pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Nov 9 03:28:41 EST 2003

Subject:   (Dis)connectedness

An anecdote follows further below.  --PJk
(from NewsScan Daily, 7 November 2003)

      Travel writer Paul Theroux thinks there's too much
"connectedness"  these days:
      "'Connected' is the triumphant cry these days. Connection has
made  people arrogant, impatient, hasty, and presumptuous. I am old
enough to  have witnessed the rise of the telephone, the apotheosis of
TV and the  videocassette, the cellular phone, the pager, the fax
machine, and e-mail.  I don't doubt that instant communication has
been good for business, even  for the publishing business, but it has
done nothing for literature, and  might even have harmed it. In many
ways connection has been disastrous. We  have confused information (of
which there is too much) with ideas (of which  there are too few). I
found out much more about the world and myself by  being unconnected.
      "And what does connection really mean? What can the archivist --
 relishing detail, boasting of the information age -- possibly do
about all  those private phone calls, e-mails, and electronic
messages. Lost! A  president is impeached, and in spite of all the
phone calls and all the  investigations, almost the only evidence that
exists of his assignations  are a few cheap gifts, a signed
photograph, and obscure stains. So much for  the age of information.
My detractors may say, 'You can print e-mails,' but  who commits that
yackety-yak to paper?
      "The most aberrant aspect of the delusional concept of
globalization  is the smug belief that the world is connected and that
everyone and every  place is instantly accessible. This is merely a
harmful conceit. The  colorful advertisement for cellular phones or
computers showing Chinese  speaking to Zulus, and Italians speaking to
Tongans, is inaccurate, not to  say mendacious. There are still places
on earth that are inaccessible,  because of their geography or their
politics or their religion. Parts of  China are off the map, and for
that matter parts of Italy are too -- there  are villages in the
hinterland of Basilicata, in southern Italy, that are  as isolated as
they have ever been.
      "For the past ten years, since the disputed and disallowed
election  of 1991, the entire Republic of Algeria has been a no-go
area where between  eighty and one hundred thousand people have been
massacred. Algeria -- a  sunny Mediterranean country, the most
dangerous place in the world, with  the worst human rights record on
earth -- is right next to jolly Morocco  and colorful Tunisia, the
haunts of package tourists and rug collectors.  This bizarre proximity
highlights the paradox, which is an old one, that  close by there are
areas of the world that are still forbidden, or terra  incognita,
where no outsider dares to venture. In spite of all our  connectedness
we have little idea of what passes for daily life in Algeria."
for Theroux's "Fresh Air Fiend: Travel Writings" -- or look for it in
your  favorite library. (We donate all revenue from our book
recommendations to  adult literacy programs.)

My favorite story in this regard is by Lowell Monke, from a 1997 issue
of NETFUTURE, titled "Multiculturalism without People"
<http://www.praxagora.com/stevet/netfuture/1997/Jun1897_51.html#4>. I
append it below.  Just read the first four paragraphs if you're in a
hurry. --PJK

*** Multiculturalism without People 

from Lowell Monke (lm7846s at acad.drake.edu) 
                                                 Letter from Des Moines
                                                          June 15, 1997

There is a flip side to the use of the 'Net for multicultural
education, which I discussed in NF #49. It has to do with the the way
the 'Net affects students' and teachers' attitudes toward other
cultures that exist in their own communities. 

For a variety of reasons, Des Moines has become a popular destination
for refugees and immigrants from all over the world. The ESL (English
as a Second Language) program has exploded in the district, and
Central Campus is the first stop for most high schoolers trying to
learn English. (Central Campus isn't a school in itself; we provide
special services to all of the five district high schools.) Even
though our program is a revolving door moving students to their high
schools full-time as quickly as possible, there are constantly around
200 ESL students attending Central Campus. 

One day a couple of years ago, I happened to be standing outside my
room just down the hall from the doors opening into a Gifted and
Talented Language Arts room and an adjacent ESL room, when the bell
rang to end classes. I watched the two groups of students emerge from
their rooms, walk side-by-side the twenty feet out the narrow corridor
which spills into the hallway, turn the same direction and walk to
their lockers, which were directly opposite each other in the hall.
>From the time the doors opened to the time the halls were cleared, I
never saw anyone from one class talk to a person in the other class.
Indeed, to the Language Arts students the ESL students seemed more
like obstacles to navigate around than interesting people to engage. 

I don't blame the students for this, and I don't want to paint them as
callous snobs. They were merely doing what all students do in a large
school: associating with their friends, letting the mass of humanity
flow by. But what really caught my attention was that among the
students emerging from the Language Arts class were most of the
students from a global telecommunications project I was running at the
time -- one that centered around a multicultural theme. Here we had
been exchanging ideas about cultures with students on the other side
of the planet for months, and it had never dawned on these students to
merely turn their heads 90 degrees and talk to students from Bosnia,
Somalia, the Sudan, Russia, Mexico, the Czech Republic, and half a
dozen other nations. The disassociation unnerved me. What does it mean
when a group of students are eager (these were all volunteers) to
relate to students all over the world via the 'Net, but show no
interest at all in talking face-to-face with young people who grew up
in some of those very same places? 

As I said, the students have some excuse. It's difficult in the best
of circumstances for young people to initiate new relationships. With
ESL students, language is an additional hurdle. But that's where the
teacher's responsibility comes in. Far more important than the
students' oversight was my negligence. So the question can be reframed
to ask what does it mean when teachers like myself don't even think
about bringing these two groups of students together, but instead look
to the 'Net to fling disembodied text all around the world at people
whom our students will likely never meet, and then claim that we have
increased our students' multicultural "awareness"? 

I don't know whether it should make me feel better that I found only
one teacher (who teaches world history) who has invited these new
immigrants to talk with his students. In my own son's third grade
class there are two Bosnian students, two students whose parents came
from Southeast Asia, and one whose parents came from India. None of
those students, nor their parents, ever got to share with the class
their knowledge of their homelands, their customs, their reasons for
coming here. Yet we are, as I have said, spending millions of dollars
to get computers into the elementary classrooms right now, in part so
that our sons and daughters can get involved with the neat
multicultural activities on the Internet. 

A minister once told me about the Missionary Syndrome. This is when
members of a congregation are willing to empty their pockets to aid
the unknown hapless people who live at least 1000 miles away, but
won't lift a finger to help the down-and-outs in their own community
(who they know all too well). There seems to be something of the
Missionary Syndrome in our passion to connect our students with people
on the other side of the world. For some reason we are willing to
settle for, even get excited about, bits of writing from long
distance, while turning our backs on the stories and insights of
students who are literally within arm's reach. 

It's hard to believe it is the human dimensions of communication that
drive this kind of activity. I think for most of us it is our
infatuation with the exotic opportunities afforded by the technology,
its awesome ability to compress space and time, that drives
multicultural (and most other educational) activities on the 'Net. 

But we ought to recognize that it is also the school structure that
contributes to this easy willingness to seek out abstract
relationships rather than in-the-flesh ones. We teachers suffer from
the same reluctance as our students: working with other teachers is
often frustrating. After all, we have been trained to be loners or, at
best, collaborators within our departments. The curriculum
pigeon-holes all of us so that cutting across it takes enormous energy
and creativity -- and not a little willingness to battle bureaucrats.
We have all gotten used to relying on standardized texts and all the
inert material resources that come with them. People just aren't
convenient enough, reliable enough, controllable enough, or full of
the objective information we have come to treasure. Add to this mix a
machine that you can turn on and off at will and it's pretty easy for
the teacher to turn a blind eye on the educational opportunities that
exist right outside the classroom door. 

All of the conditions I've just mentioned are regularly used as
arguments for getting students on the 'Net. It allows for
collaboration; cuts across the curriculum; and can be customized to
suit the teacher and student. But as the little vignettes I've just
related illustrate, the comfortable escape the 'Net provides from a
regimented system may very well defeat the very purpose we try to use
it for. The 'Net provides the form, but lacks the rich content -- the
real human, flesh-and-blood relational content, with all the messy
issues that we and our students are forced to deal with -- which is
the true essence of multicultural education. Or of any education at
all, for that matter. 

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