The New Technology Is OK

The history of education is littered with examples of attempts to improve performance with new or flashy gadgets. Today we see advertisements for technology products that argue children need high-speed internet at home, and their own laptops, to stay ahead. In higher education, we’re told that people might one day be able to get an entire college education in the comfort of their bedrooms with an all-online program. From the 20s to the 50s, so reformers were promising that we might all one day learn through radio college.

I’m often skeptical of the value of a lot of this new technology, but the truth is that very few of the devices we use to learn are eternal parts of schooling. Indeed, the curmudgeony reactions to people attempting to change things in education (both elementary and secondary and at the collegiate level) are really only a reaction to minor, generational, changes. Nothing is permanent in education.

Back in 1830, it turns out, students rebelled when Yale introduced the chalkboard into classrooms.


According to this Smithsonian article

[A] curious backlash… occurred when math classes at Yale University began using blackboards. When solving a problem involving a figure, students had been allowed to look at the figure in their textbooks while solving the problem. After blackboards were introduced, the students were expected to solve the problems at the board while recalling any needed figures from memory, without referring back to the book. When this way of working problems at the board was required for geometry examinations in sophomore courses at Yale in 1830, the students refused to take the exams.

Before this, students solved problems in their books. The introduction of the blackboard meant that they would now have to solve problems in front of the whole class, without the tricks in the books.

Before this everyone brought books to class. This was true all across education; in primary school poor kids often had no books at all. Thus, the blackboard was actually a really useful innovation, because it gave everyone more or less the same classroom experience.

What happened? Eventually the students were forced to back down. In 1825, after launching the “Conic Sections Rebellion,” the math students gave in to pressure from faculty and their parents and had to issue this apology

We, the undersigned, having been led into a course of opposition to the government of Yale College, do acknowledge our fault in this resistance, and promise, on being restored to our standing in the class, to yield a faithful obedience to the laws.

But five years later students rebelled again, in the long-forgotten “Second Conic Sections Rebellion.” The school, like universities everywhere and throughout time, met with students and tried to negotiate. But students refused to take their examinations with the blackboards and so Yale got serious. The Conic Sections students’ demands didn’t seem particularly valid and so the school just expelled them all. That was 43 students, over half of the 1832 class.

Sometimes a principle is worth fighting for. But sometimes, as these 43 Yale students learned–one likes to think they ended up having to fight in some horrible war or go work in the mines, but in fact they probably ended up becoming schoolteachers or small town lawyers or something, back when those professions didn’t require university degrees–it’s just kind of stupid. Sometimes the technology people win.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer