Richard Hague: Wired Out of Creation

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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.

  • Pam

    As a mother of three children I agree with the premise of this article and yet, I am thankful for electronics. In my childhood I could wander the neighborhood for hours…my children can’t. We are fearful of kidnappers, sex offenders, devients of all shapes and sizes and when they find some missing children, they are usually found dead and buried in “God’s beautiful wilderness”. Nature is not a place of adventure, but of fear. I grieve….lost are the days of John Muir. If one wonders in nature today, one can almost guarantee some freak will kill you. I’d rather my kids be safe and hooked up to a computer then risking their lives “exploring” nature.

  • Charlie

    Pam’s comment is another manifestation of mass communication and the electronic age — irrational fear. I can’t cite any statistics, but based on everything I’ve learned I believe that human nature (good or evil) is no better or worse now than it was at any time in man’s history. Kids are no more likely to be murdered today than in the past. We simply hear about every incident nationwide today due to the ability of the media to inform us, and their drive for commercial gain. Pam, your safe, unenlightened, and hooked-up-to-the-computer kids may very well succumb prematurely one day to heart disease and obesity leaving only a game of solitaire on their computer monitor to light the room.

  • Ellen N. Duell

    At eighty, I am deeply grateful for the love of the natural world that moved my mother to take me “camping” every summer, and my father to write poetic descriptions of the natural scenery in which he reveled. I took my own five children to take many educational summer courses at the Dayton Museum of Natural History, and they all love untrammeled nature. However, two of my grandsons were brought up on TV occupying all of their home hours, from the time they woke up until they had to go to bed. Their parents made sure that the programs were “good”, but they were “virtual”. I really appreciate this article!

  • Emily

    But Pam, this fear that haunts you is also created. It is a result of media focusing on the aberrations of society and not the usual, they never report the non-kidnappers, non-deviants, the non-missing children. Pam, your fear is real, but it has been created deliberately and it controls how you and your family spends its time and money.

    Last Child in the Woods also discusses the use of time in nature as a treatment for autism.

  • Mary Ellen

    You could accompany them!

  • Kate

    Frontline just did a piece on addiction to gaming–particularly in China where the digital revolution has its deepest roots. Children were sent to “bootcamps” to detox/unplug from their addiction. So some evidence of this “wired” culture’s adverse effects are beginning to surface. But how many years til we intervene? And how am I–a technically plugged in mother of a 2 year old–suppose to teach her anything different without first modifying my own behavior?

    I am haunted by the image of that documentary where the camera scanned across a public gathering spot filled with young people, but instead of interacting with each other–they sat silently in front of their individual gaming stations. When will they ever learn/develop the social skills they will need later in life. Maybe even more scary, we just use more and more technology so that they may never need them?

  • David

    Charlie, above, is exactly correct in response to Pam. Pam, take heed. Gun, drug related, & other violence is an American shame, no doubt about it, but probably we live in times generally safer than ever before except for increased traffic, population densities, poor city planning, lack of universal healthcare, and urban neglect. The OT is full of atrocities that would preoccupy today’s news programs like we rarely see. (A former network TV station executive living in The Deep South(ret.).)

  • Burr Williams

    yet the digital world gives us another way to approach the world! Go out into nature and take photos, and then create a story to go with the photos. visit sibleynaturecenter.org, and click on habitats, and then select one habitat, and then scroll to the photoessays. then view an essay. every citizen in anyone bioregion should know the stories of their home… of the plants and animals…and the humans of their home. Bioregional education’s time has come!

  • Evelyn Bales

    As a teacher, I have been concerned with this disconnect for a long time. I read Louv’s book two years ago and have been preaching to my students ever since. Sure, we can use technology to study nature, but I’m more concerned with time to just “be” in nature. I am thankful I was able to allow my children to wonder at will in the woods where we live, and I open our woods up to students in my school whenever possible.

  • Kimberly Kelly

    I suspect the first step to overcoming our children’s dependence on electronic media may be to disconnect ourselves first. This is not a comfortable or easy way- and the most resistance seems to come from other parents (who seem to share Pam’s fear)! Children as well as adults are suffering from lack of contact with the natural world, and the way out of this fear is through- the woods, the park, the creek…

  • Maxx McKinley

    It seems to me that it has become harder and harder to justify to my peers why spending time outside is worthwhile. I see fake relationships bloom online and wither just as quickly. I see text messages taken oh so seriously. I see parties filled with people anxiously waiting to look at their phones. These same folks drink and smoke nervously until they convince each other via text or facebook to sexually interact, most of the time under the pretense of watching a movie. I’m scared for my newborn girl. I see a world where nature will sadly not be missed. I grew up next to a creek I eagerly explored. I caught crawdads and did what I pleased. Old ghost and werwolf stories filled our ears. I’d slip and scrape my knees, learning when to slow my speed. Finding a turtle was a cause for celebration. Hopefully a resurgence of nature will come about, but it will take each and everyone of us to bring it about.

  • Geese

    I,ve read your piece, twice, (as well as the associated comments), and find myself in a somewhat of a quandry.
    I agree that electronics are an ever encreasing part of our childrens lives…I also understand that Getting -In-touch with-Nature has fallen to an all time low in education. I have to question, however, your assessment of Electronics being a negitive. While I cant quote any previous reserch; I’m betting your feelings are mere echos of our parents responses’ to Radio in the 1940′s, or to Television in the ’50′s. Electronics are a part of the New-Millenin whether we like it on not. But, I do agree that education in Horticulture, and Botany(sp) have fallen victum to Bubget Cuts. Yet very viable organizations for teaching nature appriciation are availible…Scouting, for one…the 4H program is still availible in many communities. Hammilton, Cleremont, Warren, and Butler Counties all have park districts offering nature tours and classes. Parents of the new generation are the ones responsible for for teaching the young the facts of nature. Programs are availible…