By Head of School Peter Fayroian
I am no expert on social media. As our Director of Educational Technology Dr. Lowsky will tell you, I’m furthermore and most decidedly not a pioneer in academic technology. And nobody in our tech department would attest to my nimbleness in matters of computers or even, at times, how to use my smartphone. I’m probably better than most, but still far behind many of my colleagues and certainly behind all of you. I’m loath to be that person who is old enough now to use the expression, “Back when I was your age,” but the fact is I’m at least the age of your parents and perhaps they too have tried to explain to you the stupendous rate at which technology has accelerated since we were teenagers.
When I was in high school, if I pulled from my pocket something roughly the size of a Hershey bar and made a phone call, people would have looked at me in disbelief. They eventually would have understood that this wireless phone used something along the lines of a radio signal; amazing, but within their ken. But if I then pushed a green circle on the glass cover and actually looked at the person with whom I was talking? If I made a few taps with my finger and the Rolling Stones’ new album started playing? If I showed them photographic images of where they live, spread my finger and thumb and pointed to an aerial image of their mother cutting the lawn in their backyard? Began watching a movie, or a baby sleeping at that moment in a crib, or a live tennis match at the U.S. Open? And when I spoke, it produced my words in a short letter sent to another person holding the same object? I could ask or type in a question about anything and I would get the answer?
People would have run from me, terrified and screaming.
Schools — boarding schools in particular — have been trying to keep up with technology and it hasn’t been easy. We’ve often failed, and there have been backwards as well as forward steps. Early on in my teaching career, my colleagues and I struggled with this thing called “word processing” and the way in which it initially inhibited the crucial revision process. Dorm rooms were Spartan: no televisions or phones but for those in the common room or at the end of the hallway. A student might suffer a disappointment or setback and there was always time to figure it out or put it into perspective before a phone call home to an anxious parent, a call that could only be made by waiting in line in the 45 minutes between the end of study hall and lights out. There was always bullying and harassment and plagiarism and cheating, but they happened in real time in the open and not virtually. One might say it was easier to do the right thing because it was harder to do the wrong thing, and over the years our rules and expectations — as you can imagine — had to adjust accordingly. Our students couldn’t hide as easily behind distractions and shortcuts, and even video games were social, rather than private, events.
“For God’s sake,” goes a short poem, “Let us be men / not monkeys minding machines / or sitting with our tails curled / while the machine amuses us. … / Monkeys with a bland grin on our faces.” This isn’t a poem written recently about computers but one composed in 1929 by D.H. Lawrence titled “Let Us Be Men,” that we would agree encourages us how to be women and men.
Lawrence joined many critics of industrialized society in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and wrote often of how he believed new technologies (then the phone, the radio, film, and the gramophone) inhibited us from truly interacting with and loving each other. Lawrence, though, preferred to live a rural life without urban household conveniences. “Every time we turn on a tap to have water, every time we turn a handle to have fire or light, we deny ourselves and annul our being.”
Now, I am a fan of a long hot shower, but I have also always found value — to the point of dedicating a good portion of my career to outdoor education and wilderness expeditions for students — in finding time to live unencumbered by modern conveniences. I’m a bigger fan of Henry Thoreau, who wrote, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
I do believe all of us should experience living simply, and deliberately without technology and without our tails curled while the machine amuses us, but I am no Luddite, a term we use for people who are averse to technology.
“The Luddites were a group of English textile workers and weavers in the 19th century who destroyed weaving machinery as a form of protest. The group was protesting the use of machinery in a ‘fraudulent and deceitful manner’ to get around standard labour practices. Luddites feared that the time spent learning the skills of their craft would go to waste as machines would replace their role in the industry.” No Luddite would have found this on Wikipedia.
It’s clear that these machines, these technologies, whether in our pockets, on our desktops, or in the cloud, are useful instruments for good. They have provided information and education for people who otherwise would not have access or opportunity. They provide critical information for helping others; they have saved countless lives and helped coordinate rescue efforts after hurricanes or brought light to oppression; they are responsible for overthrowing brutal regimes. Coding and modeling are curing diseases and solving humanitarian crises. They allow my children to FaceTime and know their grandparents living thousands of miles away.
We have dedicated millions of dollars at NMH toward harnessing the potential in these tools, in the way we communicate, teach, and learn. It all seems quite natural to you, and it should, but it’s been no small thing for us to discern what tools are essential to your classrooms and what tools you will need to be prepared for the world off this hill.
And if all this information and education is available to us in our pockets, it’s a reasonable question to ask why we come together at all on this hill. I think what recent technologies have compelled us to do — even more so than when I began teaching in boarding schools — is to emphasize the experience here, in our workjobs, in our daily gaining and losing hundreds of feet of elevation in subzero temperatures, in collaborating in the classroom, on the stage, in the athletic arena, on the farm. We are privileged to have both these incredible machines at our disposal and to have the time and space to be with each other. But we do have to make time to get off the Internet and connect with each other; we do have to make sure we are harnessing the creative powers of technology and resist its destructive powers.
In 1934, five years after D.H. Lawrence admonished us to not be monkeys minding machines with a bland grin on our faces, 116 Mount Hermon students sat in this chapel and listened to their commencement speaker, invited with the support of their headmaster but to the extreme disapproval of the board of trustees. The speaker was the Norman Thomas, a pacifist minister and socialist leader who made six unsuccessful bids for the presidency. In his address, titled “Youth Faces the Future,” Thomas encouraged graduates sitting in this chapel to take advantage of industrial and technological advancements: “We have come to a time when your generation literally will live or die according to its ability to master machinery for the common good instead of using it for purposes of destruction. … You have an enormous advantage denied to all the thousands upon thousands of generations which have preceded you. You can talk of the conquest of poverty in a sense that not even your fathers would have found realistic. … There is no need at all for poverty in America, and scarcely for poverty in the world, if we should learn to manage intelligently the machinery that we have had the wit to create. That is for your generation an affirmation of great hope, an affirmation, moreover, that is bound to affect your ethical and religious thinking and your social organization. What I am asking you to do is not easy. It will require struggle — struggle to change a twisted and distorted loyalty to the true and living loyalty in which is emancipation and peace; struggle to amend institutions which unchanged drag us to ruin with them; struggle with our own prejudices and personal and class interests.”
The technological tools you have at your disposal are unprecedented in terms of their power to improve our world if you engage technology with your intellect, compassion, and talent. Yes, for God’s sake, let us be women and men and not monkeys with our tails curled while the machine amuses us. Let us take advantage of our time together on this hill and take Abby Maymi’s advice last night in her moment of silence to learn from and about each other by talking with each other. Let’s disconnect from the Internet and connect with each other, and when we do turn our smartphones on, let’s use them smartly and with humanity and purpose.
Photo by Glenn Minshall