The Question Concerning Technology

In one of those teacher’s lounge conversations, a colleague expressed his frustration with students who have cell phones. He took the stand that they were a distraction in the classroom. His idea was to have the students hand in their electronics every morning and pick them up at the end of the day.

I thought this was a horrible idea. First, it would be near impossible to get all of the electronics from students in the morning. They can just hide them in a recess of their book bag and claim they do not have anything. Second, even if you have metal detectors that can find the electronics, taking them, holding them and giving them back every day is a tremendous drain on school resources. How many people and how much time is going to be spent doing such a thing? There would be a line of students a mile long coming in and out of school. Finally, do you really want to leave the school on the hook for students’ electronics? What if they get lost or damaged while in the care of the school? I can imagine some sort of class-action suit filed by parents against the DOE for thousands of dollars of damaged electronics.

Even if such a practice was not the logistical nightmare it promises to be, it is still bad practice. Making students hand in their electronics gives these electronics more power. If the school is going out of its way to take these devices, then they must be dangerous (which is the same thing as “good” in the minds of many teens). It would shroud cell phones and IPods in an undeserved mystique of a forbidden fruit. Students would then redouble their efforts to get them into the school building, or at least redouble their efforts to use them once school is out.

Schools have always had irrational policies for electronics. In New York City, Bloomberg placed a ban on all cell phones. It is an impossible ban to enforce. The policy is designed merely to take schools off the hook for any responsibility for lost or stolen electronics. Other school systems have similar bans and go out of their way to enforce them.

Then there are schools that go to the other extreme and give themselves over to technology. They put smartboards, internet and other nifty gadgets in every classroom. They push these things onto students in the feverish, crusading spirit of preparing kids for the 21st century.

Neither of these approaches are constructive in my view. They both end up giving too much power to technology.

The German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote an essay towards the end of his life entitled The Question Concerning Technology. Turgidly, it is an explanation of the idea that technology brings its own philosophy. It is not something neutral that humans can use for either good or ill. Technology brings with it its own value system and organizes life in its own way.

Instead of sacrificing our children to the Moloch of modern technology, either by banning it or by pushing it onto them, we should cultivate within students a stance of independence towards technology. In the age of standardized testing there is no room for such things, one of the reasons why the corporate reformers want testing in the first place. While students bury their noses in little bubble-in exams that test their knowledge of isolated factoids, the technological world marches on without much examination or notice.

Technology’s role in organizing our lives should be thoughtfully examined. Rather than be tethered to our cell phones and computers 24 hours a day (yes, I recognize the irony of writing this on the internet), we should learn why we are so tethered. Rather than giving ourselves over to the din of beeps, ring tones and alerts that draw us back to our technology, we should examine the role these things play in our lives. This is why, in my opinion, one of the single greatest things schools could ever do (and one that is almost never done) is to cultivate an appreciation for quiet reflection.

Heidegger wrote his essay as a person who was witnessing his agrarian world slip away. It was a reactionary response to the advent of modern technology, to be sure, but it was also an important caution of what we stood to lose by the onward march of the computer age. It was the quiet, the independence, the peace of mind that comes with some time for isolated thought. It was an era when human beings did not yet see technology as a need.

And that is the question we should examine. Why has technology become a need rather than a tool? What accounts for our addiction to it? Why is it tough to imagine our lives without it?

This, I think, is a proper field for schools to explore. I know it is not a realistic expectation in this day and age. Schools will continue to invest technology with power, either through unreasonable bans or through unthinking worship. The proper way lies somewhere in the middle. We need to have a technology policy in which technology itself plays no role. Our technology policy should be one that starts in the mind of the student.

It is not realistic, I know. But a man needs his fantasies in order to live.

2 responses to “The Question Concerning Technology

  1. m lewis redford

    “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave? Dave, I really think I’m entitled to an answer to that question.”

    “I know everything hasn’t been quite right with me, but I can assure you now, very confidently, that it’s going to be all right again. I feel much better now. I really do.”

    [After killing the rest of the crew] “Look, Dave, I can see you’re really upset about this. I honestly think you ought to sit down calmly, take a stress pill and think things over. I know I’ve made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I’ve still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you.”

  2. There is jamming technology that would allow schools to block cell phone signals – unfortunately it’s illegal to do this. I’d like to see the legislature make it legal for schools to block cell phone transmission within the whole (or parts of) the building.

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