When was the last time you gave yourself the same amount of time and consideration as you give to things you watch or read on the internet or TV?
I ask you this because of something that happened at my job a couple of months ago. I teach IB Lang. and Lit. at a private international school, though this is an assignment I also used to assign when I taught in public schools in Colorado, and will continue to assign when I return to public school teaching.
I assigned my 11th graders to analyze a poem to find its meaning, a skill they’d been working on for several weeks; each day they met the challenge with a lot of discomfort, as most of us did and still do when staring into the dark, blood-thirsty eyes of a poem. They don’t see how much they’ve improved at thinking critically this year. Although they are totally capable of completing the task, it was challenging, and it was frustrating. So what did they do?
More than a few opened their laptops. But instead of opening their documents of literary terms, steps to take for critical textual analysis, a dictionary, or any of the other thinking tools they are welcome to use– they began looking up interpretations of the poem online.
And while I wryly quipped at them “I Google, therefore I know?” and asked them to put their computers away, it left me thinking about how much easier it is for students to cheat today than ever before, and how I didn’t take full advantage of that “teachable moment” as we like to call it in the education industry.
Never before in history were there so many ethical issues with the technology we had access to. There’s not a lot of damage one can do with a plow, for example….well, not without considerable effort. Same is true of sliced bread. Or a wrist watch. Sure, the printing press made propaganda more prolific, telephones paved the way for prank callers, and we couldn’t have car accidents if it weren’t for cars, but I think we can all agree that these inventions increased production and success, and overall are benchmarks of progress.
However, does progress have a limit? Is it possible to go too far? Is there a point when progress fails us? Or is it just that our progress is somehow clouded by our lack of ethics and morals? Where do we draw the line between being able to do something, and actually doing it?
It seems to me that technology advanced much too quickly, faster than our ethics. Of course there are many good things about all of the information available through the world wide web. Just one example is how women around the world have begun to fight for civil rights since getting a glimpse of how their lives could be if they were allowed to earn an education, to work, to vote, etc. Knowledge is incredibly empowering, but has the pendulum swung too far? Has the overabundance of information (not to mention games and other endless stimuli) become an obstacle to learning, instead of a tool? With the abundance of crappy information out there, it’s even more important to think about what we read, see, hear. To question it and not just accept it.
Did we make a mistake by allowing people access to so much information or was our only mistake in not teaching people how to effectively use the information? If “Knowledge is power”, and “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”, did we accidentally unleash doom upon the human race by giving them so much access to knowledge? Of course, if everything on the internet was just unbiased facts and clearly labeled opinions, maybe we would have been able to deal with it more ethically. But since we all know that isn’t the case, I am left to worry. Is having free access to other people’s thoughts causing us to stop thinking for ourselves? Has it made us unwilling to spend the time and energy thinking for ourselves, or are we unable?
Technology and power are really very similar. And just as Eric Liu states about power, technology is not inherently good or bad, either, but people need to learn to manage it and use it responsibly. As much as a person uses technology to do their work (including school work) more efficiently, the more , I believe, he needs to shut it off when he isn’t working. When a person works online, reads online, communicates online, entertains herself online, socializes online, orders food online, and manages her health online, maybe that’s too much online time.
What will it take to make people understand that we are destroying ourselves? What will it take for people to truly see that the most important tool we have is our ability to think, and that we don’t need others to do it for us? That we are hurting ourselves by letting technology do too much for us?
We’ve gotten to a place in this society where people are uncomfortable with being alone with their own thoughts. We’ve been conditioned to believe we need to maintain constant contact with the world and end up forgetting about our planet. We have given away our power by letting others do our thinking for us. Eric Liu, author of “How to get power” and Ted-talk speaker claims that too many people are illiterate in power, (civics, especially). I propose that it goes even further than that: We have become a society illiterate in thinking. The more that “text” has become a part of our lives–the more ideas are placed in front of us–the less we have continued to think. Now, that doesn’t mean I want to go back in time and prevent the invention of the printing press. No, I’m not talking about going backwards, I’m just advocating for more time looking up and looking inward. Don’t believe me? Spend one day–just one 8-hour period–without text. Without a book, without technology, without music, without billboards, without your cell phone. Without any text of any kind. Just you and your thoughts. Explore your ideas. Exercise your thinking. Then come back and tell me if you thought more or less than in a typical day.
Our brain, like a muscle, needs exercise, and we’re not giving it that when we sit in front of the tv or internet thoughtlessly watching videos.
I wonder, did more than a couple of my students even understand my allusion that day when I wryly posed: “I Google, therefore I know?”
Again, I’m not saying that we need to return to the past and stop using the internet. I hope that we continue to have internet for a long time but only if we use it responsibly. I have caught many students plagiarising texts online in my eight years of teaching. And according to a survey posted on plagiarism.org, “One out of three high school students admitted that they used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.” When I asked students recently, after sharing this essay with them, why so many students cheat, they said that it’s because teachers ask too much of them without providing adequate time to complete it, as though the increase to access of information has translated to doing more, faster. I don’t deny that. I have seen it, and I know I’ve been guilty of it, too, when I’m under pressure from the state curriculum to get through so much content in such a short amount of time with students who aren’t reading and writing at grade level. Because students can work at home more easily, we keep asking them to do it more and more (at the high school and college level–there’s actually a trend moving away from assigning any homework at the elementary level), but we aren’t teaching the work habits and ethics necessary to maintain an ethical society. It’s not just happening in school, either; We as a society keep working more and more and never putting down our phones and computers because our bosses are also asking for more from us, despite research that shows “that productivity and long work hours do not go hand in hand,” according to a study cited by Rutger Bragman in an article on Ted.
Personally, I’ve made some adjustments to my teaching practices since that conversation with my students, but I’m more impassioned now than ever to do whatever I can to change our failing system of education.
If you’re unsure why plagiarism is such a big deal, well, let me ask you this: Would you steal money from someone? Money that he worked hard to earn doing something that you are also capable of doing? They don’t say “A penny for your thoughts,” and “a million-dollar idea,” for no reason. Thinking is hard work and people deserve to be recognized for their hard work. It’s the respectful and responsible thing to do. Let’s keep building off of each other’s ideas to keep advancing society. Let’s keep thinking. Let’s take back our power!
The truth is, thinking for yourself isn’t something you have to do too much anymore, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t.
Bregman, Rutger. “How working less could solve all our problems. Really.” Ideas.Ted.com. Ted Conferences, LLC. 11 Apr. 2017 http://ideas.ted.com/howworking-less-could-solve-all-our-problems-really/ Accessed 25 May 2017.
“Facts and Stats.” Plariarism.org. Iparadigms, LLC. 2014 http://www.plagiarism.org/resources/facts-and-stats Accessed 7 Mar. 2017.
Liu, Eric. “How to Get Power.” Ideas.Ted.com. Ted Conferences, LLC. 28 Mar. 2017. http://ideas.ted.com/how-to-get-power/ Accessed 25 May 2017.
Liu, Eric. “Why ordinary people need to understand power.” Ted.com. Ted Conferences, LLC. Sept. 2013 https://www.ted.com/talks/eric_liu_why_ordinary_people_need_to_understand_power#t-228078 Accessed 25 May 2017.
“Treat Your Brain Like a Muscle: Exercise It.” Editorial Staff from To Your Health. To Your Health, 2017. Oct. 2013 http://www.toyourhealth.com/mpacms/tyh/article.php?id=1885 Accessed 25 May 2017.
Weekman, Kelsey. “Banning homework has become a trend in schools. AOL. AOL Inc. 3 Oct. 2016. https://www.aol.com/article/news/2016/10/03/banninghomework-has-become-a-trend-in-schools/21490714/. Accessed 25 May 2017.