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.

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Grantchester

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.”

What’s Wrong Here?

If you watch television at all you have probably seen this Dish commercial: a teenage boy stands on the porch of his house complaining to his father who waits for him at the car. The boy complains “Oh, come on Dad, I don’t want to visit Aunt Judy. The game’s on and she doesn’t even have a TV!” Or words to that effect. The problem is solved when a small kangaroo-like critter standing at his side takes his iPad and installs an app supplied by Dish that allows him to take the game with him. He walks off the porch toward the car staring at the iPad with a big grin on his face.

What’s wrong with this picture? So many things.

To begin with, his father is presumably trying to teach his son good manners,  the rudiments of social obligations, and his son, in typical teenage fashion, rebels. The rebellion is ages old, as old as teenagers themselves. But the fact that this boy is clearly not going to see Aunt Judy until he is shown how to do so without inconveniencing himself is pretty new. And ugly.

Next, he doesn’t want to visit Aunt Judy because she doesn’t have a television set. This implies, of course, that if he did visit her he would spend the entire time glued to the television set watching “the game” instead of visiting with his Aunt, which pretty much negates the lesson his father is trying in vain to teach him.

And finally, he is now going to see his Aunt, but he will remain glued to the game anyway — this time as seen on the toy he clutches in his hand to the delight of the folks at Dish.,

Now I have no problem with Dish — after all, they are the ones who refuse to broadcast “Fox News” [sic] so they can’t be all bad. And we all know the point of the godawful commercials that fill the airwaves is to sell us things we simply do not need when they are not instilling deep into our collective psyches a love of mayhem and violence. If aliens landed on this planet and determined to judge America’s culture from the TV commercials we view, they would conclude we are a greedy, drunken, self-involved people in love with violence whose male population is in need of a shave and has a serious case of erectile dysfunction and whose women are large-breasted, overly made-up, and can’t stop smiling. Seriously.

In any event, the rebellion of the kid in this particular commercial I can understand, even though my instincts tell me the father should cuff him upside the head and drag him to the car while telling him to shut up and do as he’s told (speaking of violence). In the end I simply ask:  Isn’t it time for the parents to resume leadership of their families, to take the toys away from the kids and teach them that there is a world out there that demands  (and rewards) their attention? That they should grow up and recognize that there are times when we must do things we don’t like to do and simply bite the bullet because it is the right thing to do? That we can’t remain children all our lives, immersed in ourselves and ignoring the things and people around us? Eh? Or are these all dead horses that I should simply stop kicking?

Free Or Slaves?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau was no friend of representative government. He was convinced that citizens are only politically free when they make the laws they themselves obey, in a pure democracy. Indeed, he was convinced that in a pure democracy the citizens would be well-informed and discuss the issues thoroughly. They would then vote and their decision would be the correct one. Anyone who was in the minority would then obey the will of the majority and in doing so, paradoxically, be “forced to be free.” Freedom, in Rousseau’s view, is defined as doing the right thing. Any form of representation, on the other hand, is a form of slavery, according to Rousseau. Citizens are putatively free for one brief moment when they vote, but after that moment has passed, they are slaves to the people they voted into office — those who would subsequently make the laws the voters would then have to obey.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau  (Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Jean-Jacques Rousseau
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Rousseau, of course, never envisioned an age in which the airwaves would be filled with political campaigning, promises never to be fulfilled, and smiles that never seemed to leave the faces of the politicians who spent fortunes to be elected — not to mention the endless stream of phone calls and emails promoting the latest candidate who will assuredly  “cut the pork” and “break the grid-lock in Washington.” He also never envisioned an age in which the candidates themselves would be chosen by a handful of wealthy men running giant corporations, thereby limiting the “freedom” of the voters even more. After all, how free are we when we don’t even chose the folks we are supposed to vote into office? But, then representation is itself a logical puzzle. Think about it.

One person cannot possibly represent more than one other person — with whom he presumably agrees on every possible point of contention. Two or three, or two or three thousand people who are supposed to be “represented” by a single person, a paid politician, is a logical impossibility. And when that politician’s allegiance is to the wealthy few who have placed them on the ballot in the first place, then the notion of political freedom in a representative government begins to stretch beyond recognition.

In a word, Rousseau’s notion that voters are free only when they actually vote (presuming that they bother to vote at all) raises problems in the world we have come to know — the world in which politicians are professional liars, for the most part, who are selected by a process over which we  have no real control. We seem to have even less political freedom than Rousseau imagined, which was very little indeed. But why worry? I’ve got over two hundred channels on my television: now there’s real freedom!

The Speechless President

Like so many others, I had high hopes for our current President. After his predecessor, he seemed like such a breath of fresh air. But it is beginning to appear as though that’s all he is: “a breath of air.” Except for his annual appearance on ESPN picking the winners in the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournament (seriously?) one hardly knows he’s around. However, he does have considerable speech-making abilities and is able to hold the attention of an audience and make his points in a most persuasive way, so this gives rise to a question I have had for some time.

Given the unwillingness of this Congress — especially the House of Representatives — to cooperate in any way with the sitting President (for whatever reasons), why doesn’t the President use his powers of persuasion and the ready availability of the TV networks to make his case to the American people to put pressure on a recalcitrant Congress? Recall the ability of Ronald Reagan in this regard (old “Teflon Ron”): he was forever going on TV and pleading with the American public to have them write or call their representatives to get things done. And it worked: it boosted his popularity and got the people involved. In fact, we can go back to FDR’s use of the radio to get the public behind him as Churchill was able to do in England. These men knew the power of their position combined with the power of the airwaves and they used them to their advantage.

There was one time, especially, when Obama could have made use of his considerable speech-making abilities and the magic of television to get the American public involved in one of his pet causes. I refer of course to gun control and wonder why, after Sandy Hook when the American public was outraged, the President didn’t go on TV and urge folks to get behind his efforts to push some sort of gun-control legislation through a refractory Congress backed by the considerable power of the NRA. Public polls showed that the American public was overwhelmingly behind some sort of gun controls — at the very least some sort of waiting period, including checks on those who would purchase guns. But it didn’t happen, and despite a good deal of public posturing and a smattering of small, ineffective, steps on the President’s part, nothing happened at the federal level. The issue is not whether or not gun controls could help prevent the madness that seems to have this country in its grips. The issue is why the President didn’t take advantage of the support he obviously had in the American public and “take on” the Congress and the NRA. After all, he had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

In any event, the President complains about the lack of cooperation from this Congress and is out beating the campaign trails to raise money to get more sympathetic members of Congress during the mid-term elections to help him push through some of his favorite programs during his final years in office. But it’s not all about sympathetic members of Congress. It’s also about getting the apathetic American public more involved in the political process and the sitting President could play a vital role if (s)he chose to do so. There is considerable power out there sitting glued to television sets, and that power could have been tapped into a number of times during this man’s presidency. But it has not. One wonders if that power might even have been enough to thwart the growing influence of the monied interests who seem determined to buy this government and who silently line the pockets of politicians they know will surely answer the call when the time comes to push their narrow, all-for-profit agendas.

In the game that is power politics, Barack Obama has shown himself to be inept. Given his status and his opportunities together with the precedent for “going public” he has ignored one rather obvious avenue for courting political success: the sleeping giant that is the American public that might have been aroused by Obama’s considerable powers of persuasion, but who now sleeps on undisturbed and unconcerned.