Computer Confusion

  In educational circles today, there's a big push to get computers into the classroom. But high-tech electronic gadgets don't necessarily make for better education. In fact, there's one kind of computer program that only makes a bad course worse. An article in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes a set of videodiscs that were developed for teaching ethics. The disks present students with ethical dilemmas to solve. For example, there's a disk called "A Right to Die?" showing the true story of a young man named Dax, who was severely burned in a car explosion. For months, Dax underwent excruciating burn therapy. He pleaded with doctors and nurses to let him die. Eventually he recovered, and today he is married and practicing law. But the students don't know all that. The videodisc shows Dax before the accident, shows him horribly burned--and then stops. The students are asked to decide whether Dax should be allowed to live or die. And whatever they choose, the computer challenges it. If they say Dax should live, they are shown film clips of the patient begging to die. If they say he should be allowed to die, they see clips of him today, in his successful law practice. So what's the right answer? The computer doesn't tell. What's the point of teaching ethics this way? If the method doesn't teach students what course is right or wrong--what does it teach? The answer is simple: It teaches relativism--that there is no right or wrong in ethics. One of the professors who developed the videodisc program explains: "We never say the students get the wrong answer. We just put their decisions under duress." That's the key phrase: putting students' ideas "under duress." Dilemmas are chosen that are so difficult it's hard for students to see how ordinary ethical categories apply--the ones they learned from their parents and teachers. The goal is to free students from everything they've been taught before so they can develop their own ideas about ethics. Lawrence Kohlberg, who pioneered this dilemma approach, says the situations are meant to be so hard that "the adult right answer is not obviously at hand," and the student is, therefore, free to think up his own answers. This comes straight from philosopher Immanuel Kant, who said the inner self should be absolutely free and autonomous. For Kant, that means we shouldn't accept any moral laws from outside ourselves--not from parents, not from teachers, and especially not from God. The Autonomous Self, Kant taught, creates its own moral law. If you've ever wondered what's wrong with secular courses in ethics, this is it. Not just that they teach relativism, though that's bad enough. But that they idolize the human Self. Programs like the one about Dax remind us of why parents ought to keep a watchful eye on what their kids are learning at school--including what they're learning on computers. With their vivid graphics, computers may make wrong ideas that much more persuasive. Ideas that may be teaching false theories of ethics and of life.


Chuck Colson


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