One of the most delightful things about John Keats’ early sonnet, “When First Looking at Homer Chapman,” is that Keats uses images from the age of global exploration and modern science to describe the feeling of first experience of what Homer’s poems are. The classics of the deep past have become a vast unexplored space, and a promising rich future, like the sky in which a new planet has just been discovered or the Pacific Ocean when Spanish explorers first crossed the Isthmus of Panama. Why don’t we feel the same about the digital future?
last month, a Article – Commodity In a British online magazine, she tackled a problem that increasingly felt like an urgency: “breaking the spell of smartphones.” The author noted that 79% of parents felt that their children were spending too much time on their smartphone and 60% thought the use was “sometimes or always harmful”. On average, they gave their kids smartphones at the age of 10, and one reason was that kids’ schools demanded them — a complaint I heard from our students at Catholic College of Wyoming about the high schools they attended. One British parent wrote of her son, “Now he’s totally addicted to his phone and can’t focus enough to read a book or even a page. His school told him it’s okay because that’s what the future looks like. I’m frustrated that he used to be an avid reader.” (This is an obvious British use of the word “marginalization,” by the way, but it makes the point seem stronger.)
The plight of British parents could lead to a ban on children’s cell phones in schools in the UK similar to the one that came into effect in France Four years ago and In China (which is a bit astonishing) in February of 2021. Big tech masters admit it danger From social media and too much screen time (at least for their kids). What the same things might do for young people is the heart of our interest at Wyoming Catholic College, where we have The famous ban on cell phones in 2007. Our founders thought the trend was nowhere fruitful, but it would take some serious backbone to ban devices altogether. We have been debating the question of whether to go any further without becoming mere Luddites.
One of the advantages of our policy is that the students in the class are already present in the discussion, giving or taking the usual human weaknesses. It is not hard to see how cell phones affect us. If my cell phone comes in handy in a meeting, for example, messages and emails pop up and get distracted. Not only is this interruption rude in the simplest of human ways, but it exposes the bias that communication culture encourages—meaning that these connections in their neutral, time-sensitive noise are truly The “present” that includes you, reality is more important than the people around you.
It’s not like that in the class I’m teaching now to the new student. Think of Homer’s unusual similes in The Iliad It brings them into a conversation they never had on their devices and even a kind of wonder about the continuity of their experience with deep everyday life 3,000 years ago. For example, in the fifteenth book, Apollo helps Hector attack the wall that the Achaeans built around their ships. He destroys fortresses “easily, as when a young boy piles sand on the seashore / When, in his innocent game, he makes sand towers for his enjoyment / And then, still playing, with his hand and feet he wrecks and destroys.” The little boy fascinates us, in a way, as if we think the construction of sandcastles began with us or our parents. In the seventeenth book, the hero Menelaus – who was never one of the strongest warriors – continues to advance through the ranks of the Trojans. We are told that Athena “places strength in man’s shoulders and knees, inspiring/into his chest. The constant daring of that mosquito/which, though pushed hard away from man’s skin, even/yet, for the taste of human blood, continues to bite him.” I almost laughed out loud when I read it, not only because I slapped some mosquitoes on my skin this summer, but also because the analogy bears such a picture of Helen’s husband, the naked man being a pretext for the Trojan War. I hesitate to ask: Are there people in your experience who remind you of mosquitoes?
These old photos establish a very interesting bond of appreciation. We share with the ancient poet an experience that makes it plainly real, even though the culture that gave rise to the epic itself has changed almost completely. Such experiences of deep sources of wisdom and faith make possible the kinds of renewal that Dr. James Tonkowitz will explore in this semester’s series, points of light, which shows how figures such as Saint John Vianney, Saint John Henry Newman, Archbishop “Dagger” John Hughes, Pope Leo XIII, and Saint Therese of Lisieux have grown up splendidly despite the darkness of the times. In fact, his nickname reminds me of another simile of The Iliad:
Like when the stars in the sky are about the brightness of the moon
Seen in all their glory, when the air fell into stillness,
And all the heights of the hills are clear, and the shoulders are prominent
And deep valleys, where endless bright air pours from the sky
You see all the stars to make the shepherd’s heart rejoice.
Such a number kindled the watch-fire that the Trojans were burning…
We might replace the saints of the nineteenth century with the Trojans fires. Remarkably, at least in this virtual age, our students experience the same view of the sky when they spend their nights outdoors on their Mountain West travels.
In contrast to this connection to the deep past, there is what we might call the “cell mind” of a culture lamented by British parents, one in which the illusory self addictively feeds on the illusion of an infinitely critical but non-reflective existence. What this culture preaches, we all fear, but here at Catholic College of Wyoming, we do our best to think about the nature of the threat. The response must be as new as Keats’ discovery of “Deep Eyebrows Homer” – which is not only a matter of limitations, but of new possibilities for continuity and community.
Republished with the kind permission of Catholic College of WyomingWeekly Bulletin.
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Featured image is courtesy of Pixabay.