In the Middle of Everywhere
Remember when you used to go to the mall or the movies just so you could hang out and talk with your friends?
Remember when you (occasionally) hated to miss school because it meant that you missed out on whatever buzz was circulating that day perhaps from a weekend party?
Remember when you had to go to the library in order to do your research paper or to learn about random or obscure topics that stretched beyond the reach of the Encyclopedia Britannica Home Edition?
Or, perhaps you had to go to a store to rent the VHS tape for a movie (for the book you didn’t want to read for English class)?
For that matter, remember when you had to go to another room or hallway in your house that had the phone in it to make a call to your boyfriend or girlfriend?
OK. Some of us may be older than others! But, that’s really the idea. We are and always will be.
The point is that there was a time in the not-too-distant past when where we were in terms of physical location actually mattered to our social life, our education, and even our communication with family. However, I can, right now, close this window I am writing in and make every connection and find every bit of information I may have needed above.
With my smart phone, I can do this from anywhere. What does place matter? I am everywhere.
As part of a digital immigrant generation, many of us remain at least somewhat rooted in the echoes of our past experiences of place, in which many of us place real personal value. But, for a younger generation reading this, they have no idea what I am talking about first-hand (although I am sure they have heard more stories than they care to). They only know the universally connected, infinitely accessible, and instantaneously communicated world that is our present. My co-worker’s 10-year-old son recently sincerely asked his parents “Why do I need to go to school if we have the internet at home?” We may respond by recoiling to such a question because of our roots and our own experiences, but if this 10-year-old is asking the question, we would do well to figure out a compelling answer for him.
One CBS news article by Melissa McNamara puts it this way, “Technology is so integrated into teens' lives that it's difficult to measure where their offline life begins and their online life ends.” (This was way back in 2006!) Maybe the answer is that these are not two different lives for our young people; they are just two different lives for us.
Do our youth know a world without limitations, or a world without identity? Is theirs a world that is global, or one that is groundless? Is everything within their reach, or are they stuck staring at a lighted screen not reaching for anything in particular? Is their constant communication actually communication at all?
Yes and no. It doesn’t really matter. This is their reality. Now, what?
Amid the volumes of contemporary discourse on the subject, I came across a simple quote that sums up our postmodern, technologically fueled, digital immigrant angst: “To be everywhere is to be nowhere.” Ahhh ... indeed. That’s why we are concerned. Modern technology has left our kids lost in the middle of nowhere!
Who was this wise man that so captured our 21st century condition? Seneca the Younger, born 4 B.C. The funny part is that the quotation continues: “When a person spends all his time in foreign travel, he ends by having many acquaintances but no friends.” Wonder what he would think of Facebook? (It’s worth noting ironically that he was “the Younger”!)
The problem is not the technology (or the foreign travel) but our clinging exclusively to past forms for relationships, to the supposedly tried and true methods of delivering our education, and to our generally analogue perspective for processing our world. It’s the “generation gap” defined. As we try to convince our young people that “how it used to be” is somehow how “it should be”, we just further drive our youth away to find themselves in and figure out “how it is”.
As adults, we must remain flexible and in a state of perpetual adaption (involving but not synonymous with adoption), and we must do so by including and not resisting, learning from and not diminishing the present technologies and perspectives of our youth. For instance, I was a late, but happy, adapter to text messaging and Facebook . I use them daily. But, I will not adopt them as replacements of face-to-face communication, voice communication and the like, which have not only social but developmental and biological value to them. Undeterred, our young people will communicate and use the tools most familiar to them. Undeterred, we will do the same.
There is a compromise to be found here. So, as I adapt, I try to merge the best of the new with what I value in the old. In doing so, I also have a responsibility to introduce the old into the midst of the new. In committing to compromise (and our own growth), we can seek and model a more intergenerational approach to communication and to culture so that our youth today might one day, in turn, do the same.
The ground “moving under our feet” is just the ground for our young people. Perhaps they can help steady us. Rest assured, however, that one day the ground will move under their feet as well. The question is whether or not they will know what to do when it happens.
What was the last good conversation you had? Think about that for a second…
What made this conversation “good” for you?
As I consider this question, I can think of a number of conversations in just the past week that I would consider good (By the way, I feel fortunate but have also made many personal and professional decisions that allow me to have good conversations on a regular basis). These conversations range from friendly banter over a beer with a co-worker to a phone call with a high school friend while sitting in traffic to deep strategic planning for the launch of a statewide college access network. They can be about nothing, or they can seemingly be about everything. They include short (less than five minutes) conversations and they include conversations that can go into the hours or even span days.
So, what is it that makes these conversations good?
For me, as I distill these and other widely varied good conversations I have had, the following criteria seem to arise consistently:
Relationships, safety, learning, teaching, sharing, motivation: all of these outcomes can be found in and developed through a good conversation and, most importantly, regardless of the content of that conversation.
Back in 1964, Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase: “The medium is the message.” In other words, because the means through which content is delivered determines how it will be received, the mode of delivery is in itself content, or is at least symbiotic with the content and not discernable. For this reason, content (think everything we test students on) cannot be conceived of outside of its mode of delivery.
So, what if we taught conversation? Every day. What if we invested explicitly in the medium through which our youth can communicate effectively their own ideas, develop their own positive relationships, create safety, express their challenges, their explorations, their questions? What if we truly valued and assessed conversation knowing it may be the most vital and valuable life skill we can teach? What if we practiced having and modeling our own good conversations every day?
Could we increase safety? Improve relationships and motivation? Open a more equitable process of teaching and learning?
I wonder what schools would be like if we included conversation in our core curriculum?