Educating PlayNation: Obama, iPads, Xboxes and America's culture of noise

President Barack Obama yesterday took a shot at America’s culture of noise and the media and entertainment technologies that foster it. In addressing the commencement exercises at Hampton University, Obama said:

“With iPods and iPads and Xboxes and PlayStations, — none of which I know how to work — information becomes a distraction, a diversion, a form of entertainment, rather than a tool of empowerment, rather than the means of emancipation,” Obama said.

He bemoaned the fact that “some of the craziest claims can quickly claim traction,” in the clamor of certain blogs and talk radio outlets.

“All of this is not only putting new pressures on you, it is putting new pressures on our country and on our democracy.”

He’s right, too. I wrote last year about the plague of affluenza that’s destroying meaning in our lives, replacing it with the narcotic of stuff. And few of our narcotics are more eternally mesmerizing than the electronic ones (said the guy who just got a new PS3 a couple of weeks ago). So it’s damned refreshing to hear our president out on the graduation circuit warning our youth away from the empty calories. Instead, he offers a simple, sane curative: education:

“Education… can fortify you, as it did earlier generations, to meet the tests of your own time,” he said.

Obama argued that from the days of the pioneer politicians who founded the United States, until the modern day, education and knowledge had been the key to progress and US democracy.

He drew a line between Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration of Independence, and today’s challenges.

“What Jefferson recognized… that in the long run, their improbable experiment — called America — wouldn’t work if its citizens were uninformed, if its citizens were apathetic, if its citizens checked out, and left democracy to those who didn’t have the best interests of all the people at heart.

“It could only work if each of us stayed informed and engaged, if we held our government accountable, if we fulfilled the obligations of citizenship.”

Again, how very true. Granted, Jefferson made some wayward assumptions about the population, figuring that we’d work to educate ourselves, given the freedom to do so. But the core principle is the important part here – education is the key to a better, fuller, more meaningful life, and those of us raised by parents (in my case, grandparents) who believed this fundamental truth are the better for it today. Shiny things do not make us happy. They do not enrich us. They do not teach us.

They are noise, and they interfere with our desperate need for signal.

The thing that troubles me, frankly, is my suspicion that I’m reading about a pretty speech that’s completely disconnected from even the vaguest ideas about solving the problem. I know that Obama is pushing a new ed program, which he’s calling (hats off to the presidential marketing peeps here) the “Race to the Top.” But our last president had a program with a catchy title, too – “No Child Left Behind.” It quickly became clear that the program was really about “No Child Left Untested,” to the benefit of companies that made testing materials (like some old Bush family friends). And over the weekend I listened as a high school teacher I know described his experiences with the first wave of ObamaEd – already, apparently, teachers are beginning to call it the “Race to the Bottom.”

Let’s hope his plan proves to be more than testing and “accountability” and, the gods save us, charter schools.

Even more troubling, though, was this line: “We can’t stop these changes… but we can adapt to them.”

Wait – what? The problems are out-of-control noise media and a culture of sparkling distractions and we can’t do anything about it?

Let’s start with his thinly veiled whack at FOX News and their ilk. You know, the activities of broadcasters are governed by laws and regulations and policies. Before Reagan set our intellectual zombification in motion with his FCC appointments, there was this thing called the “public interest standard.” I won’t go into the details because unless you’re reading this on an iPad while you listen to Justin Bieber on your iPod and play Gran Turismo on your portable gaming system you’re probably about dead from boredom as it is, but the short version is that there were rules that media companies had to abide by, and one of them was the requirement that they act in the public interest. And no, that does not mean “what the public is interested in.”

Granted, a lot has changed since the public interest days. Those rules were predicated on a scarcity of spectrum argument that said that broadcast airwaves belonged to the people and could therefore be regulated. Cable, satellite, the Internet, check – it wouldn’t be as simple as rolling back to the rules as they existed in the late ’70s.

However, in just about every country on the face of the Earth it is understood that businesses that operate in the country may be required to conduct themselves in ways consistent with the best interests of the people. The idea that you could impose a newly conceived public interest standard on our various media obscenities is so alien, as a result of 30+ years of arch-conservative political and rhetorical re-engineering that it sounds like something straight out the Crab Nebula.

It sounds especially ludicrous if you’re a product of the corporatist mindset yourself, I suppose. When your base of power is built on the principle that government shall not interfere with the rights of corporations, these past few paragraphs probably sound like the parts that Marx left out because they were too crazy-lefty even for him.

But, like I say, that kind of thinking is not universal. It is not somehow natural. On the contrary. It is unique, it is perverse, and it is the very calculated result of a right-rushing ideological project. It is Newspeak run amok.

The president’s trouble with Apple and SONY and Nintendo and the rest of PlayNation is somewhat more complicated. No, you can’t “stop” them, not in the sense that you’d outlaw the manufacture and sale of videogame consoles. Talk about sparking a revolution.

But if you’re The Most Powerful Man in the World®, you have a lot more than just restrictive legislation at your disposal. There are certainly incentives you might propose that would make it more advantageous for these companies to produce mind-expanding products instead of mind-numbing ones. (Or maybe not – depends on how you feel about McLuhan’s edict that “the medium is the message,” I suppose; regardless, there’s nothing about McLuhan that prevents the effort.) There’s also this thing called “leadership.” If you feel strongly that something is hurting the country, the least you can do is have a word with the people responsible, right? And if you’re the president, even a man as powerful as Steve Jobs is going to take your call.

Then there’s that education thing. There’s no panacea for all our collective maladies of the intellect like rigorous learning programs. Specifically, nothing inoculates the mind against foolishness quite like an always-on critical thinking faculty. (And if it isn’t always on, it’s not real critical thinking. Critical thinking isn’t something you do. It’s not even something you are. It’s something you can’t stop doing, no matter how hard you try.)

If you exercise true vision and bring your leadership and expansive persuasive capabilities to bear on this noise problem that so obviously bothers you, Mr. President, perhaps you can trigger at least a minor cultural revolution. Perhaps you can make thinking cool again. How would that be for a legacy.

If you accomplish this, it won’t really matter what kinds of distractions Apple innovates or how many they sell, because these wonderful toys will still be in the hands of people who think. And for people who think, distractions are temporary things. They are minor, manageable exceptions to the normal state of the intellect, not the rule of the brain in permanent repose.

Treat the disease, Mr. Obama. Not the symptoms.

12 replies »

  1. I wonder, really wonder, what percentage of the adult human population has ever achieved consistent critical thinking… and if we’re barking up a fruitless developmental tree.

  2. While it would be very difficult to quantify the percentage of adults who constantly use critical thinking skills, there is better than even odds that it is much greater than 0.005%, if you include those who use critical thinking……. but disagree with you.

  3. Point well taken Sam. But doesn’t revolution start with the people, and in this case with those of us who posses the vocation and/or gift of teaching? Obama will not making thinking cool again but gifted educators can. If we do not act or if we anticipate ‘race to the bottom’ students, we contribute to the regression and we are left without hope. Hope. A cornerstone of Obama’s campaign that we are all learning at the end of the day can not be placed on the shoulders of one man and is still our responsibility to own and act upon.

  4. Except that governments and leaders can make the task of being one of those inspirational teachers just about undoable. I wish there were a way of quantifying how many teachers like the ones you’re talking about were chased out of the profession by George Bush (and are still being chased out, because No Child Left Untested is still very much in force) and how much damage that policy has done to actual students. It adds up, because a generation from now a lot of those students won’t be the kinds of teachers that they might have been, passing along the inspiration – damaging policy spirals and snowballs and makes its presence felt generations down the road.

    No, we can’t put it on one man’s shoulders, especially when that man is making it plenty clear that he’s every inch a corporate man. But it’s not asking too much of a president to get his walk and talk in alignment, is it? And if he’s not going to do the things that he CAN do, would it be asking too much of him to just shut the hell up?

  5. I agree with you about Obama, Sam and the tragic state of educational policy but pointing it out and saying inspirational teaching is just about undoable doesn’t give us anything to do except lament. And lamenting does not inspire or bring about cultural revolution.

  6. You’re criticizing me for something I wasn’t addressing. This post wasn’t aimed at teachers, it was aimed at the president. Teachers are, of course, going to have to keep doing their best … or they give up on it. I hope the good ones stick with it, but as a guy who walked away I can hardly fault those who get fed up, can I?

    Policymakers have the responsibility to create an environment where learning can take place. When they do the precise opposite? When they implement programs that blame the teachers for problems the teachers did not create and cannot fix?

  7. Ok, good point. So then how can educators and/or everyday people influence policymakers toward the right kind of change? And what do we need to do to talk you into going from walked-away teacher to policymaker or policy influencer? 🙂

    • I won’t speak for Sam, but I know that I hope to influence policy and society every time I write a piece here at S&R. Alas, however, our reach isn’t exactly on par with the NYTimes or HuffPo. 😉

    • Well, I don’t know that I’m having much impact, but I start by writing about it a lot and trying to engage the audience I have. We’re not huge at S&R, but we do draw a (mostly) smart crowd.

      There are other audiences out there in various closed environments that I have some access to, and I try and promote my thinking there, as well.

      But hell, I’m not lobbyist and I can’t afford to buy a Congressman. And as I have suggested elsewhere, I’m currently in the “we’re fucked and there’s nothing we can do about it” camp. If you look at the history of my life you see that I’ve wandered back and forth between there and a more hopeful place, so maybe something happens that convinces me there’s a shot, after all.

      As for what others can do, I’d say begin by mapping the landscape. Where are you and where is the nearest locus of influence? Then figure out how to get from A to B and know what you’re going to say when you get there.

      Is that useless enough?