This article was first published by Culture11 in October 2008. Reprinted with permission on TheNewAtlantis.com.
Had Alexis de Tocqueville, the great author of Democracy in America, ever found himself in a classroom it’s safe to wager he would not have used PowerPoint. Tocqueville cautioned that America’s obsessive pragmatism would wed its often impoverished intellectual life to the demands of practical productivity and he also warned that the cumbersome weight of majority opinion would turn our educational institutions into mere adjuncts of popular culture. One could argue that the unfortunate intersection of these two pernicious currents is the growing fashionableness of PowerPoint presentations as a teaching tool for class instruction. Especially as a teacher at a technical institute (and a very good institute at that) it’s impossible to ignore that PowerPoint has become the preferred pedagogic crutch for college professors and a basic expectation of their students. However, there is certainly great doubt regarding whether the added technology genuinely produces any added value for our increasingly fickle consumers of higher education.
The primary problems with PowerPoint are both rhetorical and substantive. An illuminated screen in a darkened classroom effectively facilitates Socratic discussion about as well as a flat screen television centrally placed in a crowded living room — all eyes are reflexively diverted from the speaker to the oracle of light at the head of the class. Like television viewing, this infuses the classroom experience with a certain passivity — instead of organizing the classroom lecture into notes for themselves, effectively compelling spontaneous efforts at comprehension PowerPoint encourages the teacher to not only provide them with information but to cognize it for them as well. Further, even though the obvious intention of PowerPoint is to efficiently communicate information to a receptive class and might be adequately suitable if a room of students were, in fact, already so inspired by enthusiasm they were immune to disengagement and distraction. Instead, students accustomed to a cacophony of flashing images and general visual chaos are stupefied by snapshots of bar graphs and pie charts. In this way, the use of PowerPoint seems to be an expression of diffidence on the part of the teacher regarding his oratorical skills — there must be something I can replace as the focal point of class — anything but me! The rhetorical craft that is the teacher’s first and most reliable aide in capturing his students’ imaginations is replaced by pointing and reading; presumably, by underemphasizing the cultivation of this difficult skill, teaching has been made a profession open to all, especially those who neither like it nor have any aptitude for it.
For all the rhetorical blandness generated by PowerPoint, its most distressing consequence is the way it near inevitably fashions the nature of the content it is supposed to neutrally convey. Bullet point presentations indiscriminately transform a complex manifold of information, both empirical and conceptual, into an oversimplified catalogue of sound bites. This not only subsequently shapes the understanding students will have of the lecture content, but also the professor’s as well. Rich, multi-textured discussions of human life and experience get precipitously pared down into a short laundry list of easily digestible options — even the deepest and most enduring of philosophical quandaries loses it historical luster once cropped into a wallet photo caricature that encourages ready dismissal. If one of the most pressing imperatives of any liberal arts professor is to transmit the profound importance of the humanities, its indispensability to a lifelong, humanizing cultivation of the longings of our soul, then PowerPoint turns out to be self-stultifying; such a simplistic reductionism applied to every subject for the sake of maximizing its absorbability encourages the view that such intellectual enterprises are mostly gratuitous, at best a kind of recreational appendage to a life otherwise preoccupied with the real labor of earning a living.
For the disciplines that are appropriately data driven by nature, the use of PowerPoint can certainly be justified in the service of clarity and communicative economy. For example, if the point of a class session was to communicate a particular statistical trend or to demonstrate some mode of statistical analysis, one could hardly take issue with the introduction of technology specifically designed to assist that very kind of presentation. However, the growing popularity of PowerPoint among teachers within liberal arts and the humanities suggest more than a shift in mere pedagogic strategy — it’s indicative of a significant revision of the nature and value of the humanities as such. The real problem is not the introduction of technology into the classroom but rather the technocratic transformation of the university mission: once charged with the noble task of introducing its students to the intellectual and cultural tradition that is their peculiar bequest, it is now satisfied to provide very expensive job training. The devaluation of the humanities has much to do with the modern genuflection before scientific reason; the monopoly that science has imposed over the market of reason now results either in the sharp dismissal of all other modes of inquiry as non-rational or the paternalistic refashioning of those disciplines in its own image. Thus, we have the birth of social science and the perfunctory salvaging of political philosophy, once the queen of the disciplines, either a matter of antiquarian curiosity or as a new incarnation of quantitative analysis. The true triumph of Descartes’ Enlightenment project can be felt all throughout American academic life: the decisive assignment of priority to method versus content or the transformation of all content by method.
Somewhat curiously, it is often the same professors who rely heavily upon PowerPoint in the classroom who also decry the educational vices associated with remote, internet driven learning; they often argue, quite reasonably, that the class sizes this shift will inevitably promote and the impersonal character of class communication that will predictably result will deprive students of the attention and engagement only in-class instruction can provide. In short, they argue that the stewardship a teacher personally provides to his students is an indispensable component of the educational experience. However, the more the interaction between a teacher and student is remade into the transmission of data the less compelling this argument becomes — aren’t PowerPoint presentations just as clear and distinct when seen online? Is not the increasing dependence upon PowerPoint in the classroom real evidence that the classroom itself and the teacher that heads it are increasingly irrelevant?
The hidden premise beneath the proliferation of PowerPoint in university instruction is that there is nothing but data to share with students, that everything of practical, defensible value that can be taught is ultimately capturable by some quantitative measure — all else that remains is smoke and mirrors. The obsession with data and information versus ideas and human experience has managed to simultaneously render university curriculum both excessively abstract and excruciatingly particular. We now often exclude accounts of human life that take seriously the big ideas not reducible to discrete observable parts or explanations that begin with lived political experience fundamentally resistant to mathematical representation. Distressingly, students are often unaware of what they are missing — they are happy enough to be both taught and to have their notes given to them already neatly organized, treated more like retail consumers to be satisfied than young souls groping for direction in a modern world often inhospitable to grand erotic longing. The widespread acceptance of PowerPoint is just more evidence of the burgeoning commoditization of higher education, of the fact that our universities have become centers of career preparation overly sensitive to the moods of its consumers and insensitive to the demands of their souls.
The New Atlantis is building a culture in which science and technology work for, not on, human beings.
PowerPointing the Way to the End of Teaching