Now we know that computers don’t help children learn and that drugs don’t help them concentrate, because the establishment mandarins who sold us the computers and drugs have conceded failure. In the January 29 New York Times, [1] a prominent professor of child development shows that attention-deficit-disorder drugs only harm the three million children who take them. One out of 10 American children have been diagnosed with so-called Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder and most of them have been medicated. [2]

Some months ago, the Times reported that test scores lagged in school districts that invested massively in digital education. [3] It does not seem to have occurred to the mandarins that computers cause attention deficit disorder. The brain is a machine, in the enlightened secular model, and so-called brain science teaches us to tweak its functioning with pharmaceuticals, or stimulate its development through digital approximations of intelligence. The grand result of a generation’s worth of brain-science application is a generation of schoolchildren who are disproportionately illiterate, innumerate, anxious, angry, and unhappy.

Professor L. Alan Sroufe’s debunking of ADD medication in the New York Times contains this admission:

”Back in the 1960s I, like most psychologists, believed that children with difficulty concentrating were suffering from a brain problem of genetic or otherwise inborn origin. Just as Type I diabetics need insulin to correct problems with their inborn biochemistry, these children were believed to require attention-deficit drugs to correct theirs. It turns out, however, that there is little to no evidence to support this theory.”

That is an astonishing statement: in the mainstream view of the academic psychologists, the brain is another pancreas, except that its function is to secrete thoughts as opposed to insulin. That is to say that the psychologists have a pancreas where their brains should have been.

One really wants to light a torch and march on Frankenstein’s castle, also known as the psychology profession. Until the passage of the 2005 Individuals with Disabilities Act, schools had the power to force children to take ADD drug, namely amphetamines, or bar them from classrooms, even when parents objected to the medication. I don’t know how many children were harmed by the sorcerer’s apprentices in school psychology offices, but the new research might provide grounds for some exemplary lawsuits. It turns out that the mainstream was dominated by cultists and loonies. The religious day schools, the home-schoolers, alternative schools like the Waldorf movement turn out to have been islands of sanity in a sea of delusion.

The psychologists of the 1960s also advocated instant gratification in all aspects of life, particularly sex, with the silly presumption that all individual and social problems were to be blamed on suppressing our urge to be gratified. Once children had limitless opportunities for gratification, abetted by ever-more-realistic (and ever-more violent and perverse) computer simulations, the psychology profession observed that attention spans shortened drastically, and presumed that a genetic deficiency was to blame. It sounds like bad science fiction, but it is standard operating procedure in every public school in the United States.

Learning how to learn is the point of education. We will forget the great majority of specific things we were taught: Euclidean proofs, the polynomial theorem, Roman emperors, French grammar, atomic weights, the poems of Browning, and whatever else was stuffed in our heads as schoolchildren. What we learned, if we learned anything, is to memorize, analyze and explain. If we know geometry, algebra or French today, it is not because we retained our knowledge but because we re-learned the subject. School, in short, taught us to concentrate. The most successful people are not the cleverest in terms of sheer processing power, but those who multiply cleverness with persistence.

The psychology profession, by contrast, thinks that the brain is a machine, and the best way to engage it is to use another machine, namely a computer. Computers, to be sure, do not kill brains; people kill brains with computers. Computers in the hands of people who believe that gratification is the highest human goal, and the quicker the gratification, the better, have devastated our mental landscape. Our children do not read; they only surf. They do not write; they only text. They do not plan and strategize in games; they react to visual and aural stimuli while inflicting simulated mayhem. They do not follow a plot: they cut among disjoined images in the style of rap videos. And when they fail to concentrate, we give them Adderall and Ritalin.

It is mouth-foaming, howling-at-the-moon madness, and it is our mainstream culture. The wired classroom hasn’t worked, so the educational establishment recommends more of the same quack cure. The New York Times reported last September that computerized education has produced no measurable results, except for some negative ones (test scores fell after massive investment in computers). Yet the education gurus remain undeterred. ”The data is pretty weak. It’s very difficult when we’re pressed to come up with convincing data, ”Tom Vander Ark, the former executive director for education at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation told the Times. Reporter Matt Richtel wrote: ”And yet, in virtually the same breath, he said change of a historic magnitude is inevitably coming to classrooms this decade: ‘It’s one of the three or four biggest things happening in the world today.”’

The obsession with digital classrooms goes back to president Bill Clinton, who called for more computers in the schools in 1997. After 15 years of failure, the Barack Obama administration’s National Education Technology Plan ”calls for applying the advanced technologies used in our daily personal and professional lives to our entire education system to improve student learning.” [4]

The American elite, to be sure, does not subject its own offspring to this kind of digital treatment. New York City’s most exclusive private schools, the ones with an acceptance rate lower than Ivy League colleges, do things the old fashioned way. Brearley School, sometimes considered the best of the private schools for girls, requires every student to learn an instrument and play in the orchestra (the only other New York school with this requirement is the Rudolf Steiner School). The Dalton School teaches chess to every student. Acoustic instruments, classical music, and ancient games with wooden pieces teach concentration span.

In Silicon Valley, Times reporter Matt Richtel observed in an October 22 feature, many of the Silicon Valley types who make weapons of mass dementia send their own kids to a school that bans computers until the 9th grade:

The chief technology officer of eBay sends his children to a nine-classroom school here. So do employees of Silicon Valley giants like Google, Apple, Yahoo and Hewlett-Packard. But the school’s chief teaching tools are anything but high-tech: pens and paper, knitting needles and, occasionally, mud. Not a computer to be found. No screens at all. They are not allowed in the classroom, and the school even frowns on their use at home. Schools nationwide have rushed to supply their classrooms with computers, and many policy makers say it is foolish to do otherwise. But the contrarian point of view can be found at the epicenter of the tech economy, where some parents and educators have a message: computers and schools don’t mix. [5]

That is the local Waldorf school, part of an education movement founded by the German mathematician and mystic Rudolf Steiner. Some of Steiner’s ideas were strange, but his educational method – learning by doing – is robust. At the New York Steiner School my children attended, for example, 8th-graders learned the Renaissance by making copies of 16th-century scientific instruments, singing four-part Renaissance vocal works, and staging a play about the 17th-century physicist Johannes Kepler. The 9th-graders studied Shakespeare’s “Twelfth Night” by staging the complete play, rotating the cast so that every child memorized a couple of hundred lines. Waldorf schools require parents to promise to forbid television to their children in any form through elementary school.

At a showcase classroom in Arizona’s most wired school district, Matt Richtel reported,

A seventh-grade English teacher roams among 31 students sitting at their desks or in clumps on the floor. They’re studying Shakespeare’s As You Like It – but not in any traditional way. In this technology-centric classroom, students are bent over laptops, some blogging or building Facebook pages from the perspective of Shakespeare’s characters. One student compiles a song list from the Internet, picking a tune by the rapper Kanye West to express the emotions of Shakespeare’s lovelorn Silvius. [6]

Somehow, I don’t think that’s what Shakespeare meant by “as you like it.” Web access in this case is simply a pretext to help seventh-graders to reduce Shakespeare to their own level, rather than allow Shakespeare to lift children up to his.

The Waldorf movement diverges radically from the mainstream. It tends to recruit crunchy-granola rebels against urban civilization who love acoustical instruments and handicrafts, as well as philosophy graduates of major universities with a deep interest in metaphysics. Some of the classical curriculum of the German Gymnasium of a century ago is preserved as if in amber. And the fact that so many of the Masters of the Universe of the digital age send their children to this countercultural throwback is a fair gauge of the degradation of mainstream learning.

Adderall and Ritalin, by the way, can’t be found in any Chinese pharmacy (although expatriates can find small amounts of Ritalin at a couple of locations in Shanghai). It appears that Chinese children, who must memorize several thousand characters in order to complete elementary education, do not suffer from Attention Deficit Disorder. Two-thirds of Chinese children graduate secondary school, which involves a grueling exercise in memorization. As I reported earlier in this space, 50 million Chinese children are studying Western classical music (see China’s six-to-one advantage over the US, Asia Times Online, Dec 2, 2008). That’s the same number of children aged 5 to 17 in America. Nothing builds attention span better than playing classical music. Granted that much of China’s educational system teaches rote memorization, and that the majority of Chinese may not receive top-quality schooling, it is still the case that the absolute number of Chinese kids mastering high-level skills is a multiple of the American number.

America is the greatest country in the world, a unique and blessed land, while China remains under the rule of an authoritarian regime that alternates between benign and brutal. But we Americans have consigned our children to the purveyors of an alien ideology – the absurd doctrine that the brain is a machine – with consequences so devastating that the liberal establishment itself no longer can defend its core policies of the past half century. Worst of all, we have papered over our spiritual deficit by doping millions of our kids with amphetamines.

If China replaces us at the pre-eminent world power, it will happen because their children are smarter, more persevering, more ambitious and tougher than ours. And we will have no-one to blame but ourselves for handing our kids over to quacks and snake-oil salesmen.

Notes: 1. Ritalin Gone Wrong, New York Times, Jan 29, 2012.
2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website.
3. In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores, New York Times, Sep 3, 2011.
4. Transforming American Education: Learning Powered by Technology, US Department of Education.
5. A Silicon Valley School That Doesn’t Compute, New York Times, Oct 22, 2011.
6. In Classroom of Future, Stagnant Scores, New York Times, Sep 3, 2011.