Isolation is the Problem, Not the Fix, for Education


March 02, 1993|By ELLEN B. CUTLER

Eleven-year-old Joseph Smarr and his 9-year-old brother Benjy, of Urbana, Illinois, in an article on this page (February 2) criticized school for not being the computerized, video-saturated world in which most children live.

The Smarrs rhetorically inquire, ''Why do kids prefer video games and computers over school?'' and conclude that, ''At school the teacher just tells you things that you are suppose to remember. With personal interactive software you are in charge of a rapidly changing 'virtual' world that you alone create.''

William J. Moloney, superintendent of the Easton (Pa.) schools, has written that school reform (reform which has certainly included video and computer technologies) has resulted in intellectual failure and a generation of ''moral illiterates.'' He says that ''reformers prefer to see our students as victims of the system, or perhaps society, when very often they are simply victims of their fellow students. . . . Reformers dwell upon more meaningful tests, more exciting curriculum and, of course, more money, when most school people would gladly settle for a little law and order and students who are willing to work.''

Mr. Moloney concludes that ''from time immemorial, successful societies and their education systems have depended on moral foundations of shared values and mutual obligations. If we lose this most basic of all basics, then whether Johnny can read or write may prove tragically irrelevant.''

What struck me powerfully is the thematic similarity between these two pieces. The authors speak to isolation.

The Smarrs argue that children will learn more, and more effectively, if left to ''interact'' with software on a computer; that the things ''the teacher just tells you that you are supposed to remember'' are by implication not only boring but irrelevant. These children want the freedom not merely to create a ''virtual'' world but to inhabit that private space by separating themselves from direct contact with the real world inhabited by their fellow students and teachers. They recommend isolation as an efficient road to achievement and independence.

Mr. Moloney speaks about isolation from the opposite direction. He tracks our current problems to the way that we have separated our children from our culture -- its lessons, its results, its moral implications -- and he bemoans the spiritual disconnectedness of young people today.

Once a week I volunteer in a fifth-grade art class at my son's school. I am supposed to pass out materials, clean up messes and answer minor queries. I do this, of course, but mostly what I do is listen: listen to problems, enthusiasms, complaints and discoveries (whether or not they appear to stem from the activity at hand). What I have discovered is that these children are isolated; and for all their aggression and noise, they are emotionally mute.

They have committed the television-programming schedule to memory, they are conversant with the arcane mysteries of video games, and they possess sophisticated street smarts and a precocious sense of sexuality. They are also deeply isolated from human contact and emotions. They see no significant connection between their lives and feelings and the life force that runs inside their friends, teachers and parents.

When they read, so often the stories fail to resonate within their hearts and minds because they have closed themselves (or perhaps never opened at all) to the universal experiences, pains and pleasures that bind us to one another and give us the security of a sense of community.

Our children have learned to ''decode'' but they have not learned how to read. Our children have learned arithmetic, but they do not know how to solve problems. Our children know they are supposed to get an ''education'' but they (and often their parents) have not the foggiest notion of what relationship an education could have to life itself.

Education, since Plato and Aristotle (and others) first articulated their theories more than 2,000 years ago, has always been defined as a preparation for life. Education is meant to help children grow from a condition of dependency and need to independent and, hopefully, contributing adulthood. Education is meant to help each succeeding generation run society and rear children more successfully than did their parents.

Literacy, vocational training, creativity, critical thinking, and ethics are all part of education. And none of these disciplines makes a bit of sense without a secure and well articulated connection to the concrete realities of society and the abstract issues of humanity.

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