A Trojan Horse in the classroom: A reflection on the mis-anthropology of technology

Unwittingly admitting the Trojan Horse into the walls of their precious city, the citizens of Troy happily rolled the dubious Greek gift into their Kingdom.  Dancing and celebrating into the night, they eventually slumbered while crafty Odysseus and his men stealthily crept out of the belly of the horse, destroyed the city, and claimed the ultimate triumph.

When it comes to letting technology into the classroom, can we learn something from the Trojans? I propose the requirement by many, if not most, Catholic high schools to mandate laptops for each student in the classroom is akin to admitting the Trojan Horse into our schools.

Of course, technology is here to stay, and it clearly offers plenty of important benefits. As educators and parents, we need to guide students in the proper use of these tools. Teach them to be masters of technology, not its slave.

To guide us in this endeavor, let’s look at the direction the Church offers. The post-conciliar document, Communio et Progressio (1971), addresses the “means of social communication.”

Whoever wants to see the media take their allotted place in the history of Creation… and to consider the morality that governs their use, must have a full and proper understanding of man. He must also have a sound knowledge both of the true nature of social communication and of the tools at its service. (15, emphasis mine)

So the Church recommends that educators consider both anthropology and technology. Our focus will be on the intersection of the two, that is, on the nature of man’s use of the tool.

First, let’s see how the “nature of the tool” has developed in recent years so we can help our students understand the technology. According to Dr. Nicholas Kardaras, author of Glow Kids (2016), 97 percent of kids today between the ages of 2 and 17 play video games, and the multi-billion-dollar gaming industry works tirelessly to develop addicting video products. Neuro-scientists from around the world call computers and computer games “digital drugs” (“cocaine” and “heroin,” specifically). It is noteworthy to observe many of the computer executives of Silicon Valley place their own children in the no-tech Waldorf schools.

Referencing studies conducted by Chinese neurologists, Kardaras points to the enduring influence of primitive man’s brain upon modern habits. Hard-wired for the discovery of novelty, the brain releases a shot of dopamine (a “feel-good” neurotransmitter) when it discovers something new. Game inventers and developers know this well and design their products accordingly, which often results in kids becoming addicted to novelty.

Pervasive access to devices places the temptation to distraction at the student’s fingertips for several hours a day. Add to this the powerful urge to experience the “feel-good” reward of discovering something new and we’re simply baiting our students for distraction. While the educator may hope the student uses the laptop (or tablet) as intended, it seems the controls and filters on the device are like the neighborhood boundaries of old.

Today, opportunities to challenge boundaries come in the form of hacking firewalls. When the Los Angeles public school district distributed iPads to high school students, many quickly hacked through to play video games and surf the Internet. The potential access provided by the tool itself is a temptation to take digital drugs.

Roaming beyond digital borders in the modern world carries serious consequences. Such trespasses may easily result in the instant appearance of damaging images forever emblazoned on the brain. Besides frightful images and porn, many games insidiously reward return visits to their sites by adding points (or tokens), thus enticing students to wander from the prescribed use of the device to various websites and (“cha-ching!” dopamine hit) rack up more points! When a student is forced to choose between responsible use of devices and illicit use that is more enticing, striking at primal instincts, the student is placed in a situation in which the possibility of success is stacked against him.

Unfortunately, simply denying access to the internet isn’t a practical solution either. Many popular games may be played offline: Minecraft, Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja, etc. Even if we consider arguably innocuous games—even “educational” games, like chess—the appeal to click away from the focus of the class content is ever-present.

From two teens attending reputable Catholic high schools in my area, I learned many students in class often play games and mess around with their screens, paying little or no attention to classroom instruction. This is in spite of the various monitoring protocols both schools employ.

Now, when it comes to the use of technology, let’s recall that the post-Conciliar document urges the pursuit of a full and proper understanding of man. In this respect, Catholic educators need look no further than the “adequate anthropology” of Pope Saint John Paul II.

Man is made for communion. John Paul emphasizes the essential presence of one body to another in the process of coming to know ourselves, of understanding our humanity, and of affirming the goodness of who we are in Christ. (Theology of the Body 9:4) These are essential aims of an authentic Catholic education.

Teaching is a species of friendship. St. John Bosco’s teaching style is frequently referred to as “friendly.” Avoiding an unhealthy “buddy” status, which would reduce the teacher to a peer, the educator’s personality ought to daily exhibit personal strengths and weaknesses, the love of learning, and humility. Only when wholly present can the teacher cultivate the sort of authentic friendship necessary for students to grow and thrive.

Regarding the particulars of the human body, eye contact is indispensable when it comes to ongoing brain development, emotional stability, and social fluency. In Patricia Snow’s piece from First Things, healthy human development is linked to personal presence, while the misuse—and over use—of technology yields behaviors similar to those of kids on the autism spectrum. Although Kardaras insists that the new and powerful technologies present in computers and computer games are coming at us too fast for the human brain to adapt, Catholic high schools continue to increase the use of individual laptops and tablets in the classroom.

It becomes clear that if teachers are more engaged with technology than with the student, the value of each human person is marginalized. When a teacher expects the student to be head-down, staring at the screen instead of making eye contact and engaging face-to-face with the teacher, the technology becomes more important than personal interaction. This is an egregiously “disembodied” pedagogy.

In this paradigm, students are deprived of the fully-embodied presence of the mentor-friend they ought to find in the educator. How will the students come to really know the teacher when his or her body language is obscured?

In his vital work on the Trivium, Stratford Caldecott writes this about human communication: “[E]very person has an interior life that cannot be divulged except by deliberately ‘opening up’ the heart, and allowing the life that is within it to flow through words and gestures into the other person” (Beauty in the Word). What success can we hope for when the teacher must compete with the students’ screens?

Some will object that “kids need to learn how to manage technology at some point, better now than later.” Perhaps there’s truth in that. And yet, neuroscientists attest that the part of the brain responsible for self-control doesn’t mature until the mid-twenties. While kids need opportunities to practice self-control long before then, anthropologically speaking, we need to ask, whether a super-stimulating, highly-addictive device placed in a student’s hands for several hours a day—when they’re supposed to be paying attention in class—is the best means of teaching this vital virtue.

KAREN LANDRY chairs the Great Books Department at Christiana Homeschool Academy in Westminster, Md. She earned a master’s of arts in film from Regent University. Karen divides her time between teaching and forming her teen boys.

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