In the early nineties, computers and the internet were all the rage.  The mania was sweeping through education and every school was scrambling to teach the kids modern day skills of programming, spreadsheets and word processing.   Internet research and web browsing was to replace the library and books.  Who needed books any more in the digital age!

     Even as an up and coming computer and science teacher I was getting tired of the hype.  The scientific method and basic math had been the engines of innovation and discovery long before computers and would be long after ‘the computer is the fix for everything’ fad ended.  Oddly enough, it was often the English and History types that trumpeted the call for computers the loudest.  After a particularly hysterical staff meeting where the Principal – a former English Department Head, had spent thirty minutes extolling the virtues of web based learning, I had had enough!

After the meeting I approached him and said; “So do you really believe that computer and internet research skills are crucial for our students to be successful citizens?”

“Oh, yes, without those skills our kids will be left behind in the global economy!” he gushed. “We would be irresponsible not to move ahead and put a lot of funding towards computers and software.  I wish we could get everything in place now!”

“Really,” I said, “What about the art and drama programs?  The arts always seems starved for funding.”

“You can’t stay competitive globally with visual and theatre arts.  We have to draw our priorities. Some things are too important not to invest in even if it means other things have to be let go.” declared the Principal.

“Do you want to try a little ‘thought experiment’ to get some perspective on this?” I asked. “OK, you used to be an English Department Head.  You love books and all the classics.  Let me ask you – would you sacrifice those books, all those classics for all time if you could ensure that every student could have a computer and internet access? Sort of like a cosmic trade – computers and the internet for all the books, all the classics!”

“What do you mean?  All the books, all the classics! No, never!”

“OK, ” I said, “Not all the books, not all the classics then.  But if it were possible for me to say – snap my fingers and instantaneously re-create this world so every kid has computer and internet access but in exchange one book – just one – would cease to exist.  All copies of it would disappear. Every memory of it would be gone from humanity.  It would never have been!  And to make it easy I won’t pick a book like the Bible – how about Aesop’s Fables instead?  Should I do it? Should I snap my finger now?  You’re in charge!  What do I do?”  I looked at the Principal with my hand raised ready to snap my fingers!

The Principal hesitated, thought for a few seconds and said; “No! Don’t do it! I wouldn’t give up any good book, not even for computer and internet access for all the kids.”

“There’s still hope for us then,”  I said with relief.  The Principal just looked at me and left without another word.

It’s important to assess what has real value in our lives especially in this age of electronic glitter and glamour.  Sometimes we need to think things through, maybe even perform a ‘thought experiment’ to determine our real priorities.  The results can really surprise a person.  What would you give up for your electronics and the internet?  What have you given up?