I've just returned from the annual end-of-summer ritual: Fact and Fee Night at my daughter's school. Classes start next week and this is the exciting preview, the night she gets her schedule and tours her classrooms and I get to write wads of checks for school fees and PTA dues, for the Booster Club, the yearbook, lunches and school uniforms. My hand, and bank account, hurt by the time I'm finished. Even so, I love that back to school feeling, the scent of promise, that unmistakable mix of pencil shavings, chalk dust and Lysol in the air. The school hallways gleam with freshly waxed floors, the classrooms are clean and clutter-free, and the principal is all smiles as she stands by the newly decked out computer lab, thrilled to show off the school's new Macs.
The "lab" was dark and lifeless, window blinds pulled tight against the sun's glare, with 50 or so new Macintoshes lined up neat and orderly side by side. Blank gray-black monitors standing watch over keyboards -- sentinels of technology's promise to our young. The Apples of the school's eye.
But a bit like tombstones, I thought, as I smiled and acknowledged the principal's pride. I realized this line-up of identical computers reminded me of the endless rows of grayish-white gravestones in God's Acre, a vast and lovely Moravian cemetery in Winston Salem, North Carolina, where my grandparents and their ancestors are buried. One after the other, for miles and miles, the stones vary only by virtue of the names and dates engraved in graceful yet plain script. They are final testimony to lives lived simply, true to Moravian values of honest labor and careful craftsmanship, of kinship to the earth, and of brotherhood and sisterhood to people. Values that are all but buried today beneath the hard-drives and headstones of our high-tech infatuation.
It's hard to fathom the extent to which computers and technology will shape my children's education. My kids think I'm Neanderthal woman when I ask for their help in downloading software. They laugh when I tell them that I learned my ABCs without IBMs. "What do you mean?" they ask, incredulously, when I admit I went all the way through college without ever using a PC. In my day, "high tech" described the teacher cranking the mimeograph machine, rolling out damp math tests reeking of pungent purple ink. We didn't have science software; we made terrariums, tiny rainforests in pickle jars. A little sand, a layer of black dirt topped with moss and a tiny fern. Maybe a twig or two for a beetle to crawl on. Spritz some water, seal it tight and this mini-biosphere was good to go. Sure, we had web sites, the kind with hairy arachnids hanging out.
I'm delighted that my kids are techno-savvy (especially when they bail me out of computer jams), but this old-school mom is also wary. I'm not a luddite; I spend my days at the keyboard and on the Net. I believe the horizon is endless and exciting when it comes to new opportunities that information access can open, but I also believe that learning ultimately has to do with inspiring curiosity, reverence, and awe, with being fully active and engaged. I've seen the stone faces of my kids in front of the TV screen; I've caught them (and myself) hunched for hours at the computer, lost in cyberspace. I can't help but wonder just how interactive a CD-ROM can be.
While our Wi-Fi culture may be more interconnected than ever before, we are increasingly disconnected as well. More and more we work in isolation, either at home solo or in stale cubicles confined to keyboards. We rarely have conversations; we email, fax, leave voice or text messages. We may be satellite-linked and saving fossil fuel by telecommuting, which is all well and good, but our sense of warm-blooded community suffers. There are terrific digital dividends, and a very real digital divide, separating us from tangible, low-tech reality. Yes, I benefit from being networked with other environmental advocates through various blogs and list-serves; yes, I can make my "voice" be heard through emailing legislators about a proposed new highway that I fear will harm a fragile sea island ecosystem, but I want to use technology as a tool, not consume it as my basic diet, not let it become my way of life.
And if I, an old-school techno-wary Web-mom can get so easily sucked into the cyber-snare, I'm even more fearful for my kids. Quite simply, I want my girls' education to be about wonders beyond Windows. I'm less interested in their ability to maneuver through virtual reality than to be engaged with vital reality. Yes, I'm generally okay with them being online, but I want them to be in balance too. I'd like them to have terrarium dirt under their fingernails as well as textbooks on their zip drives. As promising as it is to be on this Internet frontier, with Google at our service and good stuff like Literary Mama just a few clicks away, it is, still, a web, and its function is to lure us in. I worry that our sense of vitality, of necessary connectedness to each other and to the wild and natural world, to God's acre, is what may be slowly sucked out of us by some lurking cyber-spider.
I'll help my kids click and drag to their hearts' content, just as I'll teach them that there are limits to what can be downloaded -- like daydreams, the smell of jasmine blooming, the warmth of just-plowed dirt, a teacher's smile.