Where Imagination Outshines Memorization

Tech Gets a Time-out (June 2010, San Francisco Magazine)

Charges of hypocrisy be damned: Some Silicon Valley tech wizards are quietly raising their kids outside the lurid digital landscape that their own industry calls childhood.

By Dan Fost, Photography by Jonathan Snyder

The earthquake rips through the streets, swallowing trees and cars and people—everything except John Cusack and his family. Cusack, of course, expertly navigates the destruction that stays just an inch or two behind them. His limousine careens past falling buildings and over huge gaps in the roadway, but the audience knows it’s way too early in director Roland Emmerich’s end-of-the-world disaster flick 2012 for anyone vital to perish.

Gary Yost, creator of the groundbreaking software 3D Studio Max, sits in a darkened Fairfax theater and laughs. Afterward, he marvels, horrified: “Some people will take their kids to that movie.” Yost says he would lock his nine-year-old daughter, Ruby, in a closet before he’d let her near it—or anything like it. He came to see the film at the invitation of some old colleagues who worked with him on 3D Studio Max, which he created in the early 1990s as a design tool for architects and engineers, but which is now owned by Autodesk (and sold as 3ds Max) and widely used to make video games and movie special effects, like the earthquake sequences in 2012.

You’d think a guy like Yost would be the coolest dad at his kid’s school, what with all the whizbang, exploding action effects he helped create. But he keeps that part of his life quiet, because Ruby goes to Greenwood School in Mill Valley, a Waldorf-inspired institution that bases its curriculum on the teachings of early-20th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who emphasized an experiential type of learning. You won’t find a single computer in any of the classrooms at Greenwood, which runs from preschool through eighth grade. Not only that, but Waldorf schools—and there are several ringing the San Francisco Bay—discourage “screen time” of any kind, both at school and at home, and especially before sixth grade. That means no TV, no texting (OMG!), no Facebook, no IMing or surfing the Net, and no video games like the ones made with Yost’s software.

It’s easy to imagine the typical Waldorf parents in the Bay Area: some earthy-crunchy-green types, some old Deadheads sipping kombucha and driving Priuses. And it does have its share of those. But you’d be surprised to learn just how many Waldorf mothers and fathers come from the exalted world of high-tech, like Yost does. In fact, a significant number of parents at Greenwood—and at San Francisco Waldorf and the Waldorf School of the Peninsula—work at some of the very companies whose products the Waldorf schools train their students to avoid. Their ranks include an executive speechwriter at Google, a former Apple marketing manager whose job it was to get computers into classrooms as early as prekindergarten, the chief technology officer of eBay, a cofounder of legendary children’s-software maker Broderbund, and the CEOs of several high-tech startups—all folks you might expect to enroll their kids at schools like those in Tiburon’s Reed Union School District, where even kindergartners get lessons on computers. Instead, these digital-age parents have opted for a homespun environment where children handwrite their own textbooks, learn to knit in first grade, and spend two years in kindergarten communing with gnomes and fairies (no ABCs in sight). Then these parents push against the currents of the culture and their own industry by continuing an anti-tech lifestyle at home.

Just how radical a decision have these tech types made? Consider a day in the life of a typical plugged-in student. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation study released in January, kids from 8 to 18 spend 7 hours and 38 minutes a day interacting with some form of media—and often two or three at a time—be it a smartphone, music player, computer, television, magazine, or game console. OK, 38 minutes of that is for print, including books—but on top of the seven and a half hours, they spend half an hour talking on the phone, and teenagers spend another hour and a half texting. And this digi-engagement is not likely to slow down, especially in the Bay Area, which incubates this stuff faster than a five-year-old can say Twitter. After January’s event announcing the release of the Apple iPad, Yost declared that he was not going to buy one and would make every effort to keep it away from his daughter. “This would be like crack cocaine to her,” he says.

Many of these low-tech high-techers feel that there’s just no rush: Kids can learn the gadgets quickly enough at a later age. But there’s also a growing undercurrent of real concern that some of these devices and services are worse than unnecessary—they’re actually bad for kids. Not all of the Waldorf parents were willing to talk about it for print—this is, after all, the industry that gives them their stock options and that depends on getting young people hooked on its products—and not all agree that it is truly harmful. But as the tech explosion keeps accelerating, and as we hear more and more about social-networking addiction and other modern afflictions, some of these parents are starting to wonder what they’ve wrought.

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