Curiosity, essential to learning, is threatened by social media

The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, Claude picked up Hugo in Rochester and together they drove through Canada to their grandparents’ home in Northern Michigan. On their way, they listened to 1984. Hugo is taking a class on George Orwell, and Claude is reading along.

The rest of us also arrived on Tuesday, but much later, having headed out on the 450-mile trip after school let out. And then, like many families, we cooked, ate and did dishes. And repeat. But in other ways, we strayed from the presumed Thanksgiving conventions (as probably every family does).

American Gothic, Graveside

Wednesday morning, the boys helped bury a body at the city cemetery. As soon as each of them was big enough to hold a shovel, they have helped their grandpa, the city sexton, in the graveyard. It’s there that they’ve come to know their grandpa, and they all enjoy the time together.

Other than the Macy’s Parade, the television stays tuned to Turner Classic Movies. It’s like another welcome guest for the long weekend. The movies on TCM provide crack-sharp dialogue, grand song-and-dance sequences from the Depression era and visually saturated Technicolor musicals from the postwar decades. Who can resist?

Each day, Hugo and I walked the dogs along Lake Michigan. With summer tourists long gone, Petoskey stones, which are unique to Northern Michigan, are as easy to find as fleas on a squirrel. Walking on water-smoothed stones, their colors vibrant when wet, my boy and I chatted. Loud waves crashed on the shore and periodically large ones chased us back, flooding a spot where we were just standing.

We always bring board games, but inevitably play euchre every night. Our games are loud, with players swearing and laughing. Grandma is a euchre shark and will not hesitate to take someone’s seat without invitation. As she’s not one to relax, we love it when she joins us.

I enjoy my young adult children. We share many interests and regularly talk about politics, art, music, literature, science and more. Their knowledge of an array of topics is both broad and deep and I learn many things from my sons.

I assumed most families with young adult children were similar to ours. Then I began teaching college freshmen. Oh, I’ve taught them before, but not since I was in graduate school, and the world is a different place than it was a decade ago.

Adults have always complained about younger generations. Socrates, who lived in the 5th century B.C.E., said, “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households.”

But I love working with 15- to 25-year-olds. Their frontal lobes are connecting to the rest of their brains and the ability for complex thinking explodes. Think of the stereotype of college students sitting around saying things like, “Dude, if the universe is expanding, where is it expanding to? Whoa!”

Back when music was distributed on albums, and later CDs, most purchases were made by 16- to 26-year-olds. This age group has always been a sponge not just for information, but also art, ideas and complex concepts. It’s no coincidence most undergraduate college students are 18 to 22 years old.

The household I grew up in did not expose me to culture, literature, philosophy or art. Though we regularly stayed with family in Chicago, the only museums I visited were on school field trips.

But I was curious and by high school, I was reading voraciously, not just contemporary fiction, but also classics. I also watched movies, again, both new releases and classics. I remember crying inconsolably at 17 after watching Barbara Stanwyck in “Stella Dallas.”

My point is, even without parents presenting the lusciousness of reading good books, watching good movies, studying both history and current events, curious teens can, and often do, find these treasures on their own. Or at least they did.

My classes are filled with bright students. However, when I ask them if they’ve read relatively well-known young adult books, most say no. When I ask if they’ve watched relatively recent movies, most say no. And then there’s music.

In  The Glass Castle, we read about a segregated swimming pool. I recounted the story of management at a Las Vegas casino ordering a pool be drained of its water after a black entertainer swam in it. I mistakenly thought the swimmer was Nat King Cole (it was Sammy Davis Jr.) and asked my 40 students if they know who he was.

Not a one. “OK,” I said, “what about his daughter, Natalie Cole?” Nope, even though she died just three years ago, none of my students knew either of the famous Coles.

I now play music as my students enter the classroom. We’ve listened to many jazz icons — Getz, Davis, Fitzgerald and, of course, Nat King Cole. “Shall we start with a little music?” I ask when I enter the classroom and, to my heart’s delight, my students say yes.

For extra credit, I bring in my New York Times Sunday paper, back copies of the New Yorker, the Smithsonian, the Atlantic and more. For five points, they read an article and write a couple of paragraphs describing the content and analyzing the writing. Several have told me it’s the first time they’ve read a newspaper.

My students are eager to learn; few seem to glaze over when we discuss an array of subjects from politics to graphic novels. So why haven’t they found their way to the brain banquet of arts, history and culture? To answer this, I gave a brief lecture on Karl Marx.

“Opiate of the masses” is how Marx described religion. Were he alive today, he may still hold to his definition, but more than religion, I also think he’d zero in on the tamping down of curiosity caused by smartphones combined with social media. We’re all susceptible to these time vampires, myself included.

When they were in high school, two of my sons switched their smartphones back to basic cellphones because it was affecting their ability to do other things — including homework. I have at least one student in my classes whose deep addiction to his phone parallels the symptoms of drug addiction.

I wish I had a global solution for this very real problem. What I do have is advice for parents: Limit the time your children spend with screens. Do not give them smartphones when they are teenagers. No matter what their peers think, a child without a smartphone is not missing out on anything, but gaining everything.

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