Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Technology Policy and Genuinely Higher Education

Father Neuhaus summarizes "the Technology Policy" of the new Wyoming Catholic College in the February FIRST THINGS: "The premise is that the most powerful piece of technology is the human brain, and it works best when engaged in reading, listening, conversation and prayer. Therefore: There will be no television sets on campus; classroom notes will be made the old-fashioned way; no private Internet access, and limited public access; no cell phones period. All these are replaced by books both great and good galore."

Father Neuhaus doesn’t endorse this approach himself, but he is intrigued by it. It’s close in some ways to my personal approach as a college teacher. I only very, very rarely will show a film; in class I never used power point or any other such electronic teaching tool; I never give an assignment that depends on drawing anything off the internet or web, and I tell students that they have no right to expect that I will answer their emails. I will admit the existence of and even talk about TV shows, movies, and maybe even blogs--demonstrating my personal media literacy (and in part my personal weakness or ADD), but only in the context of talking about books. I’m less tyrannical than WCC, by both necessity and choice, about what students should do on their own time, and, as I’ve said before, they’re probably better off with some selective TV and film viewing. But it’s important that they not confuse such pop culture, pop Cartesian recreation with their real education. (Their real education is what allows them to see the significance of their recreation.)

Now the WCC approach might be criticized for depriving students of the wisdom of blogs, Facebook, on-line papers and journals and such. But from the perspective of genuinely higher education all that stuff is at best harmlesss but time-sucking amusement. Higher education, as Tocqeville says, should be about what you can’t learn on the streets or on the screen in a high-tech democracy.

It will be interesting to see how WCC does on the assessment and accreditation front.

Could a learning outcome be to help students kick their compulsive habits when it comes to computers, TVs, and iPods?

Discussions - 25 Comments

I think this is great and will look into it for my own children down the road.

I was shocked recently when I walked through the halls of the William and Mary library during exam time.

Of the hundreds of students that I saw, ONE, and I repeat, ONE (and I have to repeat it again, ONE) student had a real paper book in front of him/her reading through it. Everyone was fiddling away on a computer. It was all I could think about for days, i was so dumbfounded. Where was Thucycdides, Shakespeare, and Homer that night, I wonder?

I see nothing wrong with bringing laptops into the classroom in order to take notes. I can type about 10-20 times faster (just a rough guess) than I write, and I can read what I type, as opposed to what I write. I do think internet access should be cut off in classrooms, because too many students spend all of class chating or looking at the web, which is silly.

I sympathize with what is intended here to some degree. Really, I do. But the policy seems to me to be patently silly. Keeping students away from the world, cowering in fear behind their ivy walls, is no way to teach them. The school should inspire the students to choose something more elevated than mind-numbing television shows and such. Further, it ought not to discount the important role technology can play in advancing the important ideas it wishes its students to embrace. Here’s Thucydides. I’m sure the others asked about are all here too. This kind of mindless tyranny may inspire some students to be very good at repeating the platitudes of their professors. But I wonder how well it will challenge them to think and act within the context of the world we’re actually inhabiting.

But if I couldn’t access the internet in class, then I couldn’t read NoLeftTurns!

I agree that the policy is too extreme and won’t work. And if there’s one state where the internet is especially useful, it would be Wyoming, which of course is very short on real people. I actually think notetaking anal enough to require a laptop is overrated everywhere but law and and medical school. Even with the internet turned off (which might be a technical challenge in certain wireless environments), students can too easily lose themselves in themselves in class with a laptop. Let me add that my limited experience with the St. Johns and Thomas Aquinas grads confirms Julie’s observation that there’s a real dealing with the real world problem--based not on lack of information or technical skill but the the pompous thought that the real world doesn’t exist for me. And in general I’m not a Crunchy Con or anything like that; I have no unmanly fear of or contempt for fast food. So this is a tricky issue worth serious discussion.

Peter, you’re right about "worthy of serious discussion." Wyoming College is being founding by some people who were part of the famous Pearson Program, or Integrated Humanities Program at Pearson College, taught by three wonderful professors, John Senior, Dennis Quinn, and Frank Nelick, at the University of Kansas (mainly) in the 1970s. Their pedagogical principles can be summed up (somewhat) as follows: wonder’s the root of education (the Program’s motto was Nascantur in admiratione, let them be born in wonder); modern technoloigcal and mass society people need unmediated experience with nature in order not to be satisfied with abstractions and empty talk (hence they advocated and practice star-gazing; and the WC students will "work the land" in some fashion or another); the poetic mode of knowledge (long story, don’t have time to spell it out; they had a particular reading of Plato’s Republic and talked in terms of gymnastic and poetic education) is prior to other more abstract or specialized or even philosophic modes of knowledge. Contemporary culture, and contemporary education tend to overlook or slight that more basic mode, so lots of college-level education has to be remedial. And so forth.
While I agree with Peter’s observation about (some? many?) TAC and St. John’s students, and I’m a tad sympathetic to Julie (uncharacteristic) harshness, I’ll say one thing on behalf of WC and leave with a question. The WC people know this education isn’t for everybody! It’s an adventure! They don’t want it to become the norm! If you value genuine pluralism, as I know you both do, lighten up and let a thousand flowers bloom! It will do some few young people good to drop out for four year and get grounded (in the ways I indicated above). I happen to think that a little bit of asceticism is essential to college (which has too much freedom) (and to a genuine human life as such). Giving up cell phones and laptops would be a choice and would show young people that they can pick-and-choose among modern technology’s inventions. That’s a great life-lesson, isn’t it?
My serious query: What’s your take on whether and how the college years should be connected with the outside world and the rest of a student’s life? I have a bit more of a Pause/Safe Harbour/Read Widely in Great and other Books view than your technology cannot be banned view indicates to me.

As always, thanks for the post and the discussion.

Paul: I was a bit harsh, I admit. But I tend to get annoyed by otherwise great people who think they are doing good by hiding. I find it especially annoying in people of faith (and more to the point, my faith) who should take seriously Jesus’ instruction about being a part of THIS world. But that is my emotional reaction. Taking a step back and looking at it with more reflection, I would say this: I don’t really care if these people want to do this. Great, fine. Do it. I am quite sure that most such people will get a better education there than they might have had at most public universities or Ivy League schools. But I won’t send my kids there or recommend it to any serious person I know. There are better alternatives where serious learning need not make one Amish.

On the other hand . . . I once knew a really rotten kid whose parents got so fed up with him that they sent him to "Amish camp." It did him, and everyone who had to deal with him, a world of good. So maybe this place would serve some useful purpose for some students. I just hope that they don’t teach the students to remain so deep in retreat from the rest of the world upon graduation. Despite my initial impulse, I am open to persuasion here if it is meant to be only one flower among thousands.

Julie, I again think you are being harsh when you say you would not recommend the school to any "serious" person. I think a lot of young men and women would thrive at such a place and become future leaders, though maybe not web or software designers.

"Hiding"? Or focusing on the permanent things?

It’s the technology addicts -- a large chunk if not a majority of today’s college students -- who are "hiding."

Kudos to WCC. I don’t know if I’d agree with every one of their restrictions, but they make much more sense than none.

Tony: That is a fair point. You are right to call me on it. I should not have said "serious" and implied that there was something "non-serious" about these well-meaning folks. I still tend to think that there is something extreme going on here and consider it to be a bit off. Though David Frisk is right to suggest that the vices this place invites are less bad than the vices of the technology addict who has never picked up a good book. (But what, precisely, is wrong with listening to it on your i-Pod? The problem with technology is not the technology itself but the content that most people choose to immerse themselves with when they use it!) Still, I probably would not recommend it. As I said above, I think there are wonderful alternatives to both extremes.

Thank you, Julie. And, let me point out that after thinking about this a lot today (after all, I want my kids to choose between a school like this, St. John’s, Claremont, Christendom, Hillsdale, Aquinas, etc.), the idea of not even letting the kids type their papers up on a laptop is a bit extreme. My own laptop is indispensable for writing/cutting/pasting, though I don’t know or care how to use its wireless system, don’t get internet access on it, have no music or games on it, can’t make a phone call on it, don’t use it to cook a pizza, and no pictures. It is a very useful typewriter. So I sympathize with this college’s aims, but take note that technology can be useful sometimes. Unfortunately, what is called "research" among college freshmen is the verb "to google." I’d much rather my own children stick with the basics and a good old worn paperback while they sit around with others face to face talking over some refreshment.

P.S. Of course, add Ashbrook at Ashland to the list above:)

There’s extreme and there’s extreme. I find the curtailment of technology to be a lesser form of ’extreme,’ since it’s only for four years, and will be cut up by vacations, breaks, and the summer; plus, imagine the frisson of violating the anti-technology code! Isn’t that likely, and an integral part - for some - of the college experience? Probably better than violating parietals or alcohol bans, yes?
Passing over the highly dubious "technology is neutral" claim, consider what instruments, activities, and skills will be required, learned, and practiced in their absence: listening; reading a book; handwriting (and, if WCC is like the Pearson Program in this regard, there will be instruction in calligraphy - beautiful writing - so that the "experience in things beautiful" that the Republic talks about will occur at the manual level.)

No, I’m not a romantic (far from it!), just saying that the premise or purpose of the exclusions is to give kids experiences that they won’t get elsewhere or otherwise and that their purpose is NOT intended to shelter or ghettoize them, but root them in real things and experiences, which then can serve to help them take the measure of technology.

As I get older, I’m glad of the pre-computer span(s) of my life, because I can recall "times when ...," and they and their ilk are more ’mere instruments’ of previously acquired skills, tastes, and habits; young people today need some of that "pre-all this stuff" experience, I believe.

Why not just have decent common sense rules about the use of these things? Why not cultivate a sense of judgment? Use reason to divine when and for what purposes technology can be useful and in the service of the good. Is it impossible to use these things without getting caught up in them? Or is this the "near occasion of sin" argument? I still don’t get it. It seems a very artificial way to make the fine points Paul makes above. He’s right that the removal of oneself from technology for 4 years is less extreme than indulging oneself in every imaginable form of gluttony--but so what? Learn calligraphy, learn Latin, learn cultivation, learn all of those wonderful things. Learning how and when "to google" seems no different to me than learning how and when to look something up in a research library. You may make a small point that one must cultivate strong powers of discernment to do the old fashioned kind of research--yes, I guess so. But digging through stacks of old newspapers was probably more difficult than scanning microfiche files too. Young people should learn more about how to do these things, I grant that--but many of these older folks should also learn how "to google." (I don’t know if you have to cook pizza on your laptop, Tony, but you might find it wonderful to store pictures of your grandchildren there--or more likely, on your "blackberry"--some day!) But that’s all I’m going to say about this subject. Live and let live on this one! I wish them well!

Great thread. It would be crazy not to allow students to type their papers on computers etc. It’s just so much easier and faster, and it always seemed to me that Wendell Berry’s preference for the old manual typewriter was just stupid. But there may be a difference between writing a paper and taking notes in a class--paperwriting is basically a solitary and class should be basically a social activity. And the Amish aren’t really that much like WCC. They put very little emphasis on books, WCC seems to be about little else. Surely the Amish should read more books and those at "Great Books" colleges should do more real work. But as Paul suggest there’s still a lot to be said for both extremes, and extremism in defense of virtue is no vice. The Amish rank higher on the virtue-meter and maybe the happiness meter than even the Mormons, and probably so do TA of California grads. I agree with David F the extreme of WCC is closer to the best educational regime that the high tech culture of assessment that we increasingly find at most of our mediocre colleges. And most technology is now so user friendly that there’s no point in teaching techno skills. Everyone knows how to google, and if you don’t you can learn in about eight seconds. The real danger, of course, is breeding a generation of students who thinking googling is the source of all wisdom. Googling and other search engine stuff is great for research, but a liberal education may not depend upon such research, which is now so easy that it doesn’t have to be taught. There’s a lot to be said for Paul’s break/pause theory. Enough rambling. Like Julie I’m out of here on this one...

Some of this conversation sounds like it could come straight out of Rousseau’s "Discourses on the Sciences and Arts."

John, Well, that’s right, and that’s the only thing by Rousseau that I can teach with any real conviction. But R., of course, doesn’t recommend higher education based on a criticism of Enlightenment. R would defend the Amish and the Spartans, but not the Thomists in California or Wyoming. But I’m not one of those guys who goes way metaphysical or existential or even crunchy over technology. Anyway, if you guys want to turn to what’s true and what’s false in the lawyer’s argument that Rousseau gives in that "first discourse," then I’m in.

IF the technology were used solely to advance student knowledge in useful things, it would be just fine. However, it isn’t. Kids tell me they can’t remember all of the things I have been trying to teach them - too many facts and figures. I ask them to re-recite to me all of things I have heard them discussing about sports statistics, or the specifications of the latest cars, or which new albums are coming out (who is in the band, their personal information and who plays what on each song), or who did what on "American Idol" or the details of the lives of celebrities. If they can keep all of those things in their heads, then surely there is room for historical facts and dates, or grammatical rules, or even a poem or two. If their brains have limited capacity for retention, then to be careful about WHAT they store might just be a good idea. The kids I have said this to get the point, but I do not know of one who has significantly changed his mental ways.

I find the idea of a place where one could retreat into serious learning an appealing, if old-fashioned one. Retreating from "this world" from time to time is no bad thing. We just aren’t supposed to STAY there. From the original post, there is no indication of a ban on computers, just on private Internet access. This is not so tyrannical, nor "Amish."

Speaking of which, I live in Amish country and you should see their kids on the computers at the public library in Middlefield, Ohio.

Also, I was with my son at the magnificent and new Kent Free Library, yesterday. The parking lot was full, but when we went in, I could see hardly anyone browsing amongst the stacks, which was a wonder to me. I lost track of my son for a bit, as I wandered and looked at books to see what they had. When I found him, he was upstairs in the computer area, where there were rows of computers, dozens of them, and a person at every one. I have no business being sad about this - look at me here, reading and typing away - but I am.

I haven’t quite trusted that internet thing ever since I found out that Al Gore invented it. I don’t even use the Google.

Just for the record: I was being flippant when I said "Amish" and nothing deeper or literal was implied. Also, Peter, do you really think the advent of "Google" is the cause of people thinking wisdom can be got by looking up some facts? I knew people who thought that way back in the dark ages when I was in high school and computers were barely mentioned.

Paul’s right. For four years, clearly with the inevitable breaks and exceptions, it is a fine experiment. A school like this needs its distinctives. Speaking of St. John’s College, where I did graduate work, I still recall with pride the campus lore (at St. John’s Santa Fe) that a rumor started one day that President Clinton had been shot, and the rumor managed to spread for a whole day, precisely cause everybody wasn’t immediately abandoning their studies to rush to a television or radio (’twas in pre or early internet days). There was St. John’s arrogance in that, but also simple realism: one will learn the truth soon enough, and there won’t be anything one can do anyway--in the meantime, reconcentrate the mind on the Kant, the Euclid, or what have you.

That said, were I living in the small town nearest this WCC, I’d be setting up an internet cafe right quick! Thar’s gold in them cheating Thomists!

But anyhow, what says Paul about the First Discourse?

Carl: You are on to something. Paul Seaton’s nephew, a senior at a "Great Books college in CA to be named later", is earning a few hundred $s/month hosting a "click-through" web site....without {officially} having internet access on campus. He also seems to be getting a terrific liberal arts education. His Christmas-break reading assignment was "The Brothers Karamozov". He wants to go into real estate development when he graduates. :-)
Anyone consider that the students who will be attracted to WCC, and its distinctive methods, might willingly forego the restricted technologies? FYI, WCC has a web site: "". Lander, WY is indeed a charming small town. Home of the National Outdoor Leadership School, with which WCC has established a joint program. And the students WILL learn the truth of Wordsworth’s words: "...the winds that will be howling at all hours..."! WY’s winds are seldom "upgathered now, like sleeping flowers......" Good luck to the college.

The only real question I have after reading comment 23 is how can I earn a few hundred $ a month hosting a click-through web site?

Peter: Paul’s nephew could tell you, but then.....he’d have to.....have you agree to teach another of Rousseau’s Discourses.

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