The other day I watched agape on a city street as a young woman rode by on her bicycle, negotiating the considerable traffic, with both hands firmly on her cell phone, texting like a demon. Here was multi-tasking at some sort of ultimate, particularly when you consider that some of the drivers of those passing cars were texting as well. They might even have been texting each other. “Consciously and unconsciously, we have gradually grown accustomed to experiencing the world through disembodied machines and instruments,” writes Alan Lightman, in The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew. “It is an irony to me that the same science and technology that have brought us closer to nature by revealing these invisible worlds [from DNA to quanta] have also separated us from nature and from ourselves.”
From drone warfare to urban planning, we seek to manipulate a virtual reality from a safe distance, and like the woman on her bike, we are increasingly adept at it. I see Lightman’s irony particularly in education, where students build models of the natural and manmade worlds and then engineer solutions to the messes people have made. They can do this without having to take the time to listen to the cacophonous melodies of a city neighborhood or dip their hands into a stream’s cold water or smell a spring day.
This is the sadness to me of the current debate over educational standards. You need neither empathy nor wonder to pass a standardized test.