Smartphones and Comparisons ~ The Imaginative Conservative

One of the most delightful things about John Keats’ first sonnet, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, is that Keats uses imagery from the age of global exploration and modern science to describe the feeling to experience for the first time what the Homeric poems really are. Classics from the distant past become a vast unexplored expanse, a future full of promise, like the skies where a new planet has just been discovered or the Pacific Ocean when Spanish explorers first crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Why don’t we feel the same way about the digital future?

Last month, a article in a UK online newspaper tackled an increasingly urgently needed issue: “Breaking the spell of the smart phone”. The author pointed out that 79% of parents felt their children spent too much time on their smartphones and 60% thought the use was “sometimes or always harmful”. On average, they gave smartphones to their children at the age of 10, and one of the reasons was that schools for children needed them – a complaint I heard from our students in Wyoming Catholic College about the high schools they attended. A British parent wrote of his son: “He is now totally addicted to his phone and can’t concentrate enough to read a book or even a page. His school tells him that everything is fine because this is what the future will look like. I’m disgusted because he was an avid reader. (That’s a distinctly British use of the word “gutted,” by the way, but that makes the point even stronger.)

The distress of British parents could lead to mobile phone bans for children in UK schools similar to those that have come into force in France four years ago and in China (which is a little surprising) in February 2021. Big Tech overlords recognize the danger social media and excessive screen time (at least for their own children). What the same things might do to young adults is at the heart of our concern at Wyoming Catholic College, where our famous ban on cellphones started in 2007. Our founders saw that the trend was going nowhere, but it took a strong backbone to ban the devices altogether. We debated whether to go even further without becoming mere Luddites.

One of the advantages of our policy is that students in class are actually present in the discussion, more or less the usual human frailties. It’s not hard to see how cell phones affect us. If I have my cell phone handy in a meeting, for example, messages and emails pop up and distract me. Not only is this susceptibility to interruption gross in the most basic human way, it exposes the bias fostered by the culture of connectivity – the sense that these communications, in their neutral, time-sensitive spatial hum, are the real “present” that encompasses you, the reality more important than the people around you.

This is not the case in the class I now teach in first grade. Thinking of Homer’s extraordinary comparisons in the Iliad brings them into a conversation they would never have on their devices and even into a kind of wonder at the continuity of their experience with daily life 3000 years ago. For example, in Book XV, Apollo helps Hector attack the wall the Achaeans have built around their ships. He destroys strongholds “easily, like when a little boy piles up sand by the seashore / when in his innocent game he makes tricks of sand to amuse him / then, still playing, with his hands and feet, ruin them and destroy them”. The little boy surprises us, somehow, as if we think sandcastle building started with us or our parents. In Book XVII, the hero Menelaus – never one of the strongest warriors – continues to charge into the ranks of the Trojans. We are told that Athena “puts strength into the shoulders and knees of man, breathing in/into his chest. The persistent audacity of this mosquito/Which, though harshly chased from a man’s skin, yet, for the taste of human blood, persists in biting him. I almost laugh out loud reading it, not only because I got a few mosquitoes on my skin this summer, but also because the comparison bears such a cliché of this husband of Hélène, the man whose dishonor is the pretext for the Trojan War. I hesitate to ask: are there people in your experience who remind you of mosquitoes?

These ancient images establish a deeply pleasurable bond of recognition. We share an experience with the ancient poet that makes them perfectly real, though the culture that gave birth to the epic itself has changed almost entirely. Such experiences of the deep sources of wisdom and faith make possible the kinds of renewal that Dr. James Tonkowich will explore in this semester’s series, points of light, which shows how figures such as St. John Vianney, St. John Henry Newman, Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, Pope Leo XIII, and St. Therese Lisieux present themselves so beautifully despite the darkness of the times. In fact, its title reminds me of yet another comparison of the Iliad:

Like when in the sky the stars around the moon shine
are seen in all their glory, when the air has stilled,
and all the high places of the hills are clear, and the shoulders protruding,
and the deep ravines, as endless bright air pours down from the sky
and all the stars are seen, to rejoice the shepherd’s heart;
such in their number blazed the watch-fires which the Trojans burned…

We could substitute the saints of the 19th century for the watchtowers of the Trojans. Remarkably, at least in this virtual age, our students have the same view of the skies as they spend their nights outdoors on their travels west of the mountains.

Opposed to this communion with the deep past is what we might call the ‘hive mind’ of culture that British parents lament, a mind in which an illusory self is addictively fueled by an illusion of presence without ceaselessly critical but thoughtless. What this culture portends we all fear, but here at Wyoming Catholic College, we do our best to reflect on the nature of the threat. The answer must be as fresh as Keats’ discovery of a “deep-browed Homer” – a matter not simply of restrictions but of new possibilities for continuity and community.

Republished with kind permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin.

The imaginative curator applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics as we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

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