For college kids today, a laptop is more important than a pen and paper. They take notes, write papers, apply for jobs, and watch movies all on the same machine. Laptops are essential, but do we really need them in the classroom? I’m not so sure.
Carlo Rotella, director of American studies at Boston College, wrote a column in today’s Boston Globe about his ban on laptops from his classroom. Beyond granting the ability to sift through porn, read the news, and manage your fantasy football team while the professor lectures about the Red Scare, the internet, Rotella asserts, negates the essence of college.
“You’re paying for the exclusive company of fellow thinkers who made it through the screening processes of admissions and faculty hiring,” Rotella said. “That’s it. You can get everything else online.”
He doesn’t stop there.
“You pay your money, and you get four years—maybe the last four years you’ll ever get—to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.”
Most of my professors permit laptops, and most students exploit this. Some actually type notes, but the majority just bounce around Facebook. Tuition at most national universities costs between $35,000 and $50,000 a year. That’s $150 an hour to play Farmville, read Perez Hilton, and shop at Amazon.
Beyond the money blown, the laptops distract other students. How could I not look at the montage of skateboarders pulverizing their genitalia playing on the screen next to me? Is that a drunk James Brown belittling a news anchor? Um, wait. What was the homework again?
Last year I took Professor Rotella’s magazine writing course. No laptops. No cell phones. Without any distractions, something surreal happened: The fifteen of us all talked, argued, questioned, reasoned, and laughed. In Rotella’s class, with everyone in tune, we became a unit. A discussion of Twilight warped into us philosophizing on the fall of man. You don’t get that deep when your neighbor’s recounting his drunken escapades on Google chat.
Our culture is out of orbit. We live in beeps and blips, ricocheting from one info bite to the next. But everyone knows that. So how do we get back in orbit? We need a cultural code.
Rotella hopes for the day when “multitasking in public will be as embarrassing as to be caught littering or sticking your hand down your pants to relieve an itch.” To get to that day, we need public rules on the use of the internet. Cell phones have begun developing a cultural code—laws against cell phone use while driving, store and restaurant owners prohibiting cell-phone use in their stores.
If we begin to establish times and places for when and when not to use the internet, maybe we could put an end to it as a distraction.