It is the mark of a superior mind, they say, if it can hold and consider two seemingly contradictory ideas at the same time.
In that spirit, reconcile, if you can, these two statements, both of which are heavily in the winds these days:
1. Our children must be protected from the evils present on the Internet.
2. Every school in the nation must be wired and connected to the Internet to prepare us for the 21st century.
At this writing, in mid-April, the Department of Justice is in court, trying to explain why the Communications Decency Act isn't an unconstitutional abridgment of free speech. Meanwhile, the White House-which signed the Telecommunications Act that includes the CDA, and which is in direct control of the Department of Justice-is encouraging a coalition of businesses and private citizens to fund the wiring of every school in the country.
In most localities, the best place to find children is in a school. If the Internet is so dangerous, full of gremlins and goblins and unclean thoughts, why in the world would anyone want to put access to it in the one place where kids are most likely to be? It sounds like a new twist to an old joke. Restaurant Patron 1: "The food here is terrible!" Restaurant Patron 2: "Yes-and such small portions of it!" Yes, the Internet is a bad place, so we should put it within reach of every school child.
I realize this is an election year, but this is a particularly ugly straddle.
Perhaps I wouldn't be so confused if I believed schools could provide as good or better supervision of kids' use of the net as parents could. But I don't believe that for a second. Typical public school teachers are burdened by large classes, onerous paperwork, ill-maintained classrooms, and ancient textbooks. In many places, even teaching the basics is a challenge. Assuming that a teacher can learn enough about the net to pass along the knowledge, asking the teacher to also supervise kids as they surf the net is really beyond the bounds of reason.
So should we ban the net from schools? Quite the opposite. We should call in the cable-pullers and declare full speed ahead.
Remember when you were a kid and had to write a report for school? For many of us, "research" consisted of going to the library, pulling down the nearest encyclopedia (or the Reader's Guide, if we were really ambitious), photocopying what we found, and paraphrasing liberally. What digging we did was constrained by the resources of the library we worked in. If the library wasn't any good, the encyclopedias were old and the magazine selection was slim. At best, our reports were three or four steps removed from authoritative source material. Whatever we were learning, research skills were not high on the list.
The Internet, however, is the world biggest library. Sure, there's plenty of garbage online (as well as those timesaving foes of teachers everywhere, Monarch Notes). But there also is access to all major (and most minor) reference and academic collections in the world. The material isn't necessarily easy to get at. It's surely harder than reaching up to a shelf and dragging down Volume VIII. What a great way to learn research skills.
The drive to wire schools is called the National Education Technology Initiative, or NETI (see "Clinton Bids on the Future," May, page
22). It's being led by a man named Jay Samit, the president of CD-ROM publisher Jasmine Multimedia. NETI has been endorsed by the White House, but there's no public money involved. For most of this year, Jay has been running around getting private business to kick in. He's lined up the likes of Intel Corp., AST Computer, and CMP Publications Inc. (parent company of this magazine)
Jay's a dad, and it was a school assignment for his daughter that brought home to him the educational possibilities of the net. Like many of us when we were in school, Jay's kid had to do a report on a disease; she picked leprosy. Rather than doing the encyclopedia thing, the Samits went online. They found medical journal articles-a bit over the top for a third-grade report-but they also found Web pages put up by leper colonies. One of those sites had conferencing abilities, and Jay's daughter found herself in conversation with a victim of the disease, who added a human dimension that no encyclopedia or journal article could ever hope to bring.
I would hazard a guess that this 9-year-old girl will remember what she learned from this report a lot longer than you or I did about a school report. She may remember things about the disease, but I'll bet what sticks in her mind even more will be a sense of the expanding world around her.
So tell me again how the Internet is bad for kids. Oh yeah-kids need to be protected from all the inappropriate stuff on the net.
Well, kids need to be protected everywhere. Kids need to be taught not to talk to strangers, not to cross the street without looking both ways, and not to wander too far from home without checking in. They need to know the difference between right and wrong, not to scrawl graffiti on walls, and not to eat too many M&Ms before dinner.
There's a part of me that wonders if the proponents of shielding understand that the net is like a library even better than the netophiles do. It's not like free libraries-one of the great successes of the American experiment-have been free of controversy. Hardly a year goes by without some parent complaining about the easy availability to kids of Huck Finn adventures or Anne Frank's diary. And as I've written before in this space, I have little patience for those who would "protect" children from literature.
There is certainly a place for children's libraries, just as there is a place for child-safe areas on the net. Putting a first or second grader on the Internet strikes me as mostly inappropriate, but for much of the same reason as taking one to an Edward Albee play would be inappropriate; there might not be much damage done, but the kid (not to mention most adults) probably wouldn't understand what's going on anyway. What's great about most kids of keyboard age is that most of them, even when left to their own devices, can pretty much figure out when they've gotten into something over their heads, if only in retrospect.
Parents are the best people to provide that moral compass, but schools have a powerful socializing effect, too. It's the current vogue to judge our schools on the subject matter that gets crammed into students' heads. Standardized tests are the yardstick, and woe betide the school or student that comes in below the 50th percentile. But as important, if not more important, is the role of school as socializing agent. Call it "citizenship," or "getting along with others," or something like that. It's really about "growing up right."
Just as your kids don't talk to strangers, your kids need to be taught not to give out personal information online. Just as you teach your kids that some magazines aren't appropriate for them, you need to teach them that there are some things they shouldn't look at online. Just as you tell your kids that there are bad people in the world, you need to tell them there are some bad people online. I've said it before, and it's worth repeating: Nothing happens online that doesn't also happen in the real world. You can't shelter your kids from the real world; the best you can do is give them the tools to deal with it. The same is true of the net.
So both are true. Our kids do need to be protected from the net. And the net should be deployed in every school in the nation. The two goals aren't opposite. They are, instead, both harbingers of the world to come.