Monthly Archives: October 2015

Get Proximate

Frank Bruni’s recent New York Times editorial, “An Ivy League Twist,” discussed a new initiative from more than 80 colleges, including all eight in the Ivy Leagues, to try to support candidates from diverse backgrounds in their college application processes. Students who may not have college advisors, like their more privileged peers usually do, will be able to navigate a special website that will give them information and tips on how to compile their applications and apply for financial aid.

As Bruni describes, optimists think this may be useful to the stated goal of bringing greater numbers of qualified minority or low-income candidates to elite colleges and universities. Cynics think this is a lame and perhaps perverse effort to create access and equity, and that it will instead have the effect of reinforcing exclusivity in the face of the Common App.

Time will surely tell a more nuanced story. But this debate got me thinking about a phrase that plays often in my head, a phrase that the sui generis social justice advocate Bryan Stevenson shares in his powerful book, Just Mercy. His grandmother, who loved him so much and hugged him so hard that he “could barely breathe,” repeatedly told him: “You can’t understand most of the important things from a distance, Bryan. You have to get close.”

Stevenson’s grandmother was able to see that proximity to people is what best helps us to transcend seemingly intractable issues. When I think about what it would really take for elite colleges and universities to reflect the diversity of American society, I wonder how anything other than a face to face conversation, or better yet embrace, can get us there.

About Face

Sherry Turkle’s book, Alone Together, was important to me and my work on digital citizenship at my school. She made a strong argument for the power of face to face communication and the potential hazards for people steeped in digital media — most primarily the loss of empathy.

I’m now waiting anxiously for Turkle’s new book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in the Digital Age. In particular, I’m curious whether Turkle’s essential thesis remains the same, especially in light of what I’ve read this week. Alison Gopnik’s “No, Your Children Aren’t Becoming Digital Zombies,” Sumathi Reddy’s “Pediatricians Rethink Screen Time Policy for Children,” and Teddy Wayne’s “Found on Facebook: Empathy” all contribute to the growing body of evidence that technology is less dangerous and possibly less disruptive than previously thought.

Contrary to many parents’ fears, says Gopnik, “teenagers’ experience in the mobile world largely parallels rather than supplants their experience in the physical world.” In other words, digital relationships run alongside or depend on real relationships, making them no more or less complex than they really are.

Pediatricians, according to Reddy, are in the process of reevaluating screen time recommendations for children. While it has been argued that children under the age of 2 should not have access to any screens at all, researchers and groups including Common Sense Media are suddenly wary of this advisory. Reddy cites James Steyer: “Some of the traditional recommendations, like discouraging all screen time before age 2, just don’t fit with reality circa 2015-2016.”

And contrary to the view that social media necessarily decreases empathy, Wayne argues that it actually has the potential to broaden our knowledge about and perspective on the lives of others. Further, it is possible that the younger the user, the greater the empathy. “The youngest generation may be the most amendable to screen-based opportunities for empathy,”

No matter where Turkle comes out on some of these issues in her new book, it’s clear that we have plenty to learn and observe when it comes to the impact of digital media on how we communicate, learn, and live. Of course, this makes developing and honing best practices even more challenging. But it is certainly fascinating to see it unfold, and to participate in shaping the future.

Second Grade Stories

2nd grade2

As I child, I loved being read to and still love it today. When I’m too tired to read to myself but I want to hear more voices and stories than my eyes will allow, I ask my husband or daughter to read to me from whatever they are reading. To me, there’s nothing quite as nice as hearing the soothing flow of someone else’s words.

Some of my happiest memories involve being read to — snuggling up close to my grandmother to listen to Blueberries for Sal; sitting on the green couch with white flowers next to my sister while she read me a chapter of Pippi Longstocking; listening to my mother read to me from A Child’s Garden of Verses — these are some of the best memories I have of being little.

Beyond being read to, I love catching people reading to each other, especially if one person is quite a bit older than the other. Today in school, I caught some high school boys reading stories to kids in the 2nd grade. A tall boy read A Fine, Fine School. Another boy read one of my favorites, Not Norman.

The children sat in a loosely clumped circles around the high school boys, like rings around the center of a tree, and listened. 

For a few minutes, the bigger boys forgot that they were in Public Speaking class, lost in both the memory of 2nd grade and the new experience of being in the teacher’s chair. Meanwhile, the adults in the room quietly looked on, assured of a certain kind of continuity brought about by the sharing of stories.

Outside, rain quietly fell.