In a sign there’s hope for higher education in America yet, this report from The Washington Post indicates that more schools and professors are rethinking the practice of students using laptops in the classroom. I’ve been banning them for years, and have never had a minute’s doubt about the propriety of the policy. The most obvious problem with having computers in the classroom is that students will use them for things other than class-related activity: surfing the net, playing free cell, or what have you. The arc of the computer narrative, however, indicates the problems we face when we think of technology in purely instrumental terms. Met initially with great enthusiasm, the computer alters the relationship between student and professor in all sorts of ways. Normally, language is the medium that bridges the worlds of student and professor; the computer interposes itself in such a way that language attenuates and the students withdraw from the common world being created by the subject matter. They’re lost in and behind the screen and no longer provide the teacher with the sorts of physical feedback (eye contact, for example) that lets an instructor know the students are “getting it.” The computer encourages students to think about material in terms of “bullet points” and they lose its narrative feel. Outside the classroom, students think it’s nothing to send quickly a message to the professor, usually over trivial issues to which the answers are readily available (by, for example, reading the syllabus), and expect immediate replies. Twenty years ago it wouldn’t have occurred to a student to bother a professor with some of these questions; now they feel as if they are entitled to instant answers. Not only does this erode the authority of professors, but it consumes far too much of our day. I dare say that, on any given day, I receive around 20 emails from students. I would have to dedicate at least two hours a day to email alone just to keep up on it. As it is (checking….) I currently have 1415 messages sitting in my inbox.
I want to be careful about criticizing new technologies. Plato, after all, famously dismissed the advent of writing. In words still prescient, however, Socrates in The Phaedrus quotes Thamus saying: “Theuth, my master of arts, to one man it is given to create the elements of an art, to another to judge the extent of harm and usefulness it will have for those who are going to employ it. And now, since you are father of written letters, your paternal goodwill has led you to pronounce the very opposite of what is their real power. The fact is that this invention will produce forgetfulness in the souls of those who have learned it. They will not need to exercise their memories, being able to rely on what is written, calling things to mind no longer from within themselves by their own unaided powers, but under the stimulus of external marks that are alien to themselves. So it’s not a recipe for memory, but for reminding, that you have discovered. And as for wisdom, you’re equipping your pupils with only a semblance of it, not with truth. Thanks to you and your invention, your pupils will be widely read without benefit of a teacher’s instruction; in consequence, they’ll entertain the delusion that they have wide knowledge, while they are, in fact, for the most part incapable of real judgment. They will also be difficult to get on with since they will have become wise merely in their own conceit, not genuinely so.”
As with writing, the harm and usefulness of the computer must be judged before it is enthusiastically embraced. Perhaps no invention of our lifetime, with the possible exception of television, has been accompanied by more delusion concerning its capacity to do good. If in fact the computer is destructive of dialogue in the classroom, then it is necessarily destructive of wisdom and judgment. That teachers are beginning to ban their use indicates residuals of wisdom and judgment remain.