Valdemar W. Setzer on the Obsolescence of Education

Valdemar W. Setzer graduated in Electronic Engineering in 1963 and earned a PhD in Applied Mathematics from the Polytechnic School of Universidade de São Paulo in 1967. He retired in 1995, but continues to guide students and teaching. Setzer has extensive experience as a lecturer on history and philosophical aspects of computing, electronic media, education and philosophical issues of technology. He is also a member of the Anthroposophical Society. In Setzer’s younger years, he was the soloist flutist of the former Chamber Orchestra of São Paulo under the conductor Olivier Toni. Dr. Setzer is the author of numerous books and articles on education, technology, philosophy and a number of other issues.

I personally carried around, as a general guide, his essay, The Obsolescence of Education for my entire teaching career. When I reached out to him a couple of weeks ago, he informed me that it needed to be updated. I was stunned to see that the article was updated as late as August 21, 2014, after having it intact since the year 2000, when I started teaching. Dr. Setzer is a very inspiring intellectual. I asked him about the obsolescence of education.

Dan Falcone for Truthout: When I spoke to you about the Obsolescence of Education article you informed me that you had completely forgotten the paper. It was written in a time where the use of the Internet, mainly by youth, was not as intense as today. The paper has been reformatted. How did you essentially change it and how was your thesis altered if at all?

Valdemar W. Setzer: I have also introduced minor corrections and additions. Surprisingly, after 16 years the [ideas in the paper] continue to be “actual.”

The big difference is that now children and adolescents are using computers (through smartphones and tablets) much more than at that time, 16 years ago. Also, computers and the Internet have been much more widely introduced in schools, and teachers are assigning homework requiring their use. Finally, since the time the paper was written, many papers were published corroborating my ideas. See a list of more than 100 references on my paper “Negative effects of electronic media on children, adolescents and adults,” unfortunately in Portuguese, but with references in English.

In particular, smartphones and tablets have made it possible to use the Internet at any time and everywhere. I will cite here only two of the main problems caused by it on children and adolescents:

1. The Internet is addicting. According to S.Y. Kimberly and C.N de Abreu (Eds.), Internet Addiction: A Handbook and Guide to Evaluation and Treatment (Wiley, 2011), about 10% of Internet users are addicted to it.

2. The Internet is extremely dangerous for children and adolescents. Gregory S. Smith, in his book How to Protect Your Children on the Internet: A Road Map for Parents and Teachers (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 2007, see also my review), calls to attention that all children and adolescents are naïve, thus subject to predators.

There are dozens of other negative effects of the Internet, but these two I consider definitive and irrefutable: anything that is addictive and dangerous should not be used by children and adolescents. Therefore, parents, schools and teachers who give incentives to the use of the Internet are definitively damaging their children and students. This puts even more emphasis on my main argument: teaching should be more humane, and not more technological.

Dan Falcone: Can you comment on what you mean by the “new consciousness?” And how does this relate to education and technology? Furthermore, you open the essay referring to, “examples to show how the human being kept changing, while acquiring new capacities to observe, to feel, to think, and to act. Obviously, behavioral historians will say that the changes were in fact cultural, and that the human being has always been the same. I prefer the hypothesis that he really changed his psychic characteristics. This hypothesis explains why certain parallel changes occurred in distant parts of the globe, for example with Buddha and Lao Tzu (the founder of Taoism) at the same time as Greek philosophy or the biblical prophets; the manifestations of these changes varied with the region.” You also include the ancients, Plato, Aristotle, etc. What was the purpose of this introduction and these references?

I have changed my wording in the paper to “psychological” instead of “psychic.” I wanted to mention some higher human characteristics than those understood under “psychological,” but I recognize that “psychic” had connotations that I did not refer to.

The purpose was to show that the human being has undergone fundamental changes, so education should also change. If it remains as it was 50 or 100 years ago, it has not followed the great modifications that have occurred within the human being. In this respect, education is obsolete. My difference is on how to change education to suit modern man. In particular, a great change has occurred lately, represented by the human rights movement, which has to do with the notion of equality. Now we are able to recognize that what I called the “superior I” is individual, but has the same characteristics in all persons: it has no race, no nationality, no religion or no gender. That’s why these characteristics do not matter anymore; now we value the social, artistic and intellectual abilities and production of each individual, not his skin color, nationality etc. Please see my paper . . .

Liberty, equality, fraternity: past, present, future

You discuss in the paper, “Those changes of consciousness are, in my understanding, extremely positive evolutions occurred during this century, which seems so negative that I like to call it the “century of barbarism.” In fact, I don’t think human tragedies that occurred during this period have any parallel in previous history. Examples are the genocide of the Armenians by the Turks, the horrors of Nazism, the sacrifice of dozens of millions eliminated by communism, and the present tragedies of various sorts of nationalism, fundamentalism and terrorism. The positive evolutions of the human consciousness are the consciousness of human rights, of world peace, of ecology and of universalism.” I think this is a profound statement. Speaking of “horrors” and “nationalism” do you think that westernized democracies, the United States and its allies also qualify along these lines in terms of ruthless imperial behavior?

It’s tragic to observe that my words are still valid today. Wars have no sense anymore: conflicts should be resolved by negotiations, and not by fighting. It is a tragedy that so many wars are taking place in the world just now.

As for imperialism, I think nations should not impose their view of the world upon others. If the people of a country behave in an inhumane way, and put civilization in danger, international forces should intervene, but never by an isolated country.

Can you remember anyone in history that seemed ahead of their time in terms of sensitivity for personal consciousness of human rights or someone who developed oppositional campaigns against racism, sexism, discrimination and poor socioeconomic conditions – much earlier than standard evolutionary force would allow?

Certainly: Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).

You cite the “retrograde characteristics of education.” What are they and how do they make education obsolete? How do these disrupt human essence? What are your thoughts on “grades?”

I think I expounded my ideas on these subjects in the paper. I will emphasize just two of them:

1. Competitiveness (section 4.7). Every competition has a winner and a loser. The winner gets happy for having won, and the loser gets frustrated or unhappy for having lost. So the winner gets happy at the expense of the loser. This is absolutely antisocial. It is absolutely anti-Christian, so I really don’t understand what goes in the mind of priests and fathers of Christian schools when they promote competitions, either sport or intellectual ones. We should teach and give incentive to cooperation and not competition. I would even be radical in this respect and recommend that schools get completely rid of competitions. This way we may create a path for the development of fraternity, as I expounded in my paper:

Liberty, equality, fraternity: past, present, future

2. Grading. Here in Brazil grading is done using a decimal system: Zero is the lowest grade, and 10 is the maximum. A grade 5 is in general the minimum for being approved. Now, what does a 5 mean? That the student knew very well half of the questions and nothing about the others, or he could answer correctly half of each question? (Supposing the test was not of the multiple choice type.)

The fact is that knowledge and abilities cannot be quantified. Giving a grade to a student reduces him/her to a thing that can be measured and classified. This is certainly intuitively sensed by the students. Furthermore, what is important in education are not the details, which are asked in tests, but a general maturation, the acquisition of social, artistic and intellectual abilities, and these cannot be graded. Last but not least, grading introduces a competition amongst students. These are the reasons why Waldorf Education, so popular in the USA, does not use grading.

I enjoyed your comments describing the limitations of “abstract teaching.” What advice can you give a high school history teacher who wants to teach based on reality or artistic fantasy?

She should use biographies. Through biographies one can tell the historic events, and represent past realities. Theater and play production also give the opportunity of lively experience and historical events, while introducing an art element. Art classes should accompany history classes. For instance, when learning the history of ancient Greece, students should paint and do modeling in the Greek style. This shows that school education should be integrated: a certain topic should be covered from various points of view, in different subjects.

The main point here is that a good teacher is the one who is able to arouse enthusiasm in his students. For this, teaching should never be purely intellectual, because students are not movable brains. This reminds me of Robin Williams’ characterization in The Society of the Dead Poets. When this film was being shown in movie houses, a former student of mine said: “I had a professor like that!” And she pointed to me.

You asked about history, which is not my field. I will say something about the teaching of mathematics. How can we arouse a student’s enthusiasm for mathematics? – By using three tools: Art through geometry, history (e.g. biographies of mathematicians who introduced something in the field) and relation to the real world; for instance, showing that in nature one may observe many instances of the logarithmic spiral.

In fact, in elementary and high school education, nothing should be taught in a purely abstract way, and abstractions should be only introduced in high school.

You made some interesting points about memorization and test taking that I fully agree with. Would you advocate test taking if it boiled down to larger themes? Or even allowed students to either construct the test collectively and/or write essays reflecting topics they are interested in? Do these methods have any merit in your view?

No. A teacher should evaluate his students from a broad perspective, and not through tests. Also, students should be evaluated from the point of view of all subjects. A student may be very poor in mathematics, but be excellent in English or the arts. If such a student is flunked due to his poor grades in mathematics, she or he will detest it for the whole of her/his life. On the contrary, if such a student is not penalized for her/his poor accomplishment in mathematics, s/he may eventually have a flash in her/his mind and develop a deep interest for the subject, becoming a good student in that subject. I say this based upon my own experience as a math teacher in a Waldorf school. I had two students exactly with that profile.

Do you consider “immediatism” in education to be the idea that schools are adding resources and centers to test and train students at the expense of say, learning the humanities? Is this what you meant in this section of the essay?

What I wanted to say on my sections on this subject (4.4 and 5.4) was that teaching should not aim at preparing students for a specific and eventually professional task, but to provide for a general education.

I may add to those topics something quite recent: if students don’t learn to use computers and the Internet early in their life, people fear that they will be second-class citizens and professionals. This is a complete fallacy, an idea introduced by hardware, software and specialized course sellers. Most adults who use computers and the Internet today did not use them while they were children or adolescents. Computers are continuously becoming easier to use, due to sophisticated graphics (icons), tutorials, etc. Furthermore, we have no idea how computers will be in the future. Smartphones and tablets are quite recent – for instance, the iPhone was introduced in 2008, and tablets became popular in 2010. Some of their features like touch screens, virtual keyboards and accelerometers did not exist in desktop computers. So a child that learned to use computers 10 years ago was not prepared for using smartphones and tablets.

On the contrary, if children and adolescents are saved from computers and the Internet, they won’t have damaged some capacities that are essential for their future life, like having social sensitivity and [creative] fantasy.

When you discuss how school can be boring as you offer alternatives, do you consider how cultural influences and outside distractions make some of those activities difficult to accomplish? What are your thoughts on such possibilities?

I don’t see any difficulties in turning education into a more humane, and less technological activity. It is an aberration that computers and audio visual systems turn classes into more interesting activities than human teachers do. This shows that teaching is wrong.

The first attitude a teacher should have is something not learned in teaching courses: loving their students. How can a student admire her teacher if the latter treat her as a mere object? How can a student love her teacher if the latter does not love her?

Instead of correcting the problem where it really is, introducing technology in education means just giving a medicine that will worsen the patient’s sickness.

You make some rather profound statements again in the sections highlighted as “competitiveness” and “social discrimination.” How do these two concepts hurt educational experience? Some school officials and even teachers, often approach each student with the utmost care, in rhetoric, and then engage in the promotion of truly daunting activities in order for the school to be marketable. I can recall having a visceral fear of school as a child. Are some of these institutions schizophrenic?

One of the arguments for introducing competitiveness in education is that our western society is competitive, so let’s prepare the students for it. The fact is that our society is deeply sick, and one of the reasons is that it is based upon competition. As I expounded in the paper and in a previous question, competition is intrinsically anti-social. Competition leads to egotism, which is always destructive, in the short or later run. On the contrary, cooperation leads to altruistic love, which is always constructive. As I wrote in the paper, schools should educate for cooperation, and not competition. The anti-social forces are extremely powerful nowadays, so I think social education should be the most important subject in schools and colleges. This means developing empathy and compassion, which is based upon social awareness and sensitivity. But also social responsibility and action, that is, developing Daniel Goleman’s “emotional intelligence”. For this, I recommend that at high school, students enter in touch with suffering, by working as helpers in a hospital, or an institution for handicapped children or adults, etc.

As for your example for having fear of the school, this shows very well how schools are inhumane. A book on Waldorf Education published in Germany had the title “Angstfrei lernen”, that is, “Fearless learning”. Exactly! As I mentioned in your sixth question, teachers should arouse enthusiasm for the subject being covered, so the students learn it with interest and get involved in it. But with their present system, in general, schools have to force the students to learn, because subjects are presented in a boring way, and in ways not adequate for the age and maturity of each student. It’s too abstract, that is, without arousing feelings and relation to reality. In the paper I mentioned how, at more or less age 8, teachers give a dead definition of “island”. Formal definitions should only be given at high school, but always connected to reality.

I will touch here a delicate question as far as the USA is concerned: the question of teaching bible creationism or Darwinian evolution. This debate has been utterly ill placed. Genesis is a collection of great imaginations, of symbols for spiritual realities. For instance, the Sun and the Moon are “created” on the 4th “day”; are there any “days” before that one? But images are precisely what small children need. One of the worst educational things one can do with small children is explaining them something in abstract terms. For instance, “Lunch will be served ‘soon,’ therefore you should not eat an ice-cream now because you are going to lose your appetite.”

Biblical creationism might be [inappropriate or appropriate] for small children. (On educational grounds) But it is absolutely inappropriate for high school students, who are interested in explanations and need to understand what is told to them. In this sense, Darwinian evolution is totally adequate – but it would be inappropriate for small children, because it is an abstract theory. One should also discuss its problems, such as the appearance of our speech, the fact that the theory has changed with time (e.g. the relatively recent discovery fact that our lineage is not linear, but had parallel species), etc.

How can the use of technology worsen education? How can it improve education?

Let me speak about digital and virtual technology. What do TV, video games and computers have in common? All of them use screens! And the problem with screens is that when they present moving images, it is not possible to think about anything else – not even the images being watched. Try to watch a TV program and think about each image being displayed. After one to two minutes, one gets mentally exhausted, and one experiences a mental relaxation. Thus, these technologies impair consciousness. But humans record every experience, so in general the result is conditioning, not getting conscious information, or developed knowledge or education.

Moreover, education is a very slow and interactive process. Students get used to the hectic pace of the displayed images, and develop a difficulty in concentrating, especially in classes. Nicholas Carr, in his excellent book “What the Internet is doing to our brains” calls the attention that the Internet is highly distractive and impairs mental concentration. But the same occurs with video games, particularly those of the action/reaction type: actions have to be done automatically, because conscious thinking is quite slow. Without a great capacity of concentration, it is impossible to learn something intellectual.

Research has shown that the more students use computers, the worse their academic performance. The usual argument to explain this effect is that students spend a long time doing silly things with their computers, instead of using them for learning. As a matter of fact, what should one expect from children and adolescents, if they get a computer or access to the Internet? They will play with them, and not do serious use of them! One big problem with the Internet is that it is an open source of zillions of texts and images, most of them not appropriate for the particular age and maturity of a child or adolescent.

Using those technologies requires an enormous self-control, especially to stop using them. Notice that adults are not controlling themselves – instead of people talking to each other in a restaurant, many are using their smartphones or tablets.

As for positive uses, in the paper (see section 7) I point to a useful utilization of a TV set in a class: to show very brief illustrations of what the teacher is referring to – intermingled with discussions of what has been watched – but only after grade 7 or 8. (Before then, it is much more important to give incentive to the student’s imagination.) I also mentioned that computers may be used to show what computers are, and how they should be used well.

What are your thoughts on Neil Postman? How can educators learn from his writings and overall point of view? What do you see to be the prospects for education in the 21st century? Are you optimistic that education and schools will improve?

I think his greatest book is “Amusing Ourselves to Death”, an extraordinary condemnation of TV and how it has influenced most of the ways people communicate. His “The Disappearance of Childhood” is also very interesting, but I don’t appreciate his recommendation of using computers in education at the end of the book. I am sure that, if alive today, he would also write against the terrible influence the Internet is having upon humanity. I have the impression that it represents an undue advancement of the future. Humankind is not yet prepared to use so much freedom.

My impression is that education is getting worse, and one of the main causes for this is the use of electronic media. For instance, children and adolescents are losing their respect for people and nature. How can respect be developed if they are conditioned by watching violence on TV and by playing violent video games? They are being educated to be anti-social. Another point is that students are being conditioned to feel satisfaction with distraction. I envision a future generation of ill-adjusted adults, without inner harmony, and with straight ways of thinking.