The Children of the Web

by Bill Purdin on April 21, 2011

They seem to be alive, but it’s more complicated than that. They seem to be human, but these are not your grandfather’s children, that’s for sure. They have grown up plugged in. They have grown up accessing an information network so vast that if you take everything everyone who ever lived ever knew up to the point at which these kids started plugging in, it would’t even reach up to the intellectual knees of this generation. They really do know everything.

They sit in expensive classrooms in the nation’s best colleges and listen to music, while texting constantly with friends, while surfing their Internet with a stream of pseudo-consciousness that may include, tangentially, the content of the course they are sitting in and their parents are paying for … or maybe not.

They routinely navigate among the rocks and shoals of success and failure, negotiating success with their educators, parents, friends and their entire, complex network of (for want of a better word) “associates.” Friendship, love, work, learning, play, and sex are all redefined, not with a 60s-style revolution, but in a sudden, universal acceptance of a blending of technology and human nature that has left everyone else outside looking in. In some ephocal way, while we were not looking – almost like losing a child in a department store – we have lost them all and there is no going back now. The technosphere which they inhabit by the millions and millions is beyond our reach. They look up and nod, or confront us with the belligerence of being “smarter” than us, and then resubmerge into the virtual world where their chronological age, their lack of experience, their disdain of their version of illegal aliens (adults) are all essential elements of their strength n numbers and their unassailable independence from actually facing reality.

Welcome to the children of the web. This generation has warped into a secret adulthood where no generation has gone before. They are writing the history and the context of the future themselves, perhaps like the monkey banging away at a typewriter who eventually writes a coincidental novel. They are the new version of runaways. This generation has turned its back on tradition without fanfare or dramatic argument. In true Nike form, they just did it.

The youngest of this Generationweb, is now approaching their senior year in college. What happens next will be very little different. Like a clean car emerging from the automatic carwash, these newly minted graduates will face the traditional theory-vs.-reality reality: they will now have to do something on their own. The pressures of not wanting to go home again, and not wanted to be coming home again, places them firmly on the path to … to … what?

In their world of remote contact: Internet, Facebook, texting where even the slightly more intimate connection of a phone call is shunned as “so yesterday,” (they won’t leave voicemails, either) there is a premium on not having eye contact or actual contact, especially outside their personal circle. Social networking teaches a closed system of interaction. You are either a friend or you are out. All arrangements are made ahead of time, removing some of the risk of face-to-face contact. Meeting with actual people is negotiated: terms settled ahead of time. One of the characteristics of this generation is that when things don’t go as planned they bolt. Eye contact is not all that common, and to be avoided, except with one’s accepted intimates. The break ups in this arrangement can be incendiary and permanent. Burning bridges is required and routine. To be cut off from your circle is a form of death. Suicides are up. Bullying is a major problem. If you break the rules, it can be unforgivable and devastating. Employment-ready for the real world these young people are not. They have lived in a rarified world of exclusiveness. Not as in rich and exclusive, but as in small and exclusive. Because of the intensely-focused nature of a 5,000 text-a-month existence, these people live in tight-knit, highly-interactive and same-minded world of their own. It is very similar to any societal group based on separation from unlikes: racists, cultists, religious fanatics, political extremists, supremacists, and revolutionaries. All of these groups live and have lived in similarly organized existences. But these are our children, right? But do they have our values? Maybe. If they do, those values have not been tested, tried, and forged in lives with lessons like ours were. No, this is a whole new breed leaving the pasture. They know more facts than we did, but they know far less life than we did at their age. They know what sex is and yet they not know what love is and what love is not. They know technology but do they know what it really is and how it is actually going to fit in their adult lives? Do they understand family? Country? Community? Maybe, but not the way these concepts have been understood traditionally. Their lives are so tied to “friends” that the leftover room is constricted like a overstuffed storage closet full of things to someday be concerned with when you need them. The disuse of important life tools is a problem that will overcome them in that next phase after college graduation when the real issues and decisions of real life impinge without digital pre-warnings and without pre-nogitations.

It’s ironic that the Facebook generation actually shuns face time and eye-contact. Casual interaction and chance meetings with people they don’t already know … where, they say, is that going to get them? The crux of the issue is the stenotic nature of the visual canal they are navigating on the way to the ocean of the rest of their life. They come forth as though spelunkers from the dark abyss, blinking in disbelief at the riotous colors and vast expanse before them. Unequipped will they bolt, as is their custom, or will they adjust? Will they return to that overstuffed closet of irrelevant skills and dig around in there?

What will they do when they realize their self-deception? Will they attempt to expand their virtual cocoon into this much larger circle, like an alien species building its own environment? What will they do with the world as it is? There have been many philosophies in the past that, when confronted with reality, chose to redefine it: the history of the world is written in the blood of those square pegs being shoved into humanity’s round holes. Or will this generation adroitly adapt, taking the best of their world into the world that is?

This is like a slow speed car chase or like watching the inexorable Tsunami from a safe and distant hillside. They are moving into every nook and cranny of our world. They are bringing it all with them. What they have learned. What we have taught them. The most interconnected, technological, and isolated generation in the history of mankind. In some ways they are like precious babies. In some ways they are like young frankensteins plodding awkwardly forward in total ignorance of their monstrosity.

Anyway, here they come, ready or not.

A Harvard Commencement Speech

by Bill Purdin on April 19, 2011

Thank you, Mr. Provost, members of the faculty, distinguished visitors and seniors of this year’s graduating class!

It is always an honor to be asked to be the keynote Commencement speaker here at Harvard, and as in the past, I will attempt to be worthy of your invitation and your trust.

As I have stated before, I do not believe that in reality anyone is graduating here today. While you are widely and obviously considered the most elite students in the United States and I am confident that the various curricula and other programs, curricular and extracurricular, that you have followed so faithfully for these past three or four years, have well prepared you for the jubilation that you are now feeling in this exciting and inflective moment of your transition from childhood to adulthood. But, as always, I am here, not to dampen, but to expand that jubilation through imagination and perspective, with two examples for you to consider.

Tomorrow, in Memphis, Diara Hodges, 17, will graduate as valedictorian of her senior class at East High School. She is a young African-American woman, who like all of you, looks to the future with hope and fear, with anticipation and trepidation. But, she has those visions mixed in blood and betrayal. On May 9, three years ago, she was dragged from the hallway into an empty classroom where she was intentionally beaten to death, and to finish the job, her estranged boyfriend, 14, stabbed her in the neck and chest 21 times before he left her there in the warm oozing of her own blood and went on to take an algebra test, which he aced. Diara amazingly regained consciousness and dragged herself out into the hall where a classmate helped her. She spent the next month in a hospital, including two weeks in ICU. Now, as she graduates, accepted at Vanderbilt University in premed (gynecology), she is poised, joyful, and confident. But she is not unaffected by her trauma. Trust has a different meaning for her now. “Before this happened, if I cried, it was because something happened to a dog. Maybe I was in a fantasy world. But this opened my eyes. Now I know now that violence is out there and it always will be.” She also offered an insight into the racial issues of violence and a slowly awakening societal awareness of it: “In my case it was a young black man who did this, so people didn’t pay as much attention. Then,” she stated referring to the recent rash of school shootings and attacks, “white people started doing it. Now, I think people are seeing that it can happen anywhere, to anyone.” So, despite all of the potential excuses deservedly open to her and her sadly and irrevocably validated fears, she rose to life’s great occasion and challenge: in spite of everything, in full view of reality, setting aside the obvious darkness, she decided to go forth and help others.

The second example is even more to the point. He was the greatest of all time in a sport that fosters greatness. Many consider him to be one of the most revered sports figures of all time: Jack Nicholas. After winning every tournament and setting all the records, at the height of his success, the pinnacle of what so many dream of, he began another career that has spanned over 20 years and has broadened the game he loves so much in a way that nothing else ever could. He has been the chief architect of over 100 of the most glorious and expansive public golf courses in history. (The most recent now underway in one of the poorest areas of New York City). In this he is bringing to the ordinary person the same thrilling holes of play that, before him, were the private reserve of the financially and culturally elite. Jack knew that the perseverance and self-sacrifice that great golf demands also requires the self-restraint and control of all except the most fundamentally positive human traits: honesty, character, and above all, trust. To play golf the way it was intended you must trust yourself (or you will fail with the first swing), you must trust the other players (or you will drive yourself nuts), and you must continue trusting without hesitation despite everything that happens. Golf is a game of trust, and of faith. Jack Nicholas is a student of the game and its greatest and most generous alumni. “To whom much is given, much is expected.” So, despite his supreme status in sports and wealth, despite his enormous success and talent, if you ask him, his greatest achievement has been his hard-earned ability to help others.

So, as you graduate here today, let me remind you that you are not receiving a license to go forth and steal; simply to make money, rather you have the credentials now to truly help others. You do not have bragging rights for the rest of your life about the college you attended, and in fact, I admonish you to never mention it. Let your works attest the value of your education and wait for people to inquire: “How did you become so giving and so non-self-referential and so unselfish?” Too often graduates of this university are known for mentioning Harvard in the first ten minutes of every conversation, and to me that disqualifies you for true alumni status. Your education should stand as a testament to the value of giving, of helping others, and, most of all, to the final principle that all intelligent people come to understand as the two most important: humility and charity.

If the two examples I have mentioned here today, and other things I have said, serve to spur you on and encourage you in your service to others, and to see in yourself that amazing potential, then you will suddenly see what too many others cannot see: a multitude of examples all around you, in every direction, in every nook and cranny of human existence, of people who are also doing their best to serve others in grand and in everyday ways. Because it is surely by those examples and many more that we, as men and women and as the human race, are truly defined.

God bless you all, your families, and God bless the freedom and the liberty we all enjoy. Thank you for inviting me again to speak before this student body of infinite promise. May each of you, in his her or her own way, change that promise into performance.


Teacher Evaluations and True Teaching

February 17, 2011

Nam et ipsa scientia potestas est. “Knowledge is power.” — Francis Bacon That quote is one of those things that the wrong people really understand. And, here is one more: Much of the social history of the Western world over the past three decades has involved replacing what worked with what sounded good. — Thomas Sowell […]

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Sample Questionnaire for Teachers

February 2, 2011

You can also actually take this survey online in total anonymity by clicking here. Passwords: Teachers Only. Password is case sensitive and don’t forget the space between the words. (1) What do you think of the school district’s instructional program as articulated by the administration? Confusing, badly explained Unnecessary Neutral Interesting Very good, well explained Other […]

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Reculturing the Schools: A call to action for the nation’s teachers and parents

January 27, 2011

CONTENTS: Introductory Thoughts | Re-Culturing | The Industrial Model | The Artisanal Model | 
The Confrontation| The Ghost in the Machine: Natural Evaluation | A Call to Action 1 INTRODUCTORY THOUGHTS “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” — Albert Einstein The question is “Are you better […]

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Teaching My Daughter to Drive

January 22, 2011

She is a tough minded person. A determined person. And, she is very petite, so, to begin with, we HAD to figure out a system by which she could actually operate the car. If the car seat isn’t hydrolic, forget about it. My classic Volvo 240 DL was out for a number of reasons: manual […]

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January 20, 2011

Difference from a live one to a dead one Is easy to see in poetry Because it just happened. Because it just happened. Right in front of you. I saw poems die all the time once. They were rhyming along Swaggering with dusty rhythm And then they stopped moving. And then they stopped moving. And […]

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What President Obama Should Say…

January 2, 2011

During the campaign I tried to tell him. Countless times I wrote an email on his website that asked for ideas and I was sure that he would read it. I was also sure, once, that I was going to win the Publisher’s Clearing House Contest. I knew I would win. I filled out every […]

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November 27, 2010

They move together through time as though It were all eternal. There was no isle They ever walked down, no honeymoon, just I do and back to work. There are memories, though. Flowers in her hair, a near fatal ditch and run for him. The way her willingness warmed the beginning. His interest in idle […]

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The Union of the 99% is the answer

November 4, 2010

Unions were started to gain power for workers. They needed that power because of abuse of labor by “management.” In the early days it was overcoming low, low pay and long, long hours. The rising power of unions in the 1800s blunted the abuse and raised the standard of living for workers. Clearly the rise […]

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