Short essays by Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D., the author of TING AND I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, published in September 2011 by Outskirts Press (Parker, CO, USA), available from outskirtspress.com/tingandi, Barnes and Noble [bn.com], and Amazon [amazon.com], in paperback or ebook formats. Please visit us at tingandi.com for more information.
Saturday, May 9, 2020
BOOK REVIEW: Human Maps for the Digital Age
Human Maps for the Digital Age: Classics-based
Core Curricula and New Media Technology, by Andrew C. Shurtleff, Ed.D.
Reviewed by Douglas Winslow Cooper, Ph.D.,
Formerly, Associate Professor, Environmental Health Sciences,
Harvard School of Public Health
The “maps” in our brains help us to make sense of our world.
Education in the post-Sputnik era in America has increasingly
emphasized science-technology-engineering-mathematics (STEM) maps rather than
the literary-artistic-humanistic maps once given students by education in the
Dr. Shurtleff argues for an amalgamation of the two
approaches, “STEAM,” where “Arts” are incorporated into enriching the STEM technological
coursework now dominating our digital age. His proposals are made explicit in
his vision for modifying Columbia University’s Core Curricula. His insightful
critique and proposals deserve consideration by all those concerned with improving
the quality of university education.
Dr. Shurtleff’s first chapter, “Crisis and Opportunity,”
uses a classical rhetorical approach: it raises our concern, then suggests a solution…use
the classics to enrich currently technology-dominated curricula.
Chapter 2, “Historical Perspectives,” is a “map” of its
own, showing where education has come from and where it has, in his evaluation,
arrived, with an emphasis on the changing fashions in educational reform in
What is university education for? Many answers have been
proposed. Somewhere between preparation for citizenship, for adulthood, for
employment, for you-name-it, fall the proposals.
Dr. Shurtleff accepts that preparation for navigating the
Digital Age will require technological maps, while becoming more than a technician
argues in favor of humanistic guidance using maps influenced/ennobled/enhanced
by familiarity with the classics of Western civilization and other advanced cultures.
“Core Curricula and New Media Technology,” Chapter 3, describes
Columbia’s almost century-old Core Curricula, with emphasis on “two of its six
courses (Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities) [that] retain the
vision and scope of their inception,” including helping its students to live
Massive Open Online Courses (“MOOCs”) play important roles
in this, and they are quite popular, some offered free of charge, taken by Columbia
students and non-students together. The author credits education-architect-scholar
Frank Moretti for much of the best features of the MOOCs, and he acknowledges
his ties to and the influence on him of the Moretti Pedagogical Consulting Group.
The chapter is in praise of the New Media Technologies (NMTs) as tools of
outreach and investigation.
Dr. Shurtleff’s enthusiasm for “humanistic learning for the
Digital Age” is evident in Chapter 4 of that title. Here, he has the opportunity
to make the case for new ways to incorporate “the classics” into contemporary modes
of instruction, the NMTs. He starts with a challenge to the influence of the
National Defense Education Act (NDEA) and subsequent STEM initiatives: “Echoing
the NDEA’s propulsion of STEM disciplines at the detriment of the arts and
humanities, today we are again dealing with imbalanced educational frameworks.”
Too much technology, too little literature, not enough history and the arts.
The author’s cogent critique of a “pragmatic” over-emphasis
on testing shows his humanistic leanings…and his rhetorical skill: “As if
uprooting a plant every couple of weeks to see if its roots are taking to the
earth and growing, this standardized testing culture aﬀords scarce room for
students to digest and reﬂect on what they are taking in.” Testing has its merits,
but almost any virtue can be overdone.
“The disproportionate ratio of virtual connection to
meaningful human relationships can create a deep sense of isolation.” Dr. Shurtleff
fears that technology, with all its charms, may supplant interpersonal
interaction, less charming but more challenging and more conducive to fostering
Thus, the use of the NMTs to bring education in technology
and the humanities to students must be combined with person-to-person elements
to be compelling and humane and not alienating. A written “conversation” lacks
the body language and facial expressions that help make the text and subtexts
clearer. Note the ease with which Facebook or Twitter communications become
misinterpreted. The terse communications typical of these sites are easily
misread, and they do not do much to further the goal of developing their
readers as independent thinkers.
Dr. Shurtleff is concerned that the omnipresent NMTs will
be cognitively destructive rather than constructive, “The forces which threaten
the development of critical frames of mind and the intuitive thinking in which
we base our judgments are the focus of the next section” in Chapter 4, the
danger that too much information can lead to analysis-paralysis, an inability to
make good decisions. You can have too much of a good thing, or as one modern
architect expounded, “Less is more.” That Korean adolescents average about ten hours
per day on the Internet seems an example of excessive use to the author. Such
habits may lead to a preference for quick answers over profound ones, as some
critics suggest. Dr. Shurtleff notes that these are early days in our
interactions with the NMTs, so firm conclusions need to be viewed with
The next section in Chapter 4 is “Why We Educate,” and a
case could be made for having this material placed much closer to the beginning,
as knowing where we want to go is key to deciding how to get there. Dr. Shurtleff
analyzes each element of a five-part definition of “education” given by
dictionary.com, a popular Internet reference. Acquiring knowledge and the
ability to reason successfully are paramount to becoming an intellectually mature
Finland’s “less work and more play” broader set of goals are
lauded in contrast to the current U.S. emphasis on testing, “By making
standardized tests the mainstay of what teachers teach, pedagogy has become as
mechanized and myopic.” The author proposes teaching more of the classics to
remedy this. It is not clear the degree to which he would be inclined to abolish
testing, which some would liken to “playing tennis without the net.”
Dr. Shurtleff then extolls the work of Erik Erikson on his
eight stages of social and emotional development from birth to adulthood. (To
evaluate this topic requires greater knowledge of human psychological development
than I possess.) This section concludes that the Waldorf School STEAM methodology
that incorporates the classics (“Art”) is to be preferred to the STEM-oriented
methods in most public schools now. “To conclude, technological innovation
often presents as many opportunities as it does challenges.”
Chapter 5, “Conclusions and Implications,” summarizes the
preceding chapters, noting, “As forces beyond school walls dictated the scope
and purpose of these curricula, the arts and humanities increasingly lost
ground to economic and technological pressure…. In summary, innovation is
needed to ensure classics-based cores continue to cultivate one’s sense of
place and purpose in the world.”
The author describes the recent work of The Moretti
Pedagogical Consulting Group that “devised a framework for re-engaging
Columbia’s core with the crises of contemporary civilization,” through its “Inquiry
into the Future of the Human Species” program.
Although the book urges greater incorporation of the
classics into university education, the author’s disenchantment with the “testing
culture” makes him seem to be an advocate for a radical reduction in standardized
testing, which will gain him fervent allies and enemies. His position: “Since
so much of the current debate revolves around issues of standards and
accountability, emphasis is placed on the harmful eﬀects of our high-stakes
This testing issue is over How; whereas, incorporating the
classics is about What. Method vs. material. One could agree with Dr. Shurtleff
on one and not the other. Much of the final chapter revolves around the testing
A final “Meditation” section briefly reviews what has
preceded and concludes, rightfully in my opinion, “The enduring challenge is to maintain our
humanity in a world increasingly saturated by technology.” To do so, Dr. Shurtleff
enjoins us, will require re-incorporating the classics into university
education, using artfully the New Media Technologies.
Nearly 200 references, from Abrams (2011) to Zingg (1987), are presented,
giving a wealth of back-up material and sources for further investigation.
Consulting Group Description
Consulting Group Members
into the Future of the Human Species Syllabus
The book is being prepared for publication, and I had the privilege of reading an Advance Review Copy.