Vt. school cut off from technology faces its intrusion
By VIVIAN YEE
The New York Times | November 13,2012
New York Times Photo
Students take notes as Pat Barnes, second from right, teaches an environmental science class in the woods at the Mountain School in Vershire last month. The school is about to gain access to broadband and cell service.
VERSHIRE — Past the chicken coop and up a hill, in a spot on campus where the wooden buildings of the Mountain School can seem farther away than the mountains of western New Hampshire, there sometimes can be found a single bar, sometimes two, of cellphone reception.
The spot, between the potato patch and a llama named Nigel, is something of an open secret at the school in this remote corner of Vermont where simplicity is valued over technology. “We’re at the periphery of civilization here,” said Doug Austin, a teacher.
But that is about to change.
The school offers high school students, many from elite private institutions in the Northeast, a semester to immerse themselves in nature. The students make solo camping trips to a nearby mountain for a day or two of reflection and practice orienteering skills without a GPS device. Between English and environmental science classes, they care for farm animals, chop wood and read the works of Robert Frost. And in the process, many say, they stopped scouring the campus for its sparse bars of reception and lost the habit of checking their Facebook pages at every opportunity.
As the rest of the country got high-speed Internet, Vershire (population 730) has lagged, relying on landlines shared among neighbors, dial-up and (for homes that face the right way) satellite Internet service that cuts out when the weather is rough. But cellphone signals have been seeping in, and soon there will be more.
This fall, technicians will start laying fiber-optic cable to bring high-speed Internet to the town. Cellphone coverage is expected soon after. “Right now we’re the Third World country of Vermont,” said Gene Craft, the town clerk. “We’d like to be in touch.”
That presents a challenge for the Mountain School: how to regulate the use of smartphones and other devices that serve as a constant distraction for 21st-century teenagers, who are here to engage with the rural setting and with each other.
True to its mission of encouraging “collaborative learning and shared work,” the school asked its students and alumni to develop a technology policy that will determine whether to ban phones, allow them in a limited way, or leave the decision whether to disconnect to students.
Many students, alumni and teachers have asked Alden Smith, the school’s director, to declare a ban. But the school has always held that its students can be trusted to make good choices, he said. “We have to figure out the balance between how to preserve the values we have,” Smith said. “But I tend to think that adolescents, particularly the ones we get here, when mentored, will rise to the occasion when trusted with real responsibility.”
To make phone calls from the 300-acre campus, students must take turns, using prepaid calling cards, at small phone closets in each dorm. At the recommendation of alumni, there is no Internet service in the dorms, only in the academic building, and incoming students are strongly discouraged from bringing DVDs or loading videos on their laptops. (Even where there is Internet service, any online activity that requires significant bandwidth — watching a video on YouTube, for example — means a loss of signal to others because the town’s fair access policy limits bandwidth to the school.)
At first, Andy Sharp, 17, from nearby Thetford Academy, missed participating in his friends’ fantasy football league online. But after most of a semester at the school, he said, he uses his laptop only for homework and checking Facebook occasionally.
“I didn’t think that was going to happen to me, but it did,” he said. “Your focus shifts to things that are in front of you.”
That is not to say that students cut themselves off from the outside world altogether. Many were keeping up with new music — including Julia Christensen, 16, a junior at the Lakeside School in Seattle, who planned to wake up before 7 a.m. recently to download Taylor Swift’s new album, to beat the morning Internet rush hour. But that was an exception.
“Here, if you spent a lot of time on your computer, people would think that’s lame,” said Calais Larson, 17, a junior at Phillips Exeter Academy who believes cellphones should not be used on campus.
Students say they are ambivalent about returning to a world where they can be reached at any moment.
After a short break last month, several students said it was a relief when they returned and were not expected to respond immediately to text messages or did not have to worry about which party to attend. As they split firewood and dug potatoes, the discussion was instead about heading to Garden Hill to watch the stars, or reading Frost and hiking in the New England countryside.
The school says students have agreed on a draft policy: Students will hand over their phones to faculty when they arrive and will get them back on off-campus trips. They can also choose to get them back a month into the semester.
Smith and other longtime teachers say their aim is not to encourage their students to live without technology, but to make them think more carefully about their use of it.
“The idea is not to be going back to a time where things were better,” Smith said, “but where the richness of each day is defined by the food you eat, the company you keep, the work you do.”