Digital Media and the Decline of Thinking

“We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road progress means doing an about-turn…” C.S. Lewis–Mere Christianity

We operate under an assumption that all progress is only good, especially technological progress. Progress brought us nuclear power, but along with nuclear power, we gave ourselves the ability to annihilate the human race in minutes. We are capable of inventing destructive technology.

We appear to have done this with the television and the cell phone. Just as nuclear physics gives us light for our homes and nuclear warheads, so the digital revolution has given us both helpful and destructive powers.

I just finished reading The Disappearance of Childhood by Neil Postman, erstwhile Chair of the Department of Communication Arts and Sciences at New York University. The late author, writing thirty years ago, documents the affect of the digital revolution on childhood. He notes that, “…pictures and other graphic images may be said to be ‘cognitively regressive’, at least in contrast to the printed word.” What he means here is that a picture oriented or saturated world prevents the development of the mind necessary for a child to become an adult who can work with concepts and abstractions.

Julie Taylor, our (my school’s) speech language pathologist with USD 305, remarks that with increased technology use in the home she has seen an increase in negative behaviors and a decrease in proper speech development as children spend less and less time in conversation with their families and friends.

Indeed, we have been witnessing the results in our election cycles. Postman writes, “the mass-produced image has introduced a constant and pervasive element of irrationalism into both politics and commerce. …a candidate’s image has become more important than his plans, a product’s ‘image’ more important than its usefulness. Those old enough to remember will call to mind the importance of make-up in the Nixon-Kennedy debates.

What does this mean for us as Christian parents? God has given us children to steward for His glory. We must control our children’s access to media. What we do with our children and what we allow them to do in their free time teaches them what to love. We need to raise children who know words, can argue (well), can describe pictures with words, and can see behind the “image” of a candidate or a product to reason to truth. The importance of facility with words cannot be underestimated since our world began with the words of God. “In the beginning was the Word…” John tells us. God inspired a book with words, not a picture-book or painting.

This is why we turn Netflix off and tell our children to read or go outside. This is why we teach logic in the middle school and keep cell phones, gaming systems, and other electronics in a central part of the home and out of the bedrooms. The ability to abstract, use words, and argue gave us men and women who produced the constitution, modern science, and the freedom we enjoy in this country. Responsibility (even patriotic duty) means saying, “No” sometimes. This can be costly. There is a trade-off that requires delayed gratification. Your children may not be as far along as their friends in the newest video game or up on the latest episode of the popular television show or vlog. Postman in the epilogue says, “…there are parents who are committed to doing all of these things [controlling technology use], who are in effect defying the directives of their culture. Such parents are … creating a sort of intellectual elite. Certainly in the short run the children who grow up in such homes will, as adults, be much favored by business, the professions, and the media themselves. … Those parents who resist the spirit of the age will … keep alive a humane tradition.” A humane tradition this is certainly what we need to understand, proclaim, and live out God’s word for the sake of our country and our world.



20161014_195608Despite my hopes, J did not start reading street signs from his car seat when he was three years old. He had very little interest in academic learning. He loved playing, especially with cars and trucks. He was less interested in crawling into our laps for a book than his sisters were at the same age. We let him play. His formal preschool education consisted of about twenty minutes of school per day beginning at age five. He is what I would consider a normal child. For some reason, in our culture, we hate to call our children normal–it hurts a bit–but he is, and that is okay. J is normal. Last night he started yelling everything he wanted to say. We have to tell him not to wrestle the dog. He spends most of his afternoon on his bicycle. Ultimately, the difference in our children will not be measured by how abnormal they are, but by how well we train and teach them–especially how well we teach them to work hard and obey.

We are in our third month of kindergarten and the only English Language Arts homework we have had has been the less than five minute daily review of phonogram flash cards. (We are up to 23 cards.) The teacher drills them at school, so he needs very few corrections at home. He still struggles distinguishing “d,” “b,” and “p.” He loves doing his phonogram “homework.” He has begun to read.

I set up his school desk in the corner of our dining room. Almost nightly, he writes random letters on sheets of paper. Last night, he heard someone say “gold.” “That starts with a g-j!” he said while writing “g”. He had some trouble figuring the “o” out. I had to elongate my pronunciation so he could pick it up. Then the “l” and finally the “d.” He does not always use the letter names–I do not know if he knows the alphabet yet. Regardless, he spelled out “gold” by pronouncing the word and listening to the sounds.

Here is what is beautiful (Not everything is…my home is proof that we need the Gospel!) about what happens in our house in the evenings. No one makes J sit at his desk. No one makes him write letters. No one makes him memorize his phonograms. No one made him spell “gold.” No one made him underline the “o.” (Our spelling rules require that the “o” is underlined when it says its own name.) He did it because he wanted to.

Here is a list of things we provide or do not provide in our home to create an environment that fosters excitement about learning.

Quiet in our home. There are times in our house when there is no music playing, no TV on, no yelling etc.

A place to play. J has space where he can do his own thing.

A time to play. There are times in our house when no one tells other people what to do. J has time to make his own choices. Over-scheduled children have to be told, “It is time to sit at your desk.” If this is their only experience, it will take the joy and playfulness out of learning. Schedules are for adults, not six-year-old children.

Books. Reading is not homework. It belongs in the life of every civilized person! We read a devotional, a Scripture, and a family read aloud most nights. (Taking time out for reading is not always easy. Sometimes it requires selflessness. It is good for a family to have the experience of choosing to do something that is difficult but valued.) These books have provided the fuel for J’s curiosity. The wonder, the stories, the conflict, and the happy resolution have drawn him to the world of letters and books. We have lots of good books in our home. We listen to audio books. From what he sees and hears, he knows that books bring pleasure.

Structure. J can count on our home being a place of predictability rather than chaos. (Most of the time!) We are at that stage of life when we cannot do whatever we want–we have young children.

Minimal screen time. Confession, we do not own a TV. Regardless, we do not let the computer, a cell phone, or the Kindle compete for J’s time. He does not expect to be handed a “device” in the car, the grocery, or at the line at checkout. He is too young and these things teach distraction while children his age need to be trained to focus. If we let him choose between being entertained or entertaining himself, he would rarely go to his desk to write letters and spell words for fun. He would also become sedentary.

No pressure. Young children (It starts to go away around Grade Three) have a natural interest and joy in learning, pleasing others, and showing what they can do. Good reading programs, families, and schools take advantage of this. Bad education kills these things. J is not on a timeline–no one in his life is worried about him learning to read by December or May. No one’s job is on the line if he does not start reading by Grade One or whatever.

He is my third child. All three have learned to read this way. We have been blessed to be in classical schools (or homeschool) that provide a structured approach to reading with good, solid phonograms programs. Despite what happens in many kindergarten reading classes, there is very little focus on understanding and lots of focus on memorization and practice. It is beautiful. Many children lose any natural curiosity and love they may have had for reading when they are taught to read under pressure. None of my children were reading before kindergarten. (The girls are normal too.) The two olders are now excellent readers.

A lot of what parents hear about early reading is just noise from benighted schools that are trying to prepare for a test at the end of Grade One.

Learning to read is a beautiful thing! It has been a pleasure to watch my children do it and they loved it too! School should not take this away. I am glad mine does not!

Education is about love.

The Association of Classical and Christian Schools has a good article by Louis Markos in their latest edition of Classis.

Here are some selected quotes with my comments.

I encouraged them [his children] to interact in a direct and spontaneous manner with the stories I read to them and the environment around them. I wanted them to know, not so much through study as through participation, how they fit into the world and how the world fit into them. “The world is full of magic,” I taught them, “—you just have to have eyes to see it and ears to hear it.”

This is what we want to do with our very youngest students and in nature studies. Don’t read “magic” as magic, but rather as mystery. The world holds together because God holds it together, and this is mysterious to us. The “magic” of science engenders curiosity.

Here is another good quote. It is especially relevant to science, especially grammar school science, and even more so to our pre-grammar school.

“It is exactly this experience that Mason desires for her pupils, an experience that can be expressed in numerous words, all of which combine the physical, emotional, and spiritual, and all of which produce that all-important humility that lies at the root of education: astonishment, wonder, awe, terror, fear. The child, Mason and Wordsworth both insist, has the ability to take in such experiences, even if he cannot immediately understand them. And it is right for parents and teachers to allow him to have that experience without incessantly demanding that it be broken down, analyzed, and categorized under scientific-sociological headings.”

Because the world ultimately exists by the Word and power of God, there is mystery in it. Not all of it can be boiled down into facts. The whole is greater than its parts. There are things we know about it that we cannot prove with science. Stories have meanings that are beyond the written words on the page. When we immediately break down and categorize, we cut our children off from this more holistic knowledge. Far better than an “abc” book for a three year old is a great storybook. The former desiccates the fertile soil of the child’s mind by presenting raw bits and pieces of facts while the other waters and implants it with a love for knowing, for stories, for the wonder of human relations, and for words. Cultivate a love for stories, books, and words, and the kindergarten or grade one child will readily receive his phonograms as if they were keys to treasure.

So, before we teach letters and words, we must engender the wonder of a story, of a book, of communicating through words spoken and written. A child must learn to love the awe, sadness, and joy of the world she enters into when a book is opened and read for her before she learns her letters. A child must learn to love these same emotions as he gazes at the world before we teach the analysis of science. Before we teach the facts of science, we must engender a wonder for and curiosity about nature. This is first the job of parents for the pre-school aged child. Familial love and a parent’s example are a necessary and powerful combination that inculcate values and loves in a young child.

Let us, therefore, as educators not put road blocks in the way of apprehension/synthesis. Let us stop comparing our children/students to others and insisting that they not “fall behind” in the three “r’s.” True education is not a race or a contest; it is a love affair.

What we do with our young children has a great effect on their love for learning.

Many parents of young children, when they interview for admission, are quick to talk about how intelligent their child is. Some go so far as to confuse disobedience with intelligence or precociousness. I care less about intelligence than other things. I want to know how well their child obeys. I want to know if good books are celebrated in their home for the love of learning, the wonder, morality, and curiosity they inspire.

Here is the link to the article by Markos:

More to read: here is an article from Classical Academic Press about fostering love in the education of our youngest children.


Walking Miracles

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who believe that people have souls and those who do not. An ancient example of this dichotomy is Socrates who believed the soul is immortal and Lucretius who believed that people are just a collection of atoms and nothing more.

Socrates: “Is not what we call death a freeing and separation of the soul from the body?” Phaedo.

Lucretius: “Must we not grant that mind and soul consist of a corporeal nature?” On the Nature of Things Book III

If we do not have souls, then we certainly are pure material as Lucretius says. Among the materialists are those who believe that if we collect enough data about a person, we can always know what the best decision would be in each moment. “Dataists further believe that given enough biometric data and computing power, this all-encompassing system could understand humans much better than we understand ourselves. Once that happens, humans will lose their authority, and humanist practices such as democratic elections will become as obsolete as rain dances and flint knives.” (Financial Times) In this world, science and technology reign supreme. Picture a digital assistant who is always there to recommend the best decision. With enough computing power and enough data, we could always know the right thing to do, and we could know the future. It would be like having an electronic conscience. But this world would be a tyranny of our own creation.

As a Christian headmaster, I believe that human beings and their actions are more than just a collection of data and atoms. It is the grace of God in the soul of a human being that enables great acts of sacrifice and giving. It is the grace of God that breaks through into our everyday lives to give us the power to do the right thing. It is the grace of God that helps our children do the good, hard thing. It is the grace of God that makes us into something the data cannot predict. As a soul and a body joined together, human beings are walking miracles. As Christians we are walking miracles even more, for Paul in Romans 6:13b-14 says, “…but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” We are not people who do what we want, and because we are not enslaved to our wants, we are truly free, and we are not predictable!

During teacher prayer this morning, I reminded our teachers of these things and that God is in our classrooms, the Holy Spirit is in the hearts of God’s children, and that God does wonderful and miraculous things. We need to live like it, teach like it, and talk like it.

Tyranny of the Experts

I am really excited about this post, for I have had it rolling around in my head for several days, and it is the product of one of my favorite things. I love to connect seemingly unconnected things and then investigate them together or apply the reasoning from the one to the other.

An erstwhile pastor, I had occasion to meet from time to time with a man who represented seminaries outside the U.S. He was a passionate man; I enjoyed him, and I have always enjoyed learning about other cultures. He was South American. I will never forget when he expressed how Mexican churches felt about the visiting mission teams from the U.S. He recalled a meeting with Mexican pastors who bemoaned the well-intentioned efforts of U.S. mission groups. The Mexican pastors claimed that their churches felt violated, dehumanized.

Flash Forward about ten years…

Dr. William Easterly of New York University has written a book, The Tyranny of Experts, about how foreign aid tramples on the rights of the poor. Wow! Is this not what my friend had talked about? I have not read the book yet, but I have read this review and an interview from Christianity You can read these and more by following the links on his blog.

In one of the more interesting exchanges in the interview, Easterly claims “that the idea we can have a purely technical approach to resolving the problems of poverty without any moral implications is an illusion.”

So, I began to mull things over. Is there an admitted moral component in the effort to close the achievement gap in education?

Easterly claims that, in error, we treat the served as inert matter—people to be acted upon. This rang a bell, for it is the general, pedagogical, modus operandi for low socio-economic schools. Schools are driven to do whatever they can to get the content into the child’s head—whether the child wants it or not. This is a very undignifying practice for both the teacher and the student. What to do with a student who does not want to learn is for another post, but our desire to deliver and be accountable for delivering something that the recipient does not want seems to be a dehumanizing endeavor. It reminds me a bit of nation-building in a nation that does not want to be built.

In summary, our pedagogy might be successful in improving test results, but it is a pedagogy that has a deleterious effect on our students, their preparation for life-long learning, and their appreciation for the academic disciplines (these are part of the moral component). If we are dehumanizing the overseas poor in our efforts to help them, I bet we are doing the same thing to the poor here. I would love to take Easterly’s reasoning and apply it in the U.S. to the way we educate the poor. I wonder if I would find the same thing the Mexican pastors found, the same thing Easterly has found.

I keep a running list of “Things I Am Interested In.” This is on it.

On the Importance of Memorization as a Tool of Understanding

Since first teaching logic in middle school, I have used the following working definition of reasoning and have found it quite helpful. “Using knowledge one has to discover new, previously unknown knowledge.” It comes from Martin Cothran’s Traditional Logic I. Some progressive pedagogies place a heavy emphasis on understanding before memorization and sometimes to the exclusion of it. I disagree with this emphasis, for understanding is the fruit of reason, and reason cannot be conducted if there is not pre-existing knowledge in the mind. One must have memorized facts to reason to thorough understanding.

There is a difference between reading an argument on a page or experiencing it as an experiment and owning it in one’s mind. Comprehend might be a better word—grasp a truth with the mind. So long as we do not require our students to memorize the basics, we prevent them from truly owning understanding, for all their facts are “borrowed.” I see this in the children of poverty with whom I have worked. They are required to memorize very little, so in the learning process, they must do more than the child who has memorized facts. They must reason and hold information in working memory, recalling it from a page or an experience instead of from their own long term memory. This requires intensive effort—the very kind of effort that socio-economically disadvantaged students struggle to give.

You Need Words

One of the greatest academic challenges for children in poverty is a deficiency of words. It is really hard to teach without words and even harder to understand without them. When I think about the importance of words and teaching socioeconomically disadvantaged children, Frederick Douglass almost always comes to my mind. In particular, I recall a wonderful article entitled “Freedom through Education” (Pages 14-15) in The College, the magazine of St. John’s College.

“The speeches he found in his first book, The Columbian Orator, gave him the means to articulate his own thoughts. ‘The more I [Douglass] read them, the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts, which had frequently flashed through my soul, and died away for want of utterance.’ He had discovered the power of naming.”

Many socioeconomically disadvantaged children have a deficiency of words. You need words to teach math. You need words to think (the naming Douglass refers to), and you need to think in order to understand. These children do not have anyone speaking to them intelligently at home. They do not have the required reading of good books at home. So when I talk to them about probability, it is like trying to hang a coat on a wall where there are no coat-hooks. All my words fall to the floor and very few stick. So few stick, that no sense can be made of what does. It feels like my words do not grab hold of any concept in their head. “Use manipulatives!” you say. I do. I lined up a row of markers when I encountered a student who did not know what “before” or “after” meant. He still could not tell me which marker came before another. You can play with counting chips all day, but if the vocabulary/concept for what is happening physically is not in the brain, then the concept stays on the table, for the default way of life for these kids is a word-deprived one. Every chip experiment is a brand new world as long as their “thoughts die away for lack of utterance.”