By Kevin Bray, Globe and Mail, January 26, 2012
I work with zombies, or ICU patients, or pod-bodies plugged into the Matrix. Whatever they are, they are rarely “in the moment” and engaged with other pod-bodies. Well, they do sometimes interact with one another, usually by taking photos (every moment is infused with significance, apparently), or sharing the umbilical cord that sustains their rich interior life. When they do communicate it’s often done through texting or Facebook. I’ve watched the pod-bodies do this even when just one metre separates them; it’s as if they have willingly given away their tongues for more dexterous thumbs.
You can see them on the street, in packs or alone, shuffling along, oblivious to traffic or weather or birdsong. They are plugged into a smartphone or iPod, and carry them like patients shuffling down the hospital hallway tethered to an IV drip. They never go anywhere without the constant drip of music; every moment is accompanied by a soundtrack. I wonder how many of them suffer falls on the icy sidewalks only holding out their thumbs, locked mid-text message, to block the hard concrete while they hear I’m Sexy and I Know It played at 110 decibels.
I am speaking of teenagers, of course. For 20 years I have walked among them as a teacher and witnessed the slow accretion of technology into their lives and mine. How different they have become in just two decades. Everyone is disengaged or hiding. In math class they beg to listen to music while working and I acquiesce. It’s easier to ask them to lower the volume and plug the leaking sounds of Bruno Mars than to argue and suffer their mood for an hour. Once plugged in, they work on simple interest questions while listening to music that I guess charges their souls or assaults their equilibrium. All this music must be doing something to them. Studies are finding that teens who listen to a lot of music suffer depression, but maybe the emotion came before the tune rather than the opposite. If Pitbull sings “for all we know we might not get tomorrow” and the Mayans predict that before the year is out we are doomed, then it’s tough to convince a 16-year-old about the power of compound interest over their lifetime.
I grew up in a small logging town in northern British Columbia in the 1970s and we did not have iPods, iPhones, Facebook, Twitter or rap. We had one television station – the CBC – and one radio station. I listened to music on LPs and suitcase-sized speakers. We daydreamed in math class or fell asleep during movies in English; most of us talked too much when we were supposed to be working and the only games we played were either on a board or at the arcade (at least pinball involved some physical activity). We were engaged even when it seemed that we weren’t. We had nowhere to hide from teachers or friends except in our heads. I know this sounds a bit like the Monty Python skit “oh, you think you had it tough!”.
Do students imagine? Do they hear the “other” inside their head, the one who comments on moral ambiguity and increases the volume on empathy? I asked this once and the reply was “Sir, we’re not robots, you know.” One day I demanded that all phones be turned off, all music be silenced and everyone do it “old school” for one period. I was amazed how quickly I was transported to 1989, my first year of teaching. We worked and talked, not always on topic, and for those 75 minutes we emerged from zombieland and heard human voices. Maybe the students sang inside their heads and thought about the text messages they would like to compose, but at least they were with me.
I know that waves of technology will forever crash onto our emotional and intellectual beach, and teachers are cajoled into adopting technology and meeting students in their “world.” Smart boards, websites, clickers, PowerPoint, podcasts, simulations and e-mail are just a veneer over the most important part of teaching: the human connection in real time and space. If Socrates were alive today I doubt he would be impressed with our hyper-connectivity. None of this makes us critical thinkers. We are entertained rather than engaged.
Everywhere I go I hear music: in every store in every mall; in auto dealerships; in hotel lobbies and elevators; in pub washrooms; in the dentists’ office. At home though, or in the woods on a hike, or kayaking on a lake, I hear the wind and birds, even the rustle of leaves. This is because I am “old” and unplugged. I see young people skiing, biking, drinking coffee at Starbucks, eating at the food court and hanging out with friends and all of them are tethered by white wires to perpetual melodies. The world sings past them.
In my morning class a few months ago the students wandered into the room, plugged in and texting, and the few who had questions before I started the lesson yelled at me over the sound of the music in their ears. I told them to wait a minute and then took ear buds out of my bag, plugged them into my laptop and attached myself to them. Nonplussed, they continued with their question about quadratics; them listening to Cee Lo Green and me listening to Earth, Wind and Fire.
Kevin Bray lives in Aurora, Ont.
Editors Note: Having left the classroom in 1984, I cannot share Mr. Bray's experience, and like all other retired teachers can only send condolences and relief that I am not responsible for a secondary school English class today.