JITE v37n4 - Broadening the Interdisciplinary Approach Technology Education: Connections Between Communications, Language, and the Literacy Arts

Volume 37, Number 4
Summer 2000

Broadening the Interdisciplinary Approach of Technology Education: Connections Between Communications, Language, and the Literary Arts

Mark Snyder
Clemson University

The interdisciplinary approach to instruction and curriculum development in technology education has received a great deal of attention in recent years. In 1972, Lindbeck referred to an interdisciplinary approach as an enriching "departure from, or modification of, standard … programs" in industrial arts ( p. 84 ). Although this concept has a deep historical footing, the building of a structure for a curriculum integrating knowledge and skills, typically acquired by students in separate subject areas, has gotten underway only within the past 15 years. In 1982, Maley suggested some "guidelines for Industrial Arts [sic] in the future" which included a program "inter–disciplinary in its approach to the problems and issues of society as well as the content of industry and technology" ( p. 38 ). Although the concept is not new to the profession, it has recently regenerated considerable discussion and debate and seems at last to be coming to fruition, or at least reaching a stage of serious experimentation through projects such as the Technology, Science, Mathematics Integration Project at Virginia Tech ( Childress, LaPorte & Sanders, 1994, p.34 ).

However, discrimination between appropriate bodies of knowledge may be a perceived pitfall of the profession in pursuing an interdisciplinary approach. Although the prescribed emphasis of technology education is on the "creation, utilization, and behavior of adaptive systems in relation to humans, their societies, and the life–giving and life–sustaining environment" ( International Technology Education Association [ITEA], 1988, p. 10 ), the ITEA (and a majority of technology education professionals involved in interdisciplinary efforts) have chosen to focus its efforts on aligning the field closely with mathematics and the natural sciences rather than bodies of knowledge that deal with culture and the human condition. Daugherty and Wicklein ( 1993 ) declared "if technology education is to assume its stated role of providing interdisciplinary settings for the application of mathematics and science concepts, efforts must be made to understand and inform those disciplines with which we choose to associate (e.g., mathematics, science)" ( p. 30 ). Does this imply that we choose not to associate with the humanities?

Are the humanities not equally relevant to the profession of technology education? Is there nothing to be gained by students establishing interdisciplinary roots among these branches of knowledge? The author supports the notion that language is a cultural invention. Similar arguments have been debated among scholars in the language and literary arts. The specific intent of this essay is to examine that particular segment of the humanities. The language and literary arts are based on the technology of communication and are an essential component in the study of communication making this area of technology education inherently interdisciplinary in nature and, perhaps, a most fundamental influence on the way people learn.

Toward a Broader Interdisciplinary Structure in Technology Education

Although the actual educational practice of the late nineteenth century (much like current practice) relied on a structured schedule of study in certain subjects, Calvin M. Woodward ( 1887 ) recognized that the knowledge and skills acquired in these areas were not mutually exclusive. He stated,

My own conclusion, based upon the observation of the influence of manual education for at least eight years, is that not only does our workshop not detract from the interest boys take in books, but it stimulates and increases it either directly or indirectly. In mathematics, physics, mechanics and chemistry, the help is direct and positive. Note, for instance, the mental arithmetic involved in the execution of a pattern from a working drawing. No one can learn from a book the true force of technical terms or definitions nor the properties of materials. The obscurities of the textbooks … vanish before the steady gaze of a boy whose hands and eyes have assisted in the building of mental images. ( p. 890 )

This statement reflects the extent of the curriculum offered in the St. Louis Manual Training School that Woodward opened in 1880, as well as the cultural norms of the period. Mathematics, science, language, drawing, and shopwork were the "five fundamental lines of study" that a "boy" would pursue at that institution. Obviously the system of education, and the culture, has changed considerably since then. For example, just over a century later, virtually any form of non–private education made available to only one gender would be open to question by modern culture as a gender equity issue. Yet, the typical school curriculum today retains, from that earlier period, an emphasis on mathematics, science, and humanities–perhaps, even more concentrated and specific.

By comparison, the aspects of "shopwork", or practical knowledge, included in the mainstream of public education over the years have followed a path of change which seems to have run parallel to changes that occurred in the culture, both of which were influenced to a great extent by technology. This perspective, one of cultural conversion, can be employed to suggest that technology education is an essential educational enterprise that helps to tie our culture to classical knowledge. The current emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach to technology education is held up as evidence of striving to reach that ideal. If that is indeed the role of technology education, there is a definite need to consider and include a wider range of knowledge, skills, and attitudes in this educational approach.

In 1877, Woodward declared that the interdisciplinary link between mathematics, sciences and "mechanics" is "direct and positive". More currently, the technology education profession has expressed a desire to cross the curriculum by applying the principles of mathematics and science through problem–solving activities. Daugherty and Wicklein ( 1993 ) wrote, "professionals within the field have called for a discipline more closely aligned with mathematics and science" ( p. 31 ), and "few individuals in the profession are not aware of the new emphasis being placed on presenting mathematics and science concepts in a technological framework" ( p. 30 ).

It seems reasonable that linking the study of mathematics and science with technology could cause increased motivation to learn, as well as develop a more complete and usable understanding of these "pure" forms of knowledge. In a discussion of technology and science, Frey described three aims of science. The first and most general, is that we may better understand nature. Second, from a more logistic perspective, it may be considered the ongoing development of theories to investigate phenomena. Third and finally, science can be considered an attempt to identify truth or transcendent fundamental reality ( 1991, p. 20 ).

A perceived weakness of past interdisciplinary efforts is the lack of appreciation for another quality which makes technology education unique from the other disciplines–that it deals with how humans have interacted with truth. The famous obectivist, Rand, once stated,

It is only in the Realm of pure science that truth is an absolute criterion. When we deal with applied science, with technology – we deal with people. And when we deal with people, considerations other than truth enter the question. ( 1957, p.181 )

Technology deals with how humans interact with the laws of nature through technical systems. Instead of focusing on technical systems specifically, technology educators might place an increased emphasis on the human condition. In particular, they should emphasize the manner in which humans have developed technical systems, the motivation for doing so, and the need to assess and adapt to change. Maley ( 1982 ) stated, " one of the imperatives that our educational and social institutions must face is a sense of priority for the fact–that…[people and their] fulfillment and the quality of life is the end goal" ( p. 6 ).

The organization of an appropriate curriculum, considered necessary for technology education to be deemed a discipline, consumed an inordinate amount of time and effort during the 1980's. Yet, technology educators could trap themselves into a model of what a discipline "should be" by focusing extensively on the organization of content. While content structure is necessary, Maley ( 1982 ) recognized that "the program should be directed towards the development of the individual including such areas as the basic skills, learning to learn, social skills, communications, and a sense of self–worth" ( p. 38 ). Technology educators will continue to expose children to practical applications of the natural sciences; however, the emphasis should be on the human condition and the bigger picture of how and why "the truth" is and has been applied by people to modify their culture. Therefore, technology educators should consider the study of the humanities to be akin to the very nature of technology.

Instruction in schools has often been criticized for being unrealistic when compared to the manner of attainment and application of knowledge in the development of society. The liberal arts approach of studying theories and established classical wisdom should be praised for attempting to provide the student with an exposure to the knowledge that brought our world to its present state. However, in the traditional pursuit of "pure knowledge", many useful and relevant experiences are often neglected that could positively enlighten young learners.

Harkening back to the establishment of Woodward's Manual Training School during the late nineteenth century, it is evident that it created some controversy, especially when several other schools began to include manual training as part of their system of general education. Bennett ( 1937 ) believed that this approach met a distinct need in the American educational system during the period, and stated,

Yet, in doing so, it aroused the active and sometimes highly emotional opposition of some of the more conservative educators who did not recognize the value of manual training in general education and feared the breaking down of the academic standards already established. ( p. 360 )

Hopefully, the theory and practice of educational systems in the future will accept the premise that, in addition to their ability to reason, humans are essentially tool–using animals who have used these capabilities to shape their world. If so, technology education will inevitably have a closer relationship with studies of cultural development. Since the humanities are those branches of knowledge which consist of a primarily cultural character, it seems sensible that technology education has a great deal in common with the humanities as well.

Technology, Language, and Learning

It is possible for communication between humans to take place without language. Yet, human languages that have evolved for the purpose of communication are themselves among the most significant technological achievements of people. Writing and reading were other technological advancements that formalized early human communication and are intrinsic to both the literary arts and the study of communication technology.

In the past 25 years, revolutionary changes in communication technologies have taken place. Yet, what is the significance of these changes if an awareness of their influence on humans is not addressed? Rich, a feminist poet and author, wrote the following,

Language is as real, as tangible in our lives as streets, pipelines, telephone switchboards, microwaves, radioactivity, cloning laboratories, nuclear power stations. We might hypothetically possess ourselves of every technological resource on the North American continent, but as long as our language is inadequate, our vision remains formless, our thinking and feeling are still running in the old cycles, our process may be "revolutionary" but not transformative. ( Rich, 1979 )

In context, the revolution she was concerned with was the feminist movement, yet, the questions raised by this statement might be considered in a much broader perspective. For example, what is the link between technology, language, and the way we think and feel? Also, what benefit does our use of technology offer us if we continue to maintain traditional educational paradigms?

Liedtke ( 1990 ) categorized systems of communication as "mechanical, optical, audio, visual, electrical, biological, etc." ( p. 188 ). The application of technologies such as various forms of printing, telegraphy, radio, television, computers, multimedia, and now hypermedia, to communication, has undeniably altered the way humans communicate. Ong ( 1990 ) stated, "electronic communication on radio, television, and now the computer has done away with the old declamatory tone of the ancient rhetorical tradition and the distances this tone implied" ( p. 213 ). Unquestionably, the vast range of communication technologies available today have influenced the way humans live and even the way they think in modern society.

Postman ( 1988 ) discussed his view of how communication technology has not only influenced language but also the human mindset in his book Conscientious Objections: Stirring up Trouble about Language, Technology, and Education. He believes that a visual culture is emerging; that "the picture has replaced the word as the central mode of public discourse" ( p. 63 ). He continued, "even worse, audiences have grown accustomed to receiving information in the forms of images–and no longer have the patience or possibly the ability to process the fixed, lineal, abstract, word" ( p.63 ).

Postman claimed, in his later book Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, that students are being subjected to a collision "where two great technologies confront each other in uncompromising aspect for the control of students' minds" ( 1992, p.16 ). He explained,

On the one hand, there is the world of the printed word with its emphasis on logic, sequence, history, exposition, objectivity, detachment, and discipline. On the other, there is the world of television with its emphasis on imagery, narrative, presentness, simultaneity, intimacy, immediate gratification, and quick emotional response. Children come to school having been deeply conditioned by the biases of television. There, they encounter the world of the printed word. A sort of psychic battle takes place, and there are many casualties …. ( 1992, p.16 )

Although he has a tendency to personify technology and seems to have a low opinion of the ability of people to perceive and evaluate the implications of technological advancement, Postman tries to remain objective in Technopoly . In Lanham's words, "Postman's great concern is the inundation of meaningless information created by electronic media" and "we need not worry about people's being swamped by useless information. They will pick out what is germane to their needs." ( 1994, p. 242 ). Postman eventually comes around to say that we can all stave off the calamity of "technopoly" (submitting ourselves "to the sovereignty of a technological thought–world") by overcoming ignorance through education ( 1992, p.183 ).

The Perspective of Literary Scholars on Technology

The concept of technological literacy was humorously addressed by Lanham in his book titled The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. In regard to professionals in his field, he stated, "apoplexy seems to come more naturally than apocalypse to literary scholars when we think about technology" ( 1994, p. 25 ). On a more serious note, Lanham stated, "literary scholars have traditionally resisted and resented technological change" ( 1994, p. 26 ). In regard to technology and the literary arts, he also wrote,

Technology is sending the same message being broadcast upon us by our own thinking: We must take into our disciplinary domain the world of general literacy upon which literature depends, a world whose existence up to now we have simply assumed. ( 1994, p. 26 )

In context, it is clear that the "world of general literacy" referred to by Lanham would include the concept of "technological literacy" with which technology education concerns itself. Indeed, he makes the point in his book that the modern study of the arts depends upon the ability to think systemically and to adapt to technological change.

Literary academicians have developed an interest in the influence of technology on the literary arts. Lanham views current technological advancements as revolutionary for his field. Of technology's influence on rhetoric, the art of communicating effectively, Lanham ( 1994 ) wrote,

After all, rhetoric as we know it was born in the midst of a radical change in technology–the invention of writing. We are passing through a change equally great right now. Writing created one breed of seriousness; electronic text is now creating another. The new one is more suited to 'the felt necessities of the time,' and we will have failed as humanists and rhetoricians if we do not employ it for the purposes to which it is so cordially invites us. ( p. 85 )

However, not all literary academicians are as optimistic as Lanham. In ABC: The Alphabetization of the Popular Mind, Illich and Sanders ( 1988 ) described an alternate viewpoint:

Our efforts to understand the effect that parchment and seal, ink and pen had on the world view eight hundred years ago led us to the discovery of a paradox: literacy is threatened as much by modern education as by modern communication–and yet, adverse as the side effects of compulsory literacy have been for our contemporaries, literacy is still the only bulwark against the dissolution of language into 'information systems' ( preface ).

Whereas Illich and Sanders perceive current educational practices and technology as threatening to language and literacy, Lanham sees change as an ongoing process. According to Lanham, some implications of technology are inevitable but people do have considerable power to shape the outcomes.

Technological determinism, the antithesis to Lanham's optimistic logic, is the reasoning that seems to be pervasive in the literary arts. Those who subscribe to this notion tend to believe that technology is a force that is beyond the control of people. Significant authors who have supported this point of view also include Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul.

This view is also reflected by Tuman who, in his book Word Perfect: Literacy in the Computer Age, wrote, "is it possible for the ascendancy of hypertext to do anything but push literacy in the direction of information management?" ( p. 78 ). He also stated, "the technology driving the networked classroom, just like that driving hypertext, seems to lead inevitably to a redefinition of literacy" ( 1992, p. 89 ). While this quote may lead one to believe that the matter of interest is merely instructional technology, Tuman is concerned with a much larger issue (as are a growing number of his contemporaries)–what will happen to the written word?

The fate of language and the written word is a matter of debate in the literary world today. There are those who are fearful that our use of technology will alter not only the structure of what they teach, such as the literary arts, but that our use of technology will essentially change the entire academic system. Yet, while educators attempt to keep up with the technology that they employ for instruction, less effort seems to go into identifying the extent of influence that modern technology is having on traditional disciplines and the weight that it should carry in the planning and development of our future educational systems. In Technopoly, Postman ( 1992 ) contends that schools need to reestablish a coherent sense of purpose–the discovery of knowledge. He suggests that the current curriculum is still useful given some additions and a different approach that "is not child–centered, not training–centered, not skill–centered, not even problem–centered. It is idea–centered and coherence–centered" ( 1992, p. 188 ). Postman would change the current content to ground each discipline more firmly in its own history and to stress broader knowledge of the arts and religion, disciplined use of language, the scientific method, and what he refers to as "human enterprise" ( p.189 ). What he proposes is a "serious" liberal arts education with an added dimension–technology.

Perhaps technology education can become the interdisciplinary fiber of the school. Considering the transition that the technology education profession recently underwent and the potential for revision in the overall educational system, technology educators are in a good position to guide, or at least participate in, important discussions regarding technology's influence on humanity and the interdisciplinary role that technology education can play to link the entire school curriculum.

The Potential Role for Technology Education

The study of communication has been pursued primarily along two theoretical lines. One premise concentrated on communication as technical systems for transmitting information. Another perspective is to view technical means as merely an extension of the activity of basic human communication. This point of view relates to communication technology as an extension of ourselves. Perhaps one of the most iconic figures supporting this view was Marshall McLuhan, a Canadian writer and educator during the mid–twentieth century. He believed that language and media were instruments of focusing perceptions and, as such, were art forms. Of course, both theories are very closely intertwined but, understandably, there is an inherent urge by technology educators to focus mainly on the technical aspects of communication. If technology educators enter into an interdisciplinary endeavor with others from the arts, then it may become necessary for those on each side of the communication issue to broaden their perspectives.

As an example of how a recent communication technology has become popular, consider the growing use of animation and three–dimensional capabilities in computer–aided design. Technologists typically value it as a new and improved way of communicating mechanical design, such as the appearance and makeup of a component. McLuhan, who coined the phrase "the medium is the message" ( 1964, ch. 1 ), would probably not perceive it the same way. Instead, he might have considered the makeup of the component as secondary to the capabilities of the medium to represent human ideas in such a radically new manner. The rapid application of this same technology for commercial and entertainment purposes on television makes it apparent that many did recognize the unusual and creative possibilities of representing purely visual forms.

Another concern involves the evolution of technology and the transition to application in technical education. A classic example of this issue can be drawn from the realm of mechanical design. Is it essential for students involved in design activities to begin by learning the techniques involved with using a pencil and drafting board or can they immediately begin by using computer–aided design systems? To help make that decision one can turn to educational research or the advice of experienced educators as sources of input. Still, those sources may reflect the biases of earlier cultural influences on the development of the experts. The learners themselves may provide the best indication of what is appropriate based on their capabilities.

The public is concerned with the practicality and the "half–life" of the skills and knowledge that students acquire through technology education. How long does it take to learn problem–solving? How far into the future will students be able use what they have learned? When will this knowledge and these skills, become obsolete due to the ever–changing technological world in which we live? These are questions that are commonly asked. Understandably, many current proponents of liberal arts education find little merit in teaching knowledge and skills that will inevitably become outmoded due to the advancement of technology.

This concern seems to be rooted in the perception that the emphasis of technology education is on teaching specific skills. To be sure, this is not the case. Technology educators aspire to enable students to learn how to learn–an important trait in a technological world that changes rapidly. They also espouse the concept of lifelong learning–that learning never ends. Technology educators facilitate the application of theoretical knowledge, through technics, to solve practical problems. But, most importantly, they should help students to learn to appreciate technology, be critical of it, and be aware that they as members of society, and as individuals, are responsible for its evolution.

It is very easy to get caught up in the allure of specific technologies but technology educators must keep the interdisciplinary ideal in the forefront of their thinking and maintain a broad curriculum that includes a wide range of activities. Interdisciplinary efforts are a fine way to expose the world to what technology education is all about. Revealing the true identity of the profession to administrators and educators in other disciplines is the best way to increase their approval of broadening the student experience to include more active participation in the learning process. Seymour ( 1990 ) wrote, "numerous opportunities for instructional cooperation and assistance exist in most high schools", and listed the following "sample of secondary courses as related to human communication": art, band, composition, data processing, debate, English, foreign languages, literature, office practice, public speaking, journalism, theater, and typing ( p. 78 ). All of these courses are in some way linked to the concept of communication and have the potential for an interdisciplinary liaison with technology education.

Coordinating activities that depend on a cooperative effort of teachers and students in different disciplines typically requires additional time, painstaking planning, and, often, flexible scheduling. However, with the extended knowledge base and the increased human and budgetary resources made available through interdisciplinary efforts, unique ideas that could not otherwise be attempted may be achieved with rewarding results. If it is true that young learners develop structured ways of thinking based upon experiences, then the practical interdisciplinary student activities that technology educators can deliver would be very beneficial to developing students' language of thought.


In the midst of this discussion one thing is clear–communication technologies will play out a role in the future of the language and literary arts. An alarming number of communication technologies have evolved during the past century. It seems apparent that the process of change is accelerating and people must continue to be aware of the implications of emerging technologies.

Due to advancing technology, professionals in the literary arts have become concerned with the future of the written and spoken word. While many feel threatened by technology, there are those who see opportunities in these changes. Communication technology is closely linked to the humanities, since language itself is a technological achievement of humans. Although there are many technical communication systems, in most cases the message itself is an extension of the basic form of human communication–language. Thus language is still of fundamental importance to the area of communication technology and technology teachers are necessarily involved in the process of teaching basic skills on a daily basis. Therefore, technology education is interdisciplinary by nature–a fact that should be appreciated and promoted.

The concept of an interdisciplinary approach has a long history within the profession and recently it has experienced a strong resurgence. As in the past, this trend recognizes and encourages a strong working relationship with mathematics and science educators. Since technology educators, as a profession, study the manner in which humans have, throughout time, applied knowledge to modify their culture, it has been suggested here that technology educators must consider the humanities, including the language and the literary arts, on at least an equal basis with other disciplines.

Changes that have occurred in the profession within the past hundred years seem to have run parallel to changes in the culture, yet for the most part, the "academic" disciplines have remained relatively constant, albeit more specialized. Perhaps, the field which has been continuously evolving into technology education has always been an essential educational enterprise that links the classical knowledge to our culture. If this is true, then a broad interdisciplinary approach involving technology education should be considered a natural outcome of general educational practice.


Snyder is an Assistant Professor in the Graphic Communications Department at Clemson University (South Carolina).


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