My oldest daughter explained yesterday why she hasn't posted on her new blog recently. (bringingvirtueback.blogspot.com) As a former school teacher, I understood the reasoning behind the project, but as a parent and discerning oxygen consumer, I was annoyed.
In English, they are studying the transcendentalists and romanticists - those who longed for a simpler time, before the roiling rush of modern civilization ruined the pristine paradise of nature. In order to understand this ideology, the teacher assigned a project wherein the students would experience life without some of the modern technologies that intrude on a "natural" existence.
At first blush, this might sound reasonable - or even like a very good, well-conceived idea, but I personally think it is a waste of time and, actually, misguided. At the most basic level, I think most forms of transcendentalism / romanticism are warped constructs of paradise created by those wealthy enough to sit around doing nothing but spend precious time concocting elaborate justifications for their laziness. At a deeper level, however, I am troubled by two things: first, the inherent pessimism of an outlook that says, "My life would be better if only it were different," and second, the idea that there is something intrinsically bad about any technology that moves us away from our "natural state" - that turns us into something other than the "noble savage" of Burroughs and Cooper and other writers.
To be blunt, noble savagery is crap. People in those situations died early of things that hardly bother us now. Their lives usually were filled from sunrise to sunset with tasks designed simply to keep them alive. They often had little or no leisure time, so they never had time to think and ponder on the things of their soul - and, I contend, the ability to ponder spiritual things is the foundation of the ability to recognize and deepen spirituality. The vast majority of them never dreamed of spending time perusing blogs written by friends and family - keeping in touch with each other across unfathomable distances. Anyone who romanticizes a technology-free life has never lived such a life - or, conversely, has never known anything different. Nobody with half a brain would choose to go through surgery with a doctor who used a steak knife and a hammer (although those who would might end up with half a brain); there is a reason some new technologies are used while others die an ignominious death. Some make our lives more productive and provide joy; others don't.
Which brings me to my original rant. My daughter was asked to live for one week without using a cell phone or a computer (except for homework, which is the most ironic disclaimer I think I've heard in my entire life), watching TV, listening to the radio or an ipod, playing video games, using a microwave - in all, ten prohibitions in the project. In the end, I am left to say, "So what? What's the point?" They will not have gained an ounce of appreciation for life without such technologies; in fact, they will complete this project thinking even more adamantly that those they are studying were stupid and foolish. They are surrounded by thousands of people who are not bound by these restrictions, so they will not come close to experiencing what those they are studying extolled. Finally, they will have not gained any insight into the core principle being espoused - namely, that simplification can bring a peace that frenetic activity cannot. Technology is not the villain; a disconnect from nature is - and there is a HUGE difference between those two.
Ironically, it often is technology that provides the opportunity to simplify, reduce stress and enable increased peace. Some people decry the use of technology in schools without realizing that books and pencils and erasers and chalkboards all are technology that make learning easier and less restricted to the upper socio-economic classes. They decry the fracturing of family and the collapse of communication without recognizing that those who communicate the most broadly and the most often with the most people do so through the use of telephones (in all their varieties), e-mail, instant messaging, blackberries, etc. - all of which are nothing more than modern versions of the ancient couriers and written communication like mail. They decry the use of microwaves and instant foods without understanding that such inventions allow the elderly and more feeble to care for themselves in ways that were impossible just a few generations ago.
As with most things, I am left to decry those who advocate any extreme. I want my daughter to learn how to USE technology properly - how to integrate it into her life without letting it take control of her life - how to exploit its potential for good while avoiding its influence for evil. I want her to learn to strive for balance and moderation in all things, not to consider all things only in their extreme iterations. I want her to appreciate the wonder of nature, but I also want her to grow beyond her natural self. Most of all, as a teacher and educator at heart, I don't want her to waste precious time doing things that will not help her understand and achieve this balance and moderation - that rather, will drive her away from the lessons attainable in a more carefully and thoughtfully constructed experiment. I want it done correctly or not at all. In cases like this, partial exposure is worse than no exposure - and there is a lesson in there somewhere for any other area of our lives.