Saturday, January 14, 2017

Educating In and For a Digital Age

The Vast Waistline & Other Challenges to Education as We Knew It

Nicholas Johnson

4CAST - Campus Academic Strategies and Technology Conference
University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
January 12, 2017

Note: Information regarding an audio of the presentation can be found HERE.


In the 1920s, when a quarter of America’s 115 million people lived on farms[1], two farm kids arrived in Iowa City; one from northwest Iowa and one from eastern Kansas.

It was a time when less than half the American population had even an eighth-grade education.[2]

The University of Iowa diplomas these two kids received put them in an educational elite: that upper 5 percent of Americans with B.A. degrees.[3]

Ultimately, they married. The Kansas boy became a university professor. The Iowa woman, whose high school graduating class had six other women and one man, began teaching in the West Branch schools.

During the Twenties, the UI -– then SUI, the State University of Iowa -– was doubling its enrollment[4] and expanding its campus across the River with the Field House[5], Stadium[6], and the recently-demolished Quadrangle.[7]

In 1934, six years after the hospital was built[8] -- what’s now called Boyd Tower -- the woman entered that hospital pregnant, and left with a 12-pound baby boy.

That was me.

As if being born on third base was not privilege enough, I was soon enrolled in the University of Iowa’s Child Welfare Research Station,[9] and then the University’s experimental schools[10] -– both sources of numerous educational research projects.

So, what are the lessons so far from this nostalgic rambling?

One lesson from a review of education’s past is that it puts our current classroom technology in context. Iowa’s Nineteenth Century teachers can still teach us. What were they doing in those 12,000 one-room school houses across the state – without any of our technology -– that enabled them to educate those 19th and early 20th-Century farm children like my parents?[11]

A second lesson is that to understand the challenges Twenty-First Century educators confront, it’s helpful to understand how and why they differ from the challenges of the 1920s -– and why these are differences of kind, not merely differences of degree.

My childhood research involved libraries with hard copy books, magazines, newspapers, and the Encyclopedia Britannica; card catalogs and the Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature. We wrote on paper with pencils, ink pens, and ultimately typewriters.

“Mass media” was a couple Iowa newspapers, regional AM radio stations, phonograph records, and films in local movie theaters. “Social media” was face-to-face, phone calls, and postal mail.

In 1969 I wrote what ultimately became a book chapter, “Communications and the Year 2000.” [12] I envisioned a 30-year progression toward what I called the “instantaneous, ubiquitous, no-cost communication” that we have today.

Today there are digital books, magazines, failing newspapers and Wikipedia. Our Main Library’s card catalogs have been pushed aside for computer stations, food courts, and lounges.[13] Two billion people have smartphones[14] that can instantly reach over one billion Websites[15] with 40,000 Google searches every second.[16]

Hollywood still turns out 34 films a year earning over $50 million each.[17] But today it’s competing with those two billion people uploading over 300 hours of video per minute to YouTube alone.[18]

Not incidentally, those Internet resources include free access to much of the content that we teach -– and charge our students thousands of dollars to receive.[19]

All of which brings me to another challenge we confront as educators: students who have grown up participating in a national conversation in which many participants neither know nor care about the distinctions between truth and lies, facts and opinions.

I recall sitting in a movie theater with two of my sons, then ten and seven. The seven-year-old noticed an “Exit” sign over a door near the front of the theater. “Hey, Dad, look,” he said, pointing to it. “We could just come in that door and we wouldn’t have to pay.”

Seizing this teachable moment, I replied, “That’s right, son; there’s nothing you can’t do if you’re willing to lie, cheat and steal.”

It was a risky response on my part. It could have propelled my sons into a life of very profitable crime. Fortunately, they grasped the lesson and have lived by it ever since.

“The Law,” and fear of punishment if caught, control some human behavior. But in most cultures, social norms –- such things as the space we give others, what is considered “appropriate” in speech, dress, or eating habits – provide more behavioral guidance than law.

An even greater force is one's internal moral compass.

Sometimes even school administrators rationalize that a questionable practice – like taking advertising revenue from the gambling, alcohol, or sugar-water industries – is OK because, as they say, “revenue is needed.”[20]

My response? “Once 'revenue is needed' becomes your polestar, your moral compass begins to spin as if you were standing on the North Pole.”[21]

It is that lack of moral compass that makes possible our most recent presidential campaign in which the candidate whose statements were “false or worse” 27 percent of the time lost to the candidate whose statements were false or worse 70 percent of the time.[22]

As we’ve recently discovered, lies work. A politician can lie his or her way into office. Why? Because their followers believe what they’re told.[23]

Among Trump’s supporters,
• 67% say unemployment increased under Obama (in fact, it declined)
• 39% think the stock market went down under Obama (it went up)
• 52% insist Trump won the popular vote (he didn't; Hillary Clinton had three million more votes)
• 14% believe Hillary Clinton's running a child sex ring out of a Washington pizza parlor (she's not)[24]
Which brings us to the challenge we confront from the mass media -– a force that can multiply the impact of speech beyond our wildest imagining.

During my 15 minutes of fame, I was doing a national lecture business and appeared as a guest on the late-night network TV shows.

I was curious about the size and impact of a national TV audience compared with a lecture hall audience. It turned out that, to lecture to as many folks as were watching those TV shows, I would need to deliver lectures every day, to eight different audiences, five days a week, fifty weeks a year, for -– want to guess? -– for 100 years![25]

The Congress that enacted the first radio regulation understood this power. As one member said in 1926:
American politics will be at the mercy of those who operate these stations. . .. [If] a single selfish group is permitted to . . . dominate them . . . woe be to those [of us] who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.[26]
The FCC’s predecessor, the Radio Commission, regulated accordingly.

Dr. Robert Shuler was a Los Angeles preacher in the early 1930s. He also owned radio station KGEF. His language and attacks on politicians, police officials, trade unions, Catholics, Jews and African Americans were like those today by Rush Limbaugh, or tweets from our President-Elect.

The Radio Commission refused to renew Shuler’s license, under the congressionally-mandated “public interest” standard. On appeal, the court affirmed the Commission.[27]

That is no longer the law.

In my day, the FCC had something called the “Fairness Doctrine.” Unlike the Shuler case, it put few if any restraints on what could be said. It did not require a child’s sense of “fairness,” nor “equal time.” It merely required stations to program about controversial issues of public importance, and in doing so to give some coverage to a range of views.[28]

That, too, is no longer either the law or the reality.

Fifty years ago, given ABC’s then weakness, it was said we had a two-and-one-half television network economy regulated by the FCC. Today we have hundreds of channels with virtually no FCC content regulation.[29]

And what does all of this mean for technology in our classrooms?

The University of Iowa faculty can take some pride in the technological innovations of the last 20 years we have welcomed into our offices and classrooms. We’ve come a long way from the days when our critics said it had taken us 50 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom.

But technology alone is not enough to deal with the lie -– whether part of a Big Lie technique, or a little fib. In fact, as we’ve seen from the fake news sites and the online social media, technology can sometimes make things worse.

So what are we to do?

There is a bumper sticker that reads, “Whatever is the question, war is not the answer.” My version reads, “Whatever is the question, education is the answer.”

Forty-seven years ago, I calculated that the average five-year-old had already spent more hours watching television than they would later spend in a college classroom earning a B.A. degree.[30] Today, their screen time is even greater.[31]

One-third of children under two have a TV in their bedroom.[32] One-half of those over eight, with access to everything from video games to laptops, have multiple digital and Internet-connected devices.[33]

Are there benefits from our children living virtual lives on screens? Absolutely. But there are also downsides. The CDC lists “watching television or other screen devices” as a contributing cause of obesity.[34]

In 1961 FCC Chair Newton Minow called television programming “a vast wasteland.”[35] Today, children’s and adults’ increased screen time is contributing to our nation’s increasingly “vast waistline.”

Texting while driving is as dangerous as driving drunk.[36] Students texting, tweeting and Facebooking during class time just end up proving there’s no such thing as “multi-tasking.”[37]

Central to our concern as educators is our students’ -– and sometimes our own – seeming inability to swim through the ocean waves of the Internet, this murky soup of truth and trash, with an ability to pick the facts from the phonies.

Stanford researches were, they said, “shocked” to find students’ fake news detection abilities, quote, "dismaying," "bleak" and "[a] threat to democracy."[38]

This is not a new phenomenon.

Twenty years ago, the Kettering Foundation, Grant Wood Area Education Agency, and Herbert Hoover Presidential Library asked me to address regional students attending their National Issues Forum.[39]

As I summed up the central message of that talk,
More important than theories of government, more important than the examples and data you discuss, more important than the personal experiences I could share, more important than all of this, is your ability to be thoughtful about the language you use to talk about these public policy issues.[40]
I reminded them of the portion of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath in which he describes a filling station attendant who repeats to Tom Joad, “What’s the country comin’ to? What’s the country comin’ to?” To which Tom replies, “You ain’t askin’ nothin’; you’re jus’ singin’ a kinda song.”[41]

I closed that National Issues Forum talk by saying,
We have to know how to tell a fact from a phony. We have to get beyond the generalities and the ideology. We have to stop “just singing a kind of song.” We have to ask – ourselves as well as others – “What do you mean? and How do you know?”[42]
In the fall of 2009, when then-Provost Wallace Loh asked that I teach one of Iowa’s First Year Seminars, I produced a book for my Iowa undergraduates that used those questions as its title: What Do You Mean? And How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us[43] –- drawing on my own writing, and that of others, about what in the 1950s was called “general semantics.”

General semantics was then a subject of academic courses across the country, scholarly and popular books, and even local chapters of the International Society of General Semantics. It had grown out of World War II – the perceived dangers from future use of Hitler’s powerful propaganda techniques, and the role of language in our desperate efforts to prevent future human annihilation from atomic bombs.

America’s next four years present equivalent challenges.

Whatever is the question, education is the answer.

And it may just be time, once again, to include some of the literature of general semantics in that education;[44] to provide our undergraduates some help as they struggle with the questions, “What do you mean? And How do you know?”


Note About Audio: The audio of this presentation contains the Introduction, at 1:19-3:42; the Speech, at 4:09-27:51; and a Q and A, at 28:11-44:22. You can link to the audio here. (Thanks to the UI's Trevor Templeman and Kirk Batterson for producing the audio and making it available, and to Gregory Johnson of Resources For Life for enabling me to post it here.)


1. These are estimates based on "The farm population in 1920, when the official Census data began, was nearly 32 million, or 30.2 percent of the population of 105.7 million, the report said" and related data." "Farm Population Lowest Since 1850's," New York Times, July 20, 1988; "July 1, 1925 - 115,829,000," "Historical National Population Estimates: July 1, 1900 to July 1, 1999," Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, June 28, 2000

2. "In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college." "National Assessment of Adult Literacy; 120 Years of Literacy," National Center for Education Statistics; a 1925-26 study of eight Oklahoma cotton belt counties found, among farmers, only 2% of males and 3.5% of females had attended college. Faith M. Williams and Carle C. Zimmerman, Studies of Family Living in the United States and Other Countries: An Analysis of Material and Method, U.S. Department of Agriculture, December 1935, p. 94. By contrast, "• In 2015, almost 9 out of 10 adults (88 percent) had at least a high school diploma or GED, while nearly 1 in 3 adults (33 percent) held a bachelor’s or higher degree." Camille L. Ryan and Kurt Bauman, "Educational Attainment in the United States: 2015," Current Population Reports, Population Characteristics, U.S. Census Bureau

3. Ibid.

4. From 1920 to 1929 SUI's enrollment increased from 5300 to 9700; graduates from 700 a year to 1400."University of Iowa Enrollment Chart, 1856-1942," Special Collections, University of Iowa Main Library

5. Field House "Field House," University of Iowa Recreational Services ("The Field House originally opened in 1927 . . ..")

6. Stadium "Kinnick Stadium," ("Opening in 1929 . . ..")

7. Quadrangle "Remembering Quadrangle Hall," University of Iowa Housing and Dining

8. Hospital "History; Timeline of Facilities," University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics ("1928: The seven story, 770-bed General Hospital opens.")

9. Iowa Child Welfare Research Station

10. Nicholas Johnson, "The Last Commencement Address: The U High Idea," June 1, 1972

11. "Numbering an astonishing 12,000 to 14,000 at one time, depending on what report you use, Iowa had more one-room school houses than any other state in the union." "A walk through Iowa's one-room schoolhouses," Iowa Department of Education. "One-Room Schools," Iowa Pathways, Iowa Public Television. Few would wish for a return to the one-room school era, but there were some features of them that we do, and more that we could, use to advantage. For example: they often had fewer students in the entire school than we have in a classroom, enabling more individual attention from the teacher in this place "where everybody knows your name"; the consistency of one teacher for all years and all subjects; collaboration by necessity, with older students helping younger; all courses "accelerated" as younger students absorbed some of what was being taught to those older; more time for individual instruction ("no special ed but lots of special help"); more time for reflection, mastery of material, memorization ability.

12. Nicholas Johnson, How to Talk Back to Your Television Set, ch. 6, p. 86 (Atlantic-Little Brown and Bantam Books, 1970; 3d. ed. Lulu Press, 2013)

13. University of Iowa Main Library Learning Commons

14. "For 2016, the number of smartphone users is forecast to reach 2.1 billion." "Number of smartphone users worldwide from 2014 to 2020,"

15. "In 1994, for example, there were fewer than 3,000 websites online. By 2014, there were more than 1 billion. That represents a 33 million percent increase in 20 years." Adrienne LaFrance, "How Many Websites Are There?" The Atlantic, September 30, 2015

16. "By 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, Google was serving more than 3.5 billion searches per day—equivalent to 40,000 searches every second." Ibid.

17. "Though there are more big pictures and tiny pictures, there aren’t enough films in the middle. The number of movies that grossed between $50 million and $100 million, essentially the range of grosses that could once be expected for romantic comedies and thrillers, fell from 41 in 2004 to 34 last year. The drop over that time frame was even more severe in the pictures in the under $50 million range . . .." Brent A. Lang, "Is Hollywood Making Too Many Movies?" Variety, June 23, 2015

18. "Hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute," YouTube Company Statistics

19. Nicholas Johnson, "Higher Ed: When UI Loses Its Monopoly," February 20, 2010

20. For one of the earlier examples, linking to some others, see Nicholas Johnson, "'Revenue is Needed' Updates," September 26, 2007; a Google search -- "revenue is needed" site: -- produced "About 66 results."

21. Ibid.

22. "One persistent narrative in American politics is that Hillary Clinton is a slippery, compulsive liar while Donald Trump is a gutsy truth-teller. . . . Yet the idea that they are even in the same league is preposterous. . . . One metric comes from independent fact-checking websites. As of Friday [Aug. 5], PoltiFact had found 27 percent of Clinton's statements . . . were mostly false or worse, compared with 70 percent of Trump's." Nicholas Kristof, "Clinton's Fibs vs. Trump's Huge Lies," New York Times, August 7, 2016, p. SR 9

23. Lies can lead a country to war. Indeed, to paraphrase President Roosevelt’s famous line, “All the weapons manufacturers have to fear is the absence of fear itself.” Snopes confirms that Hitler’s Hermann Goering explained this at the Nuremberg trials: "Of course the people don't want war. But . . . it's always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. . . . That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and exposing the country to greater danger." "War Games; Rumor: Hermnn Goering proclaimed that although 'the people don't want war,' they 'can always be brought to the bidding of their leaders;' True,"

24. "Trump Remains Unpopular; Voters Prefer Obama on SCOTUS Pick," Public Policy (includes much more polling data) Of course, this phenomenon is not limited to any one ideological orientation. See, e.g., Nicholas Johnson, "Seeing is Believing," July 14, 2014, and Nicholas Johnson, "Snopes, Popes and Presidents," December 26, 2013. Lest we leap to the conclusion that this is all the fault of the Internet, we should remember Steffanson's exploration of how it was that errors in our hard copy sources would ultimately wend their way into our hard copy encyclopedias: Vilhjalmur Stefansson, The Standardization of Error (W.W. Norton & Co., 1927).

25. Obviously, this is a fanciful exercise as every number is a variable -- size of audience, number of lectures per day, number of days per year, number of years, the year we're talking about, number of U.S. homes, percentage with TV reception, percentage of those homes watching TV, percentage of those homes watching any given program. In the 1960s there were, say, 60 million homes ["Housing," U.S. Census Bureau], 90% of which had a TV. With 50% of those homes watching TV, and three dominant networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) splitting that audience, a given program could have something like 10 million viewers. Eight lectures a day times five days a week times 50 weeks a year times 100 years is 200,000 lectures; times an audience of 50 is 10 million viewers.

26. About 90 years ago, when the Radio Act was debated in Congress, and the miracle of radio was only barely understood, Congressman Luther Johnson of Texas was so remarkably prescient to foresee: "American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people." 67 Cong. Rec. 5558 (1926).

27. Trinity Methodist Church v. Fed'l Radio Com'n, 62 F.2d 850 (D.C. Cir. 1932). The court had to decide whether the First Amendment prevented the Commission from considering Shuler’s “defamatory and untrue matter.” The court affirmed the Commission’s refusal to renew, saying, "If . . . one . . . may . . . use these facilities . . . to obstruct the administration of justice, offend the religious susceptibilities of thousands, inspire political distrust and civic discord, or offend youth and innocence . . ., and be answerable for slander only at the instance of the one offended, then this great science, instead of a boon, will become a scourge . . .."

28. A useful discussion of the Fairness Doctrine, in the context of a specific case, can be found in Brandywine Main Line Radio v. F.C.C., 473 F2d 16 (D.C. Cir. 1972), which includes the court's reproduction of a "parable" of the author's view of the matter (previously presented to a congressional committee), found in the three paragraphs before note call 118.

29. For one explanation (the author's) of how and why more and more agencies seem to regulate less and less, see the discussion of Washington's "sub-governments" in Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us, "You As Citizen I: What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?" ch. 5, pp. 56-59.

30. "By the time the average child enters kindergarten [they have] already spent more hours learning about [their] world from television than the hours [they] would spend in a college classroom earning a B.A. degree." Id. in Ch. 1, "The Crush of Television," p. 7.

31. "The study found that fully half of children under 8 had access to a mobile device like a smartphone, a video iPod, or an iPad or other tablet. . . . [A]lmost a third of children under 2 have televisions in their bedrooms, . . .. In families with annual incomes under $30,000, the new study found, 64 percent of children under 8 had televisions in their rooms . . .." Tamar Lewin, "Screen Time Higher Than Ever for Children," New York Times, October 25, 2011, p. A18

32. Ibid.

33. Id.

34. "Behaviors that influence excess weight gain include . . . sedentary activities such as watching television or other screen devices . . .." "Childhood Obesity Causes & Consequences," Overweight & Obesity, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

35. Newton N. Minow, "Television and the Public Interest," National Association of Broadcasters, May 9, 1961 ("Your industry possesses the most powerful voice in America. It has an inescapable duty to make that voice ring with intelligence and with leadership. . . . But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.) And for an update, see Nicholas Johnson, "Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland," Federal Communications Law Journal, 55 F.C.L.J 521 (2003).

36. Kiernan Hopkins, "Is Texting While Driving More Dangerous Than Drunk Driving?", April 2, 2013 ("Car and Driver Magazine performed an experiment . . .. [C]ars were rigged with a red light to alert drivers when to brake. The magazine tested how long it would take to hit the brakes when sober, when legally impaired at a BAC level of .08, when reading an e-mail and when sending a text. Sober, focused drivers took an average of 0.54 seconds to brake. For legally drunk drivers four feet needed to be added. An additional 36 feet was necessary for reading an e-mail, and a whopping added 70 feet was needed for sending a text.")

37. Jim Taylor, "Technology: Myth of Multitasking," Psychology Today, March 30, 2011 ("Like many wired people, you probably take great pride in being a multitasker. . . . There's one problem with this scenario: there is no such thing as multitasking -- at least not the way you may think of it.")

38. Camila Domonoske, "Students Have 'Dismaying' Inability To Tell Fake News From Real, Study Finds," NPR, November 23, 2016 ("If the children are the future, the future might be very ill-informed. That's one implication of a new study from Stanford researchers that evaluated students' ability to assess information sources and described the results as 'dismaying,' 'bleak' and '[a] threat to democracy.'")

39. Nicholas Johnson, "You As Citizen I: 'What Do You Mean and How Do You Know?', What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us, ch. 5, p. 49 (Lulu Press, 2009)

40. Id. at p. 51.

41. Id. at p. 54, n. 2. John Steinbeck, Grapes of Wrath (1939; Penguin Books ed. 1977), ch. 13, p. 174.

42. Id. at p. 59.

43. Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us (Lulu Press, 2009).

44. For a brief introduction to what is meant by "general semantics," see "Introduction: Why General Semantics?" in Nicholas Johnson, What Do You Mean and How Do You Know? An Antidote for the Language That Does Our Thinking for Us (Lulu Press, 2009), ch. 1, p. 1.4

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