Charles Gray | Laptops and light bulbs

The Gray Area | A look at what the two say about authority in our daily lives

· February 1, 2012, 1:33 am   ·  Updated February 2, 2012, 10:26 pm

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Charles Gray
The Gray Area

What is the value of being free? This question has always been debated in America. American governing attitudes have always been a little different from that of other Western democracies. Political science books routinely say that we value freedom and personal autonomy a little more than citizens of other nations do.

However, this value is beginning to change in certain sectors of the country. On a small scale, it is even playing out in classrooms at Penn.

Four years ago when I started college, students could bring their laptops to most classes. For many, including myself, the laptop is pivotal to maintaining readable and organized notes.

But over the past year, a new regulation is becoming increasingly common — professors are banning laptops from their classes. Their explanation for this rule usually plays out along the following lines: since students on laptops might not be paying attention, they are not learning and are potentially distracting others.

While shopping for classes last week, I was a little bit disturbed by the increasing number of professors that implemented this rule. That Tuesday, after President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, Indiana governor Mitch Daniels delivered the Republican response. That’s when it all came full circle.

His speech was superb. It articulated the problems that arise when authorities try to step in every time they see a potential problem. It showed, once again, why he would have made an excellent president if he had run for the office.

He started with a short introduction, acknowledging the president respectfully but also stating that conservatives everywhere have a duty to engage in loyal opposition to the big government policies of this administration. And then he delivered the line that connected to the laptop conundrum.

Daniels said, “In word and deed, the president and his allies tell us that we just cannot handle ourselves in this complex, perilous world without their benevolent protection. Left to ourselves, we might pick the wrong health insurance, the wrong mortgage, the wrong school for our kids — why, unless they stop us, we might pick the wrong light bulb!”

That last sentence referred to a law that was passed in Congress that banned the incandescent light bulb starting this year. Even though Congress chose not to spend any money to enforce the light bulb ban in a last minute budget compromise, it is now technically illegal to sell the incandescent light bulb. It’s all in the name of a benevolent government trying to protect us from ourselves.

Penn professors’ decision to ban laptops in classrooms shows us that the same trend can be found on this campus. Whenever one makes a decision that could potentially hurt oneself, it’s very easy for an authority to step in and impose regulations banning the activity.

But that’s not to say the authority is always right. Obviously, the government should stop and punish those pursuing illegal activities that harm others. But typing on a laptop — just like buying an incandescent light bulb or choosing not to have health insurance — certainly does not reach the threshold that could justify an authority stepping in and stopping the activity.

When an authority does intervene, its policies often end up hurting the very people it is trying to help. If students who bring their laptops to class don’t do well because they are not paying attention, they end up learning a valuable lesson because of this experience. That lesson teaches personal responsibility and will cause them to exhibit self-control later in life when the decisions they make are actually defining — and when their professor is not going to be there to stop them.

On top of that, those who were actually paying attention and using their laptops for note taking have lost a key facet of their study regimen. In other words, this intervention creates a lose-lose situation.

Life is about decisions. And part of what makes life wonderful in a free society is that we are able to make those decisions in line with our own conscience. These decisions are defining, they are our own and we have to accept the consequences for them. They are not the decisions of some “benevolent” authority.

When the government or another authority continually steps in as a virtuous purveyor of wisdom, it creates a culture that prevents personal responsibility. People lose the self-confidence that comes with making autonomous choices. That self-confidence is needed to make the difficult moral decisions that define us.

Learning this responsibility (even if it takes a few mistakes) is the greatest education of all — one that Penn should be proud to provide.

Charles Gray is a College and Wharton senior from Casper, Wyo. His email address is chagr@wharton.upenn.edu. The Gray Area appears every other Wednesday.

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