Communications theorist Joshua Meyrowitz notes that the electronic media allow social ties to be divorced from physical encounters. "Electronic media creates ties and associations that compete with those formed through live interaction in specific locations. Live encounters are certainly more 'special' and provide stronger and deeper relationships, but their relative number is decreasing." Political communications specialist Roderick Hart argues that television as a medium creates a false sense of companionship, making people feel intimate, informed, clever, busy, and important. The result is a kind of "remote-control politics," in which we as viewers feel engaged with our community without the effort of actually being engaged. Like junk food, TV, especially TV entertainment, satisfies cravings without real nourishment.
-- Robert D. Putnam
The above reminds me of the eloquent distinction John Taylor Gatto
makes between “communities” and “networks.” Notice how the portion I boldfaced dovetails with Gatto’s “trout starvation” analogy in the following excerpt (all emphasis original):
A surprising number of otherwise sensible people find it hard to see why the scope and reach of our formal schooling networks should not be increased -- by extending the school day or year, for instance -- in order to provide an economical solution to the problems posed by the decay of the American family. One reason for their preference, I think, is that they have trouble understanding the real difference between communities and networks.
Because of this confusion, they conclude that replacing a bad network with a good one is the right way to go. Since I disagree so strongly with the fundamental premise that networks are workable substitutes for families, and because from anybody's point of view a lot more school is going to cost a lot more money, I thought I'd tell you why, from a schoolteacher's perspective, we shouldn't be thinking of more school, but of less.
People who admire our school institution usually admire networking in general and have an easy time seeing it's positive side but they overlook it's negative aspect -- that networks, even good ones, drain vitality from communities and families. They provide mechanical
("by the numbers") solutions to human problems, when a slow organic process of self awareness, self discovery and cooperation is what is required if any solution is to stick.
Think of the challenge of losing weight. It's possible to employ mechanical tricks to do this quickly, but I'm told that 95% of the poor souls who do, are only fooling themselves. The weight lost this way doesn't stay off, it comes back in a short time. Other network solutions are just as temporary: a group of law students may network to pass their college exams, but preparing a brief in private practice is often a solitary, lonely experience.
Aristotle saw, a long time ago, that fully participating in a complex range of human affairs was the only way to become fully human; in that
he differed from Plato. What is gained from consulting a specialist and surrendering all judgment is often more than outweighed by a permanent loss of one's own volition. This discovery accounts for the curious texture of real
communication, where people argue with their doctors, lawyers and ministers, tell craftsmen what they want
instead of accepting what they get, frequently make their own food from scratch instead of buying it in a restaurant or defrosting it, and perform many similar acts of participation
. A real community is, of course, a collection of real families who themselves function in this participatory way.
Networks, however, don't require the whole person, but only a narrow piece. If you function in a network, it asks you to supress all the parts of yourself except the network-interest part -- a highly unnatural act although one you can get used to. In exchange, the network will deliver efficiency in the pursuit of some limited aim. This is, in fact, a devil's bargain, since on the promise of some future gain, one must surrender the wholeness of one's present humanity. If you enter into too many of these bargains you will split yourself into many specialized pieces, none of them completely human. And no time is available to reintegrate them. This, ironically, is the destiny of many successful networkers and doubtless generates much business for divorce courts and therapists of a variety of persuasions.
The fragmentation caused by excessive networking creates diminished humanity, a sense our lives are out of control because they are. If we face the present school and community crisis squarely, with hopes of finding a better way, we need to accept that schools, as networks, create a large part of the agony of modern life. We don't need more schooling, we need less.
I expect you'll want some proof of that, even though the million or so people participating in education at home these days have begun to nibble at the edge of everybody's consciousness and promise to bite their way into national attention when details of their success get around a little more. So, for those of you who haven't heard that you don't need officially certified teachers to get a good education, let me try to expose some of the machinery that makes certified schooling so bad. And remember, if you're thinking, "but it's always
been that way,"…that it really hasn't
Compulsory schooling in factory schools is a very recent, very Massachusetts/New York development. Remember, too, that until thirty-odd years ago, you could escape mass schooling after
school; now it is much harder to escape because another form of mass-schooling, television, has spread all over the place to blot up any attention spared by school. So what was merely grotesque in our national treatment of the young before 1960 has become tragic now that mass commercial entertainment, as addictive as any other hallucinogenic drug, has blocked the escape routes from mass schooling.
It is a fact generally ignored when considering the communal nature of institutional families like schools, large corporations, colleges, armies, hospitals, and government agencies that they are not real communities at all, but networks. Unlike communities, networks -- as I reminded you -- have a very narrow way of allowing people to associate, and that way is always across a short spectrum of one, or at most a few, specific uniformities.
In spite of ritual moments like the Christmas party or the office softball game -- when individual human components in the network "go home", they go home alone. And in spite of humanitarian support from fellow workers that eases emergencies -- when people in networks suffer, they suffer alone, unless they have a family or community to suffer with them.
Even with college dorm "communities," those most engaging and intimate simulations of community imaginable, who among us has not experienced an awful realization after graduation that we cannot remember our friends' names or faces very well? Or who, if one can remember, feels much desire to renew those associations?
It is a puzzling development, as yet poorly understood, that the "caring" in networks is in some important way feigned. Not maliciously, but in spite of any genuine emotional attractions that might be there, human behavior in network situations often resembles a dramatic act -- matching a script produced to meet the demands of a story. And, as such, the intimate moments in networks lack the sustaining value of their counterparts in community. Those of you who remember the wonderful closeness possible in army camp life or sports teams, and who have now forgotten those you were once close with, will understand what I mean. In contrast, have you ever forgotten an uncle or an aunt?
If the loss of true community entailed by masquerading in networks is not noticed in time, a condition arises in the victim's spirit very much like the "trout starvation" that used to strike wilderness explorers whose diet was made up exclusively of stream fish. While trout quell the pangs of hunger -- and even taste good -- the eater gradually suffers from want of sufficient nutrients.
Networks like schools are not communities, just as school training is not education. By preempting fifty percent of the total time of the young, by locking young people up with other young people exactly their own age, by ringing bells to start and stop work, by asking people to think about the same thing at the same time in the same way, by grading people the way we grade vegetables -- and in a dozen other vile and stupid ways -- network schools steal the vitality of communities and replace it with an ugly mechanism. No one survives these places with his/her humanity intact, not kids, not teachers, not administrators and not parents.
A community is a place in which people face each other over time in all
their human variety, good parts, bad parts, and all the rest. Such places promote the highest quality of life possible, lives of engagement and participation. This happens in unexpected ways, but it never happens when you've spent more than a decade listening to other people talk
and trying to do what they tell you to do, trying to please
them, after the fashion of schools. It makes a real, lifelong difference whether you avoid that training or it traps you.
An example might clarify this. Networks of urban reformers will convene to consider the problems of homeless vagrants, but a community will think of its vagrants as real people, not abstractions. Ron, Dave or Marty -- a community will call its bums by their names. It makes a difference.
People interact on thousands of invisible pathways in a community, and the emotional payoff is correspondingly rich and complex. But networks can only manage a cartoon simulation of community and provide a very limited payoff.