Mark Edmundson, an English professor at Virginia, has a new essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the puzzling lives of today’s college students. They are energetic, ambitious, widely-traveled — if they have the money, which seems generally true of Edmundson’s students —, always connected and thus always distracted. Edmundson informs us that at parties a quarter of them are talking on their cellphones — which strikes me as unlikely, by the way, since they could hardly hear over the music: they’re much more likely to be texting — and just a few months ago he happened to catch a glimpse of a laptop screen in his classroom which revealed to him that the student was watching a YouTube video and emailing rather than taking notes. On the basis of this disturbing experience he has decided to ban laptops from his classes and rededicate himself to teaching students the value of patient and single-minded reflection.
I don’t disagree with Edmundson about much of this. Wheaton College, where I teach, has wireless access throughout most of campus but not in classrooms, which I think is exactly right. If my students had full internet access in my classes, I would ban laptops also. For many years now I have considered my primary task as a teacher to be educating students in the best use of a powerful but widely misunderstood and underemployed technology, the book. What I don’t get is the Chronicle publishing a 6500-word essay on “the connected lives of today’s college students” as though it’s a new phenomenon.
That’s one point: follow-up coming.