All’s Fair

The California State Fair is going on right now.  Since it’s here in town, I go every year.  And every year I marvel at the strange juxtaposition of time that it offers.

State fairs (and county fairs) are, to a great extent, a remnant of a different, earlier time.  It was an opportunity for people to come together in a largely agrarian society where such opportunities were rare.  People would exhibit prize livestock and produce, and artisans would get a chance to show their skill.  There were competitions of quilting, cooking, canning and manufacturing.  Winemakers would share their bounty.

In addition, vendors would exhibit and demonstrate their products to people who otherwise had little chance to even be aware of them.  Carnival rides gave an opportunity for fun, and ultimately the extended community would come together for celebration and camaraderie, with musicians and performers.  It was the highpoint of the agricultural social calendar.

All that has changed.  The internet has put us in contact with each other, and allowed us to purchase whatever we want from the far corners of the world.  Music is readily available in multiple media forms, and few of us really live agrarian lives.  Somehow, a jam-making contest seems quaint.

Fairs are struggling, trying to keep up with the times in the face of dwindling attendance.  High tech exhibits are increasingly common, along with celebrations of pop culture.  Where the county fair circuit was once a valid musical path, now it’s the place for washed-up bands and tribute acts.  One must ask if fairs even serve any purpose any more.

To answer that, I can examine a recent remarkable coincidence.  In my composition class just one day before I visited the fair, we found ourselves discussing the use of media and technology in education.  I confess I am one who has not been quick to embrace the computer age.  Call it a function of my advancing age, but I’m not convinced that something that has worked for years without computers suddenly needs them to succeed.

It’s a common assumption: our students are computer-savvy, and very tied in to media, so in order to reach them, we teachers much come to their level, and embrace their media.  So we must use social networking, and the internet, and on-line communication, and laptop computers, and all the other things they take for granted.  Those of us who are reluctant to do so are stuck in old ways and must get current to survive.

But why?

Unexamined in the scramble to embrace technology is the question of whether doing so is needed or appropriate.  I, for one, tend to be a late adopter.  Despite being in a classroom equipped with a “smart board,” I rarely use it.  Nor do I often use the computer.  I don’t have a course website, and still read essays on paper.  Hopelessly out-of-date, right?  Time to retire?  I don’t think so.

Perhaps I am just rationalizing, but I believe that my emphasis on old-fashioned discussion has benefits that cannot be gained by the latest tech programs.  Discussion worked when I went to school, and I have yet to see a single cogent argument as to why something that used to work somehow stopped working simply because some other method with more bells and whistles came along.

This perspective is not new for me.  I began my teaching career at a time when the teaching of English was undergoing an enormous transformation.  The perspective was that we must abandon inadequate old methods, and my reluctance to do so did not sit well with my fellow teachers and supervisors.  What I could not bring myself to say to these people was, “The old methods produced all of you, so how bad can they really be?”  But it’s what I was thinking.

But, as I said, perhaps that’s rationalization.  Maybe I’m making excuses for being too old to learn new tricks, or maybe just too lazy.  I put that to my students.  The response was intriguing.

While there was agreement that I would benefit from some of the smart technology to demonstrate, for example, the process of editing an essay, for the most part they said I should not change my methods.  They have seen many cases of teachers who use technology and yet do not improve the classroom experience by doing so.  Some do, but, from my students’ perspective, that means it’s a good teacher, not that the technology is what makes it good.

This parallels my experience of animation in film, where traditional cel animation has been replaced by CGI.  This was largely because the groundbreaking films from Pixar changed everything.  The assumption was that, because Pixar uses CG and their movies are great, using CG must make movies great.  But other studios’ uneven output has shown that CG does not make a movie great.  Indeed, even recent offerings from Pixar have shown this.  The fact is, their earlier movies were great because they were well made, and not simply because of the technology used.  They would have been just as great if animated traditionally.

This is true in education.  A good teacher is good regardless of technology, and a bad teacher won’t get better by using a computer.  My students went on to say that my emphasis on discussing ideas is a rare thing in their college experience, where they mostly sit silent while a professor drones on in the lecture.  Being able to explore their own views and learn about each other’s is something they value, and they urged me not to stop doing it.  In other words, be open to new approaches, but don’t abandon what works.

And this takes me back to the fair.  I find something very comforting about those jam contests and quilting shows and the vendors with their booths.  It hearkens back to an earlier time, yes, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t things of value in that time.  The fair is, among many other things, a community-building opportunity.  Just because we now build communities other ways doesn’t change that.  It is a rich pageant of traditions, ones that can, and should, be handed down for generation to generation.  It reminds us where we come from, and who we are.

Sure, let us always keep an eye toward the future.  But let us not forget the past, nor abandon those things that still have value.  That’s too easy to do in a disposable age of planned obsolescence, where last year’s model is considered hopelessly out of date.

Continuity.  Traditions.  That’s what makes societies strong.  Learn from the past to build the best possible future.  But you can’t have one without the other.

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