The high-tech parents from Silicon Valley are now sending their kids to a school—the Waldorf School of the Peninsula—that sells itself as computer-free. Why? Such technology is a distraction, turning attention away from reading, writing, numbers, talking, and thinking. It’s certainly difficult to deny that computers inhibit “human interaction and attention spans.” So more useful by far than iPads and Google are chalk boards, blackboards, bookshelves, No. 2 pencils, workbooks, and wooden desks.
Students, of course, really need to find better purposes for their hands than pounding on keyboards and clicking on various websites. So they should spend time honing their knitting skills, with the simple but most useful goal of making socks. To synchronize body and brain, nothing’s better than reciting verse while playing catch with beanbags.
The argument against this low-tech approach, of course, is that students have been brought up with computers, and they find them riveting. So there’s no way to hold their attention these days without them. Students lack the virtue or habituation to be approached “really” or personally—as opposed to indirectly or virtually.
But shouldn’t school be about facilitating education by fighting against the indulgent excesses of any particular time and place? It’s just not true that little kids or even college kids are so corrupted that they can’t be approached anywhere but online. It’s even true that they know they’ve been deprived of a lot in a society where everyone spends too much time in front of a screen. They long for better habits than our high-tech world automatically gives them; they long for the discipline that allows them really to learn for themselves with others.
Most students, of course, get computer literate at home. And everyone knows these days that being always online and compulsively Facebooking messes with your brain and makes you a less fit friend for real people. It’s great to be attuned to popular culture in all its forms, but those who really understand it—and put it in its proper, ironic perspective—have read lots of real books with the care they deserve. Maybe it’s true that much of what we really need to know can be found on Google, but Googling really doesn’t let us in on who we are and what we’re supposed to do with what we know.
UPDATE: When I wrote this, all I was going on was the NYT article. It’s since come to my attention that Waldorf Schools are infected by the pseudo-philosophical and sometimes nutty ideas of their founder. I have no idea how infected the Peninsula school is. If you go to the comment thread to the article, you can see the controversy, and you can see more by looking to the article linked in the first comment in the thread below.
I actually don’t think anything described in the article on which this post is based is nutty. Much of what I’m saying is summed up by an eloquent comment in the NYT thread:
We should not be so quick to flood grade school education with new technologies, simply because it’s available or because we think it could give us an edge in global economic competition. Computers today are easy to learn to use at any age, quickly and effectively. But there are only a few short, critical years of early development in which to teach a child the basics of being human, how to love learning, and the best ways of working with others. There is no app for that, and there never will be.