Campus Life

Reboot Your Life

Our world is frantic. There is very little time for repose and reflection. It seems as though everything is hurtling toward some unknown, undefined goal that requires constant motion and agitation. This situation is especially evident in the young generation of today's high school and college students.

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Have you ever noticed that on TV network newscasts, whenever they show a shot of college students walking across campus, at least half the kids are talking on cell phones or looking zombie-like, entranced by their iPods?


This manic drive to remain "plugged in" has disrupted the natural contemplative order of things. Attention spans are getting shorter. Just ask any college professor who looks out across his class of fiddling fingers and thumbs, as his students Twitter and text their friends about their plans to upgrade their current phone and/or calling plan. It can be maddening.

That's why I was so heartened the orther day when I read about one college president who issued a big "Time out! call.

College asks students to power down, contemplate

By ALAN SCHER ZAGIER

The Associated Press

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Dianne Lynch wanted to give the students of Stephens College a break from the constant digital communication that pervades their generation. So she asked them to put their phones and computers away and revive the 176-year-old school's dormant tradition of vespers services.

On a bitterly cold December night, with the start of final exams just hours away, about 75 of Stephens' 766 undergraduates grudgingly piled their cell phones into collection baskets and filed into the school's candlelit chapel, where they did little but sit, silently. For an hour, not an iPod ear bud could be seen. There were no fingers flying on tiny computer keyboards, no chats with unseen intimates.

Alexis Dornseif, a senior from suburban St. Louis majoring in fashion marketing and management, said she needed time away from her busy life.

"Sometimes it's really overwhelming," she said. "It's good to have time to think, to not worry about what's going on tomorrow."

Lynch, the president of the women's college, is no technophobe. Her doctorate research focused on "digital natives," teenagers who grew up with "the Internet as a part of their operating assumption in the world." She knows most of her students consider their cell phones a social necessity. The Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project has found that 82 percent of 16- and 17-year-olds own cell phones. Ninety-four percent of teens spend time online.

But Lynch fears all that time spent in the 21st century's town square leaves few opportunities for clutter-free thought. She wants the students to also pursue the more elusive state of mind that comes with silence.

Several other schools are encouraging technology-free introspection. Amherst College in Massachusetts hosted a "Day of Mindfulness" this year, featuring yoga and meditation and a lecture on information technology and the contemplative mind entitled "No Time to Think."

"Students welcome it," said Amherst physics professor Arthur Zajonc, director of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society. "It's a complement to the very hurried world of gadgets they normally live in."

At Stephens, Lynch hit on the idea for reviving vespers after an alumnae group regaled her with fond memories of Sunday nights in the school chapel. Once a Baptist school but now secular, Stephens required vespers services as often as four times each week starting in 1920.

"Just a wonderful opportunity to calm down," said Neel Stallings, a career-development consultant in Charlotte, N.C., who graduated from Stephens in 1967. "To have a place to go to just tune out all of the extra noise, and to tune into yourself, was the most valuable thing."

By the late 1960s, vespers had become more spiritual than religious, no longer mandatory and held only once a week. By the 1980s the program was gone.

The new vespers program is voluntary, at least for now. Lynch hopes to have the services twice a month, to reinforce the school's mission of teaching young women to be self-reliant.

"You will need to be able to sit, to be quiet, to be alone with yourself, to have those moments of self-reflection," she said.

Those moments are infrequent on the modern college campus. Seconds after the end of the first revived vespers service, students got their cell phones back, and the flickering assortment of screens replaced the need for mood-setting candlelight.

All I can say to that is, "Amen, President Lynch!"

And, as if we needed more evidence of the corrosive effect of cell phone-induced distraction, here's an especially pertinent article from the Toronto Star:

Experts: Texting spells the demise of attention span

Use of cellphones to send messages in class, meetings undermines importance placed on group endeavour, they say

It's not just schools that should consider banning cellphones, some family experts warn.

The global popularity of the quick-hit digital dispatch could spell the demise of old-fashioned face time and rewrite how people connect in their daily life, says Alan Mirabelli, executive director of the Vanier Institute of the Family in Ottawa.

Sure, cells are great for an emergency, he admits, but they also feed into a growing need for distraction and shrinking attention span, and a disrespect for group activity, whether a class or corporate meeting.

"Couples end up in marriage counselling because they can't get an appointment in their partner's BlackBerry. You see 80 per cent of executives text messaging during meetings.

"Banning cellphones in school is just the tip of the iceberg. The bigger dialogue is how technology is redefining the way we connect with one another," said Mirabelli, whose non-profit group researches family trends.

"It's all about context. Why are we outraged when a cell goes off in a movie theatre – but not in a meeting or class?"

The Toronto District School Board is one of a number across North America considering banning students from using cellphones in classrooms and hallways. Board staff launched a study this week on how such a ban might work, and could vote on a policy as early as April.

The Dufferin-Peel Catholic District School Board banned cells this week during school and after-school activities.

Mirabelli says this should be just the start of the discussion.

"Look at the parallels – students text message in class and executives text message during meetings. What kind of importance is being given anywhere these days to group endeavour?" asked Mirabelli. "Have we lost the self-discipline to pay attention long enough to master a new idea? To what extent does our desire to be distracted interfere with learning?"

The notion of banning cellphones in school draws fire from parents who argue their busy schedules make them a logistical convenience, especially for single mothers juggling work and home responsibilities.

Still, the extent to which children use cellphones outstrips any safety consideration, said media analyst Shari Graydon, author of two children's books on media and technology.

Graydon understands parents might want that line of communication in light of reports of child abductions and school shootings in the media.

"Although those incidents are extremely rare they get enormous coverage. So all it takes is one story close enough to home for a parent to say, `My God, what would I do if my kid were attending Dawson College?'

"But there's absolutely no excuse for a kid in the classroom to have his or her cellphone on during the class."

Toronto teachers' union president Doug Jolliffe doesn't allow cellphones in his executive meetings and doesn't believe they belong in class, either.

It's not just because of concerns about images broadcast over the Internet of enraged teachers or school fights, said the president of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation in Toronto. The issue strikes at the very relationship between teacher and class.

"You're there for a purpose, you're not there as a sideline," said Jolliffe.

Not everyone opposes personal electronic devices in school.

"The use of cellphones is part of an exciting, creative new fabric of social networking, along with YouTube and MySpace and FaceBook, and we should be exploring it, not limiting it," said education professor Megan Boler, whose specialty is the social effect of new technology.

"I have a real issue around schools taking a policing role with new technology like cell phones and Internet use.

"I understand there's the downside of classroom disruption, but we should ramp up the curriculum on media literacy and have students discuss their use, rather than ban them."

What's the cure here? Maybe a 12-step program. First of all, for all you addicted high schoolers and college students out there, my Step 1 would be: Turn off your phones for one hour every evening.

During that hour, read a book! Then, as your attention span begins to expand and you find yourself being drawn into the quiet, relaxing lilt of reflective reading, you'll discovery a whole new world: your imagination, a world where you can retreat for some peace and harmony, away from this clangorous world we live in. You'll be surprised what a nice place it is.

Maybe in subsequent postings here I'll detail the remaining 11 steps of my Peace in The Valley recovery program. Peace and quiet: Don't leave home without it.

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