Computers and Kids

I have blogged about this before, but a recent post by a dear friend congratulating a former teacher for taking time out of her retirement to fit out a bus with computers and take this “fully equipped mobile tech center” to the kids to help them get a leg up on education disturbed me a bit and made me recall what I had read some time ago about computers and the kids. It’s not at all clear that getting young children on computers — or any sort off electronic device — will help them develop their minds. The jury is still out on the question, but there is growing clinical evidence that those devices develop the right side of the human brain and leave the left side almost totally undeveloped. In addition, there are “windows” when certain types of brain development must take place in young children or it will never happen.

The problem here is the left hemisphere of the human brain is the side that controls language and thought. The right side is the “affective” side, the side of imagination and emotion. There’s nothing wrong with developing the right side of the child’s brain — unless the left hemisphere is left undeveloped as a result. And that seems to be the case when we rely on computers to teach. In addition, it has been shown that there is a direct correlation between increased computer usage and attention deficit disorder.

Ironically, the schools are on the bandwagon, buying computers for the kids — or accepting them from all-too-willing corporations that are delighted to get the kids hooked as soon as possible. And the parents applaud these efforts, which often include providing the child with his or her very own computer, because they are convinced that this will put their kids squarely on the information highway and on their way to a successful life. They may not support increased salaries for the teachers, but they will gladly see their tax money spent on computers.

Nothing provides us with information as quickly or as efficiently as computers. That much is clear. Moreover, we all know that information is a key to understanding.  It is a sine qua non of all knowing. But it is not alone sufficient. Humans must also know how to process information, separate the wheat from the chaff and determine what is true and what is fiction —  recognize “false facts.” Thought requires the development of the left hemisphere of the human brain and as Jane M. Healy has told us in her book Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think, recent clinical studies of human brain development involving brain scans and MRIs  have shown that electronic devices do not help that portion of the brain to develop. To quote Dr. Healy directly:

“The experiences of children today [involving television and the use of electronic devices such as computers] may be predisposing them to deficits both in effective coordination between hemispheres and in higher-level linguistic and organizational skills of the left hemisphere [of the brain]. They may particularly lack practice in the use of left-hemisphere systems of auditory analysis and in the skills of logical, sequential reasoning.”

Moreover, as Marie Winn points out regarding television in the book referred to above,

“.. a carefully controlled study designed to explore the relationship between television viewing and the language spoken by preschool children discovered an inverse relationship between viewing time and performance on tests of language development; the children in the study who viewed more television at home demonstrated lower language levels.”

Computers, like television, are essentially passive devices — even when “interactive.” They cannot substitute for a human being sitting down with another human being, or several other human beings, and having a discussion. Human interaction, especially at a young age, the telling of stories, reading stories, making stories up, or simply visiting and chatting about the sort of day the child is having are certain ways to help the child’s mind to grow and develop fully — not just on one side. I hasten to point out that we are talking about young children here, kindergarten through eighth grade. There is plenty of time to teach students basic computer skills to help them get a leg up in the job-hunting arena when they reach high school, after the critical windows have closed in early brain development. These skills could at that time be taught along with civics, history, literature, mathematics, and science, subjects that will deepen the young students’ minds and broaden their horizons well.

My wife and I gave a book of brain-teasers to a precocious young child we love dearly thinking it would help her develop her mind and that she would enjoy the challenge. After a very few minutes she was looking up the answers in the back of the book! This is learned behavior. One wonders how often this happens with computers as attention spans shrink. In any event, it is something that would not happen with another human being. There would be give and take, exchanges back and forth, encouragement, hints, and the kind of coaching that goes into good teaching. That’s what should have been happening on the “mobile tech center.” Computers are not the answer to helping young kids learn how to use their minds. Good teaching and good parenting are the answers.

Hitherto Unknown

I am reading Gertrude Himmelfarb’s latest book The Moral Imagination, which is a collection of essays about famous people and their take on life. One of the entries is about John Buchan, whom I must confess I had never heard about. He died in 1940 and Himmelfarb describes him as having been a “novelist, biographer, historian, member of Parliament, governor-general of Canada, . . . one of the last articulate representatives of the Old England. . . .the paradigm (the parody some would have it) of a species of English gentlemen now nearly extinct.”

Buchan is also a bit of a cynic and I find myself drawn to many of his witticisms and observations about the people he sees around him — mostly found in his novels apparently. As I say, I had never heard of this man, which is a bit embarrassing since he is quite remarkable. In any event, he has this to say about civilization, a civilization which he regards as “a very thin crust” over the barbarism that lurks always just beneath the surface:

“A civilization bemused by an opulent materialism has been met by a rude challenge. The free people have been challenged by the serfs. The gutters have exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world. The beggar-on-horseback rides roughshod over the helpless and the cavalier. A combination of multitudes who have lost their nerve and a junta of arrogant demagogues has shattered the community of nations. . . .There is in it all, too, an ugly pathological savor, as if a mature society were being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

Remarkable prose. And telling insights. If we were to alter the word “serfs” in the second sentence above and replace it with “mindless minions” Buchan could be describing what has just happened in this country, now under the thumb of a “beggar-on-horseback” if there ever was one.  But Buchan’s gaze extends beyond the  borders of any particular nation to the world as such. And it would appear that he saw  what has come about in this country and other “developed”  (and undeveloped) nations as well: mature societies “being assailed by diseased and vicious children.”

What concerned Buchan primarily was the boiling cauldron beneath the surface of civilization in the form of a black heart, the dark subconscious mind, within so many of the humans he saw around him — even before Hitler and Stalin had taken center stage. As Himmelfarb notes in this regard:

“Once the subconscious, lawless instincts of men were liberated and broke through the barrier erected by civilization, ‘there will be a weakening of the power or reasoning, which after all is the thing that brings men nearest to the Almighty; and there will be a failure of nerve.’ It was not the reason of state, even of a hostile state, that alarmed him but the force of unreason itself.”

At times we come across a mind that, while perhaps a bit cynical, sees clearly what the rest of us fail to admit is there, or never saw in the first place. But given the events of recent times where the force of unreason has most assuredly been released and at least two of the major players on the world stage strut their stuff and play “chicken” with nuclear weapons (neither of these men having a brain the size of a chicken’s), one must shudder to think that Buchan may have been prescient. The gutters have indeed “exuded a poison which bids fair to ingest the world.”

We live in hard times and many of us prefer to think about more pleasant things. But despite our determination to look the other way, when we hear the ring of truth it stuns and demands our attention.

“Racism” Revisited

Once again as I near the end of preparation for the publication of my book I reprint a previous post that will appear in that book. I apologize to those who demand originality — though a few years ago this was an original!

I recall having a discussion with a colleague years ago about racism. I accused him of being racist in his grading policies since he graded his minority students more leniently than he did his other students. He objected that this couldn’t be racism, since he was treating the minority students more favorably. I thought that treating his students differently because of their race — regardless of how he treated them — was still racist, that that all students should be held to the same standards. I still think that is right, though I am not nearly so sure as I was at that time. In fact, I am not nearly so sure about many things I was sure of 20 or 30 years ago!
But the question of what constitutes “racism” is a tricky one. Chinua Achebe, the African novelist, wrote a scathing attack on Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness because Conrad’s narrator, Marlowe, uses the “N” word repeatedly. I have mentioned Achebe’s essay before, but it deserves extended comment.
Achebe insisted that the book was “racist” and that people should not read it for that reason. I published an essay defending Conrad on the grounds that while some books might be called such, this one is not. The fact that the narrator used an offensive term in a novella set in the early part of the twentieth century was simply an accurate depiction of the way people used the word in those days. In addition, it is not clear that Conrad himself can be accused of racism, and his novella certainly didn’t encourage or, worse yet, promote racism.
On the contrary. I argued that if you read the novella carefully you can see that it is the Europeans who are under attack. The native people in the novel are in every way superior to the whites who are there to exploit them and their continent in a greedy attempt to take everything they can profit from– especially, in this case, ivory. We know from reading Conrad’s biography, furthermore, that he was sickened by what he saw when he visited the Congo late in his years with the British merchant navy.
What was happening in Achebe’s case, I felt, was that he was unable to get past Marlowe’s use if the “N” word, which is offensive to the people so designated — now. Out of deference to black people we should assuredly not use a term they find offensive, even though they might use it themselves. The one who is the target certainly is in a position to determine what words are or are not offensive. But it makes no sense to accuse a man who wrote in 1902 of being “racist” if he is using language that was not regarded as offensive at that time. Edith Wharton, among many of her generation, uses the term as well. And there are other terms that were in general use at the time that we now recognize as offensive and it would be a mistake to dismiss those writers out of hand because they weren’t able to determine 50 or 60 years down the road what words would be found offensive by future readers.
One of the common practices in our schools, in so far as any of these books are read at all in the schools, is to substitute acceptable words for the offensive ones, thereby protecting the young from the words that might offend someone even at the cost of altering the nature of the work being read. I am not sure where I come down on this question, because I have such a high regard for great writers and object to any attempt to alter their works. But I am not the one being targeted by the offensive terms, so I don’t really have anything to say about it.
In the end, though, I would prefer if the kids were to read the books as they were written and the teachers used the reading as an opportunity to talk about racism and the language that some find offensive. It seems to me that we are missing out on an excellent educational opportunity. Again.

Hard Times

I am not a Charles Dickens scholar and really not much of a fan to be honest. I have read a number of his novels, but I find them a bit too didactic to be true art though I realize that novelists are free to do with their writing whatever they choose. At the same time I realize they are well worth reading, despite the fact that so many of his characters are caricatures, overdrawn and designed to produce a smile or a frown. Clearly, he was determined to draw attention to the poor and downtrodden of his times and their proximity to criminality which is always a temptation, especially for the poor. Moreover, his popularity and his influence are well documented. If popularity were the measure of the true worth of a novel, Dickens’ name would be at or near the top of the list. But I do not think popularity counts for much when it comes to aesthetic value. Still, as I say, his novels show signs of true artistic impulses, his writing is masterful, and his novels always provide us with something to think about.

In Hard Times, for example, Dickens targets utilitarianism, just aborning in his day and in his view a threat to the human spirit. Utilitarianism was the brain-child of Jeremy Bentham and it involved a careful calculation of alternatives in order to determine in a given case which is the best (i.e., most pleasurable) course of action, the “felicity calculus” as he called it. In a word, one could calculate the amount of pleasure involved in alternative courses of actions to determine which was the better choice. It’s all about human pleasure and calculation. And it was the calculating part that bothered Dickens — by which he meant all sorts of mechanization and regulation, the determination to measure everything and the eradication of all spontaneity and imagination. Dickens was a true romantic.

Folks like Dickens, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, have always had a problem with reason and the notion that one should incorporate reason into the normal comings and goings of the ordinary human. By way of satirizing this notion, for example, Dickens has Gradgrind hold forth at the start of Hard Times:

“Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!”

Mr. Gradgrind (note the name) the schoolmaster is all about “facts” and his determination to make reasoning machines out of his pupils — as Dickens sees it. And this view of education became an accepted truth about traditional ways of educating young children. It gave birth to such things as the Summerhill experiment in England in which children were allowed to have free reign over their own education. This eventually morphed into progressive education, an education, following Dickens’ lead — and the full-blown attack by Rousseau earlier on — that paid less attention to the subject matter (Facts) than it did to the children who were being taught the subject matter: education became child-oriented. And we have inherited this view of the proper way to educate children, for better or worse, emphasizing self-esteem and giving birth to our age of entitlement.

I have held forth on this topic many times, and I will not bore my readers by dragging out old axes I love to grind. But suffice it to say that, assuredly, the child matters — but so does the subject matter. In addition, facts (especially in our day of “alternative facts”) and reasoning skills are essential to help young people gain possession of their own minds, so they can free themselves from stupidity, narrowness of vision, and blatant prejudice. We need to teach the child when she is young and as she grows older we need to teach the child the subject matter. When she reaches college we need to teach the subject matter. Facts, perhaps, but necessary ingredients in any well-rounded education. I share Dickens’ aversion to utilitarianism and the trend toward reducing quality to quantity, but his reaction is a bit extreme.

In a word, we need Romantics to remind us of the pitfalls of a too narrow indoctrination which we try to pass off as the only way to teach and learn. But we also need to rescue the notion of discipline and rigor from the dust-heap where they have been thrown by the zealots who see only one way to do things. It’s a question of balance, in the end, reason and heart. We need not choose between them. I suspect Dickens knew this: he was trying to make a point.


My wife and I have been watching the excellent BBC series “Grantchester” which just completed its latest season with the usual cliff-hanger. The series is extremely well done and focuses on a young Anglican vicar in Cambridgeshire back in the late 1950s who befriends a policeman and helps him solve crimes. Old hat, perhaps, but the intricate personal stories of the two men are what hold the series together.

It turns out that the Vicar, Sidney, is in love with Amanda, a woman he has known most of his life and whom he would have married except for his strained financial situation and the fact that the woman’s father would have none of it. He forces her to marry a wealthy man whom she doesn’t love and together they have a child. But she is also in love with Sidney and as the series progresses it is clear that the two of them will be drawn closer and closer together.

Throughout the series, focusing on the relationship between these two people, the struggle is the ancient one between “want and will.” Sidney is a man of the cloth and in the 50s when these events are supposed to have taken place he cannot marry a divorced woman. Thus, even if  Amanda leaves her husband who is cold and remote Sidney would have to leave the Church in order to marry her. And what is he to do? He is well-loved and much relied upon by those in the Church, including his housekeeper and the young Curate (who happens to be gay, another taboo of the times and a fascinating story in its own right).

Sidney begins to lose his faith in the Church and to have serious doubts about his abilities to carry out his duties as head of the small Church. He finally decides to resign and move to London with Amanda and her daughter. The move is planned and he has written his letter of resignation when he begins to realize that his duty is to those people who depend so much upon him in the small village and especially within the Church itself. He chooses duty over love, though it hurts him to the core.

On the face of it, this is pure melodrama, and the crimes that Sidney helps his detective friend, Geordie, solve seem almost incidental. But it is so well done, and we become so involved in Sidney’s life and in the lives of those around him, that we are drawn in as if it were quicksand. And in the end, it forces us to an awareness of how different was the age in which these events took place — just over a half-century past. There were social and churchly taboos that have been largely removed in the interim. But also missing is the sense that each of us, especially the spiritual leaders among us, have duties that take precedence over the desires of the heart. Ours is an age in which what we call “honesty” demands that we not only know what we want, but we pursue it with all the vigor at our command. Duty has become a notion that grows fainter with each passing day. It will soon become a word very few will be able to understand — a word in a foreign language.

The series was fascinating to me especially because of the very battle I recount here, the battle between what Sidney wants so dearly and what he knows to be his duty. It is a battle that is the core of Immanuel Kant’s ethical system which has played so important a part in my philosophical development — and a struggle I have written about in previous blog posts. Kant thought the very center of all ethical decision-making was this very struggle between what we want and what we ought to do. Ethics is about trying to be clear about what it is we should do and then somehow finding the courage to do the right thing.  But, as I say, this struggle is now only the topic for a television series about an age gone by and about the struggles of a man who must seem a total stranger to so many in the audience, so many who have no idea what it means to struggle to do the right thing because they are busy doing “their own thing.”

Good People Doing Good Things – Bunches Of ‘Em

We need to remind ourselves that there are good people in this world doing remarkably good things! Thanks to my friend Jill for this post!

Filosofa's Word

The last few weeks I have reported on some extraordinary people doing good things for others – Mohamed Bzeek who fostered children with terminal illnesses, Michael and Camille Geraldi who adopted 88 special needs children, the Habitat for Humanity building homes for low income families, and last week, the Pollination Project providing small seed grants to others to do good works.  Those, my friends, are tough acts to follow.  So today, I decided to pick a few of the many, many people who are out there doing small acts of kindness.


A Boy and His Best Friend …

This first story is about an 8-year-old kid whose heart is in the right place.  His name is Paul Burnett, and his best friend since kindergarten is Kamden Houshan.  Kamden was born with a tumour on his T2 and T3 vertebras and he is a paraplegic, confined to a wheelchair.  The problem…

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Revisiting the Crystal Palace

Once again, dear readers, I must recall the past as I am busy as a bee editing my best posts for the upcoming book!

I recently read an interesting essay on Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground in the June 11th edition of the New Yorker. The author of the essay, David Denby, revisits the book and reflects on its enduring message for our times. He’s right: “it can still kick.”
It does seem to me that along with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass not to mention Kafka’s Trial, Dostoevsky’s novella does indeed show us a side of ourselves and the world in which we live that we may want to deny. But when we contemplate the things that are being done on a state and national level out there in the “real” world, where politicians insist that we can improve education by eliminating teachers, and that we will be safer by firing policemen and firemen; when the military expands the war on terror in parts of the world that most of know about only by hearsay and kills by remote control; and when corporations destroy the earth and ignore threats to the survival of life on this planet (and legislators say it isn’t so), the words of these authors start to ring true.
Dostoevsky’s hero in this novella is a man of “caprice.”  “He passionately loves destruction and chaos. . .” He does things for no reason whatever. He likes to deny the obvious, rails against the Crystal Palace and everything European/scientific/technical/mathematical. Two times two may NOT be four. “. . .two times two is four is no longer life. . .it is the beginning of death.” We learn from this novella that if we try to fathom human motives we come up empty. The world is borderline insane and humans do things for no reason whatever much of the time — as Carroll and Kafka also suggested — and we might just as well not try to make sense of it.
For someone who spent his life trying to teach young people to think, who still believes deeply that sound judgment is the way to ferret out small pieces of truth, these authors leave a bad taste in the mouth. One doesn’t like to admit that his life may have been spent in a caucus race (as Carroll would have it) chasing around incoherently with no purpose and slim rewards in the form of comfits from Alice’s pocket.
But as I grow older and “crawl toward death,” along with Shakespeare’s Lear, I begin to think Carroll, Kafka, and Dostoevsky were right: the world really doesn’t make sense. And humans are capricious: acting often without reason, doing good or evil seemingly with blinders on. But I don’t despair because reason can help us sort things out; more importantly, we have it on good authority (when Dostoevsky’s underground man exhibits a profound need to connect with another human being) that the things that matter remain after all: friends, loved ones, and a life lived trying to “lift the lives of others,” as a good friend of mine recently put it. Why? Why not?

Big Brother IS Watching …

A very important and deeply disturbing piece.

Filosofa's Word

Big Brother is watching us all … and his name, at least one of his names, is Google.  Let me tell you a little story.

eyesJane Doe wanted a new pair of shoes.  She had in mind a pair of Reebok sneakers in white with light blue trim.  Jane goes on line and puts a few key words into a search engine, probably Google.  A number of options are listed including on-line sites such as Amazon, and also listed are stores near Jane’s home.  Wanting to try on the shoes for a good fit, Jane decides against the on-line sites and chooses a store or two near home.  On Saturday, Jane picks up her wallet and cell phone and heads to the first store.  They do not have the colour she wants, so she goes to the second store, finds exactly what she wants on sale, so she happily pays…

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