I was pretty gobsmacked by this story out of Portland, Maine*:
Over the next two weeks, Portland’s school district will install filtering software on laptops issued to high school students, in order to block access to pornography, social networking sites and video streaming sites when the laptops are at home.
Access to those sites is blocked now only at school, through the school network. The current filter doesn’t work when laptops are off school property.
The district will install filtering software made by Sophos, an Internet security company based in Boston. The software will be downloaded automatically when the students boot up their computers at school. Only when students get home will they discover that their lives have changed in a big way.
No longer will they have access to social networking sites like Facebook and video-streaming sites like Hulu and YouTube. Also blocked will be forums and news groups, games, dating sites, gambling sites and chat rooms.
Fortunately, the Kennebec Journal didn’t shy from the implications of this decision:
[School board Chairwoman Kate] Snyder said the school district shouldn’t give students equipment that makes it harder for parents to do their job, which is to help children stay focused on academics. She said the district has the right to filter the Internet.
“It’s a school-issued laptop,” she said. “If that’s something that the student wants to do on their own time and on a family computer, that’s OK.”
The change’s impact on students will depend on whether they have access to other computers at home. For many poor families, the school-issued laptop is the only computer in the house.
In interviews with Portland High students last week, those from middle-class families expressed various degrees of annoyance when told of the new filtering measures. A group of immigrant students reacted with anger.
“When we are at home, we need to have something else to look at besides homework,” said Fatush Jama, a senior.
“Where can we go to share if we don’t have Facebook?” asked Nateho Ahmen, a 17-year-old junior. “Who came up with this idea? We are going to have a long talk.”
This is not a legal question. Of course the school district has every right to install whatever software it wants on the computers it owns. But it’s hard for me to see this decision as anything but smallminded and passive aggressive.
First of all, I think it’s pretty uncontroversial to state that internet filters are nothing but odious joy killing vectors of hate. We’ve all had that experience of being interrupted at school, or at work in our quest for the answer to a question by an overzealous filter. Using the internet behind a filter is like browsing with a doddering uncle on your shoulder. He’s not entirely sure what’s going on, but he’s pretty sure that he disapproves. Not being able to leave him behind at the end of the school day sounds hellish.
Second, I think it’s pretty galling that a small group of parents pushed this through and made parenting decisions for the entire school district (that’s conjecture–there’s nothing mentioned about it in the article–but given that the school board member was the one dishing out the quote about giving control to parents, I think it’s pretty solid). I’m pretty sure the low income parents that use the computer as part time family computer are not the ones complaining. Sure, it’s primarily intended as a tool for school, but giving computer access to these families is a pretty valuable secondary social function. There’s something frankly ugly about denying access to families that don’t have other options.
But third, and most important, this decision shows a real failure of empathy on the part of the parent groups for the students they are responsible. Becoming out of touch with the culture is somthing I’ve been thinking about a lot, as I’ve reconsidered my relationship to pop culture and what’s popular. As I grow older, and my tastes more specialized, I’ve had to think about what responsibility I have to keep up with the culture at large. Another mental milestone passed by when I was reading a review for the new YA novel Fear, by Michael Grant, which posits a world in which everyone over the age of 15 mysteriously vanishes, and I realized that I had joined the masses of the dead. They told me to never trust anybody over the age of 25, and now that doesn’t seem very far away at all.
But being out of touch with the chatter of the world happens, and I don’t really worry about it. There’s so much much in the world, and I don’t think anybody cares that much when a sheep drops out of the herd. What I really worry about is this exact kind of losing touch, where new technologies, new ideas, new social dynamics cut you off from your own experiences and your own former selves. Empathy is a plastic thing; I’ve met people in high school that will never be able to see themselves in people that did not grow up like them, and I’ve met older people that have stayed young, despite growing up in a world that may not exist anymore. Facebook is a new thing. But wanting to talk to your friends, gossiping about your enemies, developing a personality apart from your parents, even avoiding homework, these are very old things. And the smallmindedness of banning Facebook from school computers is the same smallmindedness of banning conversation during lunch, or restricting recess.
And we’ll all become old things too, whether that means over 15, or over 25, or over 55; age is a moving target. The boundaries of us and them will change whether we listen to top 40 or read the news or go to the movies. But we can resist forgetting what it means to be young.
*Which is, as regional allegiances require me to point out, the worst Portland.