2014 Kansas Teacher of the Year Jeff Baxter recently introduced me to a breathtaking poetry performance by Marshall Jones. This young man performed his original work titled "Touchscreen." Watch it, and then come back here for a few thoughts.
Technology is great. It is also the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine. What on earth are we to make of it all? I collect physical books, Classics mostly, especially translations of Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, yet the first time I read Lucan's Pharsalia, de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, and The Federalist Papers, it was on my iPhone. I could not tell you the last time I read a physical newspaper, preferring to get my news online and by following links from Facebook and Twitter. I have howled with laughter, thus keeping my wife awake at night, while reading P.G. Wodehouse on my Nook Simple Touch, although he is one author whose works I would prefer to own in the flesh, as it were. Among my most prized possessions are vintage fountain pens and fountain pens from around the world, yet I have composed almost all of my books and academic articles on a keyboard, the last several with a Logitech Bluetooth keyboard that makes letters magically appear on my iPad screen some distance away. I use my fountain pens on a daily basis to write hall passes, grade papers, and for correspondence that means a great deal to me.
A dear friend of mine recently moved to Virginia where he teaches English. His students are from less than affluent homes, yet they all have laptops thanks to their school. They were trying to have a discussion one day, and he looked up to see every face blocked by a screen. Students with impoverished communicative lives at home were being made that much poorer by their school's good intentions. My own high school has lifted the ban on electronic devices, and I was glad the other day, for I was able to ask the students to call up images of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. At the same time, Beats headphones embrace the skulls of many students during passing period, making the casual greeting between peers or between teachers and students a bit of a challenge.
There is no point in being Luddites. Amazing tech is here, and we are not going back. I love being able to confirm airline boarding passes on my tablet the day before a flight and having access to Greek and Latin original texts in my pocket. At the same time, I do not want to forget what my smart phone and tablet truly are. They are tools, nothing more and nothing less. In that regard they are like my fountain pens or the table saw, scroll saw, and router in my garage. They enable me to shape my world and to bring into existence the dreams in my mind.
I predict that we are ten years out from achieving an equilibrium with our technology, and I say this bearing in mind the rapid pace at which our lives are changing. We are about ten years away from technological balance. Marshall Jones spoke poetic words. "iPod iMac iPhone iChat I can do all of these things without making eye contact." There is the rub. Technology that gives easier contact with each other and the greatest contributions to human knowledge and achievement from around the world and across the ages can also isolate us more surely than those walls that something deep within the human soul does not love.
We are not there yet. Schools and the cash-mad industry around them are still silicon drunk, despite that students themselves will tell you that too much tech makes their grades go down. After all, o wise adult patting yourself on the back for the tech you have brought into the classrooms to help kids, could you really have stayed off THOSE sites (you know the ones) when you were 15? Of course I am glad to share images of the world, ancient and modern, with students who do not yet and may never have the chance to travel. Balance, however, is what we must be after. I have to find it in my own life, and as I do, I hope to help my students find their way. Marshall Jones well reminds us, "From the garden of Eden to the branches of Macintosh apple picking has always come at a great cost.