Lowell Monke offers important insights in his new article published in the current edition of Orion. In “Charlotte’s Webpage: Why Children Shouldn’t Have the World at Their Fingertips,” Monke warns that children who spend a great deal of time on the computer are missing vital life lessons.
Structured learning certainly has its place. But if it crowds out direct, unmediated engagement with the world, it undercuts a child’s education. Children learn the fragility of flowers by touching their petals. They learn to cooperate by organizing their own games. The computer cannot simulate the physical and emotional nuances of resolving a dispute during kickball, or the creativity of inventing new rhymes to the rhythm of jumping rope. These full-bodied, often deeply heartfelt experiences educate not just the intellect but also the soul of the child. When children are free to practice on their own, they can test their inner perceptions against the world around them, develop the qualities of care, self-discipline, courage, compassion, generosity, and tolerance–and gradually figure out how to be part of both social and biological communities.
It’s true that engaging with others on the playground can be a harrowing experience, too. Children often need to be monitored and, at times, disciplined for acts of cruelty, carelessness, selfishness, even violence. Computers do provide an attractively reliable alternative to the dangers of unsupervised play. But schools too often use computers or other highly structured activities to prevent these problematic qualities of childhood from surfacing–out of fear or a compulsion to force-feed academics. This effectively denies children the practice and feedback they need to develop the skills and dispositions of a mature person. If children do not dip their toes in the waters of unsupervised social activity, they likely will never be able to swim in the sea of civic responsibility. If they have no opportunities to dig in the soil, discover the spiders, bugs, birds, and plants that populate even the smallest unpaved playgrounds, they will be less likely to explore, appreciate, and protect nature as adults.
Lowell Monke is a professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio. I think he is on to something of great importance here. Computers have their place, and can be great learning tools for certain subjects. But children are now spending far too much time staring at electronic screens and “learning” through digitalized programs of study. Dancing electronic dots have replaced human interaction. Monke understands that education requires far more than this — and that what happens on the playground is important, too.
There are some grave consequences in pushing technological values too far and too soon. Soon after my high-school computer lab was hooked up to the Internet, I realized that my students suddenly had more power to do more damage to more people than any teenagers in history. Had they been carefully prepared to assume responsibility for that power through the arduous process of developing self-discipline, ethical and moral strength, compassion, and connection with the community around them? Hardly. They and their teachers had been too busy putting that power to use.