The first principal I worked under was genuinely a good man. He understood that the attention spans of kids at our school were damaged by years of watching television. In his mind, the only way to reach our children was to use technology in the service of education. You want to teach gravity? Show a clip of Wiley Coyote falling from a cliff. Since then, I have encountered many dedicated teachers who buy into similar ideas. When the vampire romance series “Twilight” was becoming popular with teenagers, I had expressed concern that the poor writing and shallow emotions would give them a false sense of literature. One of my colleagues, a very good English teacher, responded that he was happy they were reading anything at all. Educators young and old, myself included, recognize the impacts our ubiquitous pop culture has on kids. Yet, for some reason, I have never been as permissive when it comes to using it in the service of education. I decided to reflect upon why I am such a fuddy-duddy.
Some of it stems from what inspired me to become a teacher in the first place. I was inspired by Henry Adams’ famous sentiment about teachers affecting eternity. History’s greatest teachers like Buddha, Socrates or Jesus are long dead, yet their teachings continue to inspire. While I entertain no illusions about even having a thimble’s-worth of their influence, their simplicity has always been my ideal. These guys had no smart boards and had never sat through a lecture on differentiation, yet they were the most successful teachers of all time. Now, it might be pointed out that a sage with a motivated audience is much different than a public school teacher with a room of mostly unwilling teenagers. However, I do not take this to mean that our children do not respond to humanity and simplicity. Occupy Wall Street resonates with young people because it asks humane questions about an inhumane system. It forces us to confront the language of modernity (free markets, corporate influence, electoral politics, national security, etc.) with the language of simple humanity. On a grander scale, the religious revival that has taken place around the world (the Evangelicals in America’s Sunbelt, the Islamic resurgence in the Middle East, etc.) symbolizes humanity reaching for humanity amidst the encroachments of modernity. I see my role as a history teacher as a mission to connect children to a sense of humanity. Not only is it a time-tested pedagogy, it is an essential value children will need in order to navigate the modern world.
It is this mission that causes me to shy away from showing Looney Tunes or assigning bad books to my kids. While I acknowledge that modern culture is to the brain what sugar is to the teeth (namely, a corrosive force), I do not see how more corrosion is educationally sound. To me, a short attention span is a problem that needs to be solved, not a framework that needs to be reinforced. A nation of people with short attention spans is a nation ripe for propaganda. Corporate advertisers and political demagogues rely on short attention spans to hawk their wares, weather it is an essentially unnecessary consumer product or a destructive public policy. Aspiring to communicate knowledge to our children in the same ways that corporatists communicate their agendas only trivialize the learning process. It puts essential knowledge on the same frivolous plane as advertising, entertainment and mainstream news coverage. Teachers who want to go with the flow of modernity communicate to children that the wider world can only be accessed through sound bites, images and base emotions. We become marketers instead of teachers. The worth of an idea is measured in the impact it can make in less than 60 seconds. As a teacher, I see my role as one that should be as far removed from the methods of modernity as possible. If children get hours of mind-destroying imagery from popular culture, than I must demand of them that they pay attention for the 45 consecutive minutes they are in my classroom. I demand that those 45 minutes are treated as whole cloth and not something that can be broken into smaller chunks of images and activities.
My hope is that treating those 45 minutes like whole cloth demonstrates for students that knowledge itself is part of the whole cloth of humanity. That humanity is reinforced by the fact that no computer or television stands before them. One can learn from a teacher or a peer in a deep and lasting way. It is this experience, now more than ever, that is vital for our students to have. We have become too enthralled with the idea of pushing our children towards computers or smart boards in the name of preparing them for a modern world. Nobody seems to think that the modern world needs people with the ability to learn from human interaction or the desire to dive to the depths of new ideas. There is just the blind acceptance that schools need to pump out kids prepared to live in an increasingly complex society. There is no mention of how humanity has been reaching for something fuller, more familiar and simple than what modernity can offer us. The standardized testing forced onto the schools by both Bush and Obama is the centralized push to make schools places where children are severed from their own humanity. Standardized exams chop knowledge up into consumable sound bites. They will require computers to administer them. The reformers want to continue the degradation of the American attention span. It has been their stock-in-trade for decades. They are the same people responsible for the brain-rotting mass culture in which our children are ensconced, like Bill Gates and Michael Bloomberg. Every time a teacher stresses knowledge and humanity over modernity, they resist the reformers and their desire for a nation of vegetables.