes and personal skills could be the program's most vital component." (Poole 1983) Their feeling was that too few jobs were available for people with specific skills unless those skills were very advanced. They were much more concerned with potential employees having good job attitudes.
Studies (Collis 1985a, Collis 1985b) have shown that males have more positive attidudes towards computers than females do, but as Kay has pointed out (Kay 1989) each attitude study uses a different attitude scale and it is difficult to draw hard and fast conclusions from these studies. But the literature clearly shows that males have a higher degree of computer literacy than females. This has been shown both in K-12 (Fetler 1985) and in higher education (Lockheed, Nielsen, Stone 1985). Females are less likely to take advanced computer courses (Miura & Hess 1984, Fisher 1984) or to voluntarily use the computer (Sanders 1984). Gender differences like this should not be surprising. Previous studies have documented male dominance in scientific and technical fields (Key & Ormerod 1976, Fennema & Sherman 1980).
It would be naive to expect computer education to alleviate stratification. Class and gender divisions in society are part of the social structure in which the educational system operates, and additions to curriculum tend to replicate and reinforce existing divisions. In areas involving technology there is strong intuitive evidence to suggest that the addition of this to the curriculum will further exacerbate stratification. For example, in a classroom where computers are introduced we can expect that the students who can go home and practice on their parents' computers will learn far more quickly than those students from families who cannot afford a computer -- particularly in the common situation where the school does not have enough computers for all students. Similar intuitive arguments can be made for an increase in gender stratification from the introduction of curriculum involving quantitative approaches.
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We now turn our attention to implementation of the increased computer
learning we have heard everyone clamoring for. In this section we will look
at the basic computer literacy curriculum and see if it really was designed
to meet such a pressing need as that vocalized by its proponents. We will
also examine what kind of more hidden agenda might be being taught in this
Anyone involved in discussions around development of "computer literacy" curriculum in the 1980s recognizes the ambiguity of the term. Courses in programming, word processing, and even in explanations of basic components (such as how to use a floppy disk) all were termed "computer literacy". Some states (such as Minnesota) tried to set up "model" curriculum, but most people continued to use the term however they saw fit.
Obvious sources for this lack of agreement were the fact that different schools had varying types of hardware and software to use for teaching, and that educators themselves had different levels of proficiency. Perhaps less obvious is the likelihood that people really were talking about very different perceived needs when they pressed for "computer literacy" training. Different parts of the corporate sector pressing for vocational training had different vocational needs (word processing for secretaries, spreadsheets for accountants, CAD/CAM for designers). The military and scientific communities had still other needs (programming, statistical data analysis, artificial intelligence, etc.).
Let us look at the basic arguments that most proponents of computer literacy do agree upon, and examine these as they were manifested in the curriculum.
The primary argument given for instituting computer literacy requirements is the "good citizen" one -- that in order to be a productive member of society in the near future, one must know about computers. One must know how they work, and one should be aware of how they will change our lives. One must know how to do something with them (like word processing) so that one can go directly into the job market without learning a further vocational skill.
Most guidelines and recommendations for computer literacy curriculum include a "social impact" component. If the curriculum followed the tone of the "good citizen" argument, we would expect to find lessons that encouraged critical thinking and an examination of the role of the computer in society. But we seldom find even token lip-service given to this. Noble describes one such course: "Except for one or two comments about the frustrations of computer errors and a short parody of the dehumanized home of the future, the `Computers in Society' text of this course reads virtually as propaganda for the status quo. Job loss or social disenfranchisement are not mentioned, and the student is asked to `imagine that you are an executive,' never an unemployed autoworker or assembler, when the effects of computerization are examined." (Noble 1984, page 57) Few computer literacy courses offer any criticality over the role of computers in society. Most either gloss over the social impact, or follow the lead of the New York State Association of Math teachers, who in their state-wide curriculum proposal defined "social-impact" objectives as "The student will be aware of some of the major uses of computers in modern society . . . and the student will be aware of career opportunities related to computers." (Noble 1984, page 56)
Curriculum implementation of basic computing skills for the workplace has been only marginally better. The rush to implement computer literacy requirements was justified on the basis of the rapid technological changes taking place, but these same rapid changes make the software and hardware we use today obsolete tomorrow. For example, most K-12 schools in the 1980s taught computing skills on Apple IIs -- a computer model no longer present in the business community. Most word processing taught in the 1980s used Wordstar -- a package that most businesses have since abandoned. And very few of the skills learned in word processing with Wordstar are transferable to the current generation of packages (such as Word and WordPerfect). And it is just as likely that functional skills learned on today's generation of "wysiwyg" word processors will be obsolete in a few years, and eventually today's keyboard and screen may be replaced by voice and pen-based user interfaces. There is a basic inherent problem in teaching vocational skills in such a rapidly changing field. Educators would do better to teach the concepts behind word processing rather than the skills. But that is a far more difficult task.
A key proponent of using computers to teach broader concepts is Seymour Papert of M.I.T. who pioneered the LOGO programming language to help students "learn how to think" (Papert 1980). Papert contends that computers should not be used for "drill-and-practice" exercises, but that they are best used to teach students to break down problems in a structured way in order to better solve them. He believes that by teaching students to program in LOGO, they will improve their problem-solving tasks. This view is challenged by Karen Sheingold of Bank Street College of Education. In admittedly limited studies she has seen no transfer of learning from programming in LOGO to other problem-solving tasks. Sheingold also thinks that drill and practice "is a very expensive way to do things that schools already do." She believes that computers should be used as tools that help students accomplish tasks they define, not the computer. (Merton 1983, page 42) Her views are supported by Dreyfus and Dreyfus. In a harsh slap at Papert, they claim that the kind of structured learning promulgated by the computer is only appropriate for "drill-and-practice", not for any other kind of learning (Dreyfus and Dreyfus 1986).
So what DO computer literacy courses teach? Of course they do teach basic familiarity with the computer, floppy disks, the mouse, etc. But on a deeper level, one of the primary things they teach is how to think in the kind of linear, logical fashion that is currently necessary in order to interact with a computer. By having to interact with a computer on a regular basis, the student is forced to present things in a structured, ordered fashion, and becomes used to not being understood when he or she deviates from that structure. What is learned here is not unlike the socialization process taught in early public education. Just as 19th century students learned to adapt to the new industrial technology workplace environment by attending school at scheduled hours, by learning to follow orders, and by being away from home during daylight hours -- so today's students are learning to think in a structured yes/no, multiple-choice way to prepare them for interaction with computers in the workplace, banks, or in the home.
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From our examination of computer literacy in the 1980s a number of points
Personal computers first appeared in the classroom during a period of major curricular reform and must be viewed within that context. The back to basics movement of that period was grounded in the perception that educational reform was necessary to prevent the United States from losing its competitive edge internationally (both economically and politically). Recommendations tended to stress math and science instruction, vocational training, and computer literacy.
Major advocates of computer literacy included corporations, higher education leaders, the military, the federal government, and the scientific community. The corporate world saw mandatory computer literacy as a way of creating a more trained workforce through direct computing skills (such as the use of particular software packages), as well as general skills and habits (working alone for many hours without any human contact, responding to linear/multiple choice situations, etc.). Computer corporations saw this as a way to promote popular interest and support for their activities, as well as a way create a demand for their own particular products. Higher education, the military, the federal government, and the scientific community all viewed computer education as a tool both for maintaining a competitive edge internationally and for securing additional funding for their own agendas which intersected with this.
Advocates from all these areas promoted computer education as a cornerstone of maintaining progress. Yet this was a strictly technological view of progress, where humanistic aspects of progress (such as decreasing stratification) were seldom mentioned. They often argued that computer literacy was necessary in order to be a "good citizen" in this society, yet we have seen that few (if any) computer literacy programs discuss the social impact of computers in any meaningful way.
In fact, computer literacy curricula seems to fail even on the level of delivering meaningful vocational skills (due to the rapid technological developments that are changing the nature of computing skills on an almost annual basis). What we are left with is curricula that seems effective in getting people habituated to dealing with computers: typing on keyboards in response to messages on a screen, working without the physical presence of other humans, and thinking in ways that computers (today) require. This is not too different than early public education's function of socializing students in preparation for factory labor.
None of this should be surprising. As we have seen, the history of public education has been shaped by the corporate need for a trained workforce and the competitive need to keep America ahead economically and politically. Since the industrial revolution the notion of progress has become an unquestioned assumption which our society pursues. The movement for computer literacy in the 1980s has been shaped by the same social forces which have dominated public education since the middle of the last century. As long as the forces that shape the rest of society remain basically unchanged, we can expect future successful movements for educational reform to be subject to similar influences.
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I am indebted to Laurie Anderson who did research and helped organize
the material for this chapter. John Hurst, Michael Cooper, and Patrick Wilson
provided helpful comments on initial drafts of my dissertation, and many
of those ideas are being published here for the first time. I am grateful
to Troy Duster and the Institute for the Study of Social Change for providing
a stimulating atmosphere in which to float some of the ideas in this piece,
and for providing the physical space for my writing. And I'd like to thank
both Bob Muffoletto and Nancy Knupfer for the patience they showed, given
the time I took to complete this chapter.
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