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 classics.

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.

Chapter 1

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

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 post-World-War-II America.

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.  

Chapter 3

“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 meaningful lives.

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.

Chapter 4

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 personal growth.

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 skepticism.

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, a popular Internet reference. Acquiring knowledge and the ability to reason successfully are paramount to becoming an intellectually mature human being.

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

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 testing culture.”

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 issue.

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.


A.   Moretti Course Description 
B.   Pedagogical Consulting Group Description
C.   Pedagogical Consulting Group Members
D.  Inquiry into the Future of the Human Species Syllabus  
E.   Literature Humanities Syllabi

The book is being prepared for publication, and I had the privilege of reading an Advance Review Copy.

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