Lancaster, SC. No space seems safe from the colonizing forces of digital technology. Concerns about smartphones, screen time, and social media accumulate yearly, and the recent documentary The Social Dilemma has pulled back the curtain in a new way, revealing algorithmic manipulation and apps purposefully designed to leverage the worst appetites of human nature. As Tristan Harris, former Google ethicist and one of the driving forces behind the documentary, puts it, we’ve created a “race to the bottom of the brain stem.”
Most unnerving is that this technological experiment is being run on humans in real time—in the home, in the workplace, and in the classroom. A year of COVID-19 living has expanded the role of the ubiquitous screen, with Zoom meetings, online church, and virtual education. Classrooms especially, whether at home or in a school, have become experimental spaces for the screen with shifts to hybrid and online instruction during the past year. But moving life online is not without consequences. For the sake of human formation and flourishing, it is essential to carve out sanctified spaces of peace and refuge away from the mesmerizing pull of screens. The principles I’ve used to address this issue in my high school classroom have broader application in how we might shape sanctified spaces in all areas of life.
The Screen and Incurvatus in Se
When I began teaching, smartphones didn’t even exist. Now, many kids who haven’t yet learned to read are hooked on them. Classroom management strategies vary from phone lockers, to putting them in brown paper bags, to doing nothing at all. In my own classroom, as smartphones became more common several years ago, I secretly daydreamed of locking students’ phones away and throwing out the key. I searched for new ways to re-sanctify the classroom with some line of demarcation that signaled entrance into this unique shared space. I pondered how my classroom could communicate the right message because spaces, like technologies, are not neutral.
When the smartphone burst onto the scene, classroom dynamics changed drastically with immediate personalized access to, well, anything. Such unbounded access easily drives one’s focus away from the people and content present in the classroom and further into the self. In his book In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that the very nature of the smartphone magnifies this tendency. He writes, “as a digital reflector, the smartphone serves to renew the mirror stage after infancy. It opens up a narcissistic space—a sphere of the imaginary—in which one encloses oneself. The other does not speak via the smartphone” (22). The screen turns us further inward, or as Augustine and Luther might put it, incurvatus in se (turned inward on oneself).
A rightly ordered education, however, leads students beyond the subjective incurvatus in se. True education is not catering to students’ inner tastes or building their self-esteem; rather, it consists in refining and elevating their immature instincts and habits into mature and life-sustaining ones. To be sure, this is an arduous lifelong task—one that on our best days we as teachers and parents only approximate. But we should take simple, measurable steps to communicate that this is the aspiration. Creating a reasonable and thoughtful smartphone and screen policy is an important step in that process.
A Policy for Being Fully Present
After researching phone policies implemented in schools across the country and noting the wide range of ideas, I crafted my policy. I would collect student phones at the beginning of each class and put them in a phone caddy on the back of my closet door, much like the way math teachers store classroom calculators. Easy enough, right?
I floated the idea to my principal, and though he was skeptical, he let me try it. When the first day of school arrived, I had my best speech prepared to explain my new phone policy to students. I was nervous. How would it go over? Selling this to students would certainly be an uphill climb—and it must be sold to students or it will fail. The teacher must authentically buy-in as well, because students can smell a phony, or in this case, a phone-phony. As teacher, I would lead by example, being the first to put my phone in the caddy.
My first day speech went something like this:
Let’s face it, phones are everywhere. In this classroom we are going to take a much-needed refreshing break and create a place to think deeply and discuss face to face with one another in a more human way. This is especially important in our world today where phones have worked their way into every minute and aspect of our lives. A history class is a perfect place to take a break from this never-ending ‘gotta-check-my-phone’ rat race. We must first learn the facts of history and then analyze and think critically to make sense of those facts. This indeed takes hard work and sustained focused. I am here to help foster an environment where we can do this successfully and develop ourselves into thinking human beings. We are going to work to be fully present with one another and do the challenging yet rewarding work of uncovering the story of history and engaging the big questions of humanity. Now, this is not about creating another rule, or saying ‘ooh naughty, naughty teenagers with their phones.’ This is not a ‘kids these days’ rule. This is about us as people. This is because I care about you and your education. This is a challenge for you to prove all those naysayers wrong who say you can’t live without your phones. You can do this, and I will do this with you, and you know what, by the end of the semester you might just come to like the break from your phone.
I asked for any questions. There were some rolled eyes and crossed arms, but that was no surprise. On the second day of school, during warm-up I collected their phones and put them in their assigned pouches. Of course, I put my phone in a pouch as well. Yes, there was some hesitancy, but students handed their precious phones over to me—magic! At the end of class, the procedure was reversed. Once students were accustomed to the routine, resistance was minimal. By the end of the year, when my students and I reflected on our experiment, we all felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. What a great reversal of the “kids these days” complaint.
Intentionally creating a classroom refuge from the lure of their screens fostered better class discussions, fewer distractions, and deeper reflections. Consequentially, my principal asked me to present the policy to the whole faculty for school-wide implementation the following year. This has been one step in reclaiming a space for learning in my classroom and in the school as a whole. It was the best classroom management decision I ever made. Whether your classroom is in a traditional school, a designated corner of the house, or the dining room table, sanctifying the space from digital chatter is essential. It re-consecrates and opens up a sanctuary for students and teachers to be fully present with each other in learning, reflecting, thinking, and discussing.
Human Formation beyond the Classroom
Similar principles can be applied to other aspects of life as well. In our homes we need nooks and crannies for contemplation that birth new insight. We need sanctified spaces for silence that bring forth peace. We need alcoves for awkward boredom that blossom into creativity. So too, in our churches we need moments of meditation where we are uninterrupted by flashing screens, notification dings, or PowerPoint presentations. We need places of permanence where our human finitude encounters Divine life through water, Word, bread, and wine. We need times for transcendence where we are ushered into another world beyond digital evanescence. These are the sanctified spaces in which human formation takes place—no screen or app required.
It has been a long time since I was in any classroom. So, I’m still sitting here a bit whopperjawed that some schools would allow smartphones/cell phones into a classroom. Congrats on bucking that trend. But that you have had to craft a way to do that leaves me even more depressed than usual about our culture.
In our small town high school they weakly tried to ban phones a few years ago. Parents revolted, and the school backed down. My understanding is that this happened pretty much everywhere, and all schools gave up. Enough parents are irrationally terrified that they are going to have to call their kid to make sure they’re alive due to some horrific event. (Historians should call the current time, since roughly April 20, 1999, The Age of Terror. Mostly imaginary and self-inflicted.)
I run into a similar reaction with adults who insist they have “a right” to keep their phone on them at work in case their kids have an emergency. When I mention the kids could call work, I get a blank stare.
I don’t have a smartphone (never had one) but I do have a flip phone. I’ve made it a policy, however, to turn it off at various times (while eating, watching a movie, when I’m out with friends, etc.) and even leaving it in the car when I’m shopping or at a restaurant.
I understand that this may not work for everyone. I originally got my first cell phone in 2002 because at the time my parents were elderly and in ill health, and as I was the only relative who lived nearby I wanted to be available as much as possible. After they both passed, I probably could have done without the cell phone, as my daughter was grown by that time, and it wasn’t really a necessity anymore. But despite my skepticism I did see that it was a good thing to have in case of an emergency, and also as a sort of portable answering machine. I’ve never given in to the temptation to get a smartphone, however. Sure, there’s a convenience element to them, but that’s linked to an intention on the part of the providers to make one dependent on that convenience — so thanks but no thanks. I’ve long been averse to the Madison Ave. plot that makes luxuries into conveniences and conveniences into necessities, whatever they may be.
My suggestion would be for people to do with their smartphones what I do with my dumb phone. Turn it off when it doesn’t “need” to be on or when you’re not expecting a call. When I was a kid our family never answered the phone during dinner. I see no reason whatsoever to change that policy simply because the technology of the phones has changed. When I go to church I leave it in the car. I never interrupt a conversation with a real person to take a call, and in fact I seldom if ever even have my phone on in those situations. As I heard one comedian say, if it’s not either the Pope or the President, the call’s not that important. And if it’s important the caller will leave a message; the odds of it being a true emergency call are very slim. I never answer the phone if I don’t recognize the number, and I never return missed calls to people who don’t leave messages. These are some simple steps you can take to help break or at least soften your dependence on the things.
Another great cure is to read Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism. If reading that book doesn’t make you want to put an icepick though your “device” when you’re done with it you’re a lost cause! As a matter if fact I’ve considered having a bumper sticker made that says “Declare Your Independence — Icepick Your Smartphone.”
Of course I do realize that many people need them for work — I have friends and relatives in that situation — but I’d make a strong case for the idea that if you don’t, don’t get one.
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