Monday, April 12, 2010

Intracranial Cartography

This is an experiment.

For some time now, I've been feeling the urge to put fingers to keyboard and give form to some of the nebulous ideas that have been floating in the void between my ears. Yesterday I finished Manhood for Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son by Michael Chabon and was moved by his astounding prose to finally commit to this desire.

My interests are myriad and I often fail to demonstrate the patience and persistence necessary to achieve anything approaching real depth in any single discipline or topic. The content here will likely reflect this jack-of-all-trades/master-of-none nature. One topic I am passionate about is my line of work--education technology--and the bulk of the posts will probably concern that in one way or the other. I do not consider myself a very creative person but I enjoy the technical challenge and fickle coincidence of photography so I may include my more successful attempts here from time to time. It may be a long time between posts--my commitment may wax and wane.

The name is itself inspired by one of the essays in that Michael Chabon collection. In The Wilderness of Childhood, Chabon relishes in the unfettered explorations he conducted by bicycle of the area surrounding his childhood home in Maryland, observing, "I knew the locations of all my classmates houses, the number of pets and siblings they had, the brand of Popsicle they served, the potential dangerousness of their fathers." Noting "the mental maps of their worlds that children endlessly revise and refine," he concludes that "Childhood is a branch of cartography." This blog represents my attempt to relearn this vital childhood skill and construct a mental map of my own world.

But The Wilderness of Childhood has also inspired me to launch my first expedition. In the rest of that essay and a following one, The Splendors of Crap, Chabon laments the dual circumscription by adults of the tangible childhood wilderness and the abstract childhood imagination as inspired by mass art. The wilderness, he observes, has been "in large part taken over, co-opted, colonized, and finally absorbed by" the "kingdom of adulthood." This is poignantly exemplified by the realization he has upon teaching his daughter to ride her bike that she has nowhere left to ride: the streets he once mapped as a child have been rendered unsafe by adult anxiety. Mass art, meanwhile--even that of of suspect quality (read, crap)--similarly has lost "the powerful quality of being open-ended, vague at its borders." The knowing and dazzling displays exhibited in the family films he takes his kids to today are geared to leave nothing to the imagination. "There is no room in them," Chabon decides, "for children." Whereas he and his friends once inserted themselves into the world and stories of the crappy Planet of the Apes television series, canceled after only thirteen episodes, his children "sometimes...don't seem able to operate in an imaginative world" as represented by the natural environment of their summer cabin in Maine. The implications of this tightly bound world in which our children now grow up are troubling to ponder. Chabon ultimately worries, "if children are not permitted--not taught--to be adventurers and explorers of children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?"

Enter the Internet.

See, while I share Chabon's concern and marvel at his ability to so beautifully render his concerns, I don't think things are quite as bleak as all that. There has been a lot of talk in my corner of the world lately about another wilderness and the children who venture forth into its untamed reaches. In a recent New York Times article, Teaching About Web Includes Troublesome Parts, Stephanie Clifford observes that "the first wave of parental anxiety about the Internet," which "focused on security and adult predators...has given way to concerns about how their children are acting online toward friends and rivals, and what impression their online profiles might create in the minds of college admissions officers or future employers." I do believe that these are valid concerns and, in my position as Director of Technology for an PreK-12 independent school, I often advocate for the education of students about ways to safeguard their privacy and self-image. As has been widely reported, however, in studies by the Pew Center’s Internet & American Life Project and the MacArthur Foundation, the dangers of online activity have often been exaggerated in news stories and school board meetings while the benefits of this activity for social development are only now starting to become clear. And I can not help but notice the same urge on the part of adults, observed by Chabon in his essay, to colonize this wild space.

As the adults--parents, educators, administrators--we have a responsibility to balance the desire to protect our children with the necessity for them to be able to explore, imagine, and construct their social world free of micromanagement and minute control. We have to create spaces in which they can skin their knees, metaphorically and literally, while giving them the tools to ensure that their mistakes don't have a lasting negative impact on their future success. The challenge comes in the nature of the Internet--amorphous, public, and always changing with a knack for creating a false sense of intimacy: the dark forest of storybooks.

We're going to need a map...

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