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Mud And Boredom

The first day of school for a first-grader in Tbilisi, Georgia.
The first day of school for a first-grader in Tbilisi, Georgia.

“The New York Times” this week fired the latest salvo in old “is-technology-making-us-stupid” debate with an extended piece looking at how the Internet and other technologies may be ravaging the attention spans of school kids.

The piece has a lot of engaging themes running through it, including the idea that technology fuels the desire for “instant gratification” to the exclusion of all else. The stark choice between the instant gratification of technology and the “investment in the future” represented by traditional books-and-pencils learning seems like a metaphor for broader themes in the political and social spheres these days. Ironically, it may be that our past pursuits of instant gratification have now produced an environment where the urgent pressures for change no longer allow us the luxury of “investing in the future.”

One of the most interesting examples of this stark choice in the article comes from one of the students interviewed, a kid named Sean who spends 40 hours a week playing video games. “I haven’t done exercise since my sophomore year,” he says. “But that doesn’t seem like a big deal. I still look the same.” The piece seems persuasive in making the case that many kids of the present generation are developing an array of mental and physical habits that are of questionable and untested long-term value.

The “Times” article opens with the example of a “bright 17-year-old” named Vishal who can spend hours editing two seconds of video for a Guns N’ Roses tribute (“He does not leave his chair for more than two hours, sipping Pepsi, his face often inches from the screen….”) but who has only managed to read 43 pages of Kurt Vonnegut’s novella “Cat’s Cradle,” a school summer-reading assignment, in more than two months. He says that every time he sits down to read, his mind wanders to YouTube, where “you can get a whole story in six minutes.”

Interestingly, YouTube is full of student-made video “trailers” of “Cat’s Cradle.” Evidently, many educators in the United States have realized that such assignments offer the best hope of getting at least some kids to read the book. That is, they seem to have given up on the idea of getting kids to formulate their ideas in words and write them down, in order to at least salvage a bit of reading.

But looking at these videos isn’t encouraging. They clearly show a much greater mastery of the art of making videos than of the art of reading or interpreting literature.

“Cat’s Cradle” is an interesting choice because it is about a seemingly innocuous quest to develop a technology to eliminate mud. That technology – ice-nine – then poses such a threat that humanity longs for the day when mud was its biggest problem.

Likewise, most of the new technologies that are dominating lives today, although many have useful functions, were essentially designed as entertainment. As one of the kids in the “Times” piece says: “Facebook is amazing because it feels like you’re doing something and you’re not doing anything. It’s the absence of doing something, but you feel gratified anyway.”

That is, they were designed to get rid of the “mud” of boredom. But brain researchers now argue that “downtime is to the brain what sleep is to the body,” the article states. Constant stimulation stifles the brain.

“The headline is: bring back boredom,” one researcher told the daily.

A recently released Community College Survey of Student Engagement (studying students in the United States and Canada) found that ever-fewer students are engaged in what researchers call “deep learning.” Less than half of student polled reported that their academic program included “diverse perspectives (different races, religions, genders, political beliefs, etc.)” or that they “learned something that changed [their] viewpoint about an issue or concept.”

Only 56 percent reported having to “put together ideas or concepts from different course when completing assignments” or “examining the strengths or weaknesses of [their] own views on a topic or issue.”

University of Chicago philosophy professor Martha Nussbaum this year published a book called “Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs The Humanities.” She argues that education increasingly tries to teach students to be “economically productive” and the focus on profitable skills has “eroded our ability to criticize authority, reduced our sympathy with the marginalized and different, and damaged our competence to deal with complex global problems.” All this jeopardizes the future of democracy.

Likewise, in an interview published today, Czech historian and philospher Pavlina Rychterova makes a similar argument: "For learning to make up one's own opinion, historiography is a good field of study. It has a well-formed methodology for how to treat historical texts. When you learn this, you are able to read things correctly and to interpret modern texts as well. Then it is more difficult, for example, for politicians to bamboozle you."

Stefano Harney of the University of London’s business school, has argued that the collapse of humanities education is a tragedy for the discipline of business education: “The idea is to offer students the most challenging examples of critical and ethical thinking, and these are to be found in the arts and humanities. The denuding of these subjects would cut us off at the source and starve us of the material we need for our teaching,” Harney writes.

Maybe the most ironic part of the “Times” article is the students’ own ambivalence about their media-dominated world. Although they show little propensity toward critical thinking generally, they seem touchingly aware of the downside of the life they are increasingly embracing.

“My attention span is getting worse,” one student says blankly.

“If it weren’t for the Internet, I’d focus more on school and be doing better academically,” says another.

Sean, the kid who spends 40 hours a week playing video games, “says he sometimes wishes that his parents would force him to quit playing and study.”

But parents, and many educators, don’t take the hints. “If you’re not on top of technology,” Sean’s father told the daily, “you’re not going to be on top of the world.”