Can you text with thumbscrews on?

Catlin Gabel’s upper school head speaks to the challenge of the perceived effects of cell phone use on school culture. “CGSA” is the high school’s student association.

Republished from the Catlin Gabel Upper School Biweekly Bulletin

This week we had a fascinating discussion in our faculty meeting around cell phone use at the school. The CGSA came up with what I consider to be a thoughtful, cogent proposal for us to consider, and we as a faculty debated it fiercely and finally passed it as a policy. It will be revisited towards the end of the year, but we will plan on introducing it soon.

Certain restrictions have always been in place, such as not allowing cell phone use in classrooms, the library, or during assemblies. A subtler, more complex point has been added which states that cell phones should not be used for social reasons during the day. What I told the faculty in an email before our meeting is I really like the way the articulation of this policy resists a rules-based guideline and focuses more on explaining the values we have that lead us to limit our cell phone use. For us it is not the most facile or straightforward way, but it is the better path. The French philosopher Jacques Derrida talks about culture as something that is ‘arranged’ in a certain way, and this is what we are trying to do with this kind of policy—to form culture and even identity through these values.

Of course approaching behavior in this way is untidy. There’s a lot of gray and that makes some people nervous. That’s why a rule-based system is so much more attractive to many people. With clear rules firmly in place, you know where you stand and which side of the line the students are on. But this means you really do not need to engage and know your students. You can simply take their phones!

Our approach is different and for very good reasons. It’s our commitment to change a culture in a deeper way, far beyond any Behavioralist model of limits and environment. We want to talk about what is going on inside each student. We speak of words like ‘commitment’, ‘decency’, ‘kindness’, and we speak to people’s hearts, not just some external indicator that leads us to believe they are abiding by the rules.

With kind regards ~ Michael

Michael Heath is the head of upper school at Catlin Gabel

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