What I Learned From a Brainiac

Thursday's Editorial   —   Posted on February 2, 2012

(by David Deming, The Wall Street Journal, WSJ.com) – Most people think personal computing began in 1976 with the introduction of the Apple I. But we had personal computers in 1960. We just couldn’t use them to play videogames or surf the nonexistent Internet. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We built our computers from kits and programmed them on our own. Instead of entertaining ourselves we developed critical thinking skills.

For Christmas 1960, my brother received a BRAINIAC electric brain construction kit. The Brainiac (brain-imitating almost-automatic computer) kits were conceived, designed and marketed by American computer scientist Edmund Berkeley (1909-1988). For $18.95, the purchaser received a kit containing pieces of Masonite pegboard, flashlight bulbs, nuts and bolts. Instructions included wiring diagrams for constructing a number of primitive computer circuits that could add, subtract, play tick-tack-toe and solve simple problems in logic. An advertisement described the computer as “fun to use and play with, and teaches you something new about electrical computing and reasoning circuits.”

Assembling the Brainiac was a challenge. Once it was built, you weren’t done. The wires on it could be arranged into 170 different circuits. So the Brainiac kit taught problem-solving skills, both in its assembly and execution. If this wasn’t challenging enough, the kit contained Edmund Berkeley’s manual on Boolean Logic. There was little in this pamphlet that I comprehended.

But that was all right. The very existence of the complicated technical materials notified us that there were vast worlds of information and learning to explore. The first task in climbing a mountain is to take note of its existence. In 1960, children were expected to rise up and meet standards set by adults. Self-esteem was something you attained by achievement.

My brother and I also read books. We gained an appreciation for the excitement and promise of science from the adventures of “Tom Swift Jr.” We built our vocabularies by perusing “Doctor Doolittle,” “Freddy the Pig” and the “Tarzan” novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs. We read science fiction by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. We developed our powers of mental concentration and analytical thinking skills by learning and playing chess.

We watched television, but no more than a couple of hours a week. Even so, broadcast television in the early 1960s tended to be instructional, not vulgar or degrading. Episodes of the “Andy Griffith Show” contained lessons in morality, and Rod Serling’s “Twilight Zone” stretched our imaginations and intellects.

My brother and I both attended public schools. But our appreciation for education and science were acquired at home. We both went on to become scientists. I’m a geophysicist, and my brother became one of the world’s leading astrophysicists.

A modern personal computer has educational potential, too. But unlike the Brainiac, it is used today almost entirely for entertainment. Videogames have no educational value whatsoever. They are degrading, addictive and stultifying. The promise of the high technology developed by previous generations has largely been squandered.

Placing a book in the hands of a child is infinitely more beneficial than giving them any type of electronic device. Reading is an active intellectual promise that expands children’s intelligence, builds their vocabulary, and increases their command of language and thought. A modern computer is not an educational asset unless its use is closely monitored, restricted and supervised.

And education begins at home. There is little that teachers can do with children who have not been challenged at home but instead have been indulged and entertained with an array of electronic devices.

Education in this country would take a quantum leap forward if parents would take some simple steps: Instead of entertaining your children, set challenging intellectual goals for them. Remove all videogames from your home. Buy books and encourage your children to read them. Discretely allow limited access to educational material on computers and televisions.

If you set high standards, your children will rise to them.

Published February 1, 2012 at The Wall Street Journal. Reprinted here February 2, 2012 for educational purposes only. Visit the website at wsj.com.