As I See It: Overrated
February 20, 2012 Victor Rozek
There are places in Hawaii where paradise still looks like paradise should. Even on the Western side of the Big Island where massive lava flows blanket miles of once-verdant land, there are small surviving oases where blue water laps against white sand beaches dotted with arching palms. These are the spots coveted by luxury hotel developers.
One such beach is ringed by manicured lawns and flowering plants masking a discrete open-air restaurant with a full bar to help the wealthy keep their levels up. Behind lush greenery, bungalows rent for $4,000 a night, which is one reason I don’t belong here. But here I am nonetheless, benefitting, as Tennessee Williams put it, from the kindness of strangers. In this case the “stranger” is the husband of a friend who happens to be a Big Kahuna at the hotel and invited my wife and me to lunch with two of his friends.
Which is how I found myself in the unlikely position of being seated between two people who represent the bookend events of the war in the Pacific. Kimo was a boy playing in the hills above Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He remembers waving at the planes, thinking they were Americans practicing a bombing run. The mother of the woman seated across from him was in Japan toward the end of the war. By geographic happenstance she was close enough to see the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, yet far enough away to have survived it.
When Kimo laments that kids today know so little about the events that shaped these islands, our host points to the pervasiveness of distracting technologies, referencing an article he recently read in Asia Times. Written by David Goldman under the nom de plume of Spengler, it challenges the near-universal assumption that computers are indispensable to education.
Is seems heretical to suggest that computers do more to retard learning than enhance it. But, apparently, a growing portion of America’s information technology brain trust has reached that conclusion. The chief technology officer of eBay thinks so, as do any number of scientists and engineers working for companies like Google, Hewlett-Packard, Yahoo, and Apple. They send their kids to schools that deliberately eschew computers. In fact, no screens of any sort are permitted on campus, and home use as well as television viewing are strongly discouraged. And research suggests such circumspection is justified.
According to the New York Times, school districts that invested massively in technology are finding that test scores are stagnant or declining. The wired world has produced some unanticipated outcomes, among them, a bloom of attention deficit disorder. One in 10 children are diagnosed with ADD or hyperactivity–conditions that essentially did not exist before the proliferation of consumer technology–and most are medicated. “The grand result,” says Goldman, “is a generation of schoolchildren who are disproportionately illiterate, innumerate, anxious, angry, and unhappy.”
Goldman argues that “learning how to learn is the point of education.” Although we forget the vast majority of things that have been taught us, it is the ability to grasp new information and maintain focus on a task through completion that provides enduring value. In short, says Goldman, “school taught us to concentrate. The most successful people are not the cleverest in terms of sheer processing power, but those who multiply cleverness with persistence.”
Technology, however, promotes the antithesis of persistence because it offers gratification without effort, expertise without scholarship. Instant gratification is its own addiction, and attention follows pleasure, while persistence becomes another word for frustration. Psychologists, faced with a growing number of parents anxious to “fix” their antsy, perpetually bored children, diagnosed biological rather than behavioral causes, and the rush to medicate was on–often with zombie-like effects.
“Our children do not read; they only surf,” says Goldman. “They do not write; they only text. They do not plan and strategize in games; they react to visual and aural stimuli while inflicting simulated mayhem. They do not follow a plot: they cut among disjoined images in the style of rap videos. And when they fail to concentrate, we give them Adderall and Ritalin.”
By contrast, ADD medication–indeed the condition itself–is almost unheard of in China where the K-12 curriculum includes memorizing “several thousand characters,” studying western classical music, and similar activities that require disciplined concentration.
The same emphasis on concentration and learning-by-doing is what apparently makes alternative schools desirable to New York and Silicon Valley elites. Exclusive private schools, “the ones with an acceptance rate lower than Ivy League colleges,” require children to learn a musical instrument, play in an orchestra, master chess, knit, construct things with their hands, and participate in theatrical productions–activities that enhance concentration, memory, critical thinking, cooperation, and problem solving skills. Not coincidentally, subjects like music, drama, and shop have all but disappeared from American curriculums.
Matt Richtel, of the Times, writing about a Waldorf school in Silicon Valley, notes that “those who endorse this approach say computers inhibit creative thinking, movement, human interaction and attention spans.” Which is not to say technology is without value. The goal is to delay its use, forestall a learned dependence upon technology that has the potential to cripple the developing mind. One parent with an advanced degree in computer science notes that the use of computing devices has become so simple that kids can quickly learn how to use them without fear of falling behind the technology curve.
Although standardized testing across public and private schools does not exist, making comparisons tricky, one statistic is impossible to ignore. “Ninety-four percent of students graduating from Waldorf high schools in the United States between 1994 and 2004 attended college,” a number almost 25 percent higher than public school rates.
Detractors will point out that private schools like Waldorf are expensive and therefore only available to already advantaged children. But that misses the point. There is no inherent expense in the philosophy behind their teaching methods. The dilemma facing American schools is that educators generally believe they can improve test scores by introducing still more technology to the classroom. Goldman would argue that it’s like treating the illness with more disease.
Lunch is over and we sit looking at the manicured beach and endless ocean beyond. Hawaiian songs play softly from hidden speakers, and I fear that no amount of education will help me understand them. The Hawaiian language recycles the same 13 letters over and over again, and to the unaccustomed ear it all begins to sound the same. I look at the little keyboard on my phone and am comforted by the presence of so many consonants. Just then a sullen teenager walks by, immersed in the prevailing cultural trance, oblivious to paradise, texting away on his smart phone.
My host shakes his head and quotes a line from Goldman’s article.
“Weapons of mass dementia.” he says.