A Dog, a Phone, and a Happy Numbskull

I understand the distractions involved in Spring Break’s approach. As I told someone yesterday, this has been the toughest “easy week” I’ve had in months. I can’t focus. I keep thinking about all I want to do and have to do during my glorious furlough. My students can afford (so they think) to take off early, leaving my classes decimated—or, more precisely, halved (since they’re routinely decimated). It’s irritating… but, of course, it also makes life simpler. I can sit back and chat with those who do show up, and the result is often more educational than anything I could have planned out.

That’s the ideal situation. Then there’s the reality of the more common occurrence: students who come to my class because they have a mid-term in Biology or Chemistry and dare not get a head-start on their vacation… but they’re only putting in an appearance so as to be checked off at roll call. Then they mentally check out. Though physically still present, they become an invincible nuisance to any kind of discussion or lecture. They might almost be manikins poised in various postures of semi-collapse

But a department-store manikin would not sit thumbing a smartphone and leering suddenly as I struggle to piece two ideas together.  You should have that experience some time: stand up before a group of people and try to keep your thoughts straight as several on the front row, without making eye contact with you or otherwise showing any awareness of your presence, all at once burst into a toothy smile and squirm.  One of them who was positioned squarely just in front of me yesterday was so animated that I had to stop and ask her what was going on.  After some hesitation, she announced that there was a cute dog in the adjoining classroom.  Great.  Let’s all go see the damn dog.  I’m sure the professor over there won’t mind.  He has coeds in his class armed with cellphones, a pet with no credentials to be indoors at his collar, and an owner who’s live-streaming the whole thing over the Net.

Where are those students who embarrass their teacher by uploading the class to YouTube?  I should be so lucky!  My students come to class to play on YouTube without making any connection between the two.

I’ve been saying for a long time now that the rising vector of technological progress is bound to collide with the descending vector of human intelligence and energy.  As our gadgets get more and more clever, our own alertness, creativity, comprehension of basic realities, and responsiveness to changes in our environment diminish.  We teachers feed parents the cliché line that their children need the latest technology to “be prepared for the world of the future”… but that world doesn’t much need their children or anyone else’s except to buy its hardware and off-load more and more efficiency and vitality onto “apps”.  Actually, the world of the future appears to need ever duller people in ever-expanding numbers in order to sustain the marketplace of frivolities.  An animal that few kids would have given a second glance on the sidewalk is strangely more interesting and “more real” when it pops up on a screen.  Isn’t that very close to admitting that life offline is somehow not full life, and that those programmed to sense existence in this way will only find fulfillment when they morph into robots?

Meanwhile, when you give these “standard-bearers of tomorrow” instructions for an important assignment and ask if they have questions, one of them invariably asks—after a pregnant pause—“What was the question?”