Failure to Connect

Failure to Connect

How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds—and What We Can Do About It

by Jane M. Healy M.D.
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
1st Edition, ©1999, ISBN: 9780684855394
Trade Paperback, 352 pages
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In many ways, Failure to Connect reads like the great dystopian classics of Western literature—1984Brave New WorldFaherenheit 451, and others. The main difference? It's more gripping and more frightening because it's real. But there's another important difference, one that distinguishes Dr. Healy's book from the work of critics like Neil Postman: she's no technophobe. Instead, she realizes the potential of technology to educate, while understanding and demonstrating its inherent dangers and misuses.

As is usually the case, the warnings Healy sounds in Failure to Connect are much more unsettling and to-the-point now than when the book first appeared in 1998 because the dangerous trends have continued and borne much evil fruit. What are the dangers, then, and what is the evil fruit?

The dangers all point to a single theme: the use of technology to educate children without adequate knowledge of how best to do so, and the academic, emotional, developmental, and physical strains this puts on kids. In our technological age, educators, parents, and policy-makers almost unanimously assume that any technology is good technology, and that technology can teach things many teachers can't, whether they're impaired by lack of training or too many students.

Such reliance on technology is misguided at best, and downright perverse at worst. Marshall McLuhan's famous adage that "the medium is the message" isn't quite correct, but it's certainly true that the medium (in the case of this book, computers) deeply affects both the message and the user. Not only are there physical repercussions, computer-based learning if used incorrectly and too soon in students's developmental progress can truncate personality, imagination, social skills, and the ability to communicate.

Failure to Connect is a dense book. Healy is thorough in a way most writers have forgotten to be. It might take an effort to really get into the content, but once you do it reads like a science fiction novel, cultural commentary, and educational philosophy all at once (and that's not a bad thing).

There aren't wild-eyed conspiracy theories here, and Healy does a superlative job supporting her ideas and research. Scenes from her time observing classrooms, talking to parents and educators, and learning about the use of educational technology appear often, giving us insight into the practical nature and implications of the principles and theory. Her approach is meticulous, but it seldom seems overwhelming.

Because the book was written in the late 1990s, there have been many changes to the technological landscape, but careful readers will find that while computer programs for kids have gotten more sophisticated, they haven't changed substantively in terms of offering mindless fun as a reward for brief doses of instruction. Kids are being formed by computer education programs to "learn" not for the sake of personal development and understanding, but simply for the sake of zoning out.

Healy doesn't offer her criticisms without offering alternatives. There are proper ways to use technology to educate, and she provides both examples and suggestions. One particularly memorable story she tells is of a group of elderly people who were brought to a Pennsylvania school to help troubled students learn more about Pennsylvania history; in return, the kids taught the older adults how to use the computers to write their own memoirs. This sort of situation is ideal, because it takes into account the necessity of human-to-human interaction in education.

At one point, the father of a young child is quoted as asking whether he should spend money on cello lessons or video games. It is precisely these kinds of questions, Healy says, that aren't asked near often enough by near enough people. And apart from the inherent dangers of overuse of computers, what exactly are these educational games kids are using, and who makes them? As often as not, they're simply profit machines developed by computer experts with no knowledge of educational philosophy or the development of children.

Don't attempt to read Failure to Connect at night in your favorite easy chair. You'll probably fall asleep. But every parent, whether a technophile or a technophobe, ought to read this book. The world is changing due to the availability of technology, and it isn't an option to completely disregard it (at least, not for the majority). But there is a good and bad way to educate our children with and for the use of computers, and the good way values language skills, human-to-human interaction, discipline, and a desire to use the tools at hand rather than to become them or be used by them. Highly recommended.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.

Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here.
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Exodus Rating
FLAWS: Too long, very dense
Summary: Astounding study of the effects of computers on our children's brains, and what we can do to turn the tide.

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