Physical fences make us feel secure. By delineating mine from yours, safe from unsafe, and friendly from unfriendly they help us know who we are, where we belong, and what we own. When I lived in the Yukon, for example, the territory north of the 60th parallel was referred to as 'inside'. The unfortunates who did not live north of 60 were 'from outside'. The line was invisible, but to those of us who lived Inside and knew the fence was there, the divide was great. We insiders shared a way of life and a fellowship that made us a tribe. That fence gave us a way of defining ourselves by proclaiming our isolation from everyone else.
Intellectual fences on the other hand are less trusted. Who does not recoil at the thought of the Honduran military shutting down broadcasters with accusations of spreading dissent? The curtailing of people's basic freedoms of speech, thought, and choice is an affront to those of us who enjoy a free society. Yet the new government feels justified in shutting down activities and voices that "attack peace and public order."
So then how are we to react to the growing prohibitions on internet use and access in public schools? Are they protective or coercive?
In his article Don't, Don't, Don't vs. Do, Do, Do (2009) in Weblogg-ed, Will Richardson reflects about the ways in which many school districts are trying to protect their students and presumably themselves by compiling extensive "Acceptable Use" technology policy manuals that enumerate for staff, students, and parents "the many transgressions" that will not be tolerated and handing them out on Day One.
There are three problematic implications associated with this kind of intellectual prohibition that come to mind. First it gives parents a false sense of security by suggesting that it's possible to build a fence that is big enough and so impenetrable as to keep their children safe. As well, it starts from the premise that cutting off all access (to social networks for example) by all people to prevent a few from going to the 'wrong parts of town' is justified.
Finally, these manuals seem to alleviate school leaders from having to take responsibility for keeping children safe and also make it easy to blame the kids if they get into trouble.
Lessig's take on these kinds of prohibitions is even more sinister. In his view, the use of laws and regulations to erect a fence between young people and what they consider to be full and natural participation in the democratized read/write web is to rob them of their freedom to collaborate, to speak, and even to be. Extreme protectionism on one side of the fence engenders extreme 'law breaking' by young people. "You can't kill the instinct that technology produces, says Lessig,"you can only criminalize it. You can't make our kids passive again; you can only make them pirates ... who live life against the law."
Richardson muses that it would be much more enticing to students to receive a list of "Admirable Uses" instead of the standard 'Don'ts'. This approach would engage their sense of wonder and get them considering 'the possible' from their first moment back in school. I'd also say that if we don't want schools to become places that put the lie to the value of education, we have to stop extending the promise of openness and inquiry to students with one hand and taking it away with the other.
- Do use the network to find what you have in common with people who at first do not seem like you.
- Do use the network in a way that is respectful of other people, their ideas, and their work.
- Do use the network to get meaningful feedback that can help you to do better.
- Do use the network to engage in conversations with people who will challenge your ideas.
- Do use the network to share your reflections about your learning.
- Young people's way of making sense of the world and expressing themselves may be changing with new technology, but they experience the same emotions and have the same dreams that we do. They are not as far from our reach as some 'new education' thinkers would have us believe.