Sharp minds wandering: Why your iPhone is killing Milken

Ami Fields-Meyer

Contributing Writer

You shut the classroom door behind you and walk across the balcony. You’re only leaving class for a few minutes to make a quick bathroom run, but you saunter through the quad on your way there. As you’re about to turn the corner, something catches your eye.

You stare, stalled in your tracks, into the classroom window in front of you. Through the half-drawn shades, you can just make out the history teacher and a few of your friends in the class. It isn’t the people in the room that have given you pause, though; it’s the luminous patches of glowing light that line the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing Milken.

Schoology is efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. FirstClass keeps us connected. The one-to-one laptop program ushers us into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. Milken, by its very nature, is frenzied, adrenalized and consistently active. (As are its students and teachers.) We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. We need to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on Schoology, but the problem lies therein – they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. The glowing arcs of MacBooks in Milken’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, our teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes – and attentions – mesmerized by Tetris, and the beckon call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen to be enticing, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that Mr. Lawrence would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from at-level to AP testify to the notion that the digital approach – categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects – is hindering the Milken education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We don’t sit around and think up ways to further distract our ever-distractible psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The Milken classroom – an environment that requires us to be present – is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken Milken by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class – a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, Milken has its fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, punnet squares and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call them radical, I call them practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teacher should do the same. Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

It’s also important to note that many would argue in favor of Milken’s blocking of Facebook from school servers. For now, I think Facebook is serving a compelling purpose by keeping a digital history of campus goings-on; however, distraction will soon eclipse institutional memory as Facebook’s main byproduct at Milken. I am not against a discussion of a campus-wide ban on Facebook.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules – but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of the Milken community. Milken students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity (cue Mr. Martin) would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment – further, if you will, from developing the sort of “sharp minds” we hear so much about. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, on this campus, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

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