10.3. Sex, the Internet, and Educational Reform
"One of the most thorough reports ever produced on protecting children from Internet pornography has concluded that neither tougher laws nor new technology alone can solve the problem" so the New York Times led off a story headlined, "No Easy Fixes Are Seen to Curb Sex-Site Access" (May 3, 2002). The mentioned report, "Youth, Pornography, and the Internet," was issued by the National Research Council.
Former U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, chair of the committee that wrote the report, owned up to the fact that
it's not nearly as easy for an adult to supervise children who might seek or be inadvertently exposed to sexually explicit materials online as it is when such images are available in books or on the family television set.
In fact, the authors of the National Research Council report, while trying to sound helpful, seem nevertheless to have thrown in the towel. They offer this analogy:
Swimming pools can be dangerous for children. To protect them, one can install locks, put up fences, and deploy pool alarms. All of these measures are helpful, but by far the most important thing that one can do for one's children is to teach them to swim. (Thornburgh and Lin 2002)
Sounds healthy, doesn't it? The only problem is that the analogy doesn't carry over to the Internet very well. Here, by the authors' admission, the locks, fences, and alarms can't be made to work in a reliable and socially acceptable way, and the remaining advice ("teach them to swim") amounts to this: force these children to become like adults as fast as possible. (Well, presumably not like all those adults who keep the massive online pornography industry in business.) Exactly what does it mean to teach a fourth grader to stay afloat in the sordid world of online trafficking? The authors of this report offer us a solution that doesn't apply to the people we were initially concerned about namely, children suffering the lamentable backwardness, na vet , and misfortune of still being children.
It invariably seems to happen, when someone expresses concern about children on the Internet, that someone else replies, "I prefer not to shield my children artificially from reality." This always puzzles me. Why is it so difficult to see that protecting children is exactly what we must do? In fact, the need to shield the child from the fatal consequences of premature exposure to the world and to do so for an extraordinarily long time is one of the things that distinguishes humans from animals.
The relation of the nurturer to the one nurtured is not symmetrical. It means one thing to receive nurture and quite another to give nurture. Moreover, receiving nurture is not merely an unfortunate necessity, to be gotten over as quickly as possible. That end of the relationship will, by its own qualities, determine the eventual fullness of the life of the adult.
As the diffuse, all-embracing consciousness of the young child slowly contracts from the wide world into its narrow, sharp, wakeful focus in the mature ego ("out of everywhere and into here"), how much of its native world wisdom will it bring with it? Actually, the "shielding from reality" isn't that at all. It is an attempt to preserve, before it fades away entirely, the fuller reality that adults in our era all too often lose. It's an attempt to cultivate the childlike, playful, innocent, and imaginative qualities of human life so that they can produce their fruit for the adult.
Certainly the child must increasingly confront ugliness, pain, evil, and falsehood. Virtually all human growth comes through suffering. Almost everything worthwhile in the world is the fruit of suffering. I am the last person to say we should protect people from the grace of their own suffering. But if the sufferer was not allowed to discover what is every child's birthright the truth, beauty, and goodness that stand prior to and above all suffering and if he was not allowed to thrive within that bright kingdom, where will he find the courage to endure his suffering?
The problem with the Internet as a classroom tool is that it has been conceived as a universally accessible, public medium. Very little about it conduces to the organic emergence of a local, intentional environment with the sort of character that an intimate, place-based community can nurture and protect. When a Virginia law made it illegal to send pornography to children over the Internet, a U.S. District Judge threw the law out on the ground that you cannot effectively deny this material to children without in practice also denying it to adults. As the ACLU put it while arguing against Ohio's effort to install software filters in 700 public libraries to protect children from obscene material: "There is no software on the market that can target pornography and leave legitimate material alone." We might have some control over the kind of environment we create in our homes and on our streets, but we can forget this when it comes to the Internet.
Why not draw the obvious conclusion instead of walking around in circles with our hands in our pockets, whistling innocently, and gazing vaguely skyward as if to say, "Gee, isn't this a terrible puzzle? I wonder where we'll find an answer?" The real puzzle is why we have so resolutely turned away from the simple answer that is being shouted at us: the Internet just doesn't seem to be a good candidate for mediating a child's education. It makes no sense to shift our educational system over to a medium that, by its nature, allows none of the distinctions, none of the rootedness, none of the stability and predictability, none of the security, and not even any of the diversity that can so readily be fostered in places. There is, after all, no true diversity (as opposed to chaos) when there are no stable and distinct places in which different cultures can take slow and deliberate root. And, to put it bluntly, there is no sanity in an educational environment unpredictably subject to the extreme of pornographic invasion.
All of which brings me to this. Aren't we about due for a new, multi-billion-dollar educational fad? Well, I happen to have a program in mind that is neither faddish nor costly. In fact, it would reduce educational spending by many billions of dollars, simplify the classroom, remove from teachers the crushing burden and distraction of special training unrelated to their educational interests, give students much more time to occupy themselves with educational content, increase teacher pay, allow for lower student-teacher ratios, and, incidentally, put an end to the absurdity whereby parents are asked to sign off on legal immunity for schools that deliberately put children in harm's way.
Think about it. Educators could breathe again. If anyone had realistically offered such an array of benefits ten years ago before the Internet hit the educational scene with full force it would have been considered an unparalleled gift from heaven. Of course, the gift couldn't have been offered ten years ago. We needed a decade of collective insanity first. But now the gift can be offered, it is perfectly realistic, and it requires only the simplest imaginable reform: take all those computers out of the classroom and send them back to the manufacturers for recycling.