A School Without Screens

There is a growing consensus among human beings that the effects of our developing technology are not conducive to human development. Popular technology, despite its claim to interact and connect, breeds isolation. It causes people, especially young people, to stray into an introverted withdrawal from others and the world. As such, these results are antithetical to the action of education—educere, “to lead out.”

In his essay “Principles of Catholic Theology,” Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, writing after the Space Race, presents an analogy concerning our technological trajectory:

There arises the question of the kind of spacesuit we should have in order to sustain the cosmic tempo with which we are fleeing faster and faster from the gravitational pull of tradition, and we wonder what ground controls would be necessary to prevent our burning out in the vast expanse of the universe, our bursting asunder like a homunculus of technology—questions that cannot be brushed aside today as stubborn obscurantism, for they are being raised most urgently by those who know most about the tempo of our alienation from tradition and who are most keenly aware of the problems associated with man’s historic spaceflight.

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There is a boys’ boarding school in northeast Pennsylvania that takes such observations to heart. Students at Gregory the Great Academy are required to embrace a life of “technological poverty,” which means relinquishing cell phones, iPods, computers, and the like; arriving at school with only the essentials for a “disconnected” life. The pedagogy at work here is simply to free students from distraction and to allow them to focus on the important things in life: growth in virtue, cultivation of friendship, and contemplation of the Divine. Any infringement of this policy—this way of life—results in severe repercussion, if not expulsion.

You may wonder, why such radical measures are taken at this school? An iPod can make good music accessible. Information was never so conveniently acquired. One could posit that we are freer today than ever before, thanks to the Internet. The world is now only a click away—but only offered on the world’s terms.

“The average person of our time,” writes Josef Pieper in “Learning How to See Again,” “loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!”  Can man really observe, consider, and comprehend anything in a constant barrage upon his senses? There is scarcely time to render the attention a given object deserves in the in“flow”mation maelstrom of sound bytes. Man is often reduced to a mental state of floating inattention.  T. S. Eliot asks, “Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Does the ability to multiply information and shuffle it before the eyes necessarily result in growing wiser? In The Abolition of Man, C. S. Lewis argues that in modernity “there is something which unites magic and applied science [technology] while separating them from the ‘wisdom’ of earlier ages. For wise men of old, the cardinal problem of human life was how to conform the soul to objective reality, and the solution was wisdom, self-discipline, and virtue. For the modern, the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of man, and the solution is a technique.”

Excesses of technique dull the desire to see, and thereby the ability to learn. This immoderation occurs when the yearning for knowledge instead seeks titillation: enjoying the act of seeing rather than what is seen.  Such “concupiscence of the eyes,” as St. Augustine called it, grows in its threat in proportion to the outpouring upon the sense of sight, whether through Facebook, television, or the inescapable commercial culture.

It can be argued that the more information is available, the more people can be informed; or that the more there is to see, the more will people look. It appears, however, that the contrary is true. One of the chief reasons for this is the passivity that the virtual kaleidoscope fosters. The very medium in which it is presented induces superficiality of thought and expression. Knowledge was once imparted through reading, reflection, and conversation—activities requiring mental participation. Does the mind participate as fully now as it did then? Or are we too “spaced out?” The stimuli are too predominant and too numerous for man to even react intelligently.

Uninhibited usage of such media results in a deadening of the mind because the mind is not needed. Neither is the imagination, to equal detriment.  Thrills become the primary delight. Common Internet practices bear witness to our late Pope’s prophetic vision. Modern man, largely gelded of the impulses to experience, experiment, and exult, resembles Benedict’s skydiving spaceman. Without “ground control,” there is only ruin—and despair. As man drifts further from reality, reality loses the charm of its traditional understanding. Spectacle addiction is blind to sights that held civilizations enchanted. Ultimately, spectacles lose their sway and leave the paralyzed soul enslaved to whatever the medium might choose to feed it. Malcolm Muggeridge wrote that the media’s impact is “largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral, or intellectual, still less spiritual guidelines,” calling it a “brainwashing operation.”

Students should live a life of “technological poverty,” where the use of electronic media is prohibited. This policy should not be enforced out of paranoia, ignorance, or a will to oppress, but to create an atmosphere conducive to education—to the experience of joy and contemplation. This restriction is radical, but radical action is called for. Modern technology and the habits surrounding it distance people from creation. The influence of television, video games, and popular music distort human vision by deforming the imagination, inclining more to bizarre fantasy than to reality. As Catholics, we believe that we are fashioned in the image and likeness of Him who is “the image of the invisible God;” and so do not contest the consequence of imagination, which is ordered not to fantasy, but to reality. The best way to realize this is in an open environment, where imagination can become receptive and reflective of reality, in all its goodness and beauty.

The removal of technological devices only becomes educational, however, when they are replaced with an authentic experience of nature, friendship, and culture. The results are surprising. Deprived of the usual modes of diversion, students quickly adopt healthy alternatives to sex-steeped music, inane literature, and mindless entertainment. Without iTunes, boys tend to learn to play the guitar well enough to accompany folk songs. Without television, students enjoy reading aloud to one another round fires. In an environment of “technological poverty,” students actually eat together, pray together, play together, and learn together.

This policy challenges students to make contact with the real, engendered by the doctrine of “technological poverty,” which removes barriers to the world as God made it. Students must, as Wordsworth says, “come forth into the light of things.” By participating in the imaginative arts such as poetry, music, and literature, unencumbered by technological distraction, students become sensitized to that light. This is why student learning, happiness and even sanity depend on the removal of these technological distractions from the modern school.

Author’s note: The ideas expressed in this article are the fruit of conversations and collaborations with the past and present faculty of Gregory the Great Academy.


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