The students of our college talk to each other without electronic distraction, they look adults in the eye, they laugh often and easily, they exercise wit without reflexive cynicism, they love dancing and singing and playing instruments; they love the classics and the outdoors…
When Wyoming Catholic College admitted its first students ten years ago, one of the policies that immediately went into effect now seems like one of the most prescient: the ban on cell phones. Already in 2007, mobile devices were ubiquitous, though of course they have evolved exponentially in power and flexibility since then. It’s hard not to admire the sheer ingenuity that goes into smartphones. My iPhone (already several generations old) not only keeps up with phone calls, texts, and emails, but takes photographs (and movies) and sorts them by date and location.
I start typing a text on my smartphone, and more often than not, the app offers to save me trouble by suggesting words I might mean. It knows how many steps a day I take, not to mention where I am on the planet and how to get to anywhere else. Moreover, among its myriad other capacities, it has in its sleek mechanism (now in my shirt pocket) complete audible versions of Richmond Lattimore’s great translation of the Iliad and Stephen Fry’s performance of the Sherlock Holmes oeuvre.
And yet the evidence is in: Simply having the thing nearby makes me dumber (not that anyone would notice). Nicholas Carr’s lead essay in the Wall Street Journal’s Review (October 6, 2017) cited study after study showing what these devices are doing to us. After going through a number of studies showing how smartphones damage our capacity for attention and our social relationships, Mr. Carr urges his reader to take stock of what we’re holding: “Imagine combining a mailbox, a newspaper, a TV, a radio, a photo album, a public library and a boisterous party attended by everyone you know, and then compressing them all into a single, small, radiant object. That is what a smartphone represents to us. No wonder we can’t take our minds off it.”
The concept of an “app” would have been obscure outside Silicon Valley a decade ago, but the founders of Wyoming Catholic College already saw what the technology of inescapable access did to people, especially in terms of their presence to each other. Being “connected,” they saw, entails an equal (perhaps) and certainly opposite disconnectedness from the reality at hand. I remember seeing a handsome young couple at dinner in a restaurant in Charleston twenty years ago, each of them busy talking on a cell phone to someone else, somewhere else, as though the only way they could impress each other was by having this other, more urgent conversation.
Over the last week or so, my wife and I have spoken to gatherings in Indianapolis and Green Bay about the technology policy at Wyoming Catholic College, and what struck us both times was the absence of objection. Once they knew that parents could immediately get in touch in case of emergency, they quickly saw the logic of the ban on cell phones. Those who visit Lander and meet our students see it even more forcefully.
Are they hopelessly caught in the eddies as history rushes past them into iPhone X? Quite the opposite. They talk to each other without electronic distraction, they look adults in the eye, they laugh often and easily, they exercise wit without reflexive cynicism, they love dancing and singing and playing instruments; they love the classics and the outdoors, and they are distinct individuals in the image and likeness of God, not conformists of an individualism predicated upon what Robert George calls a “neo-gnostic” gender-neutral selfhood.
The purpose of the technology policy was and is to try to ensure that students have the experiential knowledge and the freedom from distraction appropriate for study. Did the founders fully understand how cutting-edge this policy would seem a decade on? How revolutionary and hale (I love that old word) it would prove to be? I doubt it, but we can thank them for its obvious good fruit. One of the fruits, we very much hope, will be the recovery of memory, which we’re increasingly offloading to our devices, freeing our minds for—well what, exactly?
As Nicholas Carr writes, “If the only thing at stake were memories of trivial facts, that might not matter. But, as the pioneering psychologist and philosopher William James said in an 1892 lecture, ‘the art of remembering is the art of thinking.’ Only by encoding information in our biological memory can we weave the rich intellectual associations that form the essence of personal knowledge and give rise to critical and conceptual thinking.”
Why not stock students’ memories with the best language of the great tradition? That was another great insight of our founders. Here’s an experiment I’d suggest to visitors to Wyoming Catholic. Go in a room crowded with students, get their attention, and say the first four words of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ sonnet, “God’s Grandeur,” just that: “The world is charged….” What happens will impress you.
An interesting coincidence: In the (very) spirited conversation behind us on the airplane to Washington, D.C. today, two women were commiserating about what social media and Twitter and such things were doing to us. One said to the other, “If my husband didn’t have his smartphone, he would probably die the next day.” Well, maybe not. It’s good to be a place that knew from the beginning what needed correcting.
Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (October 2017). 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.