Saving Our Endangered Minds

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For the past several weeks, I’ve been trying to peel myself away from my computer, forcing myself off email, away from the shamelessly addictive Facebook, and out of the comforting synthetic community of online print.

This painfully difficult exercise of going “unplugged” began with a creepy, guilty feeling.  I’d been wasting far too much precious time online.  I knew this without wanting to readily admit it, and while some of it could be chalked up to searching fruitlessly for good (as in, paying) writing gigs, I’d also spent my fair share of free time perusing online sales and eBay listings, nosing through long lost “friends'” pages on Facebook, and checking (and refreshing) my email as though I were expecting correspondence from Barack Obama, himself.

Like the addict I am, I lingered in denial for a while, telling myself that my computer habits weren’t that deplorable, that I still managed to get my work done on deadline, that many of the things I did online, like connecting with old friends, were life-giving, etc. etc.  But then, in an attempt to begin research for my book (which actually involved turning OFF the computer and picking up a real paperback), I began reading Endangered Minds: Why Children Don’t Think – and What We Can Do About It, by Jane Healy.

Healy, a PhD in educational psychology, wrote Endangered Minds after noticing that her new generation of students didn’t seem to respond to teaching techniques that had worked for her for decades.  It wasn’t just their attitudes that were different; their brains seemed different, too.  Her colleagues agreed.  Healy approached several neurophsychologists and posed this question: Were modern lifestyles altering childrens’ brains in subtle, but critical ways?

Some of the scientists were hesitant to go on the record with Healy, claiming that yes – children’s brains did appear to be changing (and not necessarily for the best) – but that no one could prove it.  Others emphatically agreed with Healy’s hypothesis – pointing to the brain’s lifelong plasticity – and begged her to write a book that might lead to reform, better education, and a greater understanding of what today’s kids are up against.

Healy’s prose is smart and engaging. But what’s kept me reading Endangered Minds are her startling findings: material that was once used to teach middle school students is being used in high schools; standardized tests are easier now than they were in the sixties, but our childrens’ scores are lower; the practice of reading is nearly outmoded, which is bad enough, but students’ comprehension of read materials is also abysmal.  Teachers report that their students today exhibit more aggressive behavior, poor attention spans, and difficulty integrating what they learn in class with day-to-day experience.

TV is often blamed as kids’ greatest intellectual hazard, but the internet and video games are surely rounding the curve, as are busy parents’ lives – one can’t expect a child to know how to navigate his or her world without a parent to plot the course.  Kids’ brains, as limber and changeable as their little bodies, are being molded by electronic babysitters, things that whizz and buzz and blink.  No wonder black and white print seems so boring.

Fifty pages in to Endangered Minds, I felt as though a tiny light was being shined on my dark corner of online distraction.  If children’s brains could be remolded (read: warped) by excess media and a lack of life experience, couldn’t mine?

“Yes!” shouted a little internal voice.  “Keep reading!”

And so I did, finishing Kidder’s Among Schoolchildren, picking up Atwood’s The Blind Assassin,  and plugging along through Endangered Minds (“assigned” reading, no matter how fascinating, always feels like more work than fun).

As I spent more time with books than on the internet, I began to notice a change in my own brain: my thoughts were deeper and more complex, and my ideas for essays and writing jobs felt less out of reach.  Reading more has revived my capacity for and love of language; it’s reminded me of why writing is important, and why what I want to write is important.  Reading has made me more certain of myself and my purpose.

Without my even knowing it, all that internet surfing had made me slightly cranky, unsatisfied, and uninspired, like an overtired child.  Now, after drawing some boundaries with Mac, I feel as though I’ve woken up from a much-needed nap.  I’m more alert and settled, eager to learn and to contribute.

While Dr. Healy’s book may sound like an indictment of today’s children and their families here, it’s not.  The purpose of Endangered Minds is to call attention to the shortcomings, and then to propose solutions – a vital read for anyone who has children.

But the point of this posting isn’t to get everyone on a bandwagon for the education of America’s children … it’s to encourage you readers to invest in the plasticity of your own unique and brilliant brains.  As the holidays kick off this week, find some time to turn off the television, unplug the computer and let your cell phone battery die.  Go off into some quiet corner with a steaming cup of something, a good book (that is, a book that is good by your standards, which means it holds your attention) and lose yourself in it.

It may take time to get into the habit (I haven’t quite kicked Facebook yet) – getting into any sort of daily ritual takes patience.  But once you do, you may find yourself seeing the world through a new lens, better able to sustain the blows life brings, and less obsessed with modern day immediacy.

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