Are the undergraduates controlled by robots?

Teaching millennial students requires a powerful skill—the power to detect texting, electronic distraction, and generally counter-productive absorption with technologically-powered toys in the classroom. The use of technology is a particularly sore spot with me, and one which may require me to temper my gut response in the future. I’ve had students tell me that I “freak out too much about technology” and that “I’m a responsible student, I can use a laptop in class.” Maybe these students are right. And, I’ve been the ironic subject of my own intolerance: my trilling cell phone went off in class…during an exam. It was my mother.

Maybe a responsible undergraduate can successfully use a laptop with internet access without becoming distracted. Certainly, technology in the classroom is a benefit and even a necessity. And, introducing students to the effective, ethical, and appropriate use of technology in scholarly settings is an essential aspect of contemporary learning and research. I admit we are blessed to have technology; I am immensely grateful that I never had to write a research paper on a typewriter—even an electric one!

But, what has technology to do with teaching or thinking…liturgically? Technology is all about controlling and saving time, and I admit that time is something I think about quite a bit—mostly not having enough of it. So, at a recent annual conference which focuses on liturgical studies, I was struck quite acutely by the words of one of our speakers, Fr. Donald LaSalle, who focused on “time.”

Fr. LaSalle spoke of the “acceleration of time” which typifies a modern/post-modern world imbued with all the benefits of technology. We want things, tasks, experiences, and information to be yielded to us immediately. What a privilege to have such immediate responses! Even further, having the freedom afforded by technology, reduces the time-intensive physical labor naturally attached to daily living. Technology gives us time, and the ability to control how we use it. We have technology to clean our homes and dishes and clothes, technology to plan our roadtrips and travel, and technology to digitize every aspect of our communication.

And yet, in our technologically-rich context, we somehow don’t save time…but are simply asked to move faster. The immediacy which we enjoy serves to distance us from the time and patience it takes to build relationships, or hone a skill. Technology allows us to control our time, but drops a protective screen between us and the relational world. We hide behind social media which allows us to self-construct our identities, rely on robots for directions rather than asking the person standing next to us, and prefer the anonymity of scraps of language to the vulnerability of a face-to-face encounter.

One of my first thoughts, after hearing Fr. LaSalle’s reflection, was a sudden seize of fear: “Are the undergraduates controlled by robots?!” While I don’t really believe that they are, I do really believe that willfully subjugating oneself to technology—of any kind—is a powerful addiction, and in need of healing in this modern world. Anyone, regardless of age, can fall prey to technology; any one of us can, of our own choosing, allow ourselves to be controlled by something other than God, to the detriment of ourselves, our relationships, and our attentiveness to living life in God.

As you may suppose, the liturgical encounter, and liturgical time, is described by none of the attributes which serve to fragment society, to accelerate experiences, or to dish out information. Encountering the “other” in the liturgical context is, sometimes painfully, personal. Nor does the Liturgy “give” us that end product immediately. Growth in Christ, and growth in the Christian life, is a lifetime process of development, practice, and discipleship. Every liturgical experience teaches this discipleship, through the proclaiming of the word, the experience of the sacraments, and participation in the body of Christ at prayer: all together, at once, in the same room.

The immediacy afforded by technology can make us impatient with the liturgical experience. Liturgical time is slow. The challenge as the Church begins to fill (we hope) with young adults and children who have only known the immediacy of smartphones, big screens, and social media, is to continue teaching how liturgical time is God’s time, and God’s free gift of grace: liturgical time is nothing we can control. Liturgical time is a sacred time: time for freedom from distraction, freedom from fear of relationships, freedom from the clutching need to control and construct our identities. Rather than building us into bodies of anonymous robots, liturgical experiences ask us to be ourselves as we are in God’s eyes: children of God, no accessories needed. LOL


  1. Many times I walk into a classroom just before class starts only to find 7-8 undergraduates already in their seats, each of them occupied by a handheld electronic device and each of them basically ignoring the other students in the room. Controlled by robots? Perhaps not. Affected by technology to the detriment of in-person social relations? Perhaps.


  2. The French theologian Jacques Ellul had much to say on this point and other points sociological in his great treatise “The Technological Society.” Neil Postman’s, “Amusing Ourselves to Death” & “Technopoly”are also very cogent.

  3. There is an ongoing discussion (battle) about the use of technology at the elementary level of education. Back in the day… you really had to think whenever you used a computer. Now… the goal seems to be the ability to use technology without thinking.
    As a teacher of 35 years, I am amazed at the issues coming out of this age of technology. More and more children are having problems thinking, relating, and expressing themselves. The basics suffer the most. Addition, subtraction, multiplication, grammar, and spelling rely too heavily on the computer. I think it’s interesting to note that neither Bill Gates nor Steve Jobs let their children “live” on devices. The Gates kids had no phones until they turned 13 and Jobs kids never got iPads. As was reported in a New York Times article, Jobs restricted the use of devices by his kids.
    “Especially in Silicon Valley, there is actually a trend of tech execs and engineers who shield their kids from technology. They even send their kids to non-tech schools like the Waldorf School in Los Altos, where computers aren’t found anywhere because they only focus on hands-on learning.”
    I remember an staff inservice led by a representative from a computer company stating that we no longer need art teachers because the computer provides all of the functions of an art class. Scary!

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