I took their smartphones, and the world continued to spin. I took their BlackBerries, and that did not lead to chaos. If I could have, I would have taken their Internet access, too, just to see the looks on their faces.
I rarely offer my students extra-credit assignments, because I don’t typically like to create more work for myself than necessary. Inspired, however, by Henry David Thoreau’s calls for simplicity and solitude, I have, for the past few years, conducted a classroom experiment: On our final day of discussing Walden in my literature course for sophomores, I ask students to get out their BlackBerries and smartphones and lay them on their desks. I then offer the extra credit they’ve been begging for since day one: They’ll get it if they let me keep their phones for five days.
You would think I’d asked the class to remove their collective clothes. Which, in a way, I had.
The hyperbolic Thoreau told us that he never received much worthy news through the mail, never found anything of interest in the papers. For the person striving to understand the right way to live, “all news, as it is called, is gossip.”