Poor Elijah was born with a robust sense of tradition. I overheard him the other day lecturing a careless soul who happened to remark that he’d picked up a string of miniature twinkle lights for his tree.
Poor Elijah doesn’t believe in miniature twinkle lights. I’ve pointed out that big bulbs weren’t especially popular back in Bethlehem either, but he doesn’t put much stock in my views about Christmas anymore. Three years ago I took my tree down before New Year’s Eve, and he still hasn’t recovered.
Of course, I kind of like the big bulbs myself. I also enjoy shopping in local stores and sharing season’s greetings with merchants who know my name. I love Christmas pudding. I can’t stand “trees” you have to assemble.
Does this make me archaic? I don’t think so. Time may march on, but we’re the ones who make choices. And choices aren’t supposed to be based on old or new. The point’s supposed to be whether they’re good or bad.
Especially when there’s more than twinkle lights at stake.
The Future isn’t a goal. It’s just an occasion. How we each play our parts is the crucial issue.
Which brings us to Ebenezer Scrooge.
If “A Christmas Carol” were written today from a 21st-century perspective, Scrooge would encounter two spirits. The Ghost of Icons Present would inform him that the Past is simply too last-century and has therefore been cut from the cast. The Ghost of Paradigms Yet to Come would follow up by trumpeting the unprecedented golden age where we’ll all be connected by wires and electromagnetic waves. Kind of like telephones and radios.
Does anybody really believe that human nature is likely to change as more of us get iPhones? Does anybody really believe that millions of people tweeting what they had for breakfast or how they feel about which 15-minute dancing celebrity made it to the next round actually advances civilization?
Anyone who tells you that technology has a place in education today is right, the same way it had a place when ballpoints replaced inkwells. But smartboards won’t make us smarter. They won’t cure apathy and ignorance any more than microwave ovens have put an end to greed and famine. The human mind hasn’t mysteriously evolved neurologically over the last couple of decades so that it can’t learn without being plugged into something.
I’d never argue that I’ve mastered the art of teaching, but the tools of the trade — questions, stories, drama, debate, even reformers’ chief bogeymen, lecture and memorization — aren’t new. Socrates could no doubt teach me more about teaching than all the education experts currently touring the country, and he’s been dead for more than 1,000 years.
What we teach our kids will always need revision as our knowledge changes. But as impressed as we may be with the past 40 years, I think we overestimate our contribution to the wisdom of the ages. Most of what I learned in school is still true, and most of it still needs to be taught.
The real problem
All the computers, all the innovative workshops, and all the curriculum committees in the world won’t cure our disease. They won’t even fix our schools. Even worse, they distract us. They foster the illusion that we’re making progress when we’re not. That’s because schools, with all their faults, aren’t our real problem.
Don’t misunderstand. I didn’t attend any rallies on the Mall. And I’m not living in the past. I work with the present and the future every day.
Schools and the society they serve are foundering today in a vain attempt to simultaneously ignore and compensate for an epidemic of irresponsibility that’s spanned a generation. For 40 years we’ve gratified ourselves. Along the way, too often we’ve sacrificed our children. Sadder still, we’ve made them part of the problem.
It’s not that we meant any harm. Most of us didn’t. But we were kidding ourselves all the same. Now the debt’s come due, and it’s time to pay the piper.
Who taught our children manners? Manners — there’s an archaic word. Yet who suffers in a rude world more than children? How can ideas survive in a leaderless society that can’t conduct a civil conversation?
How can our children learn about families in a culture where marriage is on the verge of becoming an anomaly? We preached free love, we meant free sex, and we brought down upon ourselves and upon our children a world of promiscuity and mistrust.
We mocked initiative. We disdained the work ethic. Only now we don’t work so well anymore. Who will teach our children diligence and perseverance?
Behold the future.
“If it feels good, do it” has come back to haunt us.
Just like Scrooge’s spirits.
The shadows of the things to come terrified Scrooge. But “A Christmas Carol” is a hopeful story because, despite the hurt and harm of his past, Scrooge resolved to make his present different.
Then he made his words deeds. And so he saved his future.
There remains that same hope for us.
Peter Berger, AKA Poor Elijah, teaches English in Weathersfield, Vt.