Although personal computers in the high school classroom were becoming a norm before COVID, the pandemic accelerated the process and forced the rest of K-12 to adopt them. By all means, introduce computers in middle school and teach computer technology in high school, but keep them out of elementary schools.
Of the many bizarre responses to COVID, few will have as long-lasting effects as the introduction of iPads in kindergarten, the loaning of personal laptops to students of every grade by school districts, and the mass exodus from in-person classes to virtual learning.
It is not surprising that computers have found their way into public schools because Americans have a strong inclination to innovate. But this inclination leads us to accept, almost without question, the intrinsic value of new technologies. Television, for example, was brought into the classroom for educational purposes as soon as it was mass-produced and made affordable. Although personal computers in the classroom—primarily in high schools—were becoming a norm before COVID, the pandemic accelerated the process, even adding, with breathtaking speed, the rest of K-12 to the virtual roster. By all means, introduce computers in middle school and teach computer technology in high school, but keep them far away from and out of elementary schools.
While technology is not intrinsically evil, it is also not intrinsically good. We must consider what we gain and what we lose by its adoption into our culture and especially our schools. For example, when the printing press was invented, the scribes were out of a job, but more books were being published. The wider availability of books led to an increase in literacy among many populations and an increase in sequential and logical thought, eventually leading to unprecedented advancement in our knowledge of the world. Television, however, has the power to undo all this as its nature favors imagery and narrative. The public discourse of a society dominated by television is based not on rational argumentation but on aesthetic appeal. Each technological tool has its strengths and weaknesses, and we should be asking what those strengths and weaknesses are.
We must think twice before normalizing any form of technology and must seek to have an understanding of a new technological tool’s implication for meaning in our lives. For once a technological tool is normalized, it is almost impossible to go back. So what has been the effect on elementary school students since bringing in iPads and personal Chromebooks? What will be the effect in the near future? In attempting to be fair, I will address the good, the bad, and the ugly—and it does get ugly—of putting computers in the hands of children.
There are plenty of good things about computers that deserve praise. Computers give us access to libraries and knowledge that ancient scholars could not have even dreamed possible. Computers give us unbelievable precision in fields such as medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and business. Least of all, computers offer access to an incredible amount of entertainment from films to video games to music.
The shift to virtual business has also been good on at least one front: in putting work back into the home. Pre-Industrial Revolution, work was largely agricultural and involved the entire family. The home was not a hive to which everyone returned at the end of the day after buzzing about; it was a place where work, family, and religion were intimately married to one another. It could be argued that computers have helped strengthen the family community, or at least provided the opportunity.
Despite these good things about computers and virtual work, I can think of no good thing computers give specifically to kindergarteners—or elementary students for that matter. What do kids need Google for? Why do they need an app for everything—for anything? As a substitute teacher in a North Texas Independent School District (ISD), the only thing I see kindergarteners do with computers is play games. They might be ‘educational’ games that intend to put math or science in practice, but they are games nonetheless. In such instances, what kids are actually learning is not math, science, or English, but that computers are fun. It isn’t wrong to have fun, but it has been shown that computer games are designed to keep people playing them by controlling dopamine levels. This same design is in children’s games, and research is beginning to demonstrate that screen time can negatively affect the neurological structure of a child’s brain.[*]
What young kids need most is discipline and character training. Between the ages of three to six is when the personality begins to set. Discipline and character are traditionally developed through role-playing and the reinforcement of good values. By changing the pain and pleasure receptors in children through computer games, we are upsetting the process of teaching values.
Aside from changing the structure of children’s brains, there is the common sense (or not so common sense?) that there are plenty of good things a person does not give to kids before they are ready. You don’t put them on a bike before they can walk. You don’t give them a filet mignon at a nice restaurant. They would not be able to physically participate, or even if they could, they would not be able to appreciate what is in front of them. The tasks which computers can perform are truly awe-inspiring and there are even adults who don’t appreciate this fact as they only use the computer to either play World of Warcraft or write essays.
Perhaps the only conceivable good bringing computers into the classroom is that it gives the teacher a break from managing the class. Struggling to keep the attention of a six year old is a foreign concept to the iPad. But in this case, computers are good not for the students but for the teachers because it makes their job easier. The question concerns the students, not teachers. So much for the good. I tried.
What’s bad about computers in kindergarten is that it places kids in a state of dependence from which they may never escape. My first experience of subbing came with this shock: Excluding lunch and recess, there was hardly a block of time more than 20 minutes where kindergarteners were not absorbed in some kind of computer activity, whether it be on their own iPad or on the projector at the front of the room. This was all in the sub-notes I had to follow.
When they were on their iPads, I spent time walking around and asking them about their favorite computer game. The most popular game by far was a program on Epic (the leading digital library for kids, offering books, games, and other learning resources) that allows students to paint, draw, add shapes, change colors, and erase with a swift touch on the screen. The program is the equivalent to Microsoft Paint from back in the day. The difference between then and now is the ease of use and accessibility of the technology. Weeks later, I was talking to a teacher that had taught third grade for the last nineteen years, and it wasn’t long in our conversation before she began lamenting the fact that she now meets kids who don’t know how to cut paper with scissors or use a glue stick.
Subbing on another day, I asked a class of second graders what they like about using computers. Aside from the expected answer—that they are fun because of their endless assortment of games—one student said they like it because, unlike their own handwriting, the letters are neat when they appear on the computer.
The student’s response about preferring computer fonts to their own sloppy handwriting brought to mind the medieval scribes and the manuscripts they produced. The production of a book was much more expensive, laborious, and time-consuming in the centuries preceding the fifteenth century. Yes, the scribes made spelling mistakes—it was a time without spellcheck—and yes, they misquoted and misread some of the works they were copying—it was a time without proper citation formatting. But is the value of a text determined solely by its pristine spelling, clean print, and precise references? To answer yes to this question seems to amount to saying that a picture’s worth is found in the number of pixels it contains. Do not a text’s content and meaning merit consideration? Compare the Lindisfarne Gospels to an eBook on Kindle, or a crayon drawing hanging on a fridge to a painting on Epic, and get back to me.
The ugliest part of the whole affair is this: What is emerging is not only, what I fear, an irreversible dependence on computers, but a set of ideals and means that will drive humans to act more cruelly toward one another. The new set of ideals is not all that new, but these ideals can be classified as Digital Virtues as opposed to Traditional Virtues. These virtues are not mutually exclusive, but we want to ensure that we are the ones mastering the technology and not the other way around.
Digital Virtues place an emphasis on efficiency and utility. Humans can do most things a computer can do, but the computer does them faster and more cleanly. Think of the student who preferred computer-generated letters to hand-written ones. In contrast, Traditional Virtues are developed through hard physical work and suffering. For our purposes we can highlight just two: temperance and fortitude. Temperance prevents us from overindulgence and other disordered passions. It’s akin to self-control. Fortitude helps us to pursue goods that are difficult to obtain. It’s akin to patience and perseverance. Traditional Virtues are almost inseparable from physical work and experience while Digital Virtues strengthen the philosophies of efficiency and utilitarianism.
It is clear that moving an activity from the physical to the digital changes the nature of the activity and its effects. For example, let’s contrast going to an art museum and Googling the paintings of Picasso. There are multiple things involved when going to an art museum: getting dressed, driving, walking, staring, being quiet, etc. Let’s say once you arrive at the art museum you lock your keys in the car. Now you have the chance to learn not only about cubism, but about the consequences of not paying attention. When you search for a painting of Picasso from his “blue period” on your computer, you do not need to do any of the things mentioned above. Furthermore, pulling up the page is just as easy as closing the page. Do you see the difference? Efficiency can trivialize our experience of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness by hindering our ability to develop Traditional Virtue.
If Traditional Virtues are not put above Digital Virtues, then the twin causes of efficiency and utility will dominate our motives and simultaneously provide the means of controlling other human beings in radical ways. People can be dehumanized as online presence by itself is without eye-contact, and calculations present people as statistics. Computers might otherwise be used as a means to create a docile, impotent populace as the overwhelming amount of entertainment the computer offers is difficult to escape. As Neil Postman pointed out, to be amused is to be absent of deep thought. Whoever controls the means of communication in a society controls the conversation and how people think.
During my time subbing, I have observed a gap in students’ knowledge, separating their ability to use computer programs and understanding how those programs work. It typically plays out in this way: Students know how to use the internet and log into Wi-Fi, but when Wi-Fi is not working, they become sitting ducks in front of a useless machine. In other words, they know how to enjoy computers, but they do not know how they work—like a person who knows how to drive a car, but not how to change a tire. Yes, we have specialists who fix these problems, but this lack of knowing the actual operations of the machines we use leaves us vulnerable not just to problems which we do not know how to solve, but to specialists who take advantage of our ignorance. As a result, we receive the fruits of technology without the labor—the kind of labor that teaches us how to think. When we input an equation into a calculator and receive an answer without such labor, we become unaware of the process. In other words, we do not learn how to think. We become intellectual hunters and gatherers instead of farmers.
The reason why computers should not be in elementary school is because the kids are at the critical age in human development when the seeds of Traditional Virtue are planted. Kids need to run around, play, role-play, make up their own games, and learn to socialize with other human beings. Once Traditional Virtue has been taught, then computers can be used in high schools. And, very importantly, students should not only use computers for research, but should study them as a subject.
It is a massive oversight that elementary students were handed iPads and Chromebooks, even given the COVID pandemic. Reversing the current situation will be incredibly difficult. Some 10th graders and I were watching the morning’s announcements when it was reported that one North Texas ISD plans to permanently adopt online learning after the pandemic is over. Masks might disappear in the future. But computers will not. Get them out of elementary schools while you can.
* See Shawn Radcliffe, “Is Screen Time Altering the Brains of Children?“, Healthline (2018).
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.