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The “Tech Baroque” and Our Kids

From the 14th to the 17th century, Europe experienced vast innovation in the world of art, music, philosophy, politics, science, and culture known as the Renaissance. By the beginning of the 17th century, however, things began to change. New instruments explored the horizons of the musical landscape, piloting up and down the musical staff like a machine gunner. Art and architecture began to show off what these artisans could do with new tools, new inventive styles: from ostentatious “Where’s Waldo?”-like crowdscapes to painfully ornate wall relief work that hardly left room for an occupant. It all came together to produce the eccentric excess we now identify as the “Baroque” a period in history where humans were so excited about what they could do, that they never really asked themselves whether or not they should. The world became embellished, complex, and— barring any contention from art or music history majors— messy.

Consider this: Today, we are similarly living in a baroque period of technology, and our students and educators are not prepared to manage it. I mean, let’s take a quick stroll down the past 40 years or so. In 1980, the Commodore VIC-20 became the first home computer to sell more than a million units. In 1991, CERN first introduced the public to the World Wide Web. By 1997, that home computer and its ability to access our still-infant Internet was consolidated into our pockets with Unwired Planet’s “UP.Browser” on AT&T cellphone handsets. Today, we are all but physically integrated into the hardware that assists us. Our tech has become an extension of who we are.

Of course, we all understand that mastery of this tech is key to making sure our students are prepared for the future (and present) job market. It is already hardwired into the very heart of how our society runs. Our cell phones give us the ability to email, message, update, and meet with our employers and clients at any hour, any day of the week. Our computers allow us to access and add to endless fields of data and information, shared from the past, and contributed into the future. We can collaborate with others across the globe, too, nearly annihilating the once-limiting factors of both time and space. And the new frontiers of virtual reality and augmented reality are going to change the game over the next decade. The truth is, if we don’t teach our students how to build and harness this power, we will be doing them a disservice. These tools are the lifeblood of our world’s day-to-day business, and they need to be able to navigate those waters.

And yet, when are students developmentally ready to handle such a powerful and unwieldy tool? In a sometimes very frightening world, these devices can offer escape. Alongside aiding in useful contributions to society, our phones and computers also provide instant relief and comfort from any difficult scenario. It doesn’t take an educational psychologist to see the innate danger here. Learning is difficult, sometimes uncomfortable, and can even feel high-risk when approaching new challenging horizons. Overcoming this adversity is how we learn.  As Frederick Douglass once noted, in life, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” If our students grow accustomed to escaping to their digital world at every sign of discomfort, moving forward is going to be challenging indeed. Practically, we cannot in good conscience keep them from learning how to manipulate technology to meet their ever-increasing needs. At the same time, we’ve yet to truly assess the long-term value and impact of it all, nor have we figured out how to do so responsibly.

Another undeniable benefit to our complicated relationship with our motherboards lies in the ability for human beings to basically have external hard drives for our brains. Our technology holds the vast expanse of nearly the entire wealth of human knowledge, all accessible to our fingertips. So little remains in the world of the unknown for long, as up-to-the-moment news events, artificial intelligence supports, historical databases, and complex calculations can be accessed much faster than the human brain can generally process. It is efficient. In the work world, academic world, and daily life, this ability saves both time and resources. Why hold on to information, when it is conveniently stored in your pocket, ready whenever you need it?

Because “learning” is not always about the specific content. It’s about skills. We all rolled our eyes when we had to learn the prepositions in alphabetical order, memorize the dates of key historical events, or when we competed over how quickly we could run through the times tables. And still today, we might not be able to cite the date or circumstances behind the end of the War of 1812. But through these practices, we did learn how to learn. We learned how to memorize and store information, so that when we needed to learn it for quick access in our chosen careers, we could! Rote memory, problem-solving, sustaining focus, applying acquired knowledge to new and more complicated tasks— these are all transferable skills that keep us competitive in the global market. Our brains might not be able to store and process the way our devices do, but those that know how to store, process, and apply information on top of utilizing these devices will always have the edge over those that do not. In our fascination over shiny new circuits, we are beginning to abandon some of the fundamentals of being a critically-thinking human.

And so, the final element of this gaudy period of history educators should keep a close eye upon is how it is impacting that very humanity. Not only do studies show that our younger generations have less empathy, but more privilege (which includes increased access to these devices) also yields less empathy. Now, the evidence isn’t yet available to connect our world’s thirst for technology to this increased apathy, but we all feel it. A key instrument of the tech baroque is information overload. With each world tragedy, our emotional fatigue grows. We are more connected than ever, and yet feel more disconnected from those around us. And a hard drive can’t store this for the next generation. An operating system can’t ever help them to process it. The more our students live in virtual worlds, the more dissociated they will feel in the world of the living, where usernames are complex souls with feelings, and appreciation is shown with more than a thoughtless click. Once again, we have all plugged in…without asking whether or not we should.

Find some comfort in knowing that ultimately time will tell, as it always does. The pendulum of all things swings back and forth to extremes, with periods of smart moderation in between. At present, tech-embracing teachers like myself get accolades. We are brave, forward-thinking, and ground-breaking. With every new app, program, or hardware I integrate into my lessons, I am lauded as outstanding in my field, engagement-driven, and embracing best practices. This praise is certainly motivating, but if I’m being honest, I’m unsure of its worth. At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I think it is time for educators to be proactive and unplug. We’ve been observing the messiness of the tech baroque for too long. We’ve kept playing, without taking the time to re-tune our instruments. We’re taking on new time signatures, without considering their impact on the human ear. We’ve given everyone an instrument and told them to play as long and loud as they possibly can. It is time for us to slow down and take inventory of all that we have achieved. Only with pause will we be able to create the sweet, soothing, smart symphonics of the Classical. We owe it to our students to be clever enough to construct a well-crafted technological landscape, not just the barrage of loud and shiny products. In fact, as educators, it is our outright responsibility. Because human beings can be so much more than that. We’ve shown what we can do; it is now time to consider what we should do.


Written by Keith Lambert, Education World Associate Contributing Editor

Lambert is an English / Language Arts teacher in Connecticut.