do we need a phonograph in my classroom?

Last night, we gathered around a small fire in our back yard.  The necessity of warmth forces us to connect.  A few of our neighbors come by.  For all the talk of social networking, this is our true social network.  Before we had pen pal sites, we had fire pits and front porches and potlucks.

Earlier this week a representative from the district office pulled me aside and eagerly expounded upon a great pencil initiative.  It's not simply pencil-based, but multimedia.  Kodak cameras, phonographs, Edison projectors, perhaps even an instant connection to a telegraph.  "Tom, we're looking toward your classroom as the prototype for a Twentieth Century Classroom."

"That sounds really intriguing, but shouldn't we wait until the twentieth century so that we're all in the same century together. I mean it might be lonely in a classroom-based time machine." I responded.

He stared at me blankly.

"It was a joke," I tell him.  He offers a sympathy chuckle. It was a bad joke, but it was the best I had.  Just about every subject is taboo when talking to an edu-crat.

"So, look, we'll be adding a few phonographs in the next week.  We want to test some of this technology out on you first before launching the initiative." Something about this process leaves me feeling as though my students are the newest lab rats. I teach children, not data.  I always want to keep that distinction.


I spent a large part of my life in Kansas.  Everything is bigger and smaller when you can see the horizon.  Perhaps it's an optical illusion that the sun becomes massive.  I think it's an illusion that it was ever small in the first place.

We knew the land and the dirt and weather.  People have called it a simple life, but that's not exactly the term.  Life was complex.  Soil was complex.  We knew the names of most species that lived in our little ecosystem and our neighbors knew something of humanity that I've already lost.  I think you sometimes have to live in a smaller place to get a bigger picture.

So now our home is in a tiny enclave of a large urban center.  We can't see the stars.  My daughter will grow up without the freedom to walk out into a pitch-black night and stare into the universe.  I've heard that light pollution can cause animals to lose their orientation.  I wonder if that's what's happening to us. We start to believe that sky scrapers are larger than the very star that gives us life and warmth and light.


Phonographs, photographs and telegraphs present a subtle lie that life belongs on a graph.  Our neighborhood is an a grid, sending us electricity in promise of progress. It's less about progress than progression through compression.

Life on a graph is compressed.  A phonograph extracts sound that is meant for a concert hall and compresses it into a machine.  We lose a sense of the quality in exchange for portability and permanence.  The same goes for a photograph.  It's a two-dimensional, black and white replica of life. Or a telegraph - chop the information into patterns of beeps in exchange for instant messaging (teaching us the lie that the urgent is the same as the important).  For what it's worth, I have a hunch that the mind can produce permanent and portable images and sound, but it's intangible and untrustworthy.

The mind is mythology and pictures are prose, but I am convinced that truth is not always real and reality is not always true. If the twentieth century is simply more compression and portability and constant progression without ever feeling the connection to the land, I'm not sure that I'm fit for it.  If we are willing to exchange connection with one another for connection to to devices, then I think it's a Faustian exchange and I'm not sure I'm the teacher to lead this "cutting edge" reform. Especially when no one is asking "who and what are we cutting?" (Is it us? Is it information? Is it the land? Is it sound and space and time that we cut through?)

A couple of days ago, I saw my wife speaking softly into the mouth of a telephone.  She was at home, but she was somewhere else. Her hand gently held its mechanical mouth.  I don't fault her for wanting to talk to her parents, but in that moment, I was jealous.  It should have been my mouth she caressed and my lips she kissed.

A century from now, we'll probably have moving pictures at the palm of our hands.  We'll have instant messaging and we'll probably have a way to plug a tiny phonograph into our ears to hear thousands of songs. Life will be so compressed that people won't even have a reason to stare out into the stars or watch the son fall into the horizon or sit around a fire and tell stories.

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