Homework

As a rule I mute television commercials. I can’t stand most of them as they send us all subconscious messages from multinational corporations that seek to entrap the will and bring about the purchase of something we simply do not need. Some are clever and I try to listen to them, just for a laugh. But there is a new Apple iPad commercial that I happened to listen to recently, because I was remote from the remote, and that commercial gets my goat!

The commercial shows a middle school teacher assigning homework to his class, presumably on a Friday, and a voice-over starts intoning the message “Ugh, homework. I hate homework.” The style of the commercial is reminiscent of Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story and perhaps that is what they were going for. It shows the kids having fun, playing and larking about, at times with their iPads (presumably suggesting that homework on iPads can be fun? Or perhaps the kids are just checking social media?), while all the time the voice tells us repeatedly how much they all hate homework.

And we wonder why our kids are falling behind the students of nearly all of the other so-called “developed” nations! This sort of anti-intellectualism, which is all-too prevalent in America and has been for many years, determines that those children will never catch up to the rest of the world. We know the public schools are under attack and the data show that we draw those into public school teaching who are in the bottom third  of the students in our colleges. They are paid a pittance and asked to raise the kids in addition to teaching them — or, most recently, arming themselves against possible terrorists. And if we now start to send the message that they should not assign homework — presumably because the kids don’t like to do homework — we simply add fuel to a fire already threatening to go out of control.

Homework, like it or not, helps young people deepen their knowledge of the subject matter after an all-too-short school day — in addition to acquiring the skills of self-discipline and self-denial, which we all dearly need. It also helps them to become independent learners instead of just recipients of the teacher’s bits of knowledge. To be sure none of us wants to do work of any sort — which is why we are paid, I suppose. But work is necessary and homework in the schools is a necessary component of the load the student is asked to bear. And let’s face it, that load is not back-breaking. We seem to be asking our students to do less and less due to the fiction that they are under so much pressure already. And at the same time grade inflation convinces them that the work they are doing is stellar when, in my experience and from what I have read, it is generally sub-par. The result, of course, is our age of entitlement.

Needless to say, this is an issue close to the heart of a retired college professor who has read and thought about education at all levels for many years (and blogged endlessly, some would say). I have even written a book about the current condition of education in this country and it has always been a concern of mine — because it is a problem that can be solved if we simply put our minds to it. If tiny Finland can do it, we certainly can! Initially it would require that we somehow stop the mindless attacks from the political Right against public education and determine to put a much larger share of the annual federal and state budgets into education thereby attracting better teachers and showing them that education matters.

In any event, the attack on homework by a corporation determined to sell more electronic toys to a generation already stupefied by those toys is a compound felony in my view. I have always thought Apple a cut above the rest, but I must now revise my views. At the same time I will continue to worry about the present state of education in this country, convinced as I am that it holds the key to the success or failure of this democracy. And I will continue my practice of muting the commercials.

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The Younger Generation

It’s a cliché that the older generation has complained about the younger generation since God wore short pants, as they say. But I have been maintaining for some time now that something new has appeared on the horizon; the “millennials” — those born in the middle to late 80s of the last century — are a new breed posing new problems.

Accordingly it was most interesting to come across an interview with Simon Sinek, a “Leadership Expert” (?), on You-Tube who is making quite a splash with his analysis of “what is wrong with the present generation.”  According to Sinek there are four major areas of concern that must be explored to understand what is going on. He stresses that he is not making judgments about the younger generation and he refuses to blame them. Rather, he blames (1) bad parenting, (2) technology, (3) impatience, and (4) the environment.

I have touched on most, if not all, of these points in many of my blogs — most especially the “self-esteem” movement that has caught fire in the schools and in parenting (thereby contributing to what Sinek calls “bad parenting”). This movement rests upon the totally false psychological premise that by praising kids endlessly we will raise their self-esteem, whereas clinical studies have shown that false praise and the awarding of such things as “participation trophies” actually decreases self-esteem. It sends false messages and instills in the young an expectation to be praised for everything they do, thereby reducing their motivation to actually put out an effort to achieve something difficult. It leads invariably to a sense of “entitlement” on the part of growing young people. True achievement, of course, would in fact raise their self-esteem and would give them a sense of satisfaction they now expect to receive for no effort whatever.

Sinek stresses how damaging this is to the young who know, deep down, that they have done nothing to deserve the praise. But worse yet, they later become depressed because they do not receive the same praise for every effort when out in the workplace — the “environment” of which Sinek speaks. In the real world of real work, folks have to make an effort and many times their efforts are unrewarded. That’s just how it is. But Sinek has himself interviewed a great many bright and able young people who, after a few months on the job, find themselves deeply depressed and disillusioned, even suicidal. Others drift with no goal or sense of purpose. They simply are not getting the stroking they have become used to.

Of considerable interest to me is Sinek’s second point, the factor of technology in the world of the young. In a word, the electronic toys. I have written endlessly (some would say) about this problem as these toys have always seemed to me to drive the users deeper within themselves and to construct barriers between themselves and the world outside themselves. They promote what I have called the “inversion of consciousness,” preoccupation with the self and its reactions. Worse yet, Sinek says there is considerable evidence that these electronic toys are addictive. Like such things as gambling and alcohol, social media and the “likes” on the toys increases levels of dopamine, the chemical in the brain that is increased in addictive behaviors. Thus our intuitive sense that these toys are addictive is well-founded. We (and this includes the schools that hand out electronic toys as a sign of their advanced educational views) are handing these young kids an invitation to become involved in a make-believe world where they are all-powerful at the center and which they find increasingly difficult to escape from — much like the alcoholic who tries to go on the wagon.

The third item on his list, it seems to me, is the result of a combination of #1 and #2 above: the refusal of parents to deny their kids anything coupled with the ready availability of toys that provide users with immediate gratification in so many ways. They are impatient because they have never learned to put off gratification for a later and fuller sense of satisfaction. So many parents tell us that they don’t want their kids to have to “do without” as they did — while it may very well be that putting off gratification, learning self-discipline, is the key to true satisfaction and happiness.

Sinek is not long on solutions, suggesting only that we encourage the young to put aside their iPhones and iPads for a few hours each day and try to build bridges with other people in the real world. This is an excellent suggestion, but one that is easier said than done.  It takes “tough love” on the part of parents who truly care about their children and who are determined to take more time to be with their kids and interact with them on a personal level. And the schools need to get back to good teaching and stop turning the kids into addicts .

The only other element I would add to Sinek’s list above is the entertainment industry which compounds the problems Sinek points out. The ultimate cause of the problems he discusses is the removal of these young people from the real world, the weakening of what Freud calls “the reality principle” that allows them to function fully in the world of people and things, interact with others, build meaningful relationships, and find true joy in living and working in the world. This, in my view, is the central problem and it is one that we all need to think about and deal with in our interactions with a  generation that is in danger of becoming lost in a world of make-believe where their sense of power and importance is imaginary and can never live up to the real thing. This must ultimately lead to depression — and worse. And the cost to society at large is beyond reckoning.

Spectators?

Is it possible we are becoming a society of spectators? Is it the case that we are so removed from the world that we have become passive observers of the scene around us as though we are watching a movie? I do wonder sometimes. I have gone on (and on) about the danger of the electronic toys we all seem to be addicted to and the damage they are doing to our collective brains. There is hard evidence that this is the case, but it doesn’t seem to deter anyone. We walk through life with our eyes down, fixed on the toys in our hands and checking social media to see if we have new friends — or if the old ones still “like” us. Meanwhile the real world around us becomes less and less real as the pictures we are fascinated by become true reality. This detachment from the real (REAL) world is a sign of mental imbalance, folks. Just ask Freud who talked a good bit about the “reality principle” that governs the gradual maturing of the young child as he or she grows and becomes an adult. The make-believe world of the child is supposed to be replaced by the (at times painful) world of things and people that the child slowly realizes is the real world. Things seem to have become turned upside-down. The real world is now for so many the world of make-believe: the world in our hands that we can control, not the world “out there.”  Worse yet, we have become emotionally detached, many of us, and see tragic events as simply another episode in a drama we are not really a part for. We have become a nation of spectators, it would appear.

A story in Yahoo news recently brought this possibility home in a rather graphic way:

Shocking surveillance video shows the moment a Pittsburgh woman was knocked out cold by a man on a busy sidewalk — but that’s not the worst of it. The footage also shows the woman being beaten and robbed by bystanders — who proceed to take pictures of her, including selfies — as she lay unconscious on the ground. “They don’t treat animals like that. They wouldn’t treat a dog that way,” the victim’s mother told KDKA on Thursday. “It’s disgusting. My daughter needs help.”

I suppose the woman being knocked down and robbed shows us a side of ourselves we have always known was there. Recall the Kew Garden incident in 1964 when thirty-seven or thirty-eight people ignored the cries of a Kitty Genovese being stabbed to death outside their bedroom windows. In a crowded world we tend to become a bit more callous and robbing and beating a helpless woman seems like yesterday’s news to a people who have become jaded and over-exposed to violence and mayhem. What is unique about the Yahoo story is the observation that people were taking photos, including “selfies,” as the woman lay there beaten and suffering on the sidewalk.

We need to keep our perspective here (speaking of the reality principle). This is not about all of us and it is only an anecdote. There are good people out there doing good things every day. But there are growing numbers of people who seem to have become inured to the suffering of others, as though it’s not real but something to watch and get their own emotional high from. We don’t experience the woman’s pain, only our own emotional reaction to the incident, “getting a rush.” This seems to be what it’s all about for many, indeed for an increasing number of people, in a world of detached spectators who “get off” by watching  rather than becoming truly emotionally and intellectually connected with the events taking place. Taking a photograph freezes the event and allows us to see it as something happening in our own little world where we are in control and sympathy and empathy are no longer part of the equation.

Language

Once upon a time, long ago, after humans had freed themselves from the primeval ooze and struggled to stand upright, they gradually invented language in order to communicate with one another. Initially, it was through pictures and gestures, but eventually they developed an alphabet and put words together. All of this was in order to communicate their ideas and feelings to one another, to make clear what they had in mind.

It was thought for many years that language was the one thing that separated humans from other animal species. But then it was discovered by people like Wolfgang Köhler that chimpanzees could communicate with one another and it was later learned that they could even teach one another the language. Then we learned that other animal species also have communication skills and even something similar to language. This was about the time when humans were losing their own use of language. Coincidence? Perhaps. But in the event, humans discovered their vocabularies shrinking and their ability to grasp such things as compound sentences slipping away. It was about the time when they started playing with electronic gadgets designed to increase their ability to contact other people and, presumably, to communicate with them. Coincidence? Perhaps.

But, it turns out, the idea is no longer to use language to communicate with one another. Language is now for self-expression. We use it to tell others how we feel or, at best, to order pizza. We discovered that we don’t need a rich vocabulary or complicated sentences. We can use images and gestures. Just like our ancestors. 🙂

The problem is, of course, that language is necessary for thought and as language becomes impoverished so also does our ability to think. This is demonstrated, if we require a demonstration, by the alarming number of people who support Donald Trump. Obviously, these people have lost the ability to think. I haven’t been listening at doorways, but I would wager they can’t speak, either. The problem is that language was initiated in order to make it possible for us to communicate with one another. And this means that a fairly sophisticated vocabulary along with the rules of grammar and usage are also necessary if we are to tell each other what’s on our mind. The point was wonderfully made by John Barth in his novel The End of The Road in which the hero, Jake Horner, is dealing with a reluctant student in his basic College English class. The student insists that because language came before grammar we don’t need grammar. After a lengthy Socratic exchange between Jake and the student, Horner concludes as follows:

“. . .if we want our sentences to be intelligible to very many people, we have to go along with the convention [the rules of grammar]. . . You’re free to break the rules, but not if you are after intelligibility. If you do want intelligibility, then [you must master the rules].”

But, it would appear that a great many of us are like the student in this exchange: we don’t want to obey the rules of grammar because ultimately we are not really interested in communicating, in intelligibility. Language is simply a device we employ to express ourselves. Period.

In a word, we as a species regress. And as we regress we are surrounded by a growing number problems that require careful thought and imagination. This at a time when thought and imagination have become impoverished by “advances” in technology and the growing influence of the entertainment industry whose motto is: take it down to the lowest level in order to attract the largest audience. Educators have followed suit, lowering expectations and providing their students with electronic toys. Coincidence? Perhaps. But a bit unnerving none the less.

Thus we discover around us folks whose attention is directed at the toys in their hands — even when they are next to one another — and who find it difficult, if not impossible, to say what they mean or understand what others say to them,. But since language is no longer about communication, since it is now about self-expression, it really doesn’t matter. As long as others know that I am angry, hungry, or sad, that’s really all that matters. If they don’t understand what I am feeling so much the worse for them. It’s all about me. I don’t need language. 🙂

Get A Life

How sad it is that the social media have taken over the hearts and minds of our young people. We have seen it coming for some time. The evidence suggests that the electronic toys themselves are damaging the brains of those who use them, but the fact that they are addictive is also of major concern. In a recent interview with Katie Couric comments by the author of a book that studied the effects of social media on teen-age girls are most revealing — and disturbing. An article on the internet (speaking of social media) tells us about the problem:

These dangers are just one of the topics journalist Nancy Jo Sales explores in her new book, “American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers.” She sat down with Yahoo Global News Anchor Katie Couric.

“One of the first conversations that I had with some girls in Los Angeles really set the tone for the whole book to me,” Sales told Couric, recounting a specific exchange she had with one of the girls. “She said, ‘Social media is destroying our lives.’ And I said, ‘So why don’t you just go off it?’ And she said, ‘Because then I would have no life.’”

Ponder, if you will, the final remark of that young woman. If she abandons social media she will “have no life.” Aside from the grammatical mistake she makes (“media” is a plural noun) — which has become common with those who tweet and have forgotten how to read and write — this is a terribly sad comment on today’s youth. I assume that this remark was not random but fairly typical of those whom Sales encountered in her research. Without social media this young lady would have no life. Her entire self-concept is wrapped up in the positive reaction of her peers to what she posts on social media. If what she says and shows is not “liked” then she is not liked.

Some years ago I brought up in class that willingness of parents to buy presents for their kids that they know might be harmful. One of the mothers in the class held up her hand and asked “what are we supposed to do? All their friends have those toys.” This is peer pressure in  a society in which acceptance from one’s peers counts for much more than it is worth. But the parallel is almost exact: if my kids don’t start to immerse themselves in social media as young children they will be left out. The schools encourage this as they frequently provide students with the toys and/or assign work that requires that they use them. Thus parents must succumb to the pressures their kids are already subject to, even if they know the electronic toys they subsequently buy for their kids will do them harm. We seem to be caught in a spiral from which there is no escape. At least, none that I can see.

A conspiracy theorist would see behind all this an insidious plot: the powers-that-be want worker-drones and what better way to produce them than to capture their minds? I am not a conspiracy theorist and reject this interpretation. But I do worry that our young people are entering adulthood with serious damage to their self-esteem (despite our best efforts in that direction) and to the left-hemisphere of their brains — that part that does their thinking.  Since this has been going on for some time now, it may go a long way toward explaining the popularity of the leading candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. It is not a minor problem by any means. As I say, I don’t see a way out of the downward spiral. Do you?

Conundrum

Given my relentless need to understand the peculiar, it has always struck me as remarkable that ordinary folks who complain about taxes and rail about the cost of living will agree to school referendums that raise those taxes and make it harder to get along in order to build another school, increase the size of the present school building, support the expensive sports programs, or (as recently happened in St. Paul, Minnesota) provide $9 million a year to assure the kiddies the latest electronic toys. Our little town of slightly over 1200 tight-fisted people (which shows no sign of growing) also recently passed a referendum to add on to the practically new school building — including (of course) a third gymnasium. The whole thing defies logic. So I have come up with three possible explanations and will toss them out there and see which one strikes the reader as the most plausible — unless there is a fourth I haven’t thought of yet.

1. Despite the fact that they complain about the failure of the schools, parents don’t really want their kids to learn about their world. They complain when their kids have to do homework.  They think the teachers are under-worked and overpaid and have little or no sympathy for them when they demand higher salaries. They want cheap baby-sitters who will take the kids off their hands for most of the day — as long as possible. Thus, they fight for the sports programs and scream like wounded banshees when anyone talks about cuts in those programs. The sports programs give the parents pride and it also keeps the kids occupied, off their hands, and out of trouble after school. And newer and bigger buildings are something they can point to with pride: they make the parents feel good about themselves, as if they are making some sort of real contribution to education. Or…

2. Parents feel guilty because they see so little of their kids and want to make it up to them by supporting school referendums that build larger and more impressive buildings or the latest teaching fad. They get vicarious pleasure out of the successes of their kids on the playing fields and are convinced that sports teach the kids important “life-lessons” (which they are too busy to teach themselves). It makes them feel good about themselves and convinced that they are supporting the schools. Or…

3. As good, practical Americans, parents believe only in those things they can see and touch — or can be quantified. Sports are highly visible and have scads of figures for them to play with and buildings can be seen and boasted about. “Our town went to State last year and has the newest and largest school with all the latest advances in technical know-how.” Technology rocks — it’s what’s out there and proves to us all that our kids are getting the latest and best available tools to lead them to success — which is to say a high-paying job after they graduate. “Everyone knows that electronics are the newest and latest thing and must therefore be an invaluable educational tool. But teachers? Give me a break. They work short hours and are already paid way too much for the easy jobs they have. Don’t talk to me about raising their salaries.” For the practical, down-to-earth parents teaching is way too ephemeral and they simply don’t understand why paying teachers a living wage would draw better people into teaching and raise the educational level of the schools far faster than the biggest school building or the latest electronic toy. But successful sports programs are highly visible, as are the shiny new buildings and playgrounds. It’s all about the tangible.

Needless to say, I prefer the third explanation. What do you think? It is truly a puzzler. Perhaps it’s a combination of all three explanations?

The Now Generation

The psychiatrists who studied the American prisoners of war released after the Korean conflict were amazed at the success of the “brainwashing” techniques that were used on those men. Captured documents revealed that one of the secrets to that success was the claim of the North Koreans that Americans were generally ignorant of history, even their own. These young men could be told pretty much anything bad about their country and they tended to believe it because they had no frame of reference. For example, they could be told that in America children were forced to work in the coal mines and a couple of the men vaguely remembered hearing of this and were willing to embrace the half-truth and share it with their fellow prisoners. True, there were children working in the coal mines at one time, but no longer. It was precisely those half-truths that enabled the North Koreans to convince the ignorant young men of blatant falsehoods. Couple that treatment with censored mail that the prisoners received from wives and sweethearts complaining about how bad things were back home, not to mention the seeds of suspicion that were planted among the men that broke down their trust in one another, and you have a formula for success. There was not a single attempt by an American soldier to escape imprisonment during the entire conflict!

Today’s young people are equally ignorant of their history, perhaps even more so. We make excuses for these kids by moaning about how much “pressure” they are under. Nonsense! I would argue they under less pressure than those young men who were fighting in Korea, or even the generation that followed them. Today’s young people need not fear the draft. Moreover, they are the beneficiaries of the sexual revolution and are therefore free from the restraint experienced by prior generations who were told to wait for sex until they were married. In fact, they don’t seem to show much restraint about much of anything, truth to tell. And there is considerably less expected of them in school these days than was expected of their fathers and mothers. They are told they are wonderful: they feel entitled. So let’s hear no more about how much pressure they are under.

Now, social scientists — who would rank below even the geologists on Sheldon Cooper’s hierarchy of sciences, I suspect — love to label the generations. We have read about the “me” generation and the “millenialists,” the “X” generation, and the “Y” generation. While I hesitate to lump myself together with the social scientists, I would nonetheless suggest that we call today’s young people the “Now Generation.” They, like their parents before them, don’t know diddly about their own history, much less world history. In fact, studies of recent college graduates have shown an alarming number of these folks who cannot name the first five presidents of the United States, cannot recognize the Gettysburg Address, don’t know who were our allies during the Second World War, or when the First World War was fought — or what countries it involved. Much ink has been spilled along with weeping and gnashing of teeth over these sad revelations, but very little of substance has resulted from all the angst. History is still not considered important in our schools or in this culture. As Henry Ford would have it: “History is bunk!”

Santayana famously said that those who are ignorant of their history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. This presupposes a cyclical view of history and is predicated on the notion that human beings don’t really change that much. Because events tend to repeat themselves — we seem to be constantly at war, for example — and humans have become increasingly locked in the present moment, ignorant of their own past, they will tend to fall into the same traps as their predecessors. On a smaller scale, every parent laments the fact that their kids don’t listen to them and seem determined to make the same mistakes their parents made twenty years before. History is a great teacher. But we have to read it, assimilate it, and take it to heart. We tend not to do that. History is not bunk, Mr. Ford, and we are certain to repeat the mistakes of previous generations if we continue to remain locked in the present moment, ignoring not only the past (from which we have so much to learn) but also ignoring our obligations to the future as well.

So, I recommend that a more appropriate label for the present younger generation is the one suggested above. It is certainly true, as psychological and sociological studies have revealed, that today’s youth are addicted to electronic toys, immersed in themselves, uncaring, and seemingly unaware of the world outside themselves; the label “Me Generation” does seem to fit. But my suggestion is designed to expand the domain of the label to include not only the young, but their parents as well. We all need to read and study the past in order to avoid the traps and pitfalls that most assuredly lie ahead.

Barbarian Incursion

O gentlemen, the time of life is short;

To spend that shortness basely were too long,

If  life did ride upon a dial’s point,

Still ending at the arrival of an hour.

                                                                                                                                                                Shakespeare: Henry IV

Jacques Barzun, the great humanist and winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2003, told us more than 50 years ago to lock up the treasures of the West because the barbarians were about to take over our world. He was a bit premature. It didn’t happen quite as fast as he thought it would, but it certainly has happened, though the barbarians didn’t attack from without: we bred our own. You can recognize the new barbarians all around you by their boorish behavior, the loud music emanating from their cars as they pass by and their halting speech patterns, piercings, and tattoos. They also come armed with their iPods, iPads, iTunes, iPhones, Xboxes, Walkmen, smartphones, and an occasional concealed weapon. But their takeover is not a violent one, for the most part, though it is loud and unsettling.

In any event, contrary to Barzun, I would judge that the treasures of Western civilization are probably not threatened by this takeover, because these barbarians couldn’t care less about them! The treasures will not be destroyed; they will simply wither away because the young are otherwise occupied — listening to their tunes, earphones clamped securely to their heads;  gazing at their handhelds; and generally ignoring the world around them as they focus on electronic communications with their friends. Books and works of art don’t interest them in the least. They boast of the fact: they have other fish to fry and seem to have complete confidence in themselves and their abilities to catch and fry those fish. But it is sad, because what they are unaware of is that they don’t even know where the fish are hiding or what bait to use. In any event, they will no longer pick up thick books, like George Eliot’s magnificent Daniel Deronda, where they might read this sublime passage about the need for roots and the benefits of a geographical and psychological center to our lives:

“A human life, I think, should be well rooted in some spot of a native land, where it may get the love of tender kinship for the face of the earth, for the labours men go forth to, for the sounds and accents that haunt it, for whatever will give that early home a familiar unmistakable difference amidst the future widening of knowledge: a spot where the definiteness of early memories may be inwrought with affection, and kindly acquaintance with all neighbors, even to the dogs and donkeys, may spread not by sentimental effort and reflection, but as the sweet habit of the blood. At five years old, mortals are not prepared to be citizens of the world, to be stimulated by abstract nouns, to soar above preference into impartiality, and that prejudice in favor of milk with which we blindly begin is a type of the way the body and soul must get nourished at least for a time. The best introduction to astronomy is to think of the nightly heavens as a little lot of stars belonging to one’s own homestead.”

And, irony of ironies, Eliot might have been describing one of the new barbarians when she describes her spoiled, self-involved heroine Gwendolen Harleth who, despite the havoc of Civil War across the Atlantic and the suffering of her fellow countrymen due to the loss of imported cotton, can think only of herself:

“Could there be a slenderer, more insignificant thread in human history than this consciousness of a girl, busy with her small inferences of the way in which she could make her life pleasant? — in a time, too, when ideas were with fresh vigor making armies of themselves, and the universal kinship was declaring itself fiercely: when women on the other side of the world would not mourn for the husbands and sons who died bravely in a common cause, and men stinted of bread on our side of the world heard of that willing loss and were patient: a time when the soul of man was waking to pulses which had for centuries been beating in him unfelt, until their full sum made a new life of terror or of joy.”

Indeed, it may well be that even if the young people of the present and the future had the least desire to read the elegant prose of a writer such as George Eliot (which, admittedly, takes time to read and savor), they would not understand whereof she speaks and writes. They have no idea what they are missing, which seems to be the heart of the matter. She was an eminently wise woman, but her wisdom would be lost on those who will not, or can not, listen or read her words.  It is just possible, also, that even if they did read and comprehend the meaning of her words they would have no idea what she is referring to since so many of these young people, immersed in themselves and enslaved to their digital toys, do not realize that they, too, may well lack consistency and rootedness in their lives and lack a place to call “home” — this “blessed persistence in which affection can take root.”

E-Literacy

As much as I hate to admit it, there are some who would disagree with my take on the sad state of affairs in the world of American education. Indeed, there are a great many people — some of whom write books and many others who teach in that world — who insist that things couldn’t be better. They love the kids and they love the way things are going. They explain away the wealth of data that show that the kids are not learning anything with the claim that the tests are simply archaic and don’t register the intellectual skills the kids in the millennial generation are acquiring with their electronic toys. Indeed, many of them think the schools themselves are archaic and the kids are learning what they really need to know to get along in tomorrow’s world OUTSIDE of school, with those toys. While there are those of us who would insist that the toys are rotting the kids’ brains (as I have said in an earlier blog), there are a great many people who defend the toys and insist that the kids will save the world with the digital facility and e-literacy they are acquiring with those very toys.

In fact, in 2005 Randy Bomer of the National Council of Teachers of English (!) attacked as too narrow a study called the American Diploma Project that was designed to help design curricula that would assist young people become better prepared for work in a changing world. Bomer defended the use of electronic toys and applauded the proficiency with which the kids use the toys, insisting that their critics are out-of-the-loop idiots. He remarked that today’s high school graduate (who may not be a-literate, as they say) is e-literate, he or she “can synthesize information from multiple information and technical sources. . . .[they can] analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels. . . .They are inventing new forms of literature.” High praise indeed. And a breath of fresh air for those who find the constant criticism of America’s schools unsettling. We always like to hear those things that make us feel better about the way things are and allow us to dismiss the nay-sayers with a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, however, it’s a pile of rubbish.

One must wonder what this new “viewer literacy” really amounts to — if it can be called “literacy” at all. And the claims Bomer makes are outlandish — given that every test devised (and one must agree that tests don’t always tell the whole story) reflect the inability of these young people to understand the printed word or work with figures. How can such people be said to be able to “analyze the setting, plot, theme, characterization, and narration of classic and contemporary short stories and novels.”? Especially when they don’t even read comics or cereal boxes — as the students themselves defiantly tell investigators. They take great pride in the fact that they don’t read and generally regard reading as a waste of time — though they will spend more than three hours a day, on average, watching television (while they send text messages and check their Facebook page) and never think for a moment that it is a waste of time.

But, in the end it is all about thinking, which requires both synthesis and analysis. Mark Bauerlein, author of The Dumbest Generation, has made a study of e-literacy. He quotes his critics who defend it on the grounds that e-literacy “is not just knowing how to download music, program an iPod, create a virtual profile, and comment on a blog. It’s a general deployment capacity, a particular mental flexibility. E-literacy accommodates hypermedia because e-literates possess hyperalertness. Multitasking entails a special cognitive attitude toward the world, not the orientation that enables slow concentration on one thing, but a lightsome, itinerant awareness of numerous and dissimilar inputs.” So say its defenders who go on to insist that “The things that have traditionally been done — you know, reflection and thinking and all that stuff — are in some ways too slow for the future. . . .Is there a way to do these things faster?”

But, jargon and wishful thinking aside,  thought does take time, much as we might hate to admit it. And faster is not necessarily better. The fact that the kids show remarkable dexterity and quickness with their toys — one claim is that they can read four books at once (!) — is praiseworthy on some level. But when we are told that this dexterity will (or should) replace the traditional way of knowing and thinking about the world we must pause. The kids feel out of place in schoolrooms. I get that. But we know enough about them to realize that this is a statement about their narcissism, not about the schools, and many would consider it a condition that needs to be addressed and remedied so these kids can make their way in the real world where things are not always to our liking and problems need to be thought through and solutions found by careful, and slow, reflection and the consideration of possible outcomes in dialogue with others. If computers can help speed up that process, perhaps this is a good thing. Defenders of video games contend that they encourage “collateral learning,” and how to “make the right decision” and do it quickly. But there is no hard evidence that these toys teach anything that can in all seriousness be called “thinking.”

In the end a human being, or a group of human beings, must carefully consider what the computer spews out and determine which of several alternatives is the best course of action. Whether games will help people acquire the necessary skills remains to be seen. The “right decision” taught by the electronic game may simply prove to be the one that directs the drones to kill the most people. But the kids themselves will become adults who are expected to play a role in this democracy. Electronic toys cannot make moral judgments or judge which of two or three candidates will do the best job. E-literacy won’t get them there. A-literacy is required: the ability to read and understand what they read, write coherent sentences that can be readily understood by others, and speak persuasively in order to help others grasp the claims they are determined to make. And people need to judge of better or worse, whether they like to admit it or not.

In the end, we may well admire the skills these kids show with multiple electronic toys, and even their ability to learn new ways to do things that take their elders seemingly forever. But we should hesitate to admit that this way of doing things will prove superior at the end of the day — especially since we really don’t know where e-literacy will take us. And as a general rule, we should not allow the kids to tell us how to design educational curriculum: they have no idea where they are going. Their toys may indeed be taking these kids down an intellectual blind alley. In any event, given the addiction that has already been attributed to so many of them, we will have to depend on the toys themselves to pave the way to a new tomorrow: the kids will simply be doing what their toys tell them to do. I prefer to take the path well-travelled. At least I have a pretty good idea where the traps and pitfalls might be found and I can use the wisdom of past generations as a guide.

Powerful Toys

Ever since I went back and read Hannah Arendt’s exceptional study of violence, written in the late 1960s, I have been pondering the possible reasons for this country’s fascination with things violent. You may recall that she argued that violence is the result of a sense of powerlessness and it is when we begin to feel the frustration that arises from a sense that we have little control over our lives that we begin to gravitate toward violence. I have always thought this was the allure of an entire series of movies like “Dirty Harry” — an angry cop who has little patience with procedure and simply goes straight for the bad guy and shoots him dead with his huge Magnum hand gun (Freud take note). “Make my day!” It’s a quick and gratifying “solution” in a Kafkaesque world where molasses-slow procedures often allow the criminal to go free and tie up the police in yards and yards of red tape.

And as I noted in my earlier blog, we have a growing number of reasons to feel powerless as our world becomes increasingly crowded and angry, bills keep piling up, there seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel, the government is clearly composed of ambitious idiots without a brain among them, and nothing seems to get done. So if Arendt is correct in her analysis, and it seems likely, we shouldn’t be surprised by the increase in violence in this country and around the world. The fact that violence is more prevalent in this country may simply come down to the fact that we have access to more lethal weapons with very few enforceable restrictions and those who use them to kill people always make the headlines. The rest of the world may eventually catch up with us.

But related to our growing sense of powerlessness is our expanding fascination with electronic toys, especially the hand-held devices that give us the illusion of power in an age when we have very little to say about the events that surround us. What is especially interesting in this regard are the XBoxes with their incredibly violent programs that allow the user to take charge of a situation and repeatedly wipe out the “enemy” with a push of the button — not unlike the maniac who walks into a school with an assault rifle and proceeds to shoot real children. If one is in the XBox world long enough it makes sense that he might well lose his bearings and forget where the fantasy world leaves off and the real world begins. And given the ready accessibility of weapons and ammunition….

In a word, electronic devices — and I speak of all electronic devices, not just the violent ones — give us the illusion of power at a time when we sense we are losing power in the real world where problems keep mounting up and solutions seem farther and farther away. For most of us this is simply some sort of compensation for our inability to make changes in the real world. But, coupled with our growing cultural narcissism, for others it may translate into violent actions.

Nietzsche thought that the fundamental urge in all human action was the love of power. I suspect that’s where Hannah Arendt got her clue to our present malaise. We crave power and as we sense that we are losing it we seek alternatives that will restore that sense of power. Electronic devices, even cell phones, do precisely that. The awesome weapons that those who commit violent acts wield are quite possibly an extension of this same urge; the few who take those weapons into crowded places and start shooting people may have lost their sense of where they are, wandering in the real world they can no longer distinguish from the fantasy world where they are indeed all-powerful.