Maybe this sounds harsh, but if you haven’t attempted to teach young people in the era of smartphones; if you haven’t competed with their ubiquitous presence, compulsive aura, and endless usage, then you probably don’t know what you are talking about regarding teaching, pedagogy, or education in general.
If you haven’t had students become borderline hysterical when their phones are taken away, if you haven’t had to ask-beg-plead-demand-threaten students in order for them to put their cell phones away, if you haven’t noticed that every outrageous or humorous moment MUST be accompanied by students attempting to tape the moment for YouTube or some other version of digital posterity, if you haven’t noticed that watching a film in class (a real treat when I was a high school student) is no longer enough stimulation for students who quickly assume the posture of boredom no matter the quality of the film, if you haven’t had your information fact checked, i.e. “Googled,” by a sitting member of the class, or if you haven’t noticed a perpetual estrangement from the classroom in the long gazes and blank stares of restless students, then you haven’t been properly introduced to the modern ecology of American classroom teaching.
And so, I understand if teachers don’t want to be evaluated by administrators who have never experienced it. I don’t want to read texts of pedagogy by authors who have been on the education speaking circuit since Mitt Romney won the Republican nomination. I don’t want to endure professional development from presenters who utter tropes about “upping rigor” or axioms about teaching “bell-to-bell” who clearly do not realize that teaching a generation of perpetually distracted teenagers is often tantamount to Sisyphus pushing a boulder up a hill.
This is not a statement of frustration or an angry declaration of defiance. It is merely a byproduct of a new paradigm in teaching that is so exhaustive in scope it has hollowed out teaching dogmas of the past, morphed expectations of student behavior, and traduced the reality of the profession itself. Our students binge on dopamine from sun up to sun down, a cognitive bender that modern neuroscience tells us is especially pernicious for the development of young minds.
Indeed, a century from now, when historians and members of the twenty-second century commentariat look back on our current moment of civilization, it might well be the case that they are not highlighting the administration of Donald Trump or the minutiae that populate our social media feeds. Instead, it is quite possible that the most significant shift afoot is a colossal metamorphosis of what is meant by a “civil society.”
I am not just referring, of course, to our modern practice of supplanting a common civic identity with a sprawling panoply of racial, gender, sexual, and class identities. However one feels about the utility (or futility) of balkanizing the social tapestry of the nation, the shift most affecting the classroom is not about identity; it is about location.
As De Tocqueville noticed two centuries ago, civil society is distinct from the state, for the “public spirit” is summoned through the formation of civic associations and strong localized institutions of governance: “even the State is only a second-rate community, whose tranquil and obscure administration offers no inducement sufficient to draw men away from the circle of their interests into the turmoil of public affairs.”
It is not the State Board of Education that prepares young people for citizenship, it is the classroom. Click To Tweet
It is not the State Board of Education that prepares young people for citizenship, it is the classroom. It is not the state assemblyman who has the most immediate impact on your life, it is your city councilman. It is not the department of social services that socializes young people, it is one’s family (whatever that arrangement might be nowadays).
What eludes most policy-makers, educators, and social commentators is that the traditional pillars of civil society—the home, the church, the school, the traditional civic associations of one’s community—have all been unseated by an amorphous and ever-evolving virtual community. Adults have a difficult time getting a handle on the norms, behaviors, and idiosyncrasies of this community. Indeed, part of the problem of the everyday classroom teacher is that while the online world of apps, digital engagement, and social media feeds is clearly its own “society,” there is clearly not much that is “civil” about it.
At the risk of sounding like a middle-aged curmudgeon, the civil society of our students is not particularly adept at stitching the moral and political fabric that is necessary for individual or democratic flourishment. Whereas civil society once planted “seedbeds of virtue,” the terrain on which our students navigate for hours on end is not particularly conducive to developing habits that are consistent with socialization on the individual level or civilization on the social level. It is rough, raw, and casually vulgar, sexual, and uncouth. It is a province of unencumbered expression and a form of individualism that is brazen in the moment but easily, and sadly, demeaned in retrospect.
For instance, students will freely admit they favor apps such as Snapchat because there is virtually no adult presence, no parental oversight, no worry of castigation by one’s elders..
What does this have to do with the world of education and teaching? In short, for most of our students, their primary community is not their home, their school, or their friend group. The “civil society” from which they are absorbing norms, expectations, and world-views is foreign to most of us over the age of thirty. In ages past, teachers and students shared social space and communal intimacy, both of which act as a civilizing force in the lives of young people. Teaching in an era that has lost both this space and this intimacy is, perhaps, the central challenge of our era.
My older brother and fellow social studies teacher, who is rarely one for overwrought sentimentality, recently wrote me a disheartening note about where he stands in his career:
One of the things I find the most disheartening, is the fact that almost every student at some point during a lecture or a teacher-led discussion will look away from me as I’m speaking to check their phone. It takes the wind out of my sails. It makes me feel as if I were speaking to a hollow room. Every day I am reminded that they HAVE to be with me. For millennia we have interpreted a lack of eye contact as a lack of caring. Students tell me, it’s OK Mr. Adams I’m still listening. However, I know they’re not really doing so. What will their parenting look like? Texting their children that dinner is ready? Replying to good grades on Snapchat and Twitter? Creating the best video clip for social media rather than actually watching their kids participate in a soccer game? How can you parent if you’re never in the same moment or space as your kids?
If you do not spend your days in the maelstrom of this new reality, it is difficult to understand the hurdles and conundrums it spawns. We are naïve if we believe the “civil society” of our students is not competing with our own notions of traditional civility. I am not sure what to do about it. But if you haven’t spent time in this uniquely modern trench, then you can’t possibly understand the warfare of modern teaching.
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