Op-eds

The times they are a’changing

  • Marc Falconer
I can’t believe that it’s just my daughters whose favourite emoji – in their WhatsApp correspondence with me in any event – is that pinched little face with the rolling eyes. And there is nothing quite like the phrase “in my day” or “when I was at school” to elicit the virtual roll or an actual real-life version.
by MARC FALCONER | Jan 16, 2020

The start of a decade is a good time to reminisce. And just glancing at the above paragraph, there are some indications of a world changing so fast, it’s difficult to comprehend, so insidious and ubiquitous are the changes. When, for example, did emojis become the most effective way of expressing emotions, sometimes even complex and nuanced ones? When did a text messaging service become the most used communication tool, and sometimes the only contact I have with those I love most? And when did it become necessary to distinguish between the virtual world and the “real world” (IRL)?

Consider the recent Baghdad International Airport airstrike which killed Iranian Major General Qasem Soleimani of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps by the MQ-9 Reaper remote control directed energy laser drone. Even warfare is now a kind of computer game. Terrifying. Virtually.

The change has been staggering in its diversity. It has also been incremental, and some of it has been stealthy and surreptitious.

At a time when matric results have just been released (at Herzlia High School, where I am, and some other schools), the distinction rate is in excess of 3.5 distinctions per candidate. Almost every invariably proud parent coming with their child to collect the preliminary certificate begins the conversation with the phrase (to the immediate revolutions of their child’s eyes), “In my day the whole school achieved only a handful of distinctions.”

Is this because our children are smarter, teachers better, or are the standards as inflated as the Zimbabwean currency, or the content much easier? Perhaps it’s a little of some or all of this, but it’s certainly the case that assessment has changed – not as much as it should have – but certainly enough to allow pupils to find different and more individual ways into questions and content. In my day, for example, it was much more about how much I could remember and splash down on the page in the time allowed.

And while there still is something of this, content facts and details are freely available to anyone with opposable thumbs. What you do with the facts is much more important. In our global digital community, it’s much more difficult to remain ignorant, uninformed, or isolated or to discern true from false and its recent sub category, fake news. At the twitch of a digit, one can connect with a dozen WhatsApp or Facebook groups for advice on any conceivable topic from bringing up children to finding a plumber – and the answers will come beaming out of the ether in seconds as will reprimands or “call outs” for posts, pictures, opinions, or ideas considered inappropriate.

It’s the age of information, but it’s also the age of moral rectitude and media-directed consciousness. One does not even need to develop one’s own conscience, this can be outsourced to the digital community which is watching every move we make, and is unforgiving and unforgetting. Any hint of “slut-shaming”, “fattist” talk, anything which could be construed as being disrespectful to the homeless, the seals, or the Amazonian tree frog, is viewed with equal amounts of indignation. This isn’t even mentioning the more pervasive and reprehensible prejudices we have already been engaging with such as sexism and racism.

In spite of the externalised Jiminy Cricket super ego, this is also the age of empowerment. Not so long ago, one would have to learn on the job, as it were – without the dubious benefits of millions of digital co-inhabitants. Almost every resourced school – informed by every hyper-aware parent or a platoon of support counsellors, educational support staff, and facilitators – knows endless details about ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder), ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), anxiety, panic attacks, mood disorders, poor concentration, depression, and low self-esteem.

But with greater knowledge, exposure, ubiquitous advice, and information, there’s no time for bumbling about in the dark, playing hide-and-seek. It leaves a greatly reduced childhood and much less chance, it seems, for curiosity and serendipitous childhood discoveries.

Greta Thunberg shrieking about her childhood being stolen is absolutely right, although I’m not sure it’s just about the ice caps melting or too much Trump-inspired hot-air pollution in the atmosphere. It may also be because there is just not enough time for spontaneous childhood any more.

Amongst the 14 billion texts sent every day, the amount of information and analysis is quite beyond comprehension. And we have all, to some extent, become inured to this. To be “off the grid” is anxious-making in the extreme; to live beyond the pale of our digital country makes us anonymous and voiceless nomads. One moment of disconnect, one message not received, read and answered or forwarded could result in social suicide and total irrelevance.

As JB Priestley has to say about another time and other people, but just as relevant now, “Like its politicians and its wars, society has the teenagers it deserves.”

  • Marc Falconer is the principal of Herzlia High School and former principal of King David High School Linksfield. He is also the author of ‘Notes from a Headmaster’s Desk’.

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