Writing in the New York Times about “Avatar” (“Luminous 3-D Jungle is a Biologist’s Dream”) , Carol Kaesuk Yoon rhapsodizes over the beauty and variety of life depicted in the film. “With each glance, we are reminded of organisms we already know, while marveling over the new…It has recreated what is at the heart of biology: the naked, heart-stopping wonder of really seeing (my emphasis) the natural world.” To Yoon, and to this observer as well, the firing up of that “sense of wonder,” a phrase most notably introduced into modern discussions of biology and education by environmentalist Rachel Carson in her book of the same title, is central to the film’s impact.
But almost simultaneously with this comes a report from the Kaiser Family Foundation that boggles the mind: on average, the amount of time spent plugged into an electronic device for the population from eight to 18 years of age is seven-and-a-half hours per day. This is equivalent to a 53-hour work week. All of these kids’ waking time outside of school is spent connected to something (often more than one device).
As author and journalist Richard Louv has warned in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books, 2008 updated and expanded), children are especially in need of contact—first-hand, in-their-skin-contact—with nature. A rich, ornery, lungingly actual relationship with living Creation is necessary, utterly necessary, to inform the deepest sympathy with life on the planet, human life included. Such a relationship, fully and carefully developed over time, teaches responsibility and connectedness. It teaches birth, death, glory,transformation. It teaches decay, failure, and triumph. It teaches ocean truth and luna moth truth, parasite truth and pomegranate truth, volcano truth and tsunami truth—the marvelous continuum of the human and natural, and it teaches finally the unplumbable mystery of “beauty tangled in a rapture with violence,” as Annie Dillard puts it.
This rich and tragic sense of nature’s presence, power, and complexity does not require wilderness. With focused attention and effective preparation, something of it can be experienced in a suburban back yard, or along the banks of any edge-of-the-subdivision creek or golf course pond.
But in our schools there is very little training in how to see nature, in forming the habit of spending time outdoors without being driven by some sporting agenda. Outside of the one week in the year when a small handful of us learn about urban gardening, my students’ shoes never show the signs of woodsy mud. The knees of their jeans are never yellow with clay they have knelt in, rapt in observation of an insect or fossil. Their sweaters never bear the seeds of burdocks or thistles, those obvious signs of having brushed up against something other than a plastic mall kiosk. Instead of sharpening their students’ eyes for the natural world and opening their hearts to an environmental ethic, so many schools have leaped on the media bandwagon that brags to the public of their technological prowess, of how “wired” they are, of how technologically savvy their students are becoming.
What if such claims are dead wrong? What if such uncritical adoption of more and more technology is a form of contributing to the delinquency of our students in as clear a way as selling cigarettes to kiddies behind the gym or providing cases of beer to underage drivers who eventually wrap themselves and their friends around telephone poles? Where is the research that shows us all is well?
When I entertain such thoughts, the news from the Kaiser Family Foundation is as unsettling to me as any I have heard. It is the more unsettling because it is not the result of sinister overseas forces intent on ruining us, but is rather the result of the successful marketing of, and the constant invention and reinvention of, artificial “needs” that capitalism thrives on. The ubiquitousness of electronic devices in youth culture is so great that it has apparently obscured rational adult thinking. Quoted in another recent New York Times article by Tamar Lewin (“If Your Kids Are Awake, They’re Probably Online”) Dr. Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health in Boston, says there’s no use arguing whether so much electronics consumption is good or bad, because these devices have become “like the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the food they eat.”
Exactly. Yes. And since we clearly know that water, air, and food are sometimes tainted and dangerous, shouldn’t we then form some sort of Environmental Protection Agency to monitor the ill effects of all these devices in the hands and ears and bedrooms and classrooms of our children? And how do we explain to ourselves why so many parents seem to have conceded to their children’s willy-nilly desire for all the gizmos and gadgets? Are they aware of the effects of addiction—any addiction, whether to tobacco, or heroin, or pornography, or texting? I had a student two years ago who, as part of a class project, stopped using her cell phone. After the first day, she reported, she was “half-crazy”; after the second, she was driven to distraction; after the third, she was utterly “sick with myself for being so needy for a phone!”
Incidentally, the seven-and-a-half hours per day of electronic media consumption does not include the 90 minutes of texting and 30 minutes of talking on the phone kids reported on the Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
Picture the typical day of such kids: outside of school and sleeping, there is for some of them not a minute during which they are not umbilicaled to an electronic device or two. Unaware of the weather outside, increasingly obese and diabetic, they must come to live in a Silent Spring of electronic origin, bereft of any awareness of anything but what has lurking beneath it not the voice of the wind or the great moanings of the sea, but some manufactured hum of circuitry. They are slipping further and further away from the incarnation, through their senses, of the material world, and they are oblivious.
I think of this as potentially one of the most significant withdrawals of human beings from the natural world in the history of our species. Unchecked for a generation or two, what sorts of people will these wired citizens be? Will they ever experience significant personal confrontations with, and difficult ruminations about, physical nature—the kinds of encounters both sublime and terrifying that have for millennia challenged humans with opportunities to grow toward wisdom and a sense of right behavior on this planet? If the electronic center of their increasingly virtual reality cannot hold (and recent cyber attacks hint at the vulnerability of such an overly centralized system), what fundamental, eons-old traditions of spiritual, physical, and intellectual survival will they have lost? Will their only nature be a succession of “Avatar” films, creating for them an avatar world, a virtual and substitute Creation in which, crippled by nature deficiency, 3-D goggled, and in a dark more ominous than that of the theater, they can vicariously leap and bound and be seized by a counterfeit wonder in a counterfeit environment lost to them in reality?
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s withering Christian attack on a way of life that paralyzed even those who knew it was wrong, Marie St. Clare, the hypochondriac and self-centered mistress of Tom, whines, “Well, at any rate, I’m thankful I’m born where slavery exists; and I believe it’s right—indeed, I feel it must be; and, at any rate, I’m sure I couldn’t get along without it.” Aside from her unconscious fumbling with logic and rationalization, her last thought is the one that chills me. If—just if—we wanted to protect our children from falling out of the world of Creation, can we imagine recalling all the devices already in their hands? Can we imagine them, and ourselves, getting along without iPods, PlayStations, MP3 players, TVs, more and more computers in the schools, portable DVD players, X-Boxes? Can we imagine the paroxysms to our economy if the sales of these were as limited or heavily taxed as the sales of alcohol and tobacco?
“Unimaginable,” many, if not most, would say. Equally unimaginable, and nearly unforgivable, is what may already be happening to our wired and exiled children.
Richard Hague is in his 40th year of teaching at Purcell Marian High School, an urban Catholic school in Cincinnati, Ohio. His latest book is “Public Hearings” (Word Press, 2009), a collection of poems social, political, and satirical.