As I begin my 33rd year in higher education, I can’t help but notice that my students are getting younger and younger every year—while I myself haven’t changed a bit.
Now, if you’re thinking that maybe I’ve gotten things mixed up a bit, that maybe it only seems that way from my point of view, I invoke in my defense Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. But rather than continue to argue the point, let me share another observation with you:
Cell phones have caused my students’ bladders to shrink. I know, I know, it may be hard to see the connection, but the correlation is quite clear. It used to be that students could sit through a class of approximately an hour and fifteen minutes without a problem, and it was rare that someone would need to get up in the middle of class to go to the restroom. It would happen, of course—we all are human, after all—but not very often.
But somehow, increasingly in recent years, students have needed to go more and more often. And this coincides with the fact that, just like the rest of us, they have come to carry their mobile devices with them at all times, including to class.
Many of them try to hide their cell phones, keeping them on their laps, which is why I think the devices are having a physiological effect. I do try to point out, by the way, that this maybe isn’t the best place to put your cell phone, at least not if you plan on having children some day. I point out that mobile devices do generate electromagnetic radiation, and that we really don’t know for sure how that affects the body. Do you really want to take the chance?
Of course, I know that the sudden rise in students excusing themselves during class is not due to the effects of cellular signals on their bodies, but rather to the effects of text messages on their minds. The magnetic pull of our mobile devices is altogether extraordinary, and affects all of us, young and old. There even is a new word to describe the compulsion, FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out. The fear is nothing new, but never before has it been so intense and unrelenting.
And while our smartphones may be the cause of it all, it has nothing to do with the fact that they are telephones. Remember the days when everyone had a distinctive ringtone, often a few seconds of a favorite song? When every day we saw ads that urged us to buy special ringtones from a selection of thousands? Remember how we spent a considerable amount of time deciding which one to set as the mark of our own individual identity?
Funny how those days have come and gone. And the upside is that there are fewer instances when cellphones ring at inopportune times because their users forgot to put them on silent (or turn them off, something almost no one does anymore). They don’t interrupt services, or a theatrical performance, or a class, very much any more.
The ringing was more intrusive, but at least we all were embarrassed when it happened, and often enough would not answer it. Texts and status updates are nowhere near as obtrusive as ringing phones, but for that reason they are so much harder to ignore. The desire—for most of us the need—to check the new message, and to respond to it immediately, is all but overwhelming.
And you may think that no one sees the light from your phone shining in the darkened movie theater, but we do. That’s why theaters now ask their patrons to turn them off.
And you may think that no one sees you reading your messages or even responding to them during services, but we do. Back in the day, when a New York team was in the World Series and a game was being played during Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, there might be a congregant who came to services with a transistor radio and earpiece. But he (inevitably it was a he) would step outside the sanctuary or shul to get the update. He wouldn’t listen to the game in the pews, and everyone understood that this was a singular exception.
And my students may think that their professors don’t see what they’re doing, but we do. We can see that they’re looking down and tap tap tapping on something with their fingers. Or for the ones with laptops, we can tell when their eyes are glued to the screen, and they’re furiously typing away far and beyond what might be warranted by taking notes in class.
So why do they get up and leave during class? Perhaps it is out of a sense that they’re doing something inappropriate for class, but Sherry Turkle offers a different explanation in her insightful book, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. They are seeking solitude so that they can focus on crafting a response without being distracted by the class. They see it as editing and creating the best possible version of themselves.
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Turkle is rightly concerned about the negative effects of our smartphones on all of us—and especially on the young. That we forget or never learn how to deal with boredom, how to let our minds wander, how to daydream, and how to interact with others in a meaningful way. Messaging means never having to apologize, not really, not in a way that forces you to recognize the effect you have had on others, to see it in their faces. Messaging means you never have to stumble through awkward silences, difficult exchanges, never have to go the effort of really relating to someone else. Conversation among friends, family members, and co-workers is becoming a lost art.
Texting is safe, unless of course we’re driving. Think about how much concern there was about talking on cellphones and driving, and how much worse it is to be texting or looking at updates on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram! Emotionally, texting is safe, and face-to-face interaction is risky. But without risk, there is no growth. And dialogue is the best way to achieve what Martin Buber called I-You relationships, relating to other people as people, as opposed to the I-It relationships, relating to others as objects.
In many ways, messaging and especially updates give us neither I-You nor I-It relationships. Instead, they simply reflect back our own selves, mirror images that show only the surface: I-I relationships. And this brings to mind the warning given by Echo to Narcissus: Better watch yourself!
In his recent book, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that the Hebrew Bible was meant to be heard, not read, and the stories of family conflict in the Torah, which often take unexpected turns, should be understood in this context, one where you cannot see the text in its entirety, only hear the narrative as it unfolds, step by step.
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It may be hard to believe, but reading silently was all but unknown until after the invention of the printing press. And this is so very important, because when we listen, we listen together, as one, but when we read silently, even if we read the same text at the same time, we read as isolated individuals.
Dialogue, discussion, debate, and devotion are communal activities, very much so in the tradition of Judaism. Whether it’s learning, praying, conversing, or simply being, we all need to put our mobile devices down and just listen. Listen to others, listen to the world, listen to ourselves.
After all, that still small voice that Elijah heard was not a text message.
Can you hear me now?