‘And you, of the tender years can’t know the fears that your elders grew by. And so please help them with your youth, they seek the truth before they can die’.
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young
In order to learn something new in the not-too-distant past; there were far fewer options from which to choose than there are today. We could either ask our questions of someone who had already accumulated the knowledge we sought, we could acquire the information first-hand through our own personal experiences, or we could read about the subject in a book.
If we were fortunate enough to have an appropriately enlightened person within close range, it was relatively easy to find the answer to a niggling question. Very common was the ‘learn as you go’ method of discovery, which bore a strong resemblance to the ‘Let’s Make a Deal’ gameshow from the ‘60’s. When provided multiple options without a frame of reference, one could just as easily choose a door harbouring a dodgy answer as the one promising a happy-ever-after. But such was life.
Due to an intrepid army of salesmen marching from door to door bearing books, many generations of truth-seekers have proudly displayed collections of the Encyclopaedia Britannica on shelves in their living rooms. This well-respected facsimile of an omniscient oracle was first published in Scotland in the eighteenth century and over the years, has enjoyed numerous reincarnations. In the 1930’s, its 11th edition was acquired by an American company, then shortened and sculpted in order to appeal to the masses.
More than a hundred Nobel Prize winners and a trove of American presidents have committed the collective force of their intellects to the pages of these tomes, which became the ‘go-to’ resource when writing a report for science or social studies class. Many a student has spent many an evening at the kitchen table, paraphrasing the references to Albert Einstein or the process of photosynthesis in an attempt to sufficiently impress the teacher without raising the red flag of plagiarism. But as the lessons taught by parents, schoolteachers and the Big, Wide World become increasingly outsourced to innumerable faceless pundits on the World Wide Web, our teaching methodologies are correspondingly morphing in a significant way.
Parallels can be drawn between on-line learning and eating at a fast-food outlet, as both provide the same instant gratification. Readily accessed, easily digested and undeniably convenient; it is simply amazing that at any time of the day or night, one can roll past the shiny window of the Google take-away; choose an item from its never-ending menu and within seconds feel fully sated. In keeping with the same analogy though, we must be just as vigilant when seeking nourishment for our mind as for our body. It is all too easy to be seduced by the sirens of Facebook and Twitter, who beckon with every audible notification and render one full of empty calories but bereft of intellectual insights.
This is no different for children. As busy parents of even busier children, it is wonderfully simple to set them up with a smart-phone or tablet and keep them amused for hours with electronic games that provide plenty of sensory stimulation without requiring any physical activity at all. Waiting lines and airplane rides have never been so easy. Play-stations have replaced play-grounds and while at one time it would have been almost inconceivable to raise a family without access to a backyard or a school-yard; somehow the sedative effects of computer games have numbed the need for a space to grow.
This is not to say that the unfathomable wealth of knowledge contained in a microchip is not to be celebrated for the force of nature it is. Technology has paved a way for young minds to be exposed to information in a truly awesome manner and to dispute that would be remiss. Yet while the internet can play the role of a teacher, a play-mate or a nanny, it falls far short when imparting the intangible characteristics that we all hope our children will develop. Empathy, compassion, courage and confidence are traits only founded and fostered through personal experience. Nothing can replace the delicious sensation of walking on a cool patch of lawn in your bare feet, or the feeling of sand between your toes. That indefinable sense of salty satisfaction felt at the end of a day of physical labour can never be achieved by spending the same number of hours in front of a computer, no matter how rewarding the project. There is no meaningful substitute for traversing the landscape of your life simply by putting one foot in front of the other and learning as you go.
To deny your child experiences that can only be attained through actually ‘doing,’ would be dealing her a grave disservice and while today’s parents must acknowledge the computer’s inherent value in the education of their children; as with most rich repasts, it’s one best enjoyed in moderate doses. Rather than vicariously partaking of all the world has to offer through the pixels on a computer screen, it is imperative that children are encouraged to travel the trails of their lives as present and engaged participants and learn to revel in the process.
Written with love for Oliver, Everett and Eloise.