Tara Brabazon: Schwarzenegger punches above his weight with book ban

He might be the ultimate killing machine but, says Tara Brabazon, the Governor of California is out of his depth when it comes to understanding how students use textbooks

July 1, 2009

Dear reader, you knew this moment would arrive. It was only a matter of time before the big man would punch through your Times Higher Education screen.

Yes, it is Arnold Schwarzenegger time.

No, I will not be discussing the rebooting of the Terminator franchise.

No, I will not be asking what a member of the Kennedy family saw in a man who became a Republican governor.

No, I will not be considering if he has a chance – with some legislative changes – to be a future Republican president.

Instead, I want to probe the rationale, justification and explanation for Schwarzenegger’s decision to “ban” textbooks in schools. To cite him directly, “Textbooks are outdated, in my opinion… For so many years, we’ve been trying to teach exactly the same way. Our children get their information from the internet, downloaded on to their iPods and in Twitter feeds to their phones. Basically, kids feel as comfortable with their electronic devices as I was with my pencils and crayons. So why are California’s school students still forced to lug around antiquated, heavy, expensive textbooks?”

For someone who lifted weights for many decades, a fear of lugging textbooks seems misplaced. But he is not the champion of techno-fuelled modernity he appears to be. The budget deficit in California, reportedly running at $24 billion (£14.5 billion), has meant that “easy” solutions to cutting expenditure must be found. Ignoring teachers and librarians and repeating the clichéd – and wrong – arguments that “the internet is a library” and downloading is the same as reading are ways to mask a cut in education funding.

Those of us who have been involved in online education for more than a decade know that this is how the cycle starts. Online resources, strategies, plans and agendas are rarely introduced to enhance already existing standards and protocols. Educational technology is introduced to cut costs in staffing and resources. Platitudes about efficiency and productivity are made. Statements are offered about modernity, “new” students and “new” pedagogy. However, a core truth of teaching and learning is forgotten through such maxims: education is not meant to be efficient. Helping men and women to read, write and think transgresses timetables and office hours, and inevitably interferes with “business as usual”. Teaching and learning do not fit conveniently into a lifestyle.

Schwarzenegger’s arguments are part of a decade-long movement by politicians and academic managers. A celebration of technological change disguises a shrinking education budget. Typically, he recycles another old idea – with a twist. The future, he says, is a “paperless classroom”. I am sure it will be as successful as the paperless office.

While imagining this bookless future, it is important to acknowledge the reality these students-without-books will find when they attend university. Schwarzenegger is partially right. Digitally convergent materials are used in higher education, often on mobile platforms. The resources in each of my eight courses feature online refereed articles, podcasts, vodcasts, online journalism, blogs and social networking sites. These materials are read and understood alongside complex and difficult extracts from scholarly monographs and offline refereed articles from our best journals. The key in enhancing learning is not to demarcate between online and offline materials. Students – and staff – must engage with both, because Marshall McLuhan was wrong.

The medium is not the message. Form is not content. Signifiers are not signifieds. Platforms are not information. Media are not conduits for truth. The most basic application of semiotics confirms that form and content are required to create a meaning system. Neither is self-standing.

The medium – the form – chosen to present information shapes and inflects how it is understood. The same words on a screen are interpreted differently when read on paper. The same words spoken in a podcast are understood differently when appearing on a bumper sticker. These distinctions may be slight or vast, but they should not be ignored.

Students can access content on computer screens, mobile phone screens or iPhones. But they will engage with this material differently than they do when reading words on a page. Studies are progressing around the world about how reading behaviour is enacted on different platforms. A premise or hypothesis being tested is that screen reading tends towards data grabbing, power browsing and key-word searching. Obviously print and paper sources can be flicked through and scanned as much as screen-based texts. But the linearity of books – without hypertext-enabled bouncing between websites – promotes reading in a way that facilitates a deeper, more immersed and concentrated engagement.

The point is that students – to gain information literacy – must be able to move between media and platforms with rigour, clarity and consciousness. They must know when to choose sonic or visual media, online or offline environments. These decisions are dependent on the meaning system they wish to summon and the audience for their work.

Another assumption about the selection of media in education is that it is tough to read blocks of text from a monitor. Most of us who work in universities read screens for eight to 12 hours a day. But while the difficulty of screen reading is debatable, there is no doubt that there are better ways to use our portals than for the presentation of bald text. In a recent research project on developing a multimedia module for online students, Chris Jones and Ken Sumner of Edge Hill University argued that large slabs of prose are inappropriate in digitised environments, with screens best used for visual and sonic content. Their argument is persuasive: the use of sound, images and video is an effective deployment of the online environment, promoting productive relationships between signifiers and signifieds, media and literacies. When students move between platforms, this intellectual mobility creates new ways of thinking.

Students require experience, expertise and literacy skills to read a book for an extended period of time and to grasp the depth and complexity of difficult ideas. Schwarzenegger is wrong that the iPod, mobile phone and eReader will render classrooms paperless. Indeed, the evidence from Amazon’s Kindle is that heavy readers of downloaded texts on the platform are also heavy readers of print-based books. In other words, readers of books enjoy ideas and gain literacies in reading diverse materials on varied platforms. But the inverse has rarely been studied. Can students who read text messages and tweets make the leap to Edward Said’s Orientalism or Henry Giroux’s Disturbing Pleasures? Literacy theories suggest that such jumps in vocabulary, sentence construction and complexity of argument are obtained incrementally and through experience.

If there is a truth from the past ten years of online education, it is that there is nothing inevitable about the development of literacies. We can build digital literacies. We are not born digital. Access does not equate to understanding. Availability of resources does not mean they are used.

Tweets are not the foundation of education. They can be used as sources to track the grief of Michael Jackson fans or Iranian resistance. But they are not truth. They are not knowledge. They are historical sources to be evaluated and analysed in context.

Probably one of the greatest critiques of Schwarzenegger’s argument emerged from a very different man and a very different politician. Vince Cable, during his session at the recent Hay Festival, said: “It is better to be right than to take shortcuts and be wrong.” He was justifying the choice to remain with the Liberal Democrats rather than move to the Conservatives. If he maintains these principles, he will be the greatest Chancellor this country will never have. But there is a lesson in his words, not only for the Governor of California but for all who believe in education. We know – we really know – that students must read books and e-books, online and offline refereed articles and explore sonic culture and material culture. Students must grasp how to select appropriate media for specific information and audiences. Too often, when faced with pressure from educational managers, funders of research, governmental agents and corporate apparatchiks, we teachers shut our eyes, marginalise expertise and ignore experience. We pretend that the internet is the world. We pretend that tweets are the same as considered journalism. Indeed, we may even forget that the current Governor of California once lifted weights for a living.

Our job as educators is not to storm Westminster or jump on a flight to the US and start protesting against decisions made in the California legislature. Our task must be slower, more methodical and – ultimately – more rewarding. In a time of anger, apathy and hypocrisy, where the BNP has gained the credibility of European seats, our challenge is to make a case and offer arguments. Even when we are taking on the Terminator, we must remember that books will be back.

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