My teacher is Prometheus. He’s 13.

Kevin Kelly, in this week’s New York Times Magazine, writes about home-schooling his eighth-grade son.  He balances a nothing-special tone (“one of more than a million students home-schooled” last year) with crisp examples like the boy’s decision to learn to make fire the old-fashioned way.

He was surprised by the enormous amount of bodily energy required [to use the bow method]… and how a minuscule, nearly invisible bit of fuel… can quickly amplify into a flame and then a fire.  Chemistry, physics, history and gym all in one lesson.  And, man, when you are 13 years old and Prometheus, it’s exhilarating!

(Probably took a little while longer than this demo I found on YouTube.)

Kelly and his wife had a goal: to provide an ideal learning environment.  Their son had gone to school for 7 years, and planned to attend an “intense” high school.  He was the one who asked if he could be home schooled.

What stands out for me is Kelly’s statement that technology was not a major factor in the success of this year.  Yes, lots of online materials and research.  But the computer was only one tool among many.

Kelly sees “technological literacy” as yet another proficiency children need to acquire.  It supplements but isn’t the same kind of critter as critical thinking, logic, or the scientific method:

Technological literacy is…proficiency with the larger system of our invented world.  It is close to an intuitive sense of how you add up, or parse, the manufactured ralm.  We don’t need expertise with every invention; that is not only impossible, it’s not very useful.  Rather, we need to be literate in the complexities of technology in general…

What kinds of literacy is he talking about? These stood out for me:

  • Technologies improve so fast you should postpone getting anything you need until the last second.  Get comfortable with the fact that anything you buy is already obsolete.
    • This aligns with a tongue-in-cheek watchword: never buy a low serial number.  More seriously, it’s allowed me to happily skip at least 1 out of 2 OS  upgrades.
  • Before you can master a device, program or invention, it will be superseded; you will always be a beginner.  Get good at it.
    • “You will always be a beginner.”  It sounds like you’re being sentenced.  It’s more like having a gate opened: you’re not the only one here.
  • Be suspicious of any technology that requires walls.  If you can fix it, modify it or hack it yourself, that is a good sign.
  • Nobody has any idea of what a new invention will really be good for.  The crucial question is, what happens when everyone has one?
  • The older the technology, the more likely it will continue to be useful.

That last point truly resonated with me.  Among other things, it recalled a somewhat dry but oddly compelling book I’ve been rereading: The Coming of the Book: the Impact of Printing, 1450-1800.

Atoms take time, but bits are instant.Kelly’s website announces the coming of his latest book, What Technology Wants.  Here’s part of what he says about the book as a book:

I suspect this will be the last paper-native book that I do. The amount of work required to process atoms into a sheaf of fibers and ink and then ship it to your house or the local bookstore is more than most of us are willing to pay anymore. And of course the extra time needed upfront to print and transport it is shocking. This book was finished, designed, proofed, and ready to be read four months ago. But atoms take time, while bits are instant.

What about Kelly’s son?  I think he’ll do fine in that demanding high school, based on this anecdote near the end of the NYTM piece:

On one particularly long day, with books piled up and papers spread out, my son was slumped in his chair.

“Is everything O.K.?” I asked.

“It’s hard,” he said.  “I not only have to be the student, I also have to be the teacher.”

“Yes!  So what have you learned about being a teacher?”

“You have to teach the student — that’s me — not only to learn stuff but to learn how to learn.”

“And have you?”

“I think I am doing better as the student than the teacher.  I’m learning how to learn, but I can’t wait till next year when I have some real good teachers — better than me.”

2 thoughts on “My teacher is Prometheus. He’s 13.

  1. Extraordinarily touched by that kid. I jumped up and went out for a nervous walk around town – had exactly the same identifying-self fear about KK’s son as I do about my own when he tramps off to the sausage factory every morning.

    Good spot.

  2. Simon, I read the article in the hardcopy edition of the Sunday NYTimes, and didn’t see any bio information about Kevin Kelly until later. On the one hand, Kelly is wired-in and countercultural; on the other, I think it’d be hard to characterize home-school parents very accurately.

    It would have scared the bejabbers out of me to think of homeschooling my own children, who are now all adults. I’m thinking of a time when resources, networks, and so on were rarer and harder than today. (My son and I years ago did a kind of gopher search / FTP retrieval via email, which is kind of like watching a streaming movie through postcards.)

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