Teacher Tom: Smartphones And Freedom

The first smartphone was introduced in 1994, two years before our daughter was born, but they really didn’t come of age until Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007. Now, 16 years later, they’re everywhere. 

Writes Rebecca Solnit in her book Wanderlust: “The multiplication of technologies in the name of efficiency is actually eradicating free time by making it possible to maximize the time and place for production and minimize the unstructured travel time in between. New timesaving technologies make workers more productive, not more free, in a world that seems to be accelerating around them.”

I just used my smartphone to hold the book open so that I could type that quote.

I agree with Solnit. I value unstructured free time because the vast array of pleasures that fall under the heading of “doing nothing” are the very things that make life worth living. This has been made possible because I’ve spent most of my days since the advent of the smartphone in preschool classrooms where unstructured free time reigns and efficiency has no place. The kids don’t have phones of their own. My own phone stays in my pocket except when used to tell time or take pictures.

At home, of course, most of the kids have access to tablets, or at least computers, which they use for entertainment, not efficiency.

If memory serves, we bought our daughter her first phone when she was 12. That would have been around 2008 when many of us still believed that we didn’t need a fancy-schmancy smartphone. Our specific rationale was that she was starting to spend more and more time out in the world on her own and we wanted to ensure an open line of communication. My own parents had insisted that I carry a dime (then later a quarter) for the same reason. It was only a matter of a couple years, however, before our whole family was carrying smartphones. My parents delayed their own adoption, but they now have theirs as well.

Middle and high school teachers seem to hate smartphones. At least when it comes to the kids they teach. If social media posts are any way to judge (and, granted, they might not be) there is an ongoing struggle between these teachers and students’ smartphones. They don’t allow phone use during class. Yesterday, one teacher confessed that he lets the kids go to the bathroom during “instruction time,” but only if they leave their phones behind. Other teachers simply confiscate all phones as a matter of principle. One fellow whose online bio says he possesses an PhD in something called instructional design, says the first step in the recipe of “turning a school around” is to ban phones altogether.

I wonder what I would do if a preschooler showed up with a smartphone. I suppose my first reaction would be to assume they had swiped a parent’s phone. But let’s stipulate, for this thought experiment, that it belongs to the kid and that they have their parents’ permission to be carrying it to school. 

My first concern would be that it would get dropped in mud or in water or in paint or on concrete. In other words, I’d be worried about it getting broken. So I would say to the kid, “If you drop that in mud or in water or in paint or on concrete, it will probably get broken.” If the child responds that they accept the risk (and I’ve already confirmed that their parents have accepted the risk) then what business is it of mine?

My second concern would be that other kids would want to play with it and that could lead to conflict. So I would say to the kid, “Other kids will probably want to play with it. Is that okay with you?” If they say it is okay with them, I would add, “And if they drop it in mud or in water or in paint or on concrete, it will probably get broken. If they reply that they aren’t okay with sharing it, I would recommend they keep it in their hand, in their pocket, or in their personal cubby, otherwise another kid might pick it up.

That would be the extent of my concerns. I wouldn’t care if they used it to play games all day or watch videos. It would surprise me if they did. I mean, our school is a place where there is mud and water and paint and concrete, not to mention hand tools and trees and gardens and blocks and, most importantly, other kids. Not only that, but their time is almost entirely unstructured. This means that the smartphone would be just one aspect of the array of pleasures that fall under the heading of “doing nothing,” freedom, the very thing that makes life worth living.

Those middle and high school kids don’t use their phones in the name of efficiency, they use them to escape the pressures, micromanaging, dress codes, and outright tedium that characterizes so much of school life. They use their phones, this technology of efficiency, to escape efficiency, to play. Indeed, texting, social media, and gaming are just about the only place where teens can find the freedom that we, with our dimes in our pockets, once took for granted. When a teacher takes away a their phone, it is tantamount to taking away their last vestige of freedom.


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