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Growing Up Analogue, Wired for Scapegoating

I just read the New York Times article Growing Up Digital, Wired for Distraction by Matt Richtel, and I’ve got to say: you’re raising some good points for all the wrong reasons.

I’m an eighteen-year-old university student majoring in Communication, Media, and Film; I’m also a programmer and a web designer who spends a lot of time on my computer. I know exactly where Vishal Singh in this article is coming from. I frequently get distracted from my schoolwork to edit videos, check Facebook, and post on this blog. I’m fully aware that I can sometimes allow my hobbies with technology to get in the way of my school work, and I have that oft-levied student issue of staying up too late. The New York Times brings up some good points, but comes to the wrong conclusion.

Who is to blame for the academic disinterest of students? The students are.

Of course, most people would point out that students are (primarily) young people who should be guided by the education system, not punished. And that all sounds great on paper when you’re trying to appease people’s parents for political reasons, but I know first-hand that this is not a stance that holds any water in reality. This sort of nonsense is exemplified perfectly by Marcia Blondel’s experience with her classroom, as related in the article:

“Who wants to read starting in the middle of Page 137?” she asks. One student begins to read aloud, and the rest follow along.

To Ms. Blondel, the exercise in group reading represents a regression in American education and an indictment of technology. The reason she has to do it, she says, is that students now lack the attention span to read the assignments on their own.

“How can you have a discussion in class?” she complains, arguing that she has seen a considerable change in recent years. In some classes she can count on little more than one-third of the students to read a 30-page homework assignment.

I did high school and I remember teachers like this. They’re incompetent. Novel idea for Ms. Blondel: if your students won’t work, FAIL THEM. If that seems like something that’s going to get you fired, you’re probably an awful teacher. Students need someone engaging to make them interested in the subject matter. Assigned to a mandatory subject that requires you to teach unwilling students? Get out the red marker.

As someone who knows how to read, my worst enemies in high school were the teachers that read to me, or got other students to read to me. It’s condescending and it slows down the entire class; stop doing it. I understand that you’re doing it to get everyone on the same playing field, but it’s not working. People need to help themselves.

The fact that parent groups force teachers to be “nice” to their students — which results in junk like this — is a very depressing one. We’re talking about high school, here, not kindergarten. I’m fully aware that most work in high school is busywork — the kind of pointless drudgery that exists solely to make schools look good to the government — but this is also true in the real world.

If you want a job, you’re going to have to put up with the pointless drudgery. Learn how to deal with it: that’s what schools should be teaching. This “regression of American education” is the system’s fault, not technology’s. It’s the consequence of politics.

I actually agree with a lot of points brought up in Richtel’s article. That computers and cell phones have an effect on students’ attention spans is a theory supported by scientific data, as the article rightly states. But the conclusion drawn from this theory — the implication that young people are innocent of sabotaging their own intellectual development, and that the nature of distraction itself is to blame — is obviously fallacious. Distraction has existed for all of human history, and just because it’s (arguably) easier to access nowadays does not make it something you can scapegoat. It’s a force of nature, not some malevolent entity that can be challenged.

If you’re going to report on how technology has changed our lives, do it factually. Don’t try to blame it for all our problems. Telling us that our relentless procrastination isn’t our fault is just enabling us; you’re giving us an excuse for our own stupidity.

As HAL 9000 would say, “This sort of thing has cropped up before and it has always been due to human error.”

Written by Likes to Ramble

2 Comments

  1. Tweets that mention Growing Up Analogue, Wired for Scapegoating | Likes to Ramble -- Topsy.com · November 21, 2010

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  2. Mike · November 21, 2010

    Good response, but I skipped the NYT article altogether; there’s a certain kind of Times headline that induces a wave of depression and ennui, and you just *know* what the piece’s angle will be. Did you ever see their hysterical (in both senses) coverage of Stickam ca. 2006-2007? Roughly, ZOMG, PARENTs, UR KIDZ R UP N TH3RE ROOMZ SHOWING TH3Re JUNK!!!1!!1

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