07/01/2014 09:03 pm ET | Updated Aug 31, 2014

A Cure for Microwave Spectrum Disorder

Mary -- not her actual name but I teach at a Catholic school, so we'll go with Mary -- had gotten no more than two sentences into her oral performance of the opening pages of Socrates' second speech in Phaedrus. A colleague in grounds maintenance started up a lawn mower not 40 feet away.

It was the last week of the semester. Philosophy 217: The Trivium, my honors rhetoric class -- all of us in homemade togas -- had circled up on the lawn in front of the student center for our weeklong retelling of Plato's classic meditation on how to move the soul through words. Several dozen onlookers braved the midday sun, but Mary -- who had begun the semester as a brilliant, albeit shy and soft spoken, Pre-Med -- had learned to manage her nerves. The volume problem had persisted, however.

Never breaking eye contact with her classmates, never venturing a like or uh, she paused, took a breath, and began to declaim in a newly developed outside voice. As the mower receded, her volume modulated accordingly. Rounding the home stretch of her discourse she fairly blazed with triumph. At that moment, out through the doors of the student center came the president of our university, a highly recognizable Jesuit, dressed in full clerics. I could not have planned it better. He joined our circle opposite Mary; she did not falter. My turn to blaze.

Left to their own devices, and I mean devices, our students resemble students all across the land: they suffer from what I have come to think of as microwave spectrum disorder. Now before you bridle at this designation, let me assure you that my wife, who is an occupational therapist, has already shown me a yellow card.

But look at the behavior characteristic of the typical contemporary classroom. First what you don't see: boisterous interaction, ostentatious displays of affect, enthusiastic sharing of interests. Instead students in mid-text enter a quiet classroom of other students likewise texting. Unless cautioned, they will continue to text during class. In fact, when cautioned some have perfected surreptitious texting. No longer need we ask whether there is a text in this class. There is.

Curiouser still is what happens at the end of class. Students immediately revert to their devices. They depart not in conversation, not in discernable groups but as isolated bodies drifting inattentively down the hall. They seem to be rehearsing a scene for some dystopian science fiction B-movie, "Invasion of the Social Skills Snatchers."

When challenged about the effect on their psyches of what I generically dub anti-social media, students assure me that they are fully social, but their integration and communication is with a society other than the one in the room. Patient with my manifest deficit, they kindly explain this new social space to me with the air of physicists explaining the mysterious plotting of four dimensional space-time onto three dimensional space.

And I buy their account to some extent. I see the virtue in being able to keep up with distant friends and family. I also appreciate the independence such technologies give youngsters raised in our overprotective play-date world. I recognize that these media are becoming standard modes of doing business in the world of business to which so many now feel predestined.

Diminished, however, are the ability to strike up a conversation with a stranger, the concentration to engage in the evolving give and take of prolonged discussion, the command of a robust and efficient vocabulary, and the discipline to be physically present to another person. By this last I mean the exemplary human capacity for attention to another human being. Normally this includes eye contact, listening, meaningful utterance, real-time intellectual and emotional response, affect and gesture.

Though I think of these skills as part of what makes us human -- both to others as well as to ourselves -- I see that in the absence of practice they atrophy. Microwave spectrum disorder is a learned incapacity. Even in the business world, where the instantaneity of email, Twitter and the like can have clear monetary value, the dangers of informality, imprecision, ambiguity of intent, and uncertainty of tone can more than obviate any potential gain.

As Socrates discovers with his student Phaedrus, the art of moving the soul with words depends upon careful consideration of the nature of the soul of the person with whom you are speaking and simultaneously upon a deep knowledge of the truth about which one is speaking. The art of rhetoric thus entails the crafting of speech, both in form and content, to the specifics of psyche and science. Hence Trivium students study sentence diagramming, the informal logic of the fallacies, and the rhetorical intricacies of Shakespearean sonnets. The medieval university called this attention to grammar, logic, and rhetoric the Trivium, the necessary precursor to any more advanced study.

By the time Mary triumphed on the green she had written more than a dozen meticulous papers and she had given a series of progressively more challenging of speeches in class. She had critiqued the frailties of colloquial speech, she had lampooned the faulty logic of advertisements, she had performed, explicated, and travestied sonnet 130, and she had critiqued Plato's idea that rhetoric deployed in the name of friendship is the love of wisdom, AKA philosophy, while rhetoric used in service of tyranny is sophistry. She knew that the decision to exploit one's knowledge of the nature of another's soul and one's knowledge of the true for any purpose besides the cultivation of both your souls is the epitome evil.

In the face of a two-stroke engine and an eminent Priest, Mary remained present to her fellow Trivvers because she knew how to, and because she knew that it mattered. It mattered to her own psyche and to ours. I saw that she might do what she in fact has done. Now a doctor, she ministers to her patients' bodies all the better for her ability to be present to their souls.

Stephen Whittaker is a professor of rhetoric at the University of Scranton.