Blair: Computers and Conscience

by Peter Blair | 1/10/12 11:00pm

Dartmouth requires all incoming students to own a personal computer. This policy is wrong and ought to be changed. I am not saying that students should be discouraged or forbidden from using or buying computers I enjoy using mine and would like to keep it. Rather, students should not be required to purchase one.

Students should not be so required because individual Dartmouth students may have reasons why they object to computer use or ownership, and they should not be compelled against their conscience to buy one. One such objection to computers might be environmental. Wendell Berry, the noted environmentalist, farmer and poet, wrote an essay called "Why I Am Not Going to Buy a Computer." The essay contains the line, "I would hate to think that my work as a writer could not be done without a direct dependence on strip-mined coal. How could I write conscientiously against the rape of nature if I were, in the act of writing, implicated in the rape?" Berry believes that the present configuration of the energy market is environmentally destructive in ways that would be wrong even if they didn't affect us. Of course, Berry believes that this destruction does also affect us, both in the way it harms agricultural land and communities and in the way it pollutes our planet. For him, increasing his energy consumption more than is necessary by buying a computer is to acquiesce even more in this destruction.

A second reason might be educational. A student may believe that owning a computer will harm his or her education. The idea that computers limit classroom productivity is a familiar one to Dartmouth professors. Some professors at our school have a no-laptop policy in their classroom precisely because of the extent to which they harm learning. Does it not seem absurd that the College forces us to buy computers, only to have its professors tell us not to use them? If a student shares the worries of his professors over the impact of the computer on his learning, why should he or she be forced to buy one? Surely Dartmouth exists to promote learning rather than the profits of the computer industry.

A third reason might be cultural. Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, wrote an essay in March 2008 for The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Dwelling in Possibilities." Edmundson established his reasons for the no-laptop policy in his classroom, but his analysis extended far beyond the pedagogical he also found computers to be harmful culturally. He wrote, "A Romantic, says Nietzsche, is someone who always wants to be elsewhere. If that's so, then the children of the Internet are Romantics, for they perpetually wish to be someplace else, and the laptop reliably helps take them there."

Edmundson's point is that laptops facilitate our increasing desire to be in all places at all times doing all things. The negative cultural consequences of this are tremendous an addiction to screens and an inability to focus or enjoy solitude, to work slowly through a text or to be content with limitation. A student might find that computers and a requirement to buy them normalize cultural trends that he or she finds harmful or counterproductive.

These are just some of the reasons why a student might not wish to buy a computer. Others might be financial or aesthetic. If a student does not wish to purchase one, the College should not force him or her. It would be one thing if the College had an overriding value that made students' purchase of a computer a necessity. But what would such an overriding value be? By not possessing a computer, a student neither harms the safety of others, nor detracts from the College in any way.

The only possible value here is pedagogical: the College believes that having a computer will make the student a better student. But Dartmouth students are smart enough to know if they will need their own personal computer to do their coursework well. And if they deem they do not if, for example, they take mostly reading courses and know they can write their essays on a library computer or a friend's computer there's no pedagogical reason they should be forced to get one of their own.