Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Challenge Me Softly

I just read Alfie Kohn's new book The Myth of the Spoiled Child (Da Capo, 2014), which does a nice job demolishing the complaints about how Kids Today are overindulged, spoiled, etc.  You know the drill, I'm sure.  One of his starting points is something I've also noticed: that contempt for the young is a bipartisan affair.  Many social liberals start to sound just like right-wing frothers when they talk about children and education.  I may write more about the book and the subject later, but by happy chance I found an article online at The that could have been grist for Kohn's thesis, "My Students Don't Know How to Have a Conversation," by one Paul Barnwell, identified as "a teacher, writer, and urban gardener based in Louisville, KY."

Barnwell blames it all on mobile phones.  "Recently I stood in front of my class, observing an all-too-familiar scene. Most of my students were covertly—or so they thought—pecking away at their smartphones under their desks, checking their Facebook feeds and texts."  And so on.  You can probably guess how the article progresses; I could have written it myself, just from the title. 

For example, one thing that was easy to predict was that Barnwell offers no evidence whatsoever that kids used to be more attentive in class, were able to converse, and so on.  When they get out in the real world, he fumes, with job interviews and asking for raises, they won't be able to fall back on Facebook!  And he concludes:
The next time you interact with a teenager, try to have a conversation with him or her about a challenging topic. Ask him to explain his views. Push her to go further in her answers. Hopefully, you won’t get the response [Sherry] Turkle did when interviewing a 16-year-old boy about how technology has impacted his communication: “Someday, someday, but certainly not now, I’d like to learn how to have a conversation.”
The next time you interact with an adult, try to have a conversation with him or her about a challenging topic.  Ask him to explain his views.  Push her to go further in her answers.  I do this often with my peers (I'm 63, by the way) on Facebook, all of whom have high school diplomas and many of whom have at least bachelor's degrees.  A depressing number are, or have been, schoolteachers themselves. They have no idea how to support their beliefs, and they aren't interested in doing it.  They figure that just saying what they think (or rather, feel), is all they should have to do.  Many of them express their views by posting memes that someone else concocted; they have no idea how to check, on or off the Internet, whether a claim they encounter is true.  Very few people are capable of having a conversation about a challenging topic, and as this article shows -- it's unfortunately not atypical -- that applies to people who get published on classy sites like The Atlantic. This is nothing new, however: it's as old as the hills.