Introduction: David Blight on my Ipad.
“Could you look up for a moment?”
I was grating Parmesan cheese when I heard the voice from my Ipad. The voice had the deep resonant timbre of the faculty room, sherry with the Dean, and the squash balls at dawn. David Blight was beginning his lecture on the Civil War.
Now, he gave these lectures three years ago. A Yale grad student with the camera dutifully focused on the Great Man at the lectern. From my kitchen, I looked down on him, in the well of the lecture hall, as if I was Freshmen who had not done the reading. He wore a rep tie, a button down, tweedy jacket, and some discreet suspenders buttoned to his trousers. The lights were low in the hall, although his lecture notes were lit, as was the screen above him and out of range of the camera.
Professor Blight shielded his eyes and looked into the gloom of the lecture hall and asked “Can I have your attention?”
The moment bloomed with irony. I was watching him give his lecture on MY computer while he strove to get his students attention away from THEIR computers. I have no doubt that I paid more attention to his words in my kitchen than three quarters of his hung over, frustrated, Yalies did in that hall on that day. Those future oligarchs were no doubt updating their Facebook statuses, tending to their crops on Farmville, and downloading porn. I was merely grating a big chunk of Parmesan Romano.
The greater irony arose from the joke history was playing on Professor Blight. The Great Man was performing vaudeville in a movie theater. The tide of time had passed by his outcropping; he was no longer synthesizing the various works and words of dozens of experts on the Antebellum South to show his best way nor was he even convincing and selling his field of history, with its books, to a skeptical audience. Instead, he was begging for the appearance of propriety. He wanted his students to pretend that they were paying attention to him. Forty five year old me, with my pile of Romano but without either a notebook or an impending test, was his best audience.
These students before him, the ones with World of Warcraft and Farmville, are paying $40,000 a year to attend Yale. Someone in their lives, either in the Financial Aid office or sitting at the dinner table, was buying a Lexus EX 350 for Yale University every year so that that student could sit in that seat. Many of the students will spend the next twenty years of their lives paying the loans that put them in front of the Great Man so they could hear him while they selected their Fantasy Football team for the weekend.
More importantly, these young men and women were at Yale. They had excelled in high school, attended prestigious and rigorous prep schools, studied for their SAT’s with special tutors, and then had won the great game that is the Yale Admissions Process. Somewhere back in New Jersey, a mother had very proudly put the blue sticker on the back of her car. These young people are in the top 1% of all students in the world. Yet, the professor had to beg for them to pretend to pay attention.
We can’t dismiss these kids. We can’t see them in their seats and disregard them as some trogolodyte sect who got into college on the strength of Daddy’s alumni check and their ability to stop a puck. The Digital Warriors and Farmers have more on the ball than that. Nor can we look to Professor Blight and rate him as a dull pedant. A scholar does not rise to a named chair at Yale without the ability to hold an audience in a lecture hall, even if he is talking of Jefferson Davis.
The world has changed for Professor Blight, for me, and for every teacher over thirty. The long promised educational revolution has arrived, accompanied by a battalion of Angry Birds and the deep howitzers of Twitter. These students may not be fundamentally different from the way we were, or even the way Plato and Xenophon were, but the world and the workplace that they are emerging into is radically different. In order to assure the future happiness and success of our students, we need to adapt. Our students still need to learn the old truths, but we can’t give it to them in lecture notes.
What Teachers Want
I have been a teacher for almost twenty five years and I have worked in a variety of different arrangements. I taught a relatively well to do population of students at small public high school on Nantucket. I have also taught in an all-boys boarding school in Connecticut, in an all-boys day school in Texas, and finally in an urban, poor public school in Pittsfield. Like most teachers, I didn’t enter the profession looking to get rich or powerful. I will not have my name on a door, on a building, or even on a parking place in the near future.
But, dear God, I have taught in some caves. Today, I teach in a miserable classroom. None of my whiteboards erase. I have a half inch gap around one of the windows that lets in rain, snow, and a flute of winter wind. Five shades won’t go up and one won’t come down. My file cabinets no longer work, my closet is full of grammar books from the sixties, and the heater fires off small arms fire in the first period. I have been a teacher for 25 years and I have always taught in Bolivia. I am tired of it.
I have spent many years looking for a perfect school for my talents. I may have finally found it.
I would like to work in a place where the teachers are respected (and perhaps feared) I would like to work for an Administration that is thoughtful, wise, and forgiving. I would like to teach students that are competitive, motivated, and energetic. I would like to have all of the materials I need to teach my course, even if some of those books and supplies are hard to get. The school should have some state of the art resources, including a well-stocked library. I would like to teach in a school that is respected throughout the world. I would like to work with colleagues that are interesting, supportive, and accomplished. And, finally, I would like to live in a community where I could slip away and have a beer or two without getting the anger of a school board or parents.
I want to teach at Hogwarts.
Unfortunately, to my deep disappointment, Hogwarts only exists in imagination and on a sound stage in England. My sons, like many young readers, dressed up as Harry and Ron one Halloween. They flew about on their brooms, cast spells, and summoned all of the crazy powers that a magic boy could summon. They knew, deep inside, that this is just play. No amount of waving or shouting “Expecto patronum” will bring a stag out to protect them. Unlike my boys, I do believe in the power of magic. I want to wave a wand and create a classroom of Hermione Granger clones.
Hermione Granger embodies everything a pre-broadband teacher wants in a student. First, She is so hungry to learn that she will stop time to take an extra course. Where Harry is more than happy to cheat with the Half Blood Prince’s Spark Notes, Hermione insists on learning everything the hard way. She is even devastated when finals are canceled! As a result, she becomes Harry’s truly necessary partner in the climactic work. Thanks to her exhaustive work, she is prepared for most eventualities where Harry isn’t.
Second, she sees her teachers as revered experts. Snape can be cruel and mean, but she suffers through in pursuit of his knowledge. A host of tiresome teachers proceed to fill her notebooks with notes, including the vain Horace Slughorn, the vainer Gilderoy Lockhart, and the deceased Cuthbert Binns (what a school To keep you on the payroll after you have died.).
Finally, she challenges her teachers. As a twelve year old, she summons a troll into the bathroom. In a later book she reveals Lupin as a werewolf and, perhaps most heart warmingly to the legions of teachers and organizers, she embraces the cause of the Elves. She trumpets their cause to the righteous Dumbledore and McGonigal, and brings her school into a more enlightened era. Hermione leads the sort of insurrection that all right-thinking, left-leaning instructors can love. I see her now, in the front row with a heavily marked up Norton Anthology, a thermos for her water, and a pink shirt to support breast cancer awareness. Regrettably, she graduated ten years ago, went to Middlebury, and is now organizing non-profits, teaching Vikram Yoga, and posing for the Title 9 catalogue.
Hermione Granger is the epitome of students as Hogwarts is the epitome of schools. However, both the school and the student come from a time before the internet and the cell phone; they represent an epoch that has passed. Socrates, Professor Blight, and I have all taught in classrooms like the ones in Hogwarts and we have all taught students like Hermione. Those students and those classrooms don’t exist in America anymore.
Nonetheless, I would love the idea of teaching a class of Hermiones at Hogwarts. Heck, I would even teach a classroom of Slytherins. In Snape and Flitwick can keep Malfoy and the boys in line, I could probably make a good try at it. But, I think the one element that makes Hogwarts so attractive, and so impossible in our modern world, is the curriculum.
Nothing has changed at Hogwarts. If a dead man teach history, then the books haven’t change much recently. Harry Potter masters his current class of chemistry using a forty year old book; nothing has changed in potions since Snape was a boy (and Hector was a pup?). The curriculum at Hogwarts is immutable and eternal. Most teachers would love that.
Teaching is the most conservative of professions. In our heart of hearts, we want to teach the new generation what we learned and prized. We want them to read the Hardy Boys and Little House in the Big Woods because we loved those books thirty years ago. We loved the egg drop lab, spelling bees, and clapping out erasers (or, even better, using that funky vacuum cleaner-like grate in the boiler room).
We can do better than our teachers did. We go out to Staples and Spencer Gifts to find the right things for our bulletin boards, make humorous cut out calendars for our students’ birthdays, and get brand new copies of Nightbirds on Nantucket. “If I was a student,” we say, “I would love my class.”
Regrettably, our students are not us. This Broadband Generation did not grow up with the Three Stooges on after the Partridge Family in the afternoon, kickball under the streetlights, and jigsaw puzzles on the card table in the living room. No, they grew up with earbuds, Angry Birds, and texting. Our world is not their world. When I was growing up, the great threat to the national fabric was a TV addiction. For my students, the greatest threat to the nation buzzes in their pockets.
Parents, adults, and school administrators can take their stand on the pernicious knids of phones and Facebook. They are as right today as their parents were about television and their grandparents were about jazz on the radio. All of these things weakened the national fiber. But the world that my students are growing up into does not have banjos and fiddles played on the porch at Walton’s Mountain before the family goes inside to hear the latest story from John Boy. They live in a world where they can find midget porn on the phones, add Snape’s face, and share it around the lecture hall.
The Broadband Generation presents the greatest challenge to teaching that the profession has ever seen. For thousands of years, teachers could assume that they were the expert in the room, whether the subject was skinning a deer or making polyjuice potion. If the instructor could get her students attention away from their friends and their cave paintings, she could teach them something useful. Today, every student comes to school in a world that immerses them in a tide of entertainment and information. Their phones amuse and inform them better than we can. We can’t pretend they don’t have these things. Ron, Harry, and Hermione aren’t going to walk through my classroom door. As teachers, we need to stop preparing for them and get ready for the kids that will.
Adolescence as an Algorithm
Sometimes I am too clever.
On a slow Monday with eight to ten inches of snow inbound for Tuesday, I came upon an interesting idea–The New York Times Crossword. A relatively sober college freshman can complete the Monday crossword with a minimum of help, so it seemed a pretty solid challenge for my high school sophomores. So Clever Me finds the crossword in the paper, photocopies it, and hands it out to the class. Sure enough, the sons and daughters of the Berkshires prove equal to the task and begin to fill in some of the answers. I intend to have the students cooperate and collaborate and all of those good modern teacher things, but the students all seem to be doing well on their own. Pleased with myself, I leave the young people alone and grade some of their backed up essays.
After five moments of genuine self-pleasure and hardy back-slaps, I take a closer look at my silent and hard working students. Silence is a bad thing for young men and women; it generally portends tomfoolery. As gracefully and as stealthily as I could, I stood and watched them work. The students closest to me were three quarters finished with the puzzle. And, even better, they were only doing the across clues and filling the puzzle from the top down. These smart, smart students knew the name of El Cid’s sword (“Tizona”). As I was mentally congratulating their world history teacher, I felt the hard slap of reality upside the head. They were cheating. All of them.
My students had quietly opened up their phones, searched the web for the answer to today’s crossword puzzle (Thanks, Donaldswebblog), and were copying the letters down. They didn’t read the clues, check the spelling, or even read the words. They just copied the letters.
If I had a generous and good heart, I would have stopped them at that point and asked them to reflect on their practice. I would have led an honest discussion about the purpose of the lesson and my hopes for them as students.
But I don’t have that heart. What I have is a mischievous and devious one.
On Wednesday, when they came back from the snow day, I put two dozen donuts in the center of the room, next to my desk. Then I challenged them to finish a crossword. “As soon as I saw one crossword with all of the correct answers, I would give the donuts to the class. But if no one in the class could solve it, the donuts would go to the lowly freshmen across the hall.” Then I handed them the Monday New York Times Crossword from July 14, 1983. One by one, their faces fell. I ate a donut and watched them work. Then I gave away the donuts. Lesson learned.
This generation of high school students is entering into a world with a warm, flashing, glow. The vast majority have a broadband connection to the internet at their house and a similar connection in the palm of their hands. Every piece of information mankind knows can blink in front of their eyes. Every whim or wish is instantly known. Every faux pas can be broadcast to the entire world. In my first year at this school, we had a series of fist fights between boys and between girls. Each fight would appear on YouTube about one hour later, with appropriate commentary.
In the sixties and seventies, teachers and parents feared television. It came into the house and homogenized us. It sold us soap and shampoo, over and over, then took away reading time and kickball. The Boob Tube made us all stupider. And then cable came, removed the classy and civilizing effect of the big three networks and replaced it with MTV and cheap movies.
Through it all, Cable TV did not penetrate the classroom. Chris Whittle and Channel One made a good run at installing TV sets, but most classrooms were able to shut the machines off and continue into the good world of Pip and Oliver Twist. The school and, particularly, the classroom kept the marketers out. At home, Mom and Dad could shut off the TV (or change the channel to ESPN). Otherwise, stereos and walkmen could hug their kids with music, AOL could bring them into the world of chat, and they could “1-2-3″ text each other, but the technological tide could be kept at bay. Four years ago, only one student had a blackberry in my class, which he used to great effect in front of the freshman girls.
Today’s high school student has access to two things that the Cool Kids of yesteryear did not have. First, most of my students have some sort of high-speed internet access at home. With that high-speed access, Susie and John can see or read anything in seconds. At its best, this means that Susie can watch the violence in LIbya or Iran with the click of a mouse, then she can educate her friends, contribute money, and coordinate a bake sale without lifting her butt from the seat. At its worse, John can watch all of the perversions the world has to offer in high definition and slow-motion capture. Even better, he can take part. Most of my male students play Call of Duty with each other for hours; they kill, maim, and eviscerate each other hundreds of times an evening. While they are on-line, they are being measured, their tastes are being gauged, and their wallets weighed by advertisers and marketers. The computer imprisons their attention, commodifies it, then alters it.
The computer screen, including the one I am now using, is a version of Narcissus’ pool. We stare into it and see ourselves, improved. The screen creates a reflecting cocoon, where it will play our favorite music (on Pandora), let us meet out favorite friends, amuse us with our favorite fantasies and never let us see something that we don’t want to see. Our tastes have become an algorithm.
While at home, kids have this torrent of broadband. Everywhere else, the student carry their phones. In the absolute best case scenario, the modern cell phone is an annex to your brain. It carries all of the numbers and details that you can’t remember, whether it be an Aunt’s birthday or her phone number. It lets you contact and be contacted everywhere, so you no longer need to spend Friday nights waiting by the phone. You are never lost with your phone; the GPS chip can locate you and the nearest BBQ within a few feet. You can take pictures and movies anywhere and of anything. With the advent of texting, you can send brief messages without interrupting someone’s life. The phone carries around all sorts of time wasters, from Angry Birds and DoodleJump to “Star Wars” to the “Essential Fifty Songs of Ella Fitzgerald” to the “New York Times” and Moby Dick. And Facebook. Let’s not forget Facebook.
The modern iPhone is a fascinating, terrifying “World of the Future” device. Like broadband, it has only been in our students pockets for a few years, so we don’t know how our society will adjust to this new machine. It will change crossword puzzles, surely. And a whole lot else.
My childhood has become an antique: my normal is now a museum piece. When I was sixteen, I spent most of my nights at home. Swim team practice ran until about seven P.M. at the Melrose YMCA. After that, I waited for my mother to pick me up. To humor me on the way home, we would listen to Oedipus on WBCN. After a dinner of refried spaghetti, I watched an hour or so of television before doing my homework. If I wanted to skip my homework, I might read Stephen King, John D. MacDonald, or Adam Hall for few hours. It’s possible that a friend of mine might call me on the family phone and we would talk for a half hour or longer about stupidity. In short, I spent most of my evenings alone, bored, and unaware.
My students have no conception of my old life. They have never heard this phrase shouted up the stairs: “It’s for you.” They have never been alone, bored, or unaware. My twenty-first century self would be deep into my phone after swim team practice. Earbuds in, eyes down, I would be cocooned in my own amusement. On the ride home, I would probably still wear my ear buds and forestall any of the parental angst that sloshed around the car. Dinner would still be dinner, but my vibrating friends would buzz in my pocket three or four times over that half hour. And then I would jet to my room. Once there, I would jack into the hive-mind of Facebook. Knowing my addictions well, I would also dive into Call of Duty or Starcraft. And there I would stay until I was too tired to look at the screen anymore. My evenings would now be hyper-connected, hyper-aware, and always aroused.
Our world hasn’t adjusted to these machines, but the shift has been coming. We ignored these prophets just as efficiently as we ignored the ones in the Old Testament. Book, music, and camera stores are dropping faster than leaves in November. The ratings for TV shows and radio stations have plummeted; my students no longer have a favorite DJ or radio station. Movie attendance has dropped; “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2″ made more money in it’s first five days than “Avatar.” did. Without the great consuming horde of the Baby Boomers, the effect of the Broadband Children would be even greater.
If Hollywood and Corporate America haven’t adjusted to this new world, conservative and grumpy teachers can’t really be expected to keep up. Each September, we walk into a classroom expecting to see twenty different versions of Hermione Grainger. Failing that, we would be happy with twenty different versions of ourselves. Instead, we come face to face with the Borg. We do what we can: we do what we have always done. Schools ban cell-phones during the school day. We assign and grade our homework. We give reading quizzes. But all of these practices are becoming silly. We make these rules because we don’t really know what else to do and they pretend to follow them out of politeness. Sergeant Schultz, Major Strosser, and me; we all “know nothing.”
Which isn’t to say that we won’t learn a thing or three soon. Good teachers who care about their students and their future success will find a way to teach this incoming wave. No matter what they carry in their pockets, adolescents remain adolescents. Beer, marijuana, girls, and friends remain the most important things in most 16 year old boys lives. They may be able to name El Cid’s sword in a few seconds, but they still don’t know how to talk to a Jennifer. The Broadband Generation isn’t all that different from the adolescent armies that came before them; they just have more diversions by a factor of 100.
45 talks to 17
Veteran teachers want to teach the non-college bound Seniors. When you’re young, you want to teach the Advanced Placement classes; in my first few years, I taught AP English Literature. Those classes come with respect and achievement. Most of us teachers were AP students ourselves, so when we take the reins of the brightest of the bright, we are taking over for our old teachers. As a teacher, you make it when you teach AP. And, as parents and a community, we want young teachers teaching those courses. Advanced Placement courses should come with a paper due every week, national tests to prepare for, and lots of very interested and “concerned” parents.
But veteran teachers have learned a few things over the years. The non-college bound senior class doesn’t have as much grading or preparation to take home each night. Parents, if they are in the picture at all, might come for a parent’s night or they might not.These Mommies and Daddy’s know their kids well. They know what the teacher has to deal with. They generally shake your hand and smile in the grocery store, but they don’t send angry e-mails to the principal about Dear Little Snowflake’s First B+ EVER.
After a few years of teaching the kids with the high SAT scores, you learn an unavoidable truth; there isn’t much you can do for them. Oh, you can lead them through certain books and teach them how to refine their writing. But they have already internalized most of the strategies and structures that they are going to need at Yale Law School. The kids with the loaded backpacks have parents that push them, peers that expect excellence, and a nasty little gleam in their eyes. At your best, you are pointing them in the right direction, refining some techniques and getting out of their way. The kids with the Daily Planners are going to go to an excellent college one way or another.
But the kids at the other end of the class rank are going out into the world of paychecks and personnel departments tomorrow. They don’t need to know about the homosexual overtones in Moby Dick or the difference between litotes and synecdoche. They need to know about life, red in tooth and claw. And, God bless them, they have seen a lot more of it than the Coreys and Jennifers in the Honor Society. They have friends who are addicted, friends with children, and friends in jail. They have parents at home that need loans and siblings that need their care. Every morning, someone asks them “Why are YOU going to that school?”
You have to admit, It’s a good question and It’s as serious as a heart attack. While I was teaching on Nantucket, I had a student drop out of school to pick up a hammer and a broom for $75,000 a year. It’s hard to convince that seventeen year old that that job that makes so much money right now could disappear in a week. He only starts to believe that when the job disappears. Out here in the Berkshires, a sixteen year old girl dropped out of school with the blessing and signature of her mother. She had two young sisters that needed minding and Mom was going back to work. Both of those students, and the hundreds of others, couldn’t come up with a good answer to that question. Neither could the school.
On the first day of school, I tell students that the goal of my class is for the students to be “fat, happy, and 40.” If they are fat, I tell them, they have enough money. They can bring home an extra pint of Ben and Jerry’s on a Wednesday and no one is going to go without the heat. If they are happy, they are doing work that they enjoy doing with people they enjoy doing it with. If they are garbage men, it is because they want to be. When they get up in the morning, they don’t mind going to work and they look forward to the people they see there. I add one little corollary here; I want them to run their own shop. You pay yourself, you don’t punch someone else’s clock. Finally,I want them to live until they are 40 (and preferably past that tender age.) No reason to die young. Lots of good times happen later on.
“Fat, happy, and 40″ resets the conversation and the curriculum. I am no longer teaching a class that will help them get into a good college. I am no longer holding the diploma out there or promising to get their foot in the door at the GE plant. They aren’t “looking to get out of here.” Instead, if I teach the class well, they have to look to what they need to succeed long term. They put their phones down, relax their thumbs, and settle in. The subtitle of my senior standard English class is “45 talks to 17.”
Whether it is because of adolescent brain development, hormones, or too many hits to the head, my students have several delusions about the world. I don’t think any of these delusions are new; the young felt this way long before trains, planes, and automobiles. But the new technology aims right at these misconceptions, exploits them, and then carries them forward for the rest of life.
X-men vs Superman
First, my students believe themselves capable of prodigious feats of concentration. Their minds do not house one superhero, but a whole team of them. Superman could only save one crashing airplane at a time. He couldn’t text and play music while doing it. My students have the X-Men in control of their lives. They can talk to their friends, text an invitation to a party, choose a better song, eat a Cheddar Cheese Combo and drive at the same time. And they would really be happy if they could add the apps for telepathy and invisibility.
I grew up aiming to be Superman. Superman could focus on one thing for a long time. He could retire to a Fortress of Solitude where he would only be interrupted by a flashing light somewhere in a crystal. Even Batman could sit in his study and actually read before the Bat-signal flashed in his window. Bruce Wayne didn’t have Commissioner Gordon in his Fab Five, and he definitely did not have a special ringtone. When they wanted Batman, they put up a light and hoped he might see it. I was into the Batcave/ Fortress of Solitude. I sealed off the porch, got comfortable in a chair, put the earphones on, and went to town. No beeping, buzzing, or vibrating back then.
Today, My students are the X-Men. The X-Men are a group of teenage superheros who had complimentary, but weak, powers. Individually, none of the teenagers could take on Superman nor could they out think Batman. Together and coordinated, they were more powerful. But they were coordinated rarely. Instead, they were jealous, petty, and selfish. They had seven members at any given time, along with seven agendas. Professor X, a telepath, led them. He could listen to all of their thoughts, speak to the team, and see the world around them. Moreover, he could read anyone’s mind anywhere. Emergencies tend to pop up anywhere and everywhere. As a result, he had to have the team ready to fly off at a moments notice. Once one mess was cleaned up in Antarctica, another would sprout in Denmark. At the same time, Peter was worried his sister and Rogue had the hots for Wolverine.
So it is with my students, except that they believe that they have the X-Men in their noggins. They can’t get the team to sit still and do the math homework, never mind any reading for pleasure. At any moment, someone is going to run in with an update from Cerebro-”OMIGOD Can U believe he texted me?” In addition, Facebook might beep with an message, Twitter will refresh with a new “Bieber” blast, and
the occasional e-mail or phone call might come pinging through. There is no Fortress of Solitude free from the vibrations of a phone. Professor X is always there, complete with hormones, and knows what you are thinking.
One of the oddities in the Broadband Universe is that my students read ten times as many words now as I ever did, and that they watch five times less TV. They read e-mail, Facebook updates, funny articles, and text message constantly on their phones and computers. For my part, I only read far fewer words than they do, but I can read a book and submerge myself in the story. I can spend hours riding along the Tamiami Trail with Travis McGee or hunting kidnappers with Spenser. I can read a textbook’s version of historical events and start questioning their narrative. But, in order to do these mental feats, I need to block the rest of the world out and lock the door in the Fortress of Solitude. Entering the world of a novel means withdrawing from friends, family, and vibrating phones. You can’t multi-task Moby Dick. But you can find it on SparkNotes and that is almost as good.
Now, anyone who has ever had a business, raised small children or taught a classroom knows the value of multi-tasking. I have stood in a kitchen making spaghetti sauce while I settled a fight with two boys, listened to NPR, paid my car insurance, and downloaded e-mail. I know the value of that skill. At the same time, I don’t think I had to do any of those five things well. The best of my students can do many things at once, but they don’t do many of them with skill. They have excelled at being mediocre in many ways. When the tasks get more complicated and require more concentration, you need skill and focus. We are doing a great job training busy mothers, but a lousy job with the poets and the engineers.
History is Dead
In high school, time creeps on by. Whatever was true when Susan and Steve entered freshman year will be true senior year. The world seems to be handed down to them intact from the previous classes. If Susan’s older sister could grind at her prom, well, of course Susan can. Time stops moving in high school.
Most of my students feel that the world will continue on pretty much as it has since the dawn of time (or Freshman year.) If Steve’s older brother could buy a car, he can too. If Dad and Mom are together now, they will always be together. History, to my students, extends about six months into the past. This mistake arises honestly; they aren’t that old and their memories aren’t that long. If something has existed since they can remember, it must have existed forever. Sometimes, this deception makes for great fun. For eighteen months, I sported a thick, Hagrid-esque beard. Then, for Halloween, I dressed as Captain Hook. The beard became a Fu-Manchu, then a moustache, then a Charlie Chaplin, and now I am clean faced. By Christmas, my students were positive I had never sported a beard.
For most adolescents, who neither become pregnant nor gravely injured, the first time that they hear “time’s winged chariot draw near” is in their last year of high school. The “never agains” start to stack up as winter turns to spring. When I coached swimming, I ushered it into the pool. Before the final meet of the year, we would pull the swimmers aside and shock them. “This is the last time you will ever race this event. You will never be in a swim race again. Remember it.” Then the young athlete would blink back tears, take to the block, and swim the fastest time of the season. And that would be it. Young people hear the word “never” and they don’t believe it, until it really is “never.” “You will never swim this race again, you will never see these people again, you will never walk these halls.” The winds of time catch us all before we can brace ourselves.
Technology puts the winds of time outside someplace, beyond the glass and outside the wall. On the internet, high school never ends. Noone gets old on Facebook, no matter how many birthday wishes clutter up their wall. Inside the computer, you can be friendship lasts forever. Old friends and rivals can battle in Fantasy Baseball and Madden until their middle age catches them. In the rest of our lives, the past weighs on our shoulders and presses against our belts. But on-line, we can be smarter, richer, and cooler seniors in high school.
History disappears in an update and scrolling screen. Old lovers and wives go from “In a Relationship” to “It’s Complicated” to “Single” without so much of a piece of scrap paper or a diary entry. In our Brave New World, you can break up with someone, erase them from your digital life, and emerge virginal in the time that it takes to walk into a bathroom stall. Noone ever has to say goodbye.
However, Google and the Server Farms never forget. Text messages only disappear on your phone. Everything written, photographed, and updated digitally is saved in four or five places. With the right tool and the right administrator’s key, all of your digital smoke solidifies into hard carbon trails. Marketers and salesman pay millions of dollars for this information. “Time’s winged chariot” is housed on a server, has a meter, and can run backwards.
Everybody Wins (or Resets)
In addition to their ignorance to the scars of time, young people have a tremendous faith in their own “natural” success. Every one of them will be driving a Bugatti or a Lamborghini by the time they come back for their tenth reunion. They have absolute confidence that they will marry the man that they love, find work that is financially and emotionally rewarding, and the dog will never run away. Further, they don’t see success as a process or even at the end of the process. Instead, it will come to them as the tooth fairy once did. Dreams really do come true. All you need to do is believe in it enough.
The magical dream success is going to kill us all. Young men follow the wandering star of professional sports right over the edge and onto the rocks. Right now, in one class, I have three graduating seniors who are convinced that they will play professionally if only someone will checks them out. All three boys play on a C.Y.O. league that plays other students, mostly in middle school, in the city. So, these boys are sure that they will be discovered and play. Perhaps they will have to go to a junior college or a regular college for a year, but it won’t be long before they will be making “phone numbers.”
Because I have a dark heart, I try to deflate them. I ask “Who else has followed that path? Who, in the NBA, didn’t play organized high school or college basketball?” Someone more tenderhearted than I turns and fills the pregnant silence; “It’s their dream. It CAN happen.”
Everyone in class looks at me as I assigned “Drowning puppies” as a homework assignment.
In the new millennium, the young people have rarely felt failure and, even rarer, felt that failure that was unambiguously their fault. When bad grades appeared on their report cards, the teacher was to blame. When the varsity roster didn’t include their name, the coach screwed up. Or they were hurt. Or they had to work. Or they knew they wouldn’t make it, so they just gave up. A better coach, teacher, or boss would keep their interest and attention.
Quitting isn’t just for basketball players. One of my stellar AP students recently put on the horn of quitters. In our poetry reciting competition, he had won his classroom’s honors. But, when the schoolwide finals came around, he found he had to meet with the coordinators for the Red Cross blood drive. In three months.
Fear of failure is nothing new. Noone wants to be humiliated and shamed, yet it seems to happen to all of us. It keeps boys from dating, athletes from competing, and students from speaking. If adolescence has deadly plague, humiliation is it.
The digital world has addressed this problem neatly. If he doesn’t respond to a wink or a poke on eHarmony or match.com, no harm done and no pain suffered. Another twenty or so profiles will salve that wound. And if the dating sites don’t have anything to ease your pain, there is always Youtube and all of its “blue” cousins. Four walls and a locked door can easily keep Shame and Humiliation at bay.
Second, very few people are directly savaged on Facebook. Instead, we celebrate birthdays. The crowd on Facebook runs to the positive. Post a “Feeling Depressed” update and the world will fill your Wall. All of your friends are cheerleaders. They will send you a cheer at the slightest provocation. Unfortunately, they don’t have any short comments about your stagnating career and distant boyfriend.
Further, your interaction with those friends remains limited to a 140 characters and a chain of very public responses. Were you to meet your friends in the real world (“meatspace”) you would send and receive thousands of messages, from the obvious tears to the occasional glance. In the real world, we communicate very little with our words. Most of what we say, we say in a glance, or tone, or posture. Three quarters of what we say is non-verbal. On-line, we send out no non-verbal messages. And everyone is a cheerleader.
Finally. you never lose on a computer. No problem remains insoluble, no maze is opaque, not enemy unconquerable. Every time you die in “Resident Evil” you can restart and live again; resurrection comes in few seconds. And, if you don’t have the time or the guile to outwit Darth Vader on the computer screen, someone has posted a walk-through or a video guide to finally defeating him. On the internet, you always make the team, you never lose a game, and you always win the championship. Who wouldn’t prefer that to a long bus ride home from losing another game to Melrose High?
The Broadband Universe has removed our fear of failure, but it also took the possibility of success. When you win NBA2K11, you get to jump around your darkened living room. No one cheers, no one chairs you through the marketplace, no one hangs a laurel on your head. You remain what you were when you were losing; a person staring at a glowing screen. When you do lose, whether it is at Diablo III or in love, noone can really console you. Texting does not replace touching. If you don’t grab those people who love and care about you, you remain alone in a dark room, no matter how many virtual hugs they send you.
Further, the online privacy disappears with the flick of a switch. Private and embarrassing photos can be published in second, but will last for a century. Every time an employer or a date wants to research your history, they will find the picture where you passed out on the sofa and your friends drew a bra on your chest. Those YouTube fights will live forever on a server. They will meddle with a job twenty years from now. And God help you if there are videos of anything more intimate.
Teenagers haven’t changed much in a hundred years. They feel, as I felt. Our technology reinforces these adolescent misconceptions. It builds a Forever High School where every team wins, everyone is popular, and we all love you.
Shakespeare got this right in 1694; Romeo was as adolescent as anyone today. Romeo could multi-task; he could mock the Nurse, impress his friends with dirty jokes, and still be ready to woo and marry Juliet. Romeo wiped away history. Rosalind faded from his mind within a few hours and was wiped clear by Juliet. At the masked ball, he was as hidden as any Facebook stalker. Finally, Romeo was mortified by embarrassment. He could not stand the insult of Mercutio’s death. It needed to be avenged. The Broadband Universe hasn’t changed Romeo. It has just hyped him up even higher.
Conclusion: At Nation At Risk
In my first year at college, while I was busy typing my papers on a Smith Corona in time so that I could get to the Alibi for DJ night, Ronald Reagan’s Department of Education produced “A Nation At Risk.” In it, the members wrote that the foundations of America “are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation (sic) and as a people.” Throughout the country, the commission saw low standards, weak teachers, poor administration, and dropping SAT scores. “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Even though the Sandia report repudiated many of the claims in “A Nation At Risk,” the perception stuck that America was in deep trouble with its kids. Commissions were formed, money was allocated, new laws were written. And for a few shining years, the money flowed.
Then it ended. Since then money came into this school in weak and unpredictable spurts. The spigot got turned off for any one of a dozen reasons. Property Tax revolts prevented towns from spending the money. Or Federal funds dried up with the end of the space race. Or teacher’s unions got to too greedy.
Personally, I blame the baby boomers. In believing in their own exceptionalism, the Big Chill folk bankrupted their parents and pauperized their children. An entire generation went off on Harley Davidsons to find America, found her in the Champagne Lounge at the Golden Banana, made it rain, and then staggered from the doors. The Boomer’s parents loaned them money to buy the split level, which they raised their kids in, before they got divorced, sold the place, went on Carnival Cruises, and died broke. Why should they spend their hard earned money on schools when they could drop it in Iraq or on Shearson Lehman Brothers
I entered the profession in the fall of 1987 with the easy grace of a landing duck. I became a licensed teacher while still an undergraduate in Vermont. As part of my training, I was drilled on grammar, tested on my ability to thread a movie projector, and supervised by an absent and napping “mentor.” However, at college I had learned how to use personal computers, including the Digital Rainbow (with the word processor “FinalWord.” and the new Macintosh.
In my first year, the school had fifty Apple IIe computers and one Macintosh. On my very first day, I stopped the science teacher from reworking the Laserprinter into a line printer for the IIe’s. The teachers room smelled of alcohol and purple ink from the ditto machine. The island had just received cable TV, although some of the old timers kept their antennas tuned to Channel 6 out of New Bedford. None of the classrooms I taught in had functioning telephones, nor did we have VCR’s or televisions. If the front office wanted to talk to me, the secretary would walk down the hall and find me. The students could use one phone; the pay phone next to the gym.
I was teaching in a cave, or more specifically, traveling between them. I taught one class in the Art room, another in a middle school science room, and a third in the cafeteria. If I wanted the students to do homework, I would need to photocopy it a few days ahead of time. I did not teach Hermione, but I did have Crabbe, Boyle, Ron, and Luna in my Honors English class. The curriculum I taught wasn’t all that different format the one taught in 1977 or 1947; “Catcher in the Rye” was the newest addition to the book closet, but we had to get parent’s permission to teach it.
It wasn’t the best of times or the worst of times; it was a slower time. My students were still self-centered and over-confident, but they didn’t have the internet to broadcast that to the world. They passed notes instead of texts. They called each other at night,or hung out on the Strip (at the foot of Steamship Wharf) and told each other how bored they were.
At Middlebury, I had been imbued with the Ted Sizer philosophy of being the “Guide on the Side Not the Sage on the Stage.” As I came to my own classroom, I tried to use those student directed, project based ideas with my new charges. And I got run over. So I decided that the veterans with their ditto sheets and read aloud plays may not be all wrong after all. By the time I received tenure, I was assigning thirty pages of reading a night, popping quizzes whenever I felt like it, assigning essays willy-nilly, and becoming the teacher who had taught me.
And I could still be that guy. I could still give fascinating lectures, put my notes on the overhead, and give a ton of essay tests. I could be Professor David Blight. If I shaded my eyes, pretended to be ignorant, and just kept on going, I could plug on through to retirement without changing my game all that much.
A sea change has come to our students, far more powerful than any Presidential commission or act of Congress. No child has been left behind, but the teachers and the schools have. We can’t teach from the lectern anymore. We can’t fill their notebooks up with words and jargon and vocabulary for the quiz on Friday. We have slipped into a Broadband Universe where the skills we teach, and the attitudes we adopt, matter far more than they ever did before. In this world of Facebook, Tumblr, and Text, the old skills that we took for granted ten years ago have to be reshaped and retaught.
In order for our students to succeed in the Broadband Universe, they need to be able to do two things well. First, the need to have mental discipline. The past Lords of Discipline were external. Dad yelled at you, Mom cut off your supply of Cadbury Chocolate Eggs, your teacher failed you and your coach benched you. In our brave new world where children get on-line and spend hours alone in their rooms, this discipline must be internal. Second, our students need discretion. Not only do they need to be aware of what they broadcast on the internet, by video, picture, or text, but they need to be aware of where they visit and what they read. There are many truths on-line, but far more lies. If we can manage to foster these two mindsets into our students, they will be able to read, write, think, and speak well. If we can’t get our kids to get those two things down, it doesn’t matter if we hand them The Odyssey in eighth grade or assign fifty problems in Integral Calculus. At nineteen, they will emerge with no skills but very strong and quick thumbs. We can put them in the basement, water them twice a day, and slip Pop-Tarts under the door.
To me, discipline means a personal check list. First, you have decided, thoughtfully, that there are something that need to be done You have also decided that these things are important and necessary enough to be done today. Finally, these tasks need to be accomplished before anything else. Like sending your girlfriend a picture of a pig with boots on.
Before every teenagers didn’t carry the internet in her front pocket, discipline was not as important a mindset to have. Twenty years ago, there were fewer distractions in the world. Sophie may have missed her homework on The Great Gatsby because she was watching “Pretty In Pink” or she was on the phone with her friend, Sophie. If you were her parent, correcting this problem is pretty simple. You send the young lady to her room (presumably it doesn’t have a television) and you don’t let her out until her homework is done and is one the kitchen table. Parents have far fewer options now. If you send her to her room, she could get on-line, Facebook her friends, look at the picture of the pig her boyfriend sent her, and use Sparknotes to write a passable version of the homework ditto sheet. Further, if the Young Lass isn’t parked on sofa with a bowl of popcorn and the telephone, you would never know that she wasn’t doing her work.
As teachers, we can do many things to help foster discipline. First, we need to think about how we assess what we want the young’uns to learn. If we want them to read, we can’t measure that by handing them a sheet of questions that can be answered off of SparkNotes. Every answer key to every question bank is available by Google. If they type the question in, they will get the answer. If, instead, we ask the students to write about what they read or quiz them on it, the internet isn’t much of a help. Students remember more of the novel they read than the Sparknotes they skimmed while waiting for their friends to text back.
Second, we can model good work habits and enforce them in the little time that we have. Had I banned cell-phones from the classroom, my young sophomores wouldn’t have gone looking for the answers on them. Moreover, I need to show the students how to work on one thing at a time, give it full Superman attention, and then complete it. Unfortunately, the forty five minute period and the music lessons scheduled during my class prevent that. If we can give assignments that focus on the skills we want the students to have, and then show the students how to complete them (without anything battery powered nearby), we are on the way to getting more poets and engineers into the world.
In the Broadband Universe, we need to control how much time we spend in front of a glowing screen and how long we spend on any one thing. One of the reasons that reading for pleasure has withered away is that we don’t create enough time in our day to read. When we fly, we have a lot of time to do that. You sit in your seat for five hours, ignore the movie, and open the book. In that digitally deprived space, your creativity can play the words on the page the way a clarinetist plays notes on a sheet. When that happens, you descend into the story and the text. But, when our phones chirp, the score to the Red Sox game is available, and e-mail may have come in, we cannot play the words on the page. We can only decode them. Discipline no longer means filling our day with work, but emptying work from our day.
With all of the choices in the Broadband Universe, we need make conscious choices with our time and with our actions. If we don’t, we find ourselves spending hours looking at Cat pictures and flinging explosive birds at greedy pigs. Without discipline, we will only be consumers, and never producers.
The internet can be one huge buffet table. Steamship round of roast beef is here, spinach salad is there, Mallomars are stacked up at the far end. Discretion is needed at dinner. First, you shouldn’t eat chocolate cake every time you grab a plate. Second, everyone in the room can see what you are eating and knows what you have been eating for the last five years. The act that you thought was private is very, very, public.
The Broadband Universe is filled with experts. You can find an expert on midgets, on Milton, and on Monopoly. But you can’t find out whether these people are really experts. The Ethos of the writer is difficult to gauge. When I read an expert on Milton, I only know what he shows me. If he is on the Oxford webpage, he might teach there or he might be a student. I have to dig around in the dirt to find how deep the roots go. Some sources, like Wikipedia, seem sketchy but can hold up over time. Other sources, like The New York Times, seem reliable, but have printed lies. The authority of every writer is under suspicion; his bona fides need to closely examined.
Teachers have a great deal of difficulty teaching students to annotate. In the past, the students had the limited choice of the books in the library and the article in the National Geographic. If you taught them how to use the Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, the index to the encyclopedia, and the CLC, you were pretty much good to go. With the torrent of information and expertise on-line, and the ease of finding it, annotation becomes a critical skill. Just because the work is in Google Books doesn’t mean that the work is thoughtful or correct.
More dangerously, we need to be discrete about what we write and what we read on the internet. Even though you may be alone at your desk, or in your house, doesn’t mean that you have privacy. Text messages are stored on a server with the phone company, websites are stored on your computer as well as at the sights that you visited, and e-mail might as well be carved in stone. When he died, Dickens ordered all of his correspondence burned. Today, we would know all of his secrets. Everyone who turns on their computer or who carries a phone emits a plume of digital smoke. Advertisers follow your smoke and tailor their message just for you. Marketers see where you surf. The smoke just builds and builds.
If we know, and our students know, that everything they do on-line might as well be on-stage, then they can make smart choices. Not only can they choose their experts and advisors with care and consideration, but they can choose what they read and what they post. The pictures from the Sig Ep Winter Formal will make everyone laugh, forever. They will laugh in the frat house and in the human resource office ten years later.
We have a long list of skills that young’uns need to learn. In my field of Language Arts, the kids need to be able to read, write, think, and speak. Over the last hundred years, we have amassed many effective techniques and approaches to teach these skills. The kids can sit at a Harkness table and discuss. They can walk through Macbeth and act out the lines. They can write journals and poems and novels. Schools could achieve all of these goals with some education and elbow grease in the years before the Internet changed it all. Hogwarts worked very well.
But TimeWarner has put a T3 into the Astronomy Tower and the Room of Requirement has a stack of servers in it. Before we can effectively teach those valuable skills, as well as the ethics and mortals of a thoughtful adult, the students have to develop discipline and discretion. They need to be able to use the tools that the Broadband Universe has for them, and be used by them.
The Great Man needs to come down from the lectern and the students need to close their laptops. The passive acceptance of knowledge and of authority has to yield to the uncomfortable truth that true learning is process that people work on, not something that is given in lecture notes or taped for a podcast. Learning has to be active, critical, and painful. Old assumptions and comfortable mindsets need to be heaved out with the garbage, then replaced by some thoughts far sleeker and more effective. The trash waits for both teachers and students.
Otherwise, we might just as well play World of Warcraft between Pop-tarts.