The other day in class, we were examining Stevie Smith’s poem, “Not Waving but Drowning.” The students presenting the poem asked the class, “Who do you turn to when in need?” Some named friends, others named their parents or family members, someone said, “God,” and then someone else said, “Google."
I had to chuckle at that, as did many of the students, but the more I thought about it, the more the comment struck me as extremely appropriate…maybe even profound.
Who do we turn to when in need? Well, I guess that depends on the form of need. In the poem, the speaker says, “Nobody heard him, the dead man,” suggesting that if only someone had known he was in trouble he might still be alive. But then the dead man himself speaks up, “I was much further out than you thought / And not waving but drowning.” I was crying for help all along, he says, but no one was paying attention. The students found that they could easily apply this idea to their own experiences. They talked about the need to listen to others, to really pay attention to the warning signs of depression, desperation, or self-destruction. As we continued to analyze the poem we had a very rewarding conversation about friendship and our responsibility to each other…especially in this age of social media where genuine communication is never a sure thing.
Afterward though, the Google comment continued to nag at me.
Where do our students turn for help when they need to understand something? Yes, some ask friends or family, some even pray, but most seek the World Wide Web for answers, and they turn to a search engine, most likely Google, for guidance. Only Google doesn’t give answers or guidance, it only gives information—lots and lots of information, instantaneously. More information than any one person could possibly read or view in a lifetime—but no help with what to do with it.
Whenever I am looking on the Internet for ideas to help me teach literature, I find the most incredible resources…and I am constantly reminded that we as teachers are not the gatekeepers of knowledge. There is nothing about English literature—or science, or math, or history, or music, or whatever—that only we know, that only we can impart to our students. The world is full of knowledge and ideas and information…and it’s all right there on the Internet for the taking. Yes, it can be hard to find sometimes among all the other misleading (and dangerous) cries for profit and attention, but it’s out there.
In fact, the way technology is progressing, it seems that teachers, as we know them, will no longer be necessary. With the right mix of learning apps, instructional videos, work sheets, and work models, it seems a custom learning plan can be created to fit just about any child’s needs. It seems…but it would be missing one very important thing: guidance. The one thing teachers have that cannot be replaced is their ability to provide guidance.
In the end, our job is not to give students our knowledge, but to guide students to acquire their own…to help them become independent learners, self-teachers. But there is the misconception that because today’s youth are technologically fluent—they were raised on the Internet and instinctively know their way around it—that they are intuitively capable of making sense, evaluating, and drawing conclusions from the vast amounts of information to be found there…they are not.
When I was in high school, research meant an entire day in the city library, trolling through the index cards, roaming the isles with your Dewy-Decimal map, and hauling book after book back to a table where you would then try to narrow the number down to a manageable stack you could realistically check out and carry home. If what you needed was in a reference book then you had to take your notes on the spot because those couldn’t be checked out. And sure you could always make copies…if the coin-operated machine was working and the ten-cents a pop didn’t leave you without money for the bus ride home.
No matter what you want to tell yourself, information-wise, those were not the good old days. And if acquiring that information wasn’t difficult enough, reading, comprehending, evaluating, and attempting to draw some conclusions from it was even more challenging. Can you imagine telling a 1980’s teen that for their American History research paper they had at their disposal the combined print, film, and audio contents of every library in every city and school in America, including the Library of Congress (and the rest of the world for that matter)…the idea would be unfathomable!
Those, however, are exactly the informational resources available to our students today…and they need help making sense of it all. Whether it be the complex issues surrounding a historical occasion or a current event…the persuasive appeals of an advertisement or the cultural values reinforced in a particular film…or whether it be evaluating a complex piece of literature or a crisis in their own lives…students need our guidance to learn the tools and techniques to help make sense of it all.
I’m so very proud of my students. Even though I try my best to provide that needed guidance, I know in their desperation they may at times turn to that vast unmonitored ocean of information, not for help with their own understanding, but for a quick fix…to “borrow” someone else’s ideas, someone else’s conclusions…to pretend (even with themselves) that they got there on their own, and that they could get there on their own again. I know my students could have easily “googled” an “academic support” site like Shmoop.com where they might have found such ready insight as: “When you get past the swimming metaphor of the poem, you'll find that the kind of isolation it describes is eerily familiar. After all, the world of social media works the same way.” But they didn’t; they got there—and maybe even further—on their own.
On that day at least, when class ended and they all waved goodbye to me as they walked out the door…I knew they really were just waving and not drowning.