Thursday, November 15, 2007

Plugged in

In last Sunday's Doonesbury, Zipper is sitting in a college lecture hall, like the other students, with his open laptop, ostensibly taking notes. But of course he is checking his e-mail. When he is called on by the teacher, he stalls for time while he Googles the answer to her question. Then back to the e-mail.

According to former colleagues still in the classroom, it is increasingly common for students to be occupied with text-messaging and computer chat during class time. While the prof is deconstructing a Shakespearean sonnet, the student is in MySpace. Then her phone rings.

So it has come to this. Put away the toys while in class? Hey, dude, I'm paying $45,000 a year to be here, I can do what I want with my time.

Sigh. Looks like I got out just in time. Of course technology can be a fabulous tool for learning; I use it every day, and lord knows I've staked out my own little corner of the internet. Columbia University journalism professor Samuel Freedman calls it the divide between "those who want to use technology to grow smarter from those who want to use it to get dumber."

I have visited this subject before. In just two years our obsession with technology has moved to a new level of self-absorption. As the classrooms empty out between classes, every student is chatting on a cell. What la-la-land they are visiting I have no idea. If they spent as much time on Jane Austen, or the Magna Carta, or the Second Law of Thermodynamics as they do on IM and Facebook they might get something worthwhile for their $45,000.

And now, on Wednesday's Salon, Garrison Keillor of all people sings the praises of staying connected. "God bless cellphones," he extols. Surely he was being ironic. When everyone in Lake Wobegon is walking around with phones to their ears, I know it's time to check out.