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Keeping Big Brother at bay (by David Rothman)

One of the challenges we face in our current moment might be best described as a kind of collective obsessive-compulsive disorder. Despite the enormity of the world, only a few subjects utterly dominate the media, driving everything else from the field. And we respond, endlessly, compulsively, obsessively. As a wag once said, “Big Brother is you, watching.” 

Important as the current crises are, however, our lives are larger than these subjects alone, and must continue. In particular for those reading this, education must continue. And it is impossible to focus on the full range of important activities in a school—like learning calculus, or practicing the piano, or studying ancient history, or improving one’s pronunciation of Latin or Spanish—if the day is interrupted hundreds of times by ever more intrusive and shrill media that permanently clamor for attention and that we have now done all but implant in our brains. 

Looking beyond our current moment, we would do well to consider what is lost as our days become ever more fragmented by the new media we have allowed into our lives. We would do well to consider that, as Neil Postman suggested many years ago, we have undertaken an enormous, unprecedented social experiment with no control group. If the medium is the message, the message is increasingly fractured and distracting. As educators we must keep this in mind.  

We need to remember just how difficult it is to inculcate the habits of long-form concentration in students, and even in ourselves, before it is all lost in the static. After all, nothing we ask our students to do can be accomplished without this crucial skill: to enter any profession, to write well, to be a good listener, to run a business, to be a thoughtful citizen: all of it requires the ability to sustain long-form concentration, the skill of skills. 

So, let this post self-destruct: after you have read it, turn off the machine on which you did read it for 30 minutes. Indeed, why not create a particular time of day, every day, and a place where the electronic world is not too much with us each day? We cannot accomplish this in the culture at large, but we do still have that choice on our own, and we should consider what good it might do for us, our families, our communities, our schools, and even our nation, if we could somehow meaningfully and purposefully slow down a bit, every day. To coin a phrase: Tune out, turn off…drop in. 


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