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Summer reading

By Michael Pakaluk
Posted: 7/17/2009

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A high school teacher I know says that he needs to repeat things more frequently now than he did in the past, because his students can’t seem to pay attention. His theory is that just to have a person talking to them is no longer interesting for students used to iPhones, the internet, and video games. He’d have better success, he thinks, if he recorded his classes and played them on a television screen, while he watched along with the class. “They’d pay attention to something electronic and on a screen,” he says.

He is dealing with students hit by a second wave of electronic inundation.

The first wave, of course, was television, which swept through the countries in the fifties and sixties. Even this wave turned out much worse than it appeared. At first television watching only supplanted radio listening and TVs looked like they would only enrich family life. After all, they were so expensive that families could afford only one, and screens were so small that they had to be watched by everyone huddling together.

But soon, as many studies have shown, TV began taking time away from family life. As many as 40 hours each week, which previously would have been spent talking, reading, or playing board games--or over family meals--were now being devoured by television. At the same time televisions became so cheap that they were placed in bedrooms, and so much programming became depraved, that one wonders if the parents of the 1950s, if they had been able to foresee this, would ever have allowed the first TV into their homes.

But television never promised to be more than entertainment, and savvy parents could deal easily enough with abuses or excesses by a limited or complete banishment. I know several families that keep their single television in a closet. In that way it never gets used except deliberately and for a good, social purpose. Other parents allow TV watching only on weekends, or keep it disconnected from any networks or cable and use it only to show quality videos.

Families who haven’t learned even to deal with the television are now getting hit by a second wave of media--that network of electronic reality and convenience made possible by the internet, including ‘smart phones,’ iPods, and games.

Like television, the internet first of all takes time away from other things. A child who plays video games isn’t playing baseball or catching frogs. These other things need not be better, but they should be. Some parents are happy when their child is addicted to video games: “At least he’s staying out of trouble,” they think. But “things could be even worse” is not a standard of good parenting.

Computer-based activities fail to exercise the body or elicit the imagination. They tend to be non-social and alienated from nature. They usually do not lead to the development of virtues or achievements which will benefit others.

I know a family where the children play complicated “house” or “matchbox car” games that go on for hours. They say that when a friend visits for a “play day,” his first words coming in the door are typically, “So where are your video games?” The children explain that they don’t have any video games. At this point friends divide into two kinds. Some are so distracted that they can’t succeed in taking an interest in anything except video games. Others find that if they play along they can eventually discover the fun in doing something else.

The second effect of the internet is that--unless used as a tool--it leads to distraction, an inability to concentrate, and a certain restlessness in the absence of sensory stimulation.

The rise of the internet goes along with a continuing decline in time spent reading books. I don’t mean “literacy,” the ability to figure out words and sentences. There is some evidence that internet use can contribute to this. I mean reading as something you like to do, which draws you in and engrosses you. Reading in that sense is like thinking and imagining--instead of sensing and feeling.

A philosopher has remarked that students divide into those that grew up reading and those that grew up distracted. It’s a division, also, between thinking and feeling.

The internet’s third effect--again, when it is not used as a necessary tool--is that it makes us impatient of silence. Have you noticed how often Pope Benedict in homilies or talks recommends silence? (Ponder that, and learn.)

I like the fact that as a scholar I can download in fifteen minutes articles which it used to take me a day to find in a library and photocopy. I have a big HD monitor on which I can display, all at once, a text in ancient Greek, a reference work, and a page of the paper I am writing. I love all of this--but there is a world of difference between how the internet seems to someone who grew up reading, and someone who is introduced to the internet as, for him, his primary symbolic reality.

How do we teach children to use the internet as a tool? First, set a good example: read to them, read alongside them, play with them--and no checking your e-mail when you are with them!

Second: simply raise them so that they first discover life and nature.

Michael Pakaluk is a Professor of Philosophy at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences in Arlington, Virginia.