Lessons from the Poetry Café

Every week during school I go to the third grade Poetry Café, where we all read a poem and explain why we chose it. By the end of the year, the third graders have developed an ear for language–its rhythms and cadences–and an appreciation for the written and spoken word. They learn that language is powerful and limitless and not to be stunted.

In stark contrast is a new app called Yik Yak, from which, by the way, no good can come. Yik Yak with its quick anonymous postings seems to embody how language can be used to hurt and demean others. This made me think about technology and adolescents, and its effect on their brains and use of language.

Far from being a Luddite, I am a fan of technology, but as the psychotherapist Michael Hausauer notes, adolescents and other young adults have a “terrific interest in knowing what’s going on in the lives of their peers, coupled with a terrific anxiety about being out of the loop. If they stop sending messages, they risk becoming invisible.”

6497720551_79c434a2a0Often the pressure to be connected and to respond instantly leaves one little time to really think, and I would add, little time to think about language, and how to write. Email and texting is fine for the quick “what time should we meet?” but anything more should be communicated face to face. But unfortunately people increasingly gravitate toward technologies that allow us to interact quickly while inattentive or absent. Our excuse is always the same — we’d love to talk, but there just isn’t time. Send us an e-mail or text, and we’ll get back to you.

The effect of social media is often to reduce language and thereby reduce thought to its most simplistic form, taking out nuance, subtlety and higher thinking. But that’s the point, you might argue. They are supposed to be quick and brief. And I would quote Hausauer: “for human beings language is the primary vessel of conscious thought, particularly higher forms of thought, and the new technologies that restructure language tend to exert the strongest influence over our intellectual lives.” So I pose the question: If writing heightens consciousness, what effect does the truncated tapping of a Twitter message have on our language, thinking and intellectual process?

My great fear in all of this is not about social media in and of itself, but in what it is doing to our minds. In her book Alone Together, MIT researcher and professor, Sherry Turkle makes the interesting observation that “Adolescents need to learn empathic skills, to think about values and identity, to manage and express feelings, but technology has changed the rules.” Hard to develop empathy over email or Twitter, and I do worry that sometimes we don’t have time for friends except if they’re online, which leads to greater isolation, and so we seek more online connections, leading to more isolation. I would argue that we all need to write more, and for sustained concentration and deep thinking, nothing can replace reading.

466413372_cb2dd56e9d_oThis is really my plea for reading books. They open minds to broad new frontiers of thought and expression, allowing us to enter other worlds, to revel in other cultures and to think deeply and analytically. Dan Hurley in The Guardian wrote that after three years interviewing psychologists and neuroscientists around the world, he concluded, “reading and intelligence have a relationship so close as to be symbiotic.”

Watching the delight as young students see the world expand through language, I am reminded that we need to hold onto that delight over the years, and in fact nurture it further through reading.

I wish you all a joyful, relaxing summer and ask you to take time to disconnect and then to read–and read some more.

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