Last week Haruki Murakami gave a talk and reading to a ballroom-full of people at the University of Hawai`i, Manoa. Amongst jokes and personal revelations about his writing process, Murakami spoke of one possible detriment to society’s current glut of information (my paraphrase):

Instant and broad access to information negates imagination.

As an example, Murakami spoke of his short story “Tony Takitani,” and its roots in a tee shirt he found at aHawai`i swap meet in the ‘80s. Murakami began to imagine who this Tony Takitani was, and created a story about the man that he envisioned. Were he to have found this tee shirt in 2007, he could have looked Takitani up on the Internet and discovered that he ran for a Democratic seat in state government and this tee shirt was for his campaign.

Would this access to knowledge have prevented his imagination from blossoming, and been the end of the story? While the answer is unclear and debatable, this argument is certainly provocative.

Though at first seemingly unlikely, it also connects to a current educational discussion about laptop programs. Punahou School, where I previously taught in the Academy and now occasionally substitute, is phasing in a laptop program to its Academy, I believe this year. This has engendered expected uproar among those teachers who are techno-phobic (and I don’t mean scared of electronica music) as well as those, myself among them, who think of a classroom as a place where kids can get off the computer, interact with students and teachers—and books!—use their imaginations and critical thinking to learn both as individuals and a group. They can ask their teacher a question, which the class can then discuss, not stare at a computer while sitting next to other students starting at their computers.

Surely this doesn’t wholly categorize how laptops can be used in the classroom, and exploring new ways to educate students in this ever-changing and increasingly technology-driven world is a promising endeavor. And as long as teachers aren’t being forced to teach, in my case English, via laptops during class time, then it is a suggestion to which one should, I think, be open. But are laptop programs the way to go? Are they effective in preparing kids for this world, or do they simply present more barriers to effective learning—from repairs and glitches that steal time from lessons, to new avenues for cheating and not being “present” during class time?

I read an article in the New York Times today, about a teacher at Liverpool High School in Liverpool, New York, who urges students not to forget books, magazines, and academic journals even though they now have ready access to the Internet via their leased or provided laptops.

“The art of thinking is being lost,” he said. “Because people can type in a word and find a source and think that’s the be all end all.”

Amongst the findings from other laptop programs around the country, including that laptop programs are cost prohibitive without producing measurable increases in learning outcomes, this is certainly a strong argument, similar to Murakami’s, for providing opportunities both in education and life that foster imagination and critical thinking.

Perhaps this is best accomplished the old fashioned way–with only pen, paper (recycled, of course), and a young mind?

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