The Strength of the Empiricist
By Rafi M. Ali, M.D.
Director of DarusSalam Seminary’s Tadrīs Integrated High School Program
Smartphones are harmful to children’s education. What is the evidence?
Charles Dickens understood the weakness of the anesthetized “scientific” approach to pedagogy. His novel, Hard Times, begins with the empiricist pedagogue ranting, “Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” 
Dickens goes on to chart the effects of such principles on the “animals” subjected to them. He illustrates how the innocence of childhood is robbed and how the seeds of bitterness are sown! Hard Times is a difficult book to read as a parent. Here, a grown Louisa is venting her anguish to her father.
“I curse the hour in which I was born to such a destiny…How could you give me life, and take from me all the inappreciable things that raise it from the state of conscious death? Where are the graces of my soul? Where are the sentiments of my heart? What have you done, O Father, what have you done, with the garden that should have bloomed once, in this great wilderness here?” She struck herself with both her hands upon her bosom.
There are three recurrent challenges with regards to data: it does not exist, it exists but is inconveniently inaccessible, it exits but is inexact. The challenge with the empiricists insistence on data to guide all policies (especially those that do not suit their sentiments) is that “data” always arrives on the scene a little too late — after the damage has been done — after the divorces, after the drop-outs, after the suicides, or after the gardens are laid waste. Empiricists boast a superb hindsight.
When the data is available, yet poses inconveniencies, it is often relegated to the haystack of superfluous irrelevancies. For example, according to the 2015 American Psychological Association Task Force on Violent Media, “The research demonstrates a consistent relation between violent video game use and increases in aggressive behavior, aggressive cognitions and aggressive affect, and decreases in prosocial behavior, empathy and sensitivity to aggression.” Yet, this is not common knowledge. Indeed, by age eighteen, “a U.S. youth will have seen at least 40,000 simulated murders and 200,000 acts of violence on television alone.”
Data usually does exist, though in inexact fragments. Such is the case with “smartphones.” Our challenge is in navigating life’s vicissitudes with grace, despite this disadvantage. Sufficient data exists, for example, to correlate aggression with violent video games. However, it is difficult to prove that this leads to violent behavior. Cause-effect relationships are difficult to establish in complex human systems. To wait for such definitive data is to wait for a generation’s social autopsy.
Our weakness is our proclivity for ease. It is easier to pacify a small child with hypnotic cartoons than to clean up the mess they would make if given other toys. Some shortcuts, however, extort long-term dividends. Expediency does not absolve the burden of responsibility.
Regardless, the problem still remains that without sure data, all arguments merit equal consideration. However, our Lord is Merciful. There is a framework presented to us to judge the merit of all human endeavors, and it comes with certainty:
This is the Book (of God). There is no doubt therein. It is guidance for the God-fearing…
Technology that is palpably toxic to the wellbeing of the student by all dictums of common sense should be avoided, or at least used with great caution. Just as the burden of proof of safety of a medication cannot be placed upon the patient, the burden of proof of harm of technological gadgets cannot be placed upon the parents, teachers, or the educational system.
Finally, dogmatic reliance on technology to solve humanity’s woes, which are largely failings of the heart, is a disservice to the future of our children. Sometimes there are no short-cuts to life’s challenges. No technology is needed to encourage a child to show kindness to parents, respect to teachers, and goodwill to all.
An Excellent Teacher is cautious about technology’s intrusion into the classroom.
. Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York: Barnes & Noble Books Classics, 2004), 9.
. Dickens, 209.
. Mark Appelbaum et al., “APA Review Confirms Link Between Playing Violent Video Games and Aggression,” American Psychological Association (APA Task Force On Violent Media, Aug 13, 2015), https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2015/08/violent-video-games.
. Dave Grossman and Gloria DeGaetano, Stop Teaching Our Kids to Kill: a Call to Action against TV, Movie & Video Game Violence (New York: Harmony Books, 2014), 15.
. Ḥammād, 3.