Students ponder life without technology

Updated: 2012-12-09 08:09

By Vivian Yee(The New York Times)

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 Students ponder life without technology

At the Mountain School in Vershire, Vermont, students hike, farm and connect with nature. High-speed Internet service is coming, and the school is debating a policy on the use of technology by its students. Photographs by Cheryl Senter for The New York Times

VERSHIRE, Vermont - In a spot on campus where the wooden buildings of the Mountain School can seem farther away than the mountains of western New Hampshire, there sometimes can be found a single bar, sometimes two, of cellphone reception.

The spot, between the potato patch and a llama named Nigel, is something of an open secret at the school in this remote corner of Vermont. "We're at the periphery of civilization here," said Doug Austin, a teacher.

But that is about to change.

The school offers high school juniors a semester to immerse themselves in nature. The students make solo camping trips to a nearby mountain for a day or two of reflection, and practice orienteering skills without a GPS device. They care for farm animals and chop wood. In the process, many say, they lose habits like constantly checking their Facebook pages.

As most of America has gotten high-speed Internet, Vershire (population 730) has lagged.

But soon technicians will start laying fiber-optic cable to bring high-speed Internet to town, and cellphone coverage is expected soon after.

That presents a challenge for the Mountain School: how to regulate the use of smartphones and other devices that are constant distractions for teenagers, who are here to engage with the rural setting and with one another.

The school asked its students and alumni to develop a policy that will determine whether to ban phones, limit them or leave the decision to students.

Many students, alumni and teachers have asked Alden Smith, the school's director, to declare a ban. "But I tend to think that adolescents, particularly the ones we get here, when mentored, will rise to the occasion when trusted with real responsibility," he said.

Students ponder life without technology

To make phone calls from the campus, students take turns, using prepaid calling cards, at phone closets in the dormitories. Internet service is available only in the academic building.

"Here, if you spent a lot of time on your computer, people would think that's lame," said Calais Larson, 17, of Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, who believes that cellphones should not be used on campus.

Students have not cut themselves off from the outside world altogether. Julia Christensen, a 16-year-old from Seattle, planned to wake up before 7 a.m. recently to download Taylor Swift's new album before the morning Internet rush hour. But that was an exception.

The school says students have agreed on a draft cellphone policy: students will hand over their phones to the faculty when they arrive and will get them back on off-campus trips; they can also choose to get them back a month into the semester.

Teachers say their goal is to make the students think carefully about their use of technology.

"The idea is not to be going back to a time where things were better," Mr. Smith said, "but where the richness of each day is defined by the food you eat, the company you keep, the work you do."

The New York Times

(China Daily 12/09/2012 page10)