Why Johnny Can't Surf

[Ed note: No changes without author consent.]I never thought it would happen to me. Since the State of the Union address, in which President Clinton announced his dream of wiring all public schools by the millennium, I've been experiencing some odd libertarian urges. Like, while I've been trying to view it as a good thing that Clinton wants to hook up not just schools but children's hospitals, and trying to be happy that Governor Pete Wilson has been pushing a $1 billion Digital High School Initiative into the 1997-98 state budget, I'm having some trouble accepting that this is, as the libertarians would put it, the best use of taxpayers' money. Computers, after all, don't teach classes -- teachers teach classes -- and while computers may be a useful tool to have on hand, the money used to buy them might be better spent fixing crumbling buildings and leaky toilets, and raising teachers' salaries. Computer literacy is a fine thing, but basic literacy is even finer, especially when you consider that computer literacy for children translates roughly into joystick dexterity.Beyond that, though, both the president and the governor's aims include getting those computers connected to the Internet, as if it holds some secret that graduates could not go into the world without. I know the Internet pretty well, and I'm not sure there's much on it that will benefit students more than would an engaging and up-to-date math textbook and a sensitive instructor to impart its wonders. As Neil Postman (The End of Education) has argued so compellingly, "Our failure to place affection and empathy at the center of the educational process says something very grave about us, and I do not think it will be of much value for us to persevere unless we can learn to love our technology less and ourselves more."It's uncertain, then, how the Internet can really improve learning. But it's all too clear to me and my sudden (and, I assure you, temporary) allies in the Libertarian Party how the government-funded wiring of the schools -- and, while we're at it, tax-funded universal access -- can undermine the Internet's most valuable resource: the free flow of information.If I sound a little paranoid, it's not without good reason: As with so many acts of censorship -- including the slashing of public-arts funding and the banning of books from public schools -- suppression of online content has been justified by the assumption that we need to guard against corrupting children. Given that the Internet has proved to be an almost limitless repository of blame for whatever social ills come to plague them, it's hard to imagine that, once it becomes a mainstay in public schools across the country, its content won't be regulated with righteous fury. If access to the Net becomes the province of public subsidy, it's hard to imagine that federal officials will be able to keep their censorious hands off it.Recently, in fact, Senator Dan Coats of Exon-Coats amendment fame, springing off from U.S. News and World Report's cover story on the burgeoning market for pornography both online and off, stopped just short of blaming the Internet for the impending collapse of civilization as we know it. "I bring this up not to point out what Americans should or should not do in the privacy of their bedroom," he said in his arguments to the Senate last week. "I bring this up to ask the question as to whether or not we have a responsibility to protect our children from the negative impact of pornography."No one in these discussions seems to be capable of making a distinction between the real world and access to it -- of recognizing that the content they seek to regulate is merely information about the real world. Nor do they understand that education means teaching children (and adults) to make sound judgments about that real world. Regulating content on the Internet wouldn't wipe out pornography, gay rights' activism or The Anarchists' Cookbook, but only make it harder to learn that such things exist.It's worthwhile to remember that, back in the days when the National Science Foundation maintained the Internet backbone, logins were followed with a reminder about "appropriate use." Since then, the Net has evolved into the free-market sphere and our notions of free speech have been radicalized -- it's not easy to push standards of "decency" on a network that, as Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder John Gilmore allegedly put it (though even he can't remember where), "treats censorship as damage and routes around it."On the Fight Censorship e-mail list -- a cacaphony of debate that's proving ever more useful in these regulation-prone times -- contributor Jeanne DeVoto ends her messages with an updated paraphrase of Gilmore's maxim. "The Internet," she posits, "interprets the U.S. Congress as damage and routes around it." Here's hoping that trend continues.

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