What Chess can teach us about social networking and kids
My uncle, the chess master, is in town, and with him comes the stack of chess magazines which he edits, "Texas Knights." The October edition holds a perspicacious rant by a chess instructor named Robert Rausch, entitled, "Stop Searching for Bobby Fischer," where he accounts with some sympathy the fantasy of raising a ten-year-old chess genius that has his clients paying him to hang out with their kids and pressuring their eight year olds to spend two to six hours a day reviewing chess moves.
Many parents feed their vicarious desire for greatness by enrolling their kids in dance class and gymnastics lessons and football and baseball and basketball. They justify the theft of their chidlren's time and youth by claiming that their offspring should be well-rounded. In fact, many don't want their kids to be well-rounded at all. They want them to be exceptional at something -- anything. They seem to want their children to find their niceh and demonstrate athe superiority of their family heritage to the entire world.
Rausch explainst aht when consulted by competition-addled parents about what chess books or software to buy their kids, he advises them against any computer games or books that will entail the child being alone for an extended period of time. Aiming to teach students who will enjoy chess for the rest of their lifetimes, instead of experts who will burn out before the end of high school, he emphasizes the social nature of chess and chess clubs.
Which brings us back to kids today. Rausch isn't alone in decrying the unhealthy obsession with competition, the meaninglessness of rote learning, the miserable lives of isolation, competition, rote, and infatilization which we inflict on our society's children until the end of college; in fact, a growing movement of parents within the homeschooling world, called "unschooling," challenges the very idea that rote classes and preordained curricula are best suited to cultivating a healthy human mind.
As my friend Danah Boyd continuously points out, Myspace and Facebook hold their place in the life of Generation Y because they offer social interaction to a generation that's been structurally deprived of friendship, informal interaction, and supportive society. Stopping by a friend's Myspace page to say "what's up?" may not epitomize the heights of socal discourse, but it offers an informal, aimless interaction that's been structured out of the experience of most children.
Chess teachers discourage isolation and overstudy among young chess players because they don't want to see bright minds pulling a Bobby Fischer -- disappearing for twenty years as the result of pressures beyond their control. Myspace and Facebook may give our kids something to stick around for.
However educator and citizen adults can encourage civic interaction, meaningful discussions, and serious study within the kinds of environments for online learning the social sites represent, we'll have a better chance of reaching them in a way that reaches hearts and minds and prepares them for a lifetime, rather than a few years, of serious engagement with matters of social concern.
Here's to the day when intelligently and persuasively debating others of radically different backgrounds on a public online forum finally replaces the polite undergraduate essay as the major graded course requirement.
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