An article ran in the Atlantic a couple of weeks ago titled, “My Students Don’t Know How to Have a Conversation.” In the article, educator Paul Barnwell described his students’ struggle to master a session in his English class on the art of conversation.
“…students’ reliance on screens for communication is detracting—and distracting—from their engagement in real-time talk,” he observed. “It might sound like a funny question, but we need to ask ourselves: Is there any 21st-century skill more important than being able to sustain confident, coherent conversation? ”
Students need to be able hold conversations for everything from applying for colleges and jobs, to negotiating pay, discussing projects, building meaningful relationships and sustaining those relationships.
“If the majority of their conversations are based on fragments pin-balled back and forth through a screen, how will they develop the ability to truly communicate in person?” Barnwell asks.
British writer and director Gary Turk recently tackled the problem head on in a spoken word film called Look Up, that has gone viral (over 22 million views since being uploaded to YouTube April 25th) and is alternately lauded for being beautiful and thought-provoking and criticized for being hypocritical, self-serving (it’s a monetized video) and “overdramatised” (by a UK critic apparently).
The irony of Turk’s supplication to “look up from your phone, shut down the display/ Take in your surroundings, make the most of today,” going viral is not lost on anyone. But the piece is thoughtful and well considered. It was challenging to find the written text to his poem, but a blogger named Mon Amour gave it a shot, and some helpful readers tweaked her transcription a bit.
While there’s definitely a healthy dose of schmaltziness to the simple rhyme scheme:
(Be there for) The time you hold your wife’s hand, sit down beside her bed
You tell her that you love her and lay a kiss upon her head
She then whispers to you quietly as her heart gives a final beat
That she’s lucky she got stopped by that lost boy in the street
There’s also a healthy and powerful element of truth:
We’re surrounded by children, who since they were born
Have watched us living like robots, who now think it’s the norm
It’s not very likely you’ll make worlds greatest dad
If you can’t entertain a child without using an iPad
This isn’t a new observation. There’s no shortage of reflection here (Heads Up) and elsewhere on the topic of social disengagement as a result of over-reliance on technology. But Gary Turk speaks as one Millennial to another, and his message is a meaningful one, even replete with the irony of its viral nature.
So don’t give into a life where you follow the hype
Give people your love, don’t give them your ‘like’
Disconnect from the need to be heard and defined
Go out into the world, leave distractions behind.
Look up from your phone
Shut down that display
Stop watching this video
Live life the real way
Smart phones and computers are tools, not ends in themselves. Used intelligently, and as intended, they provide ways to connect us when we’re far apart, to broaden communications with others, to become better informed about our world, and to gain new skills and knowledge. Used incorrectly, they become debilitating social brain drains, disconnecting us from the real time relationships and real world experiences that make life worth living.
So sure, watch the sweet melodramatic video – and then do what Turk says: go out with some friends, have some real conversations, be where you are, together with the people you love and value, and leave the phone at home so you can really have a life worth sharing with others.