Steal This Disk:

Using Technology as a Means of Distribution to

Provide or Enhance Humanities Curriculum Offerings


Each year funding cuts, failures to maintain prior funding levels, addition of "required multicultural exposure" courses, or just plain apathy throughout the United States education system cause more programs to be dropped from school curriculums. A chief fatality of these cuts is the general humanities area, particularly music and the arts. The public and powers that be seem to feel that "reading, writing, and arithmetic" and "multiculturalism" are more important or vital than humanities programming and should be retained in as full a measure as possible, most times, to the detriment of art and music programs. The basics are, of course necessities in order to navigate the world, but, as Lynne Cheney lamented in a report on the state of the Humanities curriculum, "Do students learn how the ideals and practices of our civilization have evolved? Do they take away from their undergraduate years a sense of the interconnection of ideas and events—a framework into which they can fit the learning of a lifetime? (Cheney, 1987)." Certainly not if the curriculum is pillaged.

The descent of the humanities curriculum can be halted and reversed. My paper will consist of a review of the general humanities funding levels in the United States government with a brief look at past and future trends, current commonly available technology resources and infrastructure, and existing material resources. I will propose several utilization methods to devise a very basic general humanities experience for the interested learner.

There has been a trend since the 1980's in government to keep constant the amount of funding for the arts or, more recently, to substantially cut it. The appropriations and funding history of the National Endowment for the arts is public information and is available on the Internet. I have used highlighting to enhance the readability of the following downloaded copy, however, the information contained within is entirely as it appears on the NEA web site (NEA, 1998):

Summary of Appropriated Funds to the NEA 1966-1998 in actual dollars









































Life Time Dollar Amounts






* Grant funds include program funds, treasury funds and challenge funds.

** Administrative funds include "Policy, Research, & Technology" funds; funds for computer replacement (FY95-98); and funds for "downsizing expenses" (FY96 only).

*** In 1976, the Federal government changed the beginning of the fiscal year from July 1 to October 1, hence the 1976 Transition ("T") Quarter.

Sadly, the trend in the public education system mirrors this decrease in funding. With more mandated additions to current curriculum plans, something has to be cut and, more often than not, it is the art, music, or humanities program of the school district. Ironically, the lifetime funding of the arts in America equates to the cost and initial maintenance expenses of less than two Boeing B-2 Spirit bombers. More was probably spent on artwork for the design and promotion of the B-2 in its initial contract than was spent to fund the NEA this year. The interesting way in which Congress presents the cost of the B-2 program is done partially to downplay the costs and mislead the casual researcher--the total costs of the program for twenty operational aircraft is stated to be $44,946 million dollars. Of course, written out in decimal notation it looks much more expensive: $44,946,000,000.00 or read: forty-four billion, nine-hundred-forty-six million dollars (GAO, 1997).

Dr. John Brademas, Chairman of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities sees the same reasons for and benefits of continued support of the arts and humanities in America that I present in this paper. And he also sees the same disturbing trends in decreasing funding of the arts and humanities. In his address to the distinguished guests at the release of the Creative America report he stated:

Certainly, the sorry state of arts and humanities teaching in our schools is one of the major threats to the health of cultural life in America. Unless the arts are embraced within the curriculum and children are taught appreciation and experience the joys of participation, there will be fewer audiences, volunteers and donors in the future. Unless the humanities curriculum is strengthened, and students sharpen their reading skills, their knowledge of history and ability to think critically, the informed engagement on which our democracy depends will suffer.

He goes on to say that "a vital culture contributes to a strong democracy…" (Brademas, 1997) which certainly, if one of the goals of education in America is to create a good citizen, supports the need for humanities in the curriculum. Many disagree with the idea of funding for the arts by the government, but it is a very minor level of funding currently that is being provided, about forty cents per person in America. Dr. Brademas proposes to increase this funding level by the year 2000, so that about two dollars per person is being spent. Certainly this is a trivial amount to be set aside to ensure the creative spirit of the United States of America endures.

E. D. Hirsch further mires down the image of "pillaging the arts or curriculum" with his observations throughout Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, that one cannot become truly multicultural without first attaining mastery of their own culture (Hirsch, 1987). A similar but obverse idea must be addressed in responding to the rising minority population of the United States. In order for an immigrant to become acculturated into American society, he must have access to the common canon of knowledge that Americans possess. He must know about the system of government, the documents upon which it is based and the cultural development of the nation—including its arts and humanities and "common knowledge" be it solely within the nation (William Faulkner, Grant Hill, Annie Leibowitz) or imported (Shakespeare, The Beatles, DaVinci). Unfortunately, if that knowledge is being trimmed from the curriculum for any reason, it then becomes less available. How then do we as a nation provide for the accessibility to our cultural knowledge? We cannot afford to issue a multi-volume "American Cultural Encyclopedia" to every current and new citizen. The cost and logistics are impossible. As Tom Hanks so adroitly poked at such issues of national concern in his recent EMMY acceptance speech, "If we could pull together the resources and people then (1960’s) to put a man on the moon, imagine . . . just imagine what problems could be solved today" (Hanks, 1998).

Imagine. The use of available technology resources and existing infrastructure could provide material and delivery capability for a general humanities survey curriculum. Though not as beneficial as a "live" experience, it would be better than no exposure at all to art, music and the great works of mankind. Specific courses are already taught through a "distance learning" or "open university" curriculum. A student can sit at home and watch a music theory course and listen to accompanying simultaneous broadcast of concert hall quality music over the radio. Meg Ryan points out that the high cost of music lessons is moving some people to invest in electronic tutors to learn piano (Ryan, 1997) and Microsoft has authored or co-produced numerous CD-ROM presentations on poetry, art, music, heritage—the core of the humanities.

Many individuals may question the digitizing of fine art images for inclusion in CD-ROM or other storage media databases. Why is it necessary? The art works themselves decay and disappear over time anyway. As Percy Bysshe Shelley points out in the final lines of his poem, Ozymandias:

And on the pedestal these words appear:

"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:

Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.

The destruction is apparent, but the knowledge--even a brief line on a statuary base--remains. Would it not be better, now that we have the technology Ozymandias didn't, to save the great works even if it is in a derivative digitized version? And would it not make sense to make these store houses available for educational purposes? The National Gallery in England has been creating photographic records of items that are too rare or fragile for travelling since the advent of photography. The photographic films will last for years but eventually they degrade beyond use. Digitized records last much longer and are much more compact. In addition, they can be "reconstituted" to analog format with the use of a printer (Saunders, 1998). With the development of infrared and laser scanning devices, three dimensional objects can also be digitized and stored, then reproduced by a robot or a human.

There is currently a feeling among some national museum directors that, due to the costs in obtaining, maintaining, and displaying their collections, portions of the collections may need to be "retired" or deaccessioned in the next fifty years (Lowry, 1998). The idea is just an idea--for now. However, the rising costs in maintaining current works and acquiring new works are causing some museums to consider selling off portions of their collections in order to obtain more or simply to maintain the rest. Similar to the problems with schools keeping an art curriculum, museums are facing funding cuts and slowdowns of patronage. The American Association of Museums has recently changed its statement (previously denouncing deaccessioning) to one that allows proceeds from the process to be used solely for maintenance of the surviving collections and acquisitions of new works. However, a small group of critics is actively opposing the deaccessioning of any works for any reason. So-called "Great Works" will probably never be deaccessioned as their prestige value as part of a collection far outweighs their drain on institutional financial resources.

But lesser known or unknown works may be lost in private collections forever. One efficient way to preserve these works is to simply photograph and digitize them. A brief biography of the artist could be included with such a packaging method. Films could be taken of the works in addition to the photos and digitized along with them. Increasing storage capacity and the increasingly common use of the CD-ROM as a storage medium would facilitate this.

Debra Kaufman discusses the history, development, and application of the interactive arts program at the J. Paul Getty museum. The program has a long and proven history of user satisfaction. It shows that an individual institution, such as a school or school district, can utilize digital information technology to enhance the experience of its customers, some of whom are also students. Not only did visitors who used the museum's kiosk computers say they liked the interactivity, most said it enhanced their appreciation of the exhibits and their visiting experience (Kaufman, 1998). Once an established design concept is agreed upon at a school or district level, a generalized database of information could be developed. Adding to a computerized database is much easier than printing an entirely new textbook. Pulling from the database is much easier in changing an existing curriculum. Chris Krueger, of Thunderwave Productions, designer and programmer of some recent Getty Museum Kiosks Programs, says that what was gleaned from designing the programs for the Getty museum was that the experiential approach enhances learning and can be applied to any learning body and any training or teaching program (Kaufman, 1998). So it is a viable tool to consider.

The existing mandates found in many secondary and post-secondary educational systems include Internet connectivity. President Clinton has called for an initiative to wire all schools by the year 2000. The advent of better, smaller cheaper technology has brought the price of an Internet capable computer below five hundred dollars and several cable and broadcast corporations, most notably Time-Warner and DirectTV are offering or plan to offer cable modem or satellite access to the Internet. The material existing on CD-ROM already can be geared for net access or even net broadcast. Specific courses designed to take advantage of the Internet and World Wide Web capabilities can easily be designed or existing courses converted. Live broadcasts can be sent through the datalines.

But it is not enough to provide technology in the classroom to assist in a humanities curriculum. Training must be provided not only to the users but to the facilitators as well. Stannie Holt surmises, quoting Stephen Gerkey, an educator turned consultant, "People, especially educators, need to make enormously complicated changes if they're going to use teaching and learning technologies effectively and help America's children do the same" (Holt, 1998). Or as educator and LucasFilm Learning director Susan Schilling says regarding the design of educational technology materials, "You need to have people who understand the technology, because they have to translate all the speeches and the highfalutin theory into something that's practical in that medium" (Parisi, 1997). Again, simply making a resource available is better than not having it, but still not as good as it could or should be.

Noted digital age luminary Alan Kay of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center and Apple Computers embraces the use of computer technology to enhance education. However, he disagrees with and actually agonizes over the views of some who believe that simply placing a computer in a classroom will enhance education. He delves into the miasma of confusion between the ideas of carrier and content using the area of music as analogy (Kay, 1995). The piano is a carrier for the musical content of a thinking, feeling human. The computer should be viewed as a similar instrument. Providing access to a computer is not enough. Content courses must be carefully and thoughtfully developed by instructional designers and curriculum designers to allow the user to learn. Providing access to the wealth of information and knowledge "out there" without guidance and assistance is akin to waving a menu of delicious food in front of a hungry diner's face without allowing access to the waiter (Kay, 1995). It is unfair and detrimental to the student in the long run.

Kay talks about his involvement in research at the Open School: Center for Individualization in Los Angeles and states that the job of technology is not to improve poor curriculum but instead to enhance a good curriculum. If the curriculum is inadequate, no number of computers or high-speed Internet access lines will salvage it. But the addition of the computers as tools for exploring--like the addition of a piano to a music class--aid in the understanding and motivation of the learners (Kay, 1995). In a flashback to the design days at Xerox PARC where he was a key developer of the first windows-style user interface--well prior to Microsoft's Windows--Kay expresses the desire for what he terms Interactive Learning Networks of computers. As an extension beyond a single workstation that would allow a single student to go on a virtual field trip to the Museum of Modern Art, the network would allow many students from a single school or even from different reaches of the globe, to visit the MOMA en masse. Big deal, this happens now, many designers think, but Kay goes a step further. The network is interactive--the students can talk to each other, teachers, guides, maybe even artists--all while virtually at the MOMA.

In the past, a limiting factor in the viability of enhancing education via technology has been the data storage factor. Many proponents felt that a mediocre or poor digital representation of an analog artifact was worse than the analog version. The advent of more and bigger storage media has resolved this to a great extent. Microsoft's entries into educational software include encyclopedias complete with audio and video clips, music and art history CD-ROMs and more. The expense in the initial digitizing of a work, visual or aural, has dropped drastically as has the storage expense. The corporate training world has long realized the advantage to have non-static training programs. The advent of Digital Video Disk technology and increasingly compact audio storage technology is making this an easier goal to accomplish. Dan Daley summarizes that there is simply no excuse anymore for poor audio or video in any training situation (Daley, 1998). This can easily be extrapolated to the educational system. With even low-end technology a moderately sized and funded school district could produce a digitized version of a general art and humanities course. Again, it is not like having the experience of guest lecturers or field trips, but it is better than no exposure. With the new technologies Daley discusses, guest lectures could be recorded on CD- or DVD-ROM disks. Questions could be e-mailed to the lecturer. It allows for a definite virtual interactivity with the possibility of real interactivity.

But is a virtual education a real education? Elizabeth Larsen contends it is possible today to avoid scribbling notes in a darkened lecture hall slideshow simply by surfing the Web. As any student who took a course called "Humanities" in the American High School Education system or even at a college level, will recall, a big portion consisted of looking at static pictures in a book, listening to recordings of music and seeing slides of art work. Very few students could journey on field trips to see these great works and their accompanying repositories. Few could afford the price of a symphony ticket. Very few field trips were provided, even fewer now. Larsen points out that in the last few years, most every museum of note has initiated a web page accessible through the Internet (Larsen, 1998). What a compendium of great resources this would be for any school arts curriculum, especially an under-funded or un-funded one or a rural district with limited teacher resources. A "Great Works" listing similar to the Great Books listing could be developed, coded into Hypertext Mark-up Language and made available via a web site. There are already compilation sites out there on the Web, just waiting to be utilized. Larsen realizes as do most people, that seeing something in digital form is not the same as being there. There is a limiting factor inherent in digitizing the experience, however it is better than no experience. Larsen concludes, however, "…but I don't now require that every symphony I listen to be live, and I'm equally comfortable with the tradeoffs inherent in a digital visual experience. Especially since I won't need to worry about those threatening letters from the bursar's office" (Larsen, 1998).

One of the newest ideas arising is that of the digital or electronic book. It comes in several flavors or formats from simple electronic text, known as "e-text" to actual interactive program-like production. And much of it is available free of charge after access to the Internet is accounted for. Project Gutenburg began as a labor of love at the University of Illinois. A group of volunteers began encoding the great works of literature from the ages into standard computer text and making them available freely over the Internet. Today, more volunteers type more works and submit them to the headquarters for proofreading and uploading. Most of the works considered part of the "Great Books" curriculum can now be found on-line.

Of course, with text-based access, there is a limitation to what can be presented on-line. Accompanying files can be uploaded for accession by the reader. And now a new consortium of volunteers is beginning an evolution in the area of digital books. Calling themselves Project Bartleby after Melville’s famous scribe, they prefer to create text frameworks complete with scanned figures, drawings, and images to engender more of the feel of holding a book in hand. Both Project Gutenburg and Project Bartleby are currently accessible over the Internet for downloading and the World Wide Web for viewing.

However, Julia Flanders hints at a possible demon in the works in regards to electronic texts, specifically the inclusion of images:

The information [electronic texts and editions] contain has a more important function, intellectually, but in order for it to take on this function the image needs to occupy a different position within the electronic edition: one by which it can be processed and treated as data rather than as an encumbrance or an adornment. This shift will depend partly on technology and advances in our encoding systems, and partly in a change in how we think about editions themselves.

She, and others, believe that perhaps the current inclusion of images within electronic editions of literary works are the result of a "look at the stuff I can display" attitude rather than out of necessity to explication and scholarly interest (Flanders, 1998). But should the learner be concerned by this? Does a student care if Salvador Dali painted for money, ego, or love? Or is a student just thankful Dali painted?

Perhaps the issue should not be why but instead why not? Why not go ahead and utilize technology to preserve and distribute the arts and humanities. Patricia Battin, former director of planning at Emory University for the Virtual University Project, addressed the audience at the National Endowment for the Humanities Thirtieth Anniversary Symposium, "The Humanities and Technology," with these words:

In using the new technologies to expand access to knowledge, to enhance individual learning styles, and push ever forward the frontiers of human knowledge, the central concern for the humanist in a technologically driven society should be a willingness to influence actively, persuasively, and eloquently the design of information systems that reflect our philosophical and educational values, that match medium and format to the intellectual inquirer and, above all, to ensure broad and continuing access to the human record.

Again, a fervent statement that the humanities are indeed important to education and that perhaps technology can enhance the intrinsic value. The NEH, in further support of this belief has become the sponsor of the Digital Library, a main goal of which is to make available via computer networking a digitized humanities collection Initiative (NEH, 1998). The ultimate goal is to create the same virtual access to important and historical material for a rural elementary school student or a tenured university professor.

Virtual accessibility seems to be a key component in any attempt to digitize the humanities. The idea itself seems oxymoronic, a de-humanizing of some of the greatest human works. But the trade-off that will be realized is a greater access by scholars of all levels to the body of human arts and knowledge accumulated through the ages. Noah Wardrip-Fruin, evoking the ghost of Abbie Hoffman and the sentiments in his epic tome, Steal this Book, states "freedom of the press belongs not to the person with a press, but to the person with a distribution mechanism" (as cited in Wardrip-Fruin, 1997). To enhance access to the freedom that comes from knowledge, we must make that knowledge available. Digital technologies offer a great way to assist in this effort, especially in relation to the potentially vanishing curriculum of the humanities.





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