Smartphones, smart people

Smartphones, smart people


Socrates was not what you’d call a bring-our-own-device type of fellow. The device that counted for him was the mind.

Of course, Socrates did not have the opportunity to weigh in on things like smartphones and Facebook, on account of his having lived in the 5th century B.C., but we can get a pretty good idea of what his attitude may have been judging from his attitude about writing. Socrates felt that relying on the written word would lead to forgetfulness, that people would stop exercising memory.

There’s irony here, because were it not for the written word, the genius of one of the great teachers of history would likely have been lost to the world. It’s thanks mostly to his students, including Xenophon and, most notably, Plato, and the plays of Aristophanes that the life and thinking of Socrates survives.

The idea is that the written word can only take you so far. It can tell you of many things without necessarily teaching them, and as the technology of sharing information widens and deepens it’s a helpful, cautionary reminder.

Many school systems now are exploring the usefulness of allowing students to bring their own devices to school. A pilot program in Meriden appears on its way to full implementation, and will allow city students to bring in their devices, including smartphones, iPads, tablets, e-readers and laptops, into schools. A survey conducted during the first month of the school year indicated there was widespread support for the program among parents, students and school staff. Eighty percent of parents surveyed said their children have a device. More than 80 percent of school staff supported the idea of letting students bring them into classrooms. Ninety percent of students thought the program helped them learn.

There were concerns. Some parents were worried about whether implementing the program would mean they’d have to buy their children expensive devices. The school system plans to provide technology when it’s required, so it appears ability to afford technology, at least, won’t be a hindrance.

But there’s a worry not reflected in the survey that the example of Socrates brings to mind. Intelligence and ability these days are increasingly measured by one’s ability to interact with technology, to push the right buttons. If we fail it’s called user error. It’s worth pointing out that this is not necessarily reflective of one’s intelligence. It’s also worth pointing out that it ought to be the other way around: that technology should serve us. But we spend a lot of time these days serving technology.

Years ago I was in a grocery checkout line and when I was asked if I wanted cash back I told the clerk to round it out to $20, or whatever it was, meaning to just give me the difference between the cost of what I’d bought and 20 bucks. He gave me a blank look and told me he couldn’t do the math. Did I attribute that to the use of calculators in the classroom? Yes, I did.

When we let students bring devices into school we’re only taking them so far. Which is why I’m glad there was somebody around smart enough to write down what Socrates had to say.
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