To wire or not to wire

by David Alm on October 24, 2011

Last week the New York Times ran an article about an Indiana school district that has dispensed with textbooks, pencils, and the o ther antiquated tools of primary education. Instead, each desk features a laptop computer. The logic is that, being the 21st Century and all, kids need to learn how to use technology.

A few days later, the same newspaper published another article with a very different message, describing one school in California that eschews technology in favor of manilla paper, crayons, and paperbacks. In other words, the stuff you and I learned with growing up.

Only this isn’t just any old school, nor is it in any old part of California. It’s the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Los Altos, aka the Belly of the Beast, aka Silicon Valley. And its students’ parents are no luddites; they’re the people creating the technology we can no longer live without.

The contrast between the two stories is striking, yet both present compelling arguments for how to best educate children in the Information Age. Yes, children will need to know how to navigate the Web and “multi-task” on numerous browser windows at once. But the CEOs and engineers at the very companies that are defining this new way of life didn’t grow up in the world they have created. They grew up with Little House on the Prairie, the Bookmobile, and hand-cranked pencil sharpeners.

They’re sending their kids to Waldorf because they prize the values and skills such a low-tech education instills. They want their kids to know how to sit with a book and read for an hour, to work with others on solving a problem, to write without the aid of spell- and grammar-checkers. In short, to develop intellectual capacities that won’t need an update with every new app, gadget, or software development.

But here’s the problem: the Waldorf is an elite private school, charging $5,000 for nursery school, $18,500 for elementary, and close to $30,000 for grades 9-12. You have to be a mogul to afford that kind of tuition. What are the rest of us to do?

As a New Yorker and professor in the public-university system here, I am well aware of the disparity between private and public schools. Some of my students could survive in any academic environment, while others reach college woefully unprepared to do the work. And though I do not have children, I have not ruled out the possibility. One of the things holding me back, however, is the question of where they will go to school. I found myself nodding vigorously while reading about the Waldorf philosophy, but then shaking my head even more when I saw the price tag.

 

Crista Cloutier October 26, 2011 at 1:51 am

But I wonder how you would have responded if it were the other way around? If the private school had the technology but not the public? It would seem grossly unfair.

I know that where I live, the school district is so poor that these kids will never see a computer. They take turns holding my ipod and listening to it. If I told their parents that kids in the states pay a lot of money not to have computers, they would be dumbfounded.

David Alm October 26, 2011 at 6:12 am

That’s a great point, Crista. I think what got me about the Waldorf school was less its lack of computers, and more its philosophy behind why it doesn’t have them. I like the thought they’ve put into the choice to keep the school unwired, and by hiring dedicated teachers who are qualified to teach in small-group settings with a concerted pedagogical approach.

Or maybe I’m just nostalgic, and loathe to watch the next generation grow up without having the kinds of hands-on experiences I had as a child. Either way, I do believe such experiences are formative, in positive ways, and that sitting behind a screen can be detrimental — however necessary it has become in the modern world. After all, they’ll learn how to use them anyway, and soon enough, and having started with pen and paper, or crayon on parchment, shouldn’t hinder their progress in life.

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