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'Heated Debate'

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Some things you can just feel. You shake your head in wonder, the same old same old, wrapped in today's dazzling plumage.

In early April, The New York Times ran an article about "Babes in Cyberspace," with the subhead: "Digital Diaper Set Is Next Gleam in Software Industry's Eye." Uh oh, I thought, Silicon Valley and Madison Avenue are at it again, selling the latest technological snake oil. The article's premise: "Introducing children this young to computing is a subject of heated debate among educators and child-development experts."

Heated debate? We keep reading and hearing about heated educational debate. Irate California parents take on the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics' thoughtful recommendations for national mathematical standards: "Problem-solving vs. rote memorization!" Reading scores are down across America: "Whole language vs. phonics!" This month it's "Microcomputers vs. child development!"

Versus? Where does this language come from? Today's "heated debate" leads to tomorrow's public and political hysteria. School curriculum is envisioned as a theater for military operations: You launch, we launch. We've learned how easily effective superintendents can be driven out of districts by the politicization of school board elections; teachers and principals can be excoriated for embracing particular philosophies or methodologies. Parents, politicians, and pundits lay blame, assign responsibility, propose asinine solutions. (The most preposterous, in my view, seriously advances the notion that American corporate know-how has the potential to save our schools.) Go ahead; make my day.

Heated debate? The quality of contemporary discourse on American education is flatly pathetic. Congress, McNews, even Education Week aren't exempt. Come on, folks: We don't need the auguries of the experts in the media's golden Rolodex, the howl of the professoriate of our beleaguered schools of education. Any competent teacher (trust me, she or he doesn't have to be excellent, just competent) can explain the simple verities of the world's most complex and demanding job: Children are wired differently, so in a classroom you need to present material using "a variety of modalities." Translation: Relying exclusively on a single program or approach doesn't serve all the kids effectively.

Recent neurosurgical research has substantiated the hemispheric insight known a century ago to every one-room-schoolhouse marm: Today we call it left brain, right brain. Some students salivate at the prospect of a timed math-fact drill; others yearn to rotate manipulatives, use the margins of their textbook as a sketch pad. Some kids feast on phonics; others benefit from a whole-language approach; still others need a look-see method, or they'll read only when hell freezes over or common sense prevails inside the Beltway. Whichever comes first.

The educational flavor of the month, according to the Times, seems to be computers and young kids. For those of us who debated this issue 20 years ago (back when a single Apple was exciting as could be, although it had no memory and cost $5,000), it's hard to imagine that anyone could depict this issue as debatable. Let's face it: Only the dolts and the dazzled fell for Christopher Whittle's snake oil or the Write-to-Read program a technological generation ago. The verities about kids and microcomputers are as clear as they ever were: Very young children derive little, if any, benefit from significant exposure to computers. More important, they lose a lot.

The grounds for this understanding undergird my own school's policy of forbidding television at home. Our objection is less to the execrable content to which children may be exposed than to the reality of wasted time. Children's time can be better spent: exercising (physically or emotionally); reading; socializing with other kids; conversing with family members; for older children, mastering challenging homework assignments. Learning by doing. Dreaming. Listening to the wind.

Plunk the little kids in front of a screen, with or without keyboard, and our collective child-care problem may seem set for the moment. But 10 years later we know we'll have big problems on our hands, though we can continue to delude ourselves (in the spirit of malpractice settlements) that someone else will pay the price.

It's really that simple. Do we genuinely care about kids, want to invest our energies and our values in them? If we do, we'll have to stand up to the sellers. We'll have to say no, limit the computer games, the "educational" software, the television, the prurient cruising on the Internet.

This is not unlike most other demanding tasks that parents (and cultures) have to take on: bite the bullet, say no when you feel in your gut you should, stand up to the forces that are selling. Selling attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, the current diagnosis in search of a child. Selling "educational" software so lame even a kid will recognize its lack of imagination. Selling children's television programming designed to narcotize or persuade the kids only a certain toy will do. Selling pediatric medication: Lately the search for a wonder drug, manipulated by the health-care industry, has slouched from Ritalin to antidepressants. "Miracle-Gro" For Kids should be on the counter of your local pharmacy shortly.

Guess what? There are no easy answers, no easy solutions, for raising and educating a child. The first lady had at least one thing right: It does take the whole village. And it takes hard work, personal investment even when we're exhausted, and common sense to stop looking for the One Right Way. Children are complicated little things, and they deserve complex attentions, diverse and balanced experiences inside and outside our classrooms.

The least they can expect, one would think, is for the grown-ups to stop whining and bickering over how to raise and educate them, to stop rushing from one simplistic solution to another. It's not any wonder, here in the Land of the Lotus-Eaters, that America's educational "outcomes" are so meager. What is surprising is how deeply the adults, ostensibly in charge, keep burying their heads in lone and level sands which, as Shelley reminded us, stretch far away.


Nicholas S. Thacher is the headmaster of the New Canaan Country School in New Canaan, Conn.

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