Old School Education & Effects of Screen Time

In 1988 I gave a speech to my school titled TV – No! Let’s Get Off the Couch. The theme of that talk – published in Vital Speeches of the Day, was the increasing damage that screen time poses. It’s a theme taken up frequently now. In the thirty five years since the speech, my belief has only increased, though it’s not a black & white question.

It’s common for old people to think modern life has lost some good stuff ‘we used to have’. Being old myself, and a teacher, doubles my awareness of major changes in education, including the effects of our on-going world-shaking Pandemic. I want to look critically at the influence on-line learning has on Education and other major aspects of life. Will the ‘new normal’ of our businesses, government, education, recreation, and social connections use still more ‘screen time’? Here’s an analytic prediction from Fast Company on the topic, which is a bit disheartening. 

How will families use the internet? Could touching among humans be affected negatively even after Covid 19 comes under control? To what degree? Might humans come to feel they need a computer button or smart speaker in between them to keep them safe? It’s not easy to imagine a culture (I can’t call it a  community) where touch isn’t needed – at least to hug and kiss, and (when appropriate) have sex. 

But there are indicators that show movement in that direction. Regarding sex, although artificial insemination has been possible since the 18th C., remote implantation can happen today. There is talk about cloning humans, as a step toward ‘eternal life’, but the sources of this claim are bizarre. Some real research suggests it may be impossible, but that was in 2013.

So far, robotic child birth hasn’t developed. But robotic sex certainly has. This Bot can even reject raunchy offers! AI controlled personal robot partners of both sexes are on the market, and from what I can find on the web, they’re a hot item– especially the Japanese versions. 

One reason for this popularity may be the fact that interest in having sex has actually been declining, since well before the current Pandemic. One researcher says our society is basically sex-negative despite the fact that sex is used more than ever to sell products. The sales approach, I think, is an offshoot of the changes in marketing techniques and technologies, from providing what you need or would enjoy to what you are induced to want. We’ll return to this below.

There are many studies in the last few decades about the effects of online learning. However, none of them have included the Pandemic’s added influence, which is starting to come under control. It will likely have a strong impact. Yet even without that data, there is little doubt that screen time makes a difference to education, whether for good or ill. I taught in classrooms for over 45 years, mostly at the public community college level in and around Chicago. Since retiring 10 years ago I’ve continued research and observation – here and abroad – of educational theories, methods and outcomes. 

How does screen time impact learning, for good or for ill? The studies don’t provide a clear answer to the question. That’s not surprising. The safe answer is ‘It depends’ – on age level, demographics, desires and goals of students, cost, etc. Most studies give caution about how much, and what kind of screen time it is, and how it relates to the adults who are responsible for the children. Here are three reports with a variety of perspectives, from very negative to quite positive.

1 – It damages the developing brain according to Qustodio (2020). 

2 – It has mixed results, and needs to be monitored by responsible adults, this 2019 Harvard Med School researcher reports. 

3 – It can benefit children in several ways, says this 2018 article from Child Trends Organization.

I might add to this question of screen time, the idea that all contemporary computerized hi-tech can also be addicting. That’s the message of Adam  Alter’s book, Irresistible published in 2017. He calls it Behavioral Addiction, which some addiction counselors say doesn’t exist, but his study is sound. 

Leaving aside the question of screen time, I believe that American public education has been ‘dumbing down’ for a long time – a topic Allan Bloom dealt with, in his 1987 The Closing of the American Mind. His perspective is still relevant, and still controversial, as this  2018 Evolllution article shows.

Injecting a bit of light-hearted humor, this cartoon illustrates what the idea of ‘knowing’ has come to be, in one critic’s opinion. Needless to say, one who has no idea who Socrates is won’t ‘get it’; but all my readers will, of course.

I was fortunate to get an outstanding education at a private high school near Philadelphia, graduating in 1957. Our community expected the best of students and supported the school and staff strongly. We were taught what to learn, how to learn, and to love learning. We weren’t to be content with ‘the answer’, but urged to continue questioning ; there’s always room to progress. More important than content, which can be memorized, is its application to useful life in society. One of our inspired and inspiring instructors was a mathematician who also worked at Princeton, with Einstein. He said, “I never keep in my head what I can keep in my briefcase.” (In ‘The Cloud’ today?)

Speaking in very broad terms, I believe, from a lot of experience and study, that American education has seen a steady decline in factual knowledge (science, history, literature, politics, economics) as well as critical thinking, interest in learning, and the ability to make thoughtful moral choices. 

A widely publicized book Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campus, by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa (2011) shows that almost half of undergraduates showed no improvement in knowledge after the first two year of college! Here’s a summary of the authors’ perspective, as given in an interview by NPR news.

It’s possible that I’m committing the ‘anecdotal fallacy’, since my experience is limited.  I accept that possibility (as should every honest researcher), but research can come to different conclusions, depending on what is measured. Besides that, states and school districts tend to use sales pitches to favor what they want to see. Also, statistics are only as good as their assumptions about what indicates improvement or decline. Here’s an example. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law was passed almost twenty years ago, during the G. W. Bush administration (Jan 2002). At risk of losing Title I funds, all states were required to show Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in various aspects, including reaching “Proficiency” levels in math and English, as measured by tests that each State chose. You see a lot of uncertains here.

Students might also leave school because funding was taken away from subjects they wanted or needed, like non-English languages,  the arts and social studies, which counts in the surveys. Add to this the fact that teachers know the horrible conditions and violence in their community, and are under pressure to cheat by helping students pass. Here’s a long story/ report from former WBEZ education reporter Linda Lutton in Chicago, based on her 2 year study (2014-2015) The View From Rm 205 of a school in North Lawndale. It’s very moving.

Keeping the NCLB regulations in mind, I think this cartoon depiction of the Evolution of Education is right on. It would be funnier if it weren’t true.

What this sarcastic criticism suggests is ludicrous, and matches what I’ve found. The 1970 skills required understanding principles of math, and applying them to a realistic problem. 1985 simplifies the problem to the point of no challenge, and no reality. Multiple choice questions in 2010 are not only simple, but the wrong anwers are ridiculously far from correct. 2010 continues in that line, where wrong answers aren’t even in the same realm as the correct choice! Finally, in 2018 we see individualism run amok. Just after students are told they must get the right answers to pass the NCLB standards, they’re hit with total relativism. Truth and knowledge are what you want them to be – “Any color your prefer”. 

Certainly online learning is not the only factor in the education decline. It’s not even the primary factor, as I have suggested in other essays, and a book Inequity, Iniquity and Debt (2018 ed) especially Chapter 9. But it is linked causally to the power and influence of those who control the money system, and through that governmental laws and media perspectives as well, which dominate most citizens’ everyday lives, with little regard for the ‘public good’. Now that we’re well into the 21st Century, I recommend going back to a 2002 BBC documentary called The Century of the Self, showing how Edward Bernays changed marketing techniques from selling what you need, to what you are made to desire, using his uncle Sigmund Freud’s knowledge of subconscious motivators.

My intention has been to question whether in the past five decades, say, from the Nixon era (1970s) American education has shown a positive or negative development (evolution or devolution). I believe I’ve ansered that. Now the question is how and why that devolution has happened. Not surpringly, it has to do with the influence of big money – Big Money.

I chose that time for a couple reasons. First, it was the beginning of an intensified conservative and libertarian movement in the Republican party (interrupted by Carter’s surprise single term). Second, in 1974 the Cato Institute – an ultra-conservative think-tank – was founded with the support of the Koch Brothers. The Kochs have supported other similar think-tanks as well, like the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Immigration Studies, and Americans for Prosperity (one goal of which is to eliminate single-payer health care (i.e. government programs). Check these sites out, and you’ll see their anti-progressive goals.

Economically, there has been little difference between the Republican Party’s agenda and the Democratic Party’s. The primary view – called “Neo-liberalism” – was effectively also put into practice by the Democratic party during the Clinton and Obama administrations. Neoliberalism refers to market-oriented reforms, including “eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and reducing, especially through privatization and austerity, state influence in the economy”. The UK’s Margaret Thatcher and the USA’s Ronald Reagan were advocates. (See the Wikipedia link above). It also favors military spending and interventions.

The Koch family (whose in-fighting gets press coverage) presently owns the largest private company in America.They exemplify what is sometimes called ‘dark money’ – i.e. corporate political contributions which have become a contentious problem – kept in the public eye by Justice R. B. Ginsberg’s efforts to change the Supreme Court ruling – Citizens United. Her recent death made that over-ruling less likely. 

Related to these political influencers, the Neoconservative movement developed in the 1960s primarily as a reaction against pacifist demonstrations over the Vietnam war; against the ‘Counter Culture’ (Hippies, Civil rights, feminism, etc); against Pres. L. B. Johnson’s “Great Society” and other traditional liberal views; and against any kind of socialism. They favored intervention to oppose dictatorships (but not Communism), and hoped to spread free-market capitalism, which would work to their own favor. President George W. Bush was at first against intervening in the Afghanistan War, but quickly changed his view when the September 11, 2001 attack occured, by AlQuaeda agents, sponsored by Osama bin Laden. After that, G. W. Bush policies represented Neoliberalism fully.

Of course it’s perfectly understandable that many people are not ‘academically inclined’ or perhaps not capable of a university degree, and would prefer a job skill to a degree. This distinction has long been seen in many European countries where ‘aptitude tests’ at the end of secondary school determine whether to encourage (and support) seeking a University degree, or the vocational and trades options. 

I think it’s clear from what has been shown here, the support for education is lacking, at both the college and the vocation/ trades levels. And as usual, those who would benefit most from that support are the poor and underserved communities.