Posted by: Alex Borders | March 8, 2011

Unplugged Schools

Tuesday 8th March

Unplugged Schools – Education can either ameliorate, or exacerbate, society’s ills.  Which will it be?

by Lowell Monke and published in the September/October 2007 issue of Orion Magazine

This is an abridged version for the full version please visit

Educators say the darndest things. Consider this from a high school social studies teacher who told me, “Kids don’t read anymore. The only way I can teach them anything is by showing them videos.” Or this from a middle school principal who defended serving children junk food every day by telling me, “That’s what they’re used to eating. They won’t eat it if it doesn’t taste like fast food.”

Aside from their stunning capitulation of adult responsibility, these comments illustrate what has become a common disregard for one of schooling’s most important tasks: to compensate for, rather than intensify, society’s excesses.

I first encountered the idea of the compensatory role of schools in 1970, while preparing to become a teacher. In Teaching as a Subversive Activity, Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner argued that one of the roles of schools in a free society is to serve as a cultural thermostat—to take the temperature of the culture, determine where the culture is over- and underheated, and then gear instruction to compensate for those extremes. If a culture becomes too enamored with competition, schools would emphasize cooperation; if it overemphasizes individuality, schools would emphasize community responsibility; if it allows poor children to go hungry, schools would (and do) develop lunch and breakfast programs to feed them; and so on.

Postman and Weingartner recognized that there are limits to this role. Schools can’t be expected to solve all of our social ills. But one place where we would do well to employ this thermostatic approach is in our relationship to technology and the fundamental ways that a vast number of electronic tools mediate and shape our children’s experiences.

Education must help children come to know themselves, become good citizens, and (with increasing urgency) come to terms with the natural world around them. It is possible that a school system wholly devoted to developing technical skills would not be particularly damaging if other institutions compensated for children’s severely mediated lives. Unfortunately, the institutions that could serve that function—church, family, community—have been diminished by technology’s cultural dominance. School is about the only institution left that has the extensive claim on children’s attention needed to offset that dominance.

THE HEALTH OF OUR CHILDREN’S INNER LIVES, their civic engagement, and their relationship with nature all would be improved if schools turned down the thermostat on that technologically overheated aspect of American culture.

The efforts to label and sort children while constantly seeking technical means to accelerate, enhance, and otherwise tinker with their intellectual, emotional, and physical development are acts of mechanistic abuse (there is really no other name for it) committed against children’s nature. There is no more critical task for schools than to counter this unfolding tragedy. Schools can make headway simply by patiently honoring and nurturing each child’s internally timed, naturally unfolding developmental growth, by abandoning anxious efforts to hurry children toward adulthood, and by giving these young souls time to heal from the wounds inflicted by a culture that shows no respect for childhood innocence. As Richard Louv and others have argued, nature is a particularly effective antidote for this condition. Eliminating the clock as the means of governing everything is another more modest but important move. However it is undertaken, what is important to recognize is that compensating for the dominant view of children-as-mechanisms is, at its core, spiritual work. It acknowledges that some facet of a child’s inner life must remain sacred—off-limits to our machinations—to be viewed not as new territory for scientific investigation and technical manipulation but simply with awe and reverence and our own best, most human, expressions of support. To grant the dignity of that inner core is perhaps the most important gift unplugged schools can give children in the technological age. And, in turn, to foster within children those once universal but now nearly extinct childhood qualities of awe and reverence is spiritual education in its most elemental sense.

The list of schools that have directly and comprehensively tied children’s overmediated lives to spiritual health is a very short one, I’m afraid, limited mostly to a number of Waldorf schools, whose philosophy has long coupled spiritual development with a critical stance toward the use of electronic media by young children. The Washington [D.C.] Waldorf School just completed a year-long series of public seminars and staff meetings investigating how best to bring computers and other high-tech devices into the high school curriculum so that students not only have the skills they need to go on to college or work, but understand the full impact of technology on human culture, the environment, and their own inner lives. The faculty has discovered that an effective program requires paying attention to the curriculum and methods not only at the high school level but at the elementary level as well (where children do not use computers). They understand that there is much inner preparation that young children need to do if they are one day to give mature direction to the enormous power these external tools provide.

Ultimately, though, if schools were to throw off those fetters and restore balance to children’s lives, they would have to establish goals that reflect our best sense of what it means to be human. Producing workers adapted to the demands of a high-tech economy would no longer drive what these schools do. Schools would establish life as the measure of value, not machines. They would be dedicated to showing young people how to live as dignified members of an increasingly mediated and fragile world. And they would consciously work to cool down society’s infatuation with technology while heating up our concern for those we live with and the Earth we live on.



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