Last Thursday as I put together the School Meeting Agenda I noticed that it was thin - it outlined what would surely be a quick and boring meeting. I wanted something more interesting, so I thoughtlessly sponsored a motion to ban the use of smart phones, tablets, and similar devices at school, chuckling to myself. I posted the agenda in the Lounge Extension, and went about my day. Soon, students began addressing me, “Why the hell are you sponsoring that motion, Matthew?” To some I answered with another self-satisfied chuckle, to some I said, “I don’t really support it, but I will argue for it,” and once I even said, “Because I think it’s something we should do.” Later, sitting in JC, I heard an extended clamor out in the lounge (and, sure enough, the following day JC would process a complaint about a mob whipping up opposition to the motion in a “disturbingly noisy” fashion), and a five year old girl cautiously entered JC to inform me that the motion I had made “was making people cry.” She also said that personally she was upset because she believed that I would never be elected as staff again. I laughed, but this time without the self-congratulatory feeling, and then I started to sweat a little.
A half hour later I was still in JC. Notes deriding the motion began appearing underneath the door. One said that under no circumstances would I be allowed to “alienate our inalienable rights,” and that the “Sons of Sudbury would rise in opposition to The Motion.” At one o’clock, we concluded JC and headed into the meeting room. Nearly the entire student body was already there waiting. I sat in my place at the front facing the room (where the JC clerk always sits next to the School Meeting Chair), and felt the heat of the crowd. At this point I thought I had two possible courses of action: I could withdraw the motion, because I didn’t actually believe in its merit and my tomfoolery had already caused enough strife, or I could argue for the motion as compellingly as I possibly could, and continue the charade through to the end; I began jotting notes of things I might say in support of the motion. I decided not to deny the assembled the satisfaction of blowing me out of the water.
When the motion came up, nearly everyone in the room raised their hands to speak. Early on, I was asked, “why?” I delivered a little speech along the lines of: “I believe these devices are dangerous; they are a blight. An important component of Sudbury education is the occasional occurrence of boredom. The benefits of boredom are pretty well documented (blog readers, see this) by now, and we take advantage of them here. Boredom leads to more meaningful and creative activity, it can help one to discover a genuine enthusiasm, and it provides the space for us to feel what’s happening inside of us. If we always have recourse to the our devices - that is, to an endless variety of games, information, and people to talk to - we are robbed of ourselves, really. We’ll never feel our emotions fully or properly if we can’t be alone or bored for more than a few seconds, or develop the focus needed to think at a high level. We are all becoming pawns of Silicon Valley, offering ourselves up to entities which will mercilessly take advantage of us, etc. Of the 44 people present at the meeting, most spoke, rephrasing and reframing arguments in support of freedom. Many sympathized with some points of my argument and expressed awareness of possible dangers of the proliferation of wireless devices, but told me in no uncertain terms that the motion to ban was very unwise. Here's a summary of what they said: what you're really trying to ban is fun, and that's not good. This school is based on freedom - people should be able to choose; that's what its about; It's a totally unfair imposition to tell us we can't do some particular thing. Plus, don't you know that forbidding something usually causes a backlash, as in the case of the sheltered college student who becomes an alcoholic? Besides, our use of devices is actually enriching our lives in myriad ways. A few students who don't use devices themselves also spoke vehemently against the motion. Several said they believe some SM Members in the community use devices "too much," but they don’t believe it’s the role of the School Meeting to attempt to regulate at that level.
My final comment to School Meeting was that I agreed that the motion was out of line because - besides the obvious infringement on freedom, it denies students the opportunity to learn to navigate this territory for themselves. I didn’t say this at the meeting, but I also know there’s tons of good arguments and compelling evidence by now which show that video games in particular have tremendously positive effects on kids, and there’s fascinating research out of Stanford suggesting that social network platforms like twitter encourage the development of good writing skills, from grammar to quality of information to composition. The New York Times has reported on the impressive benefits of Minecraft, in particular . Banning devices would be like banning books, or conversation, or play.
After the vote, a few SM members remained in the meeting to discuss what had just happened. One staff expressed some mild concern about the legitimacy of a staff member at our school making this kind of motion - sort of like the “cooking something up” for students that happens in traditional schools - an artificial “educational” experience. I feel I did infringe on students’ freedom, tricking them into pausing their activity to come to a meeting to ensure a bad motion didn’t pass (that wouldn’t have passed anyway). But I enjoyed it, and I think others did too. I still feel ambivalent about it. What does everyone think?