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Larry Cuban on School Reform and Classroom Practice: Real Schools Need Books, Not Laptops or Cell Phones (James Traub) (Guest Post by James Traub)

James Traub is a journalist and scholar specializing in international affairs. He is a columnist and contributor to the website He worked as a staff writer for The New Yorker from 1993 to 1998 and as a contributing writer to The New York Times Magazine from 1998 to 2011. He has also written extensively about national politics, urban affairs, and education. His books include What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of  Noble Idea; John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit; The Freedom Agenda, on the American policy of democracy promotion; and The Best Intentions, on the United Nations under Kofi Annan. He teaches classes on American foreign policy and on the history of liberalism at NYU Abu Dhabi and at NYU. He is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.” This article appeared on April 18, 2024

A few weeks ago, I was sitting in an eleventh-grade history class at a high school in the suburbs west of Chicago. Mr. DiTella was firing off questions about the civil rights movement and getting precious little in return, despite the fact that he had assigned a reading on the subject. When we spoke afterwards, Mr. DiTella complained about how little reading the kids were prepared to do, and how brazenly nonchalant many of them were about handing in written assignments. That’s an immemorial lament; what has changed the conversation is the all-consuming presence of social media. Mr. DiTella recalled watching his daughter, a student so diligent that she was considered practically freakish by her friends, scroll through her TikTok or perhaps Instagram feed. Her rapid-fire reaction had gone something like this: laugh-pause-laugh-laugh-pause-pause-laugh. “Each one is a dopamine hit,” Mr. DiTella recalled thinking. How can school compete with that?

The general answer is: Schools don’t try. Almost all the schools I’ve seen have learned to accommodate students’ ever-dwindling attention span with ever-shorter assignments, with video rather than text, with one paragraph of writing rather than a page. The response is equal parts abject surrender and progressive doctrine; if, as educators have believed since the time of John Dewey, successful learning rests upon student interest and student preference, then schools need to work with, rather than push back against, the cognitive habits imposed by social media. So they do.

Here, I have come to think, is the real battle line. Those of us who think about civic education are mesmerized by the shiny bauble of politics. Florida demands patriotism; Minnesota demands respect for diversity; purple states hold pitched battles between the woke and the anti-woke. It’s highly entertaining. But the deepest crisis in the school is not ideological; it’s cognitive. Kids who spend their entire lives on their phone are losing the skills required for reflective citizenship, no matter their point of view. If we care about preparing young people for democratic citizenship, that is the fight we need to wage.

In an excerpt in The Atlantic from his book The Anxious Generation, Jonathan Haidt writes that the world changed about a decade ago when smartphones began delivering curated feeds of social media to young people’s pockets. Haidt, too, describes the dopamine hit, though his chief focus is mental health. “When the child is not engaged in digital activity,” he writes, “the brain doesn’t have enough dopamine, and the child experiences withdrawal symptoms,” including anxiety and insomnia. That’s bad enough; but Haidt also notes that social media undermines acts of sustained attention with incessant ping notifications and an endless stream of “high-pleasure, low-effort digital experiences.”

All schools recognize the deleterious effects of smartphones, but many are reluctant to simply prohibit something so central to children’s lives. Classrooms in Mr. DiTella’s school have what’s called a “phone tree,” a kind of hanging shoe bag in which teachers may, if they wish, ask students to place their phones at the beginning of class. Most of the trees I saw were empty. A study by a mental health organization found that 97 percent of students use their phones during the school day, with the most popular functions being social media, YouTube, and gaming.

Florida, which leads the nation in banning things like “critical-race theory” that oughtn’t be banned, has also banned the use of phones in schools and access to social media on school Wi-Fi. Haidt favors such rules; I do, too. But prohibiting the use of bad things does not ensure that good things will take their place. Social media has killed off sustained acts of reading. A study by the American Psychological Association found that while in the late 1970s, 60 percent of twelfth-graders reported reading a book or a magazine every day, the figure had plummeted to 16 percent by 2016. It’s almost certainly fallen further since then. I asked twelfth-graders in an elective sociology class at the suburban high school—middle-class kids in a group self-selected for intellectual curiosity—how many read books at home. Five or six out of thirty raised their hands. One kid was reading Stephen King. But of the two others who volunteered, one shuffled through mystery books whose titles she couldn’t remember and the other was reading what she called a “slice-of-life” book, by which she meant a book about an unhappy teenage girl like herself.

A truly counter-cultural school today is not one that teaches that the Pilgrims were settler colonialists or, on the contrary, that we should idolize Thomas Jefferson; it is one that restores books to the center of children’s experience. And by “book” I do not mean any sheaf of paper glued together and bound between covers; nor do I mean “great books.” Stephen King will do. Students need to have experiences that will both demand sustained attention and repay sustained attention. Slice-of-life books don’t demand it, and Hamlet, at least for many students, won’t repay it. Nor does it matter whether students read books on paper or on a screen, just so long as the experience makes them ignore the ping.

What does this have to do with civic education, and thus with democracy? Many of the students I talk to go to TikTok or Instagram to learn about serious things like the war in Gaza, as well as about inane ephemera. But they learn about real things without history, context, or balance. Social media reinforces kids’ natural tendency to seek simple and self-reinforcing answers to hard questions. If it can’t be explained in thirty seconds, it’s not worth knowing; worse still, it’s not knowable, since kids stop paying attention. These children are being perfectly prepared to join a society already aflame with self-righteous certainty.

Our world of algorithmically curated dopamine hits is not going away. In fact, Tiktok and Instagram will seem positively quaint once we fully enter the world of artificial intelligence. The New York Times just revealed that officials at Meta contemplated buying Simon & Schuster just to have more stuff to load into their AI’s maw. AI aspires to reduce all knowledge to data. The only way to prevent this monstrous flattening is to thicken the walls of the institutions charged with shaping our minds, above all our public schools and colleges; that is, to ensure that what happens inside them is genuinely different from what goes on outside them. Social media may rule outside; books, and the depth experience that comes with them, must rule inside.

I am convinced that the growing popularity of so-called “classical schools” is evidence of the deep discomfort many parents feel with their kids’ peer culture. Whatever else they do, classical schools, very much including public charter schools, revere books and disdain technology. The average public school seems to do the opposite. Of course public schools by their nature reflect the community in which they are situated. But doctrine matters, too; and the progressive deference to the student prevents schools from seeing how very destructive her culture has become. Most kids seem to want to be liberated from the technological forces that have increasingly taken over their lives and their minds. Schools must take their side.


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James Traub

James Traub is a historian, journalist and scholar. Over a career of almost fifty years he has written extensively about international affairs, national poli...

Larry Cuban

Larry Cuban is a former high school social studies teacher (14 years), district superintendent (7 years) and university professor (20 years). He has published op-...