Witticisms and sage advice abound this time of year, thanks to commencement addresses. The wisdom runs the gamut from the inane to the insightful.
My favorite message was delivered by David McCullough Jr. two years ago when he spoke to graduates of the Massachusetts high school where he teaches English.
“We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement,” stated the son of the well-known historian and author. “We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece.”
A fitting addendum to McCullough’s address could focus on the latest agent of self-indulgence: cell phones.
I have never witnessed more teenagers more fixated on anything than their cell phones. For example, when using cell phones in class for learning activities, students will often text. This persistent and misguided urge to multi-task makes cell phones a worthy focus of this year’s commencement address.
So, soon-to-be graduates, as you conclude your high school experience and pursue your dreams with cell phones securely in hand, I ask that you consider these three points:
*Cell phones create a condition known as “present shock.” Conceived by author and filmmaker Douglas Rushkoff in his recent book of the same name, this phenomenon occurs when people are so focused on the technology-saturated present — smartphone beeps, breaking news alerts, incessant tweets — that a type of “digiphrenia,” or “digitally provoked mental chaos,” ensues wherein a “single Facebook post can have as much impact as 30 years’ worth of scholarship.”
The dangers are many, but the most egregious is “filter failure,” described by Rushkoff as the inability to understand that “whatever is vibrating on the iPhone isn’t as valuable as the eye contact you are making right now.”
So please, graduating seniors, turn off your cell phones for at least one substantial block of time every day — at the dinner table, on a hike, or in a classroom. You’ll find that the “present” actually can include real, tangible people.
*Cell phones inhibit your ability to learn. Despite all the current hubbub surrounding “technology-enhanced education,” fundamental learning still takes place in a human brain unencumbered by distractions.
“The very processes that teachers care about most — critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving — are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory,” explains University of Virginia professor Dan Willingham.
“Just because you can Google the date of Black Tuesday doesn’t mean you understand why the Great Depression happened or how it compares to our recent economic slump.”
Little wonder employees of Silicon Valley technology firms ironically seek schools for their children that ignore technology altogether. The Waldorf School of the Peninsula is one such school that has a “teaching philosophy focused on physical activity and learning through creative, hands-on tasks.”
“Teaching is a human experience,” explains Furman University professor Paul Thomas. “Technology is a distraction when we need literacy, numeracy, and critical thinking.”
What this means for you, graduates, is that your primary brain is still an organ inside your skull and not a device in your hand.
*Cell phones’ words are too easily forgotten. “Researchers now say that while many digital texts do a good job of motivating and engaging young people, such texts also pose a number of problems,” according to Education Week.
“When reading on screens, for example, people seem to reflexively skim the surface of texts in search of specific information, rather than dive in deeply in order to draw inferences, construct complex arguments, or make connections to their own experiences.”
The lesson here, graduating seniors, is to use more than your cell phones or tablets when reading. Try books occasionally — the ones with actual pages made of paper. With concentration and practice, you’ll be surprised at how much you remember. And if you’re headed to college, remembering what you read is a skill that will come in handy.
So best of luck, seniors! Yes, your future will only see technology expand, but remember it’s really you — and not technology — in control.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .