Headmaster’s Thoughts – May 2010

I hear a lot of concerns from parents about computers and how their usage affects their children. They see their children retreat into an isolated world that allows them only to engage themselves and to shut off social interaction with family members. They see an absorption and a distraction that distances child from parent, particularly in the form of fantasy games and abbreviated coded messages (OMG, etc.) between adolescents. The traditional values of an education-oriented family seem to be at odds with this new technology.


I am reminded of Plato quoting Socrates in Phaedrus. (As Yogi Berra so eloquently put it, “It’s déjà vu all over again.”) I know this reference sounds obscure, but bear with me on this one. Plato tells us that Socrates specifically talks about a new invention by Thoth, an ancient god who invented—among other things—numbers, astronomy, and dice.  I like the dice bit.


So Thoth comes to Thamus, the King of Egypt, and says, “I have got a winner.” (Now I sound like Mel Brooks’ “Two Thousand Year Old Man”).  “I’ve got a new item, a hot commodity, a sure fire hit; I call it WRITING.”


And Thamus asks Thoth (I think Socrates had a lisp), “What does it do?”


And Thoth replies that “writing” will make people wiser and be able to permanently preserve their memories. “You can write down stuff and the stuff will be remembered.” (I have taken a little poetic license with Socrates’ words here.)


Anyway, Thamus, cautious king that he is, strongly rejects the new technology of writing and offers numerous reasons justifying his determination. He argues that writing will, in fact, produce forgetfulness because no one will need to remember events in their head when they can look them up on paper.  And as for wisdom, instead of getting information from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, i.e. a real observer, you could get it from a second-hand source who may not have witnessed anything; the oral tradition will be destroyed. Furthermore, this new invention will do away with the need for the guiding hand of teachers because students can (perish the thought) look things up for themselves; it will lead to rote-learning without real understanding.  And the social bonds among the family will disappear as children go off and read all by themselves; they can get too absorbed in long pieces of writing called “books.”  And, worst of all, some people may believe that, because something is written, therefore it is the truth.


It is, by the way, obvious that Socrates is in Thamus’ corner and agrees with his argument.  Since Socrates made his living by teaching orally to his students and never wrote a word himself, one can see that, from a business perspective, he has every right to regret the invention of writing.


Of course, the “déjà vu” comes in hearing, in Thamus’ words, some of the current concerns and arguments against computers and their impact on our social and intellectual lives.  All of this proves to me that there are positives and negatives with all progress in technology. One cannot imagine our world without the written word.  It is inconceivable that we would have our way of life without writing, and, like most people, I do get joyfully absorbed in reading books.  I WRITE these “Thoughts” every month, which may reveal just a few of my feelings about the subject.  Writing is the greatest communicative tool that enables us to learn from past and present generations.


So perhaps you might remember Thamus and Thoth when computer technology worries you in how it affects your child.  I share the concern, partly out of pure insecurity because I was an adult before computers came on the market, and so I bridge a pre-computer and post-computer world. My generation will soon die out, leaving our children who have lived entirely in the post-computer world. Our children intuitively accept computers as a positive technology that will continue to redefine their world. Computers are still evolving, and their increasing presence does not worry our students in the least.  It worries me because I have no idea where the technology will lead.  I worry about abusive sites for children, pornography, graphic violent games, and all. And there are times when faced with my inadequate ability to manipulate my computer, cell phone, GPS, etc., I feel confused and strangely disconnected from the young people who effortlessly show me how to make the machine work successfully. How do they know so much?


But in my heart of hearts I know that just as there are enormous benefits in “writing,” so there are enormous benefits in the new technology of computers. The fact that I have not yet fully come to terms with the major changes that have occurred in my lifetime is my problem. I feel a bit like Thamus, an “ancient” who is resistant to new technology, although I have no doubt that Thamus was completely in the wrong.


Of course you do not have to buy Phaedrus to read the story of the discovery of writing. Don’t bother to actually get the book; it is long and, at times, tedious. Just go to Google, input “Thoth/Thamus,” and the search engine will produce many versions of Plato’s description of the myth, with comments by distinguished authors and associated writings. One thousand eight hundred and eighty (1,880) references.  That, in itself, frightens me.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster
E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org

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