The smarter the techie toys get, the dumber we get, or so it seems...
|When I was still not more than a wee tot, I learned to read. By the age of 9, I took a turn in the road that has continued ever since. That was the year I turned into a bookworm, but not just any kind of bookworm, not your common indoor variety of bookworm, oh no. A rare and nocturnal sort, who read all night, and burned daylight with a voracious, rapacious ferocity, a famished appetite for being and doing and seeing and all things physical. Once a week like clockwork I would crash, and sleep the sleep of the satiated.
This time of life I realize now, taught me a very valuable thing in life. The ability to focus. To focus in the way one does focus when one reads. To dance with the words, dance them right off the page and into your mind, your imagination, to weigh and to taste, savor and digest the nutrition not only of language but all that it does, what it's for, and how it melds with that constant inner dialogue, the one that entertains, explores, astounds, creates, inspires and not least important of all by any means, satisfies that inner curiosity to want to know and understand things.
But back again to this ability to focus, which is to say, concentrate. Deep and dense and dark and direct. That's what reading does. When pages flip and fly by like seashore gulls on a wet wild windy day, like snowflakes gathering into drifts, like any countless thing we lose ourselves in for a time. That kind of focus.
I still believe that the activity of reading is the very central core of education. At the highest levels, the rigor and discipline of it can be a cruel taskmaster. A marathon run, a pentathlon, the sprints, the bursts, the measured pacing to a long distance's end. Centuries' worth of readership drifted down long ages and deposited us here and now, with what we know, what we do, and who we are in our exalted state of study.
When I was young and foolish I thought I'd be a history teacher, for I loved history because it was of course, stories really, and coming from a long ago and left behind backdrop of oral tradition, oratory, mythology and just plain old who did what and when and why and how and what the hell did it all mean anyway and how did that get us from then until here and now?
That sort of thing.
But then things happened and forks showed up in the road and I chose left instead of right, or the other way around further on, and one thing led to another and a library just kind of reached out and swallowed me up and I didn't mind so much because that's where the books are.
But I shudder to think of what it would be like to be a teacher these days. It's an automatic given that if I was a high school history teacher, I'd have a box up at the front of the room beside my desk, and into that box would go every single cell phone at the beginning of the class, to stay there (turned off) until the end of class. Yeah, I'd be a real popular guy. But that's the only way I could do it. The thought of fighting for a classroom's attention with THAT thing? Not on your life.
So sure. I'm a dinosaur. Or a malcontent. Or a Luddite. Or just not cool. Only - on that last one? Yeah I am cool, actually. It took me many years to get that way (although the sprouts of it were there a long time ago) but of course it all depends on how you define what cool is. One of the things I really dig about cool, is that the definition often skips just out of reach, just on beyond, like a ping pong ball trying to behave itself on a sloped surface.
So on, bravely on we march to examine this...thing...this techie toy. Are they addictive? I find it fascinating, how addictive the things actually are. Only it's a kind of invisible addiction, really. If one addict showed up in a crowd of a hundred non-addicts they'd stand out like a sore thumb. But instead it's the non-addicts that stand out like a sore thumb. So yeah I do get a little cruel at times. I refer to the devices as soothers and suckies - you know, those ridiculous little plastic and rubber fake surrogate nipples we pop in baby mouths when they get fractious and we haven't got a bottle and we don't want them to fuss. Keeps them pacified. Yes, pacifiers are what they actually are called, aren't they? Mercy!
I'm told that these things are smart enough to send men (and women) to the moon. By that what's meant is that they have enough (of whatever Nasa needed) to accomplish the same feat. Sure. And the point is? When was the last time I came across a device user who was busy plotting expeditionary courses to Mars? They are, as devices, indeed, distractions. That they are. They are so distracting that people can miss the most remarkable things happening all around them, while otherwise distracted. But you know, I'm getting distracted from the main point of this editorial commentary.
Which is to focus on how these things dance with a real education. Or don't. Thinking about it from the point of view of a teacher. Which I'm not, and never was, as explained earlier, but had I followed that chosen path and wound up at the head of a classroom of high school history students......
Well, the phones would just have to go, don't you know. Which causes me to wonder, what is it that teachers today do about all this? Do they just throw in the towel on it? Shrug and give up? I know that university professors really don't give a [blank] as long as the bloody things are silent.
Maybe I'm just old fashioned. But how does a teacher teach from the front of the room with all eyes forward and focused and giving that teacher a real good reason to be interesting? Like on stage. They're looking at you so you have to entertain them, startle them, croon to them, push them, inspire them, toss wisdom and wit to the fans...so to speak. In short, teach. Now this could lead right into a whole new topic, and as tantalizing as that may be at the moment, I must exercise a bit of discipline here and stay on course. Because this isn't really about teaching actually, it's about the phones that make us dumb, and how they do that, and why.
In the hand of a kid, a smartphone is a powerful thing. It can be many other things besides just a distraction. It can be a weapon. It can bring the tyranny of a mob straight into their life. It can access certain "adult" realities that a kid isn't necessarily ready to assimilate. One of my personal favorites is the famous lovers' spat by text. Or it can take over and rule the rules of communication, eliminating face to face real time conversation, which of course includes all those interesting things that humans do with body language, tone of voice, facial expression, and just all that stuff we are known to do in each others' company.
In short, the damned thing can isolate kids inside a sort of digital prison. This weird inner world of contrivance, mediated artifice, and a kind of compartmentalized small-screened shrinkage. We still wonder what all that does over the long haul.
And of course, around all this 'reality' we wonder where the adults are in a kid's life. Working 80 hour weeks at three jobs? Perhaps. Or maybe even suffering from their own 'smart' addiction. One of my personal mantras in today's world is a simple thing, really. Kids need adults to be adult. Because they aren't exactly adult. They're kids. And we are really capable of exerting a kind of soft bigotry of low expectations on kids. Meanwhile they're busy accessing all this adult stuff, and sometimes the very worst kind of adult stuff. Adult stuff that doesn't do a very good job of raising a kid.
I wonder to myself sometimes, if somewhere down the line some generation of kids shows up, perhaps as yet still just twinkles in kids' eyes - and this generation will just sort of shrug off the technological enthrallments of this modern era, and find other things to do with their time? Like learn how to read, and take things apart just to figure out what makes them tick, and put them back together again. And demand real talk time with one another. And get real fascinated with the three dimensional world, instead of a CGI make believe artificial one. If a thing like that ever happened how many parents would feel like they'd traded places with their kids?