During seventh grade a friend and I created a publication as an alternative to the school newspaper. It was quite a challenge in the days before access to photocopiers, but entertaining our handful of readers made the effort worthwhile.
I remember the day when the faculty advisor of the official school newspaper followed me into the boy's room, threw my 50-pound body against the wall and threatened to kill me if we published another issue. The English faculty's Tony Soprano really schooled me in the subtleties of the First Amendment. Ah, life was so much simpler then.
Since man first scribbled on cave walls and peed in the snow, humans have been compelled to share their stories. Recent decades have seen great violence done to student expression through court-sanctioned censorship of student publications and other forms of adult supremacy. Issues of critical importance and interest to students are banned from student newspapers and classroom discussions. Political correctness and tolerance are used to masquerade for intolerant policies like "zero-tolerance" and increasingly mediocre curriculum. High school credit is awarded just to get kids to contribute to some
Back in the good old days of lavatory justice, children climbed trees, played ball in the street and joined the scouts so they could play with fire. Santa delivered chemistry sets complete with recipes for gunpowder and kids could get together without having "my people call your people." You could actually read all 30 pages of Sarah Plain and Tall without a textbook publisher excerpting it for you. Remember when you could read a book without being interrupted every paragraph to answer a comprehension question?
Same Problems, Modern Times
Parents and educators have done a lot more to wreck childhood than Tim Berners-Lee (ask a kid to show you how to learn about him at Wikipedia). Schools endanger the very students they seek to protect when they bubble-wrap kids and the curriculum. School principals are banning classic plays like Grease and The Crucible while childish schlock like Seussical is now the most performed high school musical. John Taylor-Gatto argues that the mission of schools is now to extend childishness through graduation. Dependency and fear retard the learning process. It is difficult, if not impossible, for students to develop moral values and solve ethical dilemmas when school never allows them to make a decision or mistake.
Every generation has had to wrestle with understanding new media. In 1954, the U.S. Senate held hearings to investigate how comic books harm children. Who can forget Tipper Gore vs. Frank Zappa or the 1995 Time magazine cover depicting a computer induced zombie child with CyberPorn in block letters? The educational technology community has a similar level of paranoia manifest in discussions over whether students should have their own floppy, be allowed to save on the hard drive, surf the Web, send an e-mail or use a USB key. It is impossible to discern the lines between genuine safety concerns and tyranny.
The latest episode of adults behaving badly involves the hysteria over the popular Web site, MySpace. MySpace is a social networking site where anyone can publish and maintain relationships with friends. Chances are that your only experience with MySpace has come through local TV news stories about how parents must rescue their teenagers from this deadly cyber-sewer before sports and weather. It's a fair bet that you are not one of MySpace's 66 million registered users. There has probably never been a more aptly named product. They call it MySpace because it belongs to them, not you.
MySpace provides users with Web space where they may share their thoughts and creative output with classmates and friends around the world. What makes sites like MySpace different from other blogging sites is that you may ask interesting people to be your friend. Then you'll know when your friends are online, who their friends are and quickly develop affinity groups. You may organize communities around interests, geography or a host of other variables. You can chat via instant messages, insert music in your page and share all the photos and doodads that kids use to decorate their locker. (If school still trusts them with lockers.)
In fact, more than one observer has compared MySpace pages to a teenager's bedroom walls. My 12th grade daughter's MySpace site is unbearable. Animated gifs, flashing graphics, dopey poses, horrific music, yellow text on hot pink backgrounds and other elements of Web design hell assault your senses until you run away or quit the browser. Much of MySpace's content is inane, but we should avoid destroying the place 21st century kids built for themselves.
Sure there are creeps using MySpace. That's why you need to teach children not to share personal information online or get in a car with strangers. MySpace never shows the real name of a member, just a pseudonym like a CB radio handle. When you add a person to your friends list, that person receives an e-mail asking for permission. If someone turns out to be unpleasant, you may ban him or her from contacting you with a click. Even critics of MySpace concede the company is incredibly responsive to concerns over online ickyness. A student may be at greater risk of being suspended by her school for something written at home on MySpace as there is of that teenager being physically harmed.
MySpace is changing how young people communicate, collaborate and spend their discretionary funds. Network TV programs are being launched on MySpace and countless bands have experienced enormous sales due to word-of-mouth and users sharing music with their friends. The recent student walkouts over the proposed immigration bill were organized on MySpace. The role such sites will play in grassroots and electoral politics is inestimable.
Today my daughter's high school experienced a small fire. She learned of the fire from friends via MySpace nearly 11 hours before the local television news reported it. MySpace is a teenager's record store, newsstand, community center, fan club and 24/7 news network. As our government strives to spread democracy abroad, we would be well served by celebrating the electronic democracy afforded by sites like MySpace.
I just learned that my daughter has retaliated for me showing her MySpace site in conference presentations by posting an unflattering photo of me online. I wonder if I can get the local school district to punish her? DA
Gary Stager, firstname.lastname@example.org,
is editor-at-large and an adjunct
professor at Pepperdine University.