Gov. Paul LePage has started a literacy campaign. Sort of. His response to a high school student who wrote to him with concerns about the repeal of net neutrality rules was “Pick up a book and read!”
He’ll get no argument here about the reading part. For those who have grown up with their noses in a book, it is a pleasure that lasts a lifetime. Plenty of readers have picked up e-reading, but despite predictions that physical books would fade away, many still relish the heft, smell and page-turning of a “real” book.
Take a bus trip, visit a coffee shop, or sit in a park in the summer, and you will see that books are still very much with us. Reading groups, book clubs and websites celebrate the glories of reading. True readers are deaf when they read, transported to another time, another place, another life, unaware of their immediate surroundings.
But was the governor right to recommend reading as an alternative to a fully accessible internet? Not really. He would be right if the power went off and caught you with your battery down. He would be right if you were trying to better manage your screen time. He would be right if he were simply recommending that some reading time every day is time well spent. But reading as an alternative to the internet? Not right.
The internet is every bit as miraculous as books, but different. It provides instant access to the sum total of human history and knowledge, and the tools to perform all sorts of complicated functions once possible only for professional experts.
Now, K-12 schools incorporate computer use at every level. Virtually all college students have computers. Most vocations involve computer use, and the tech industry itself is the source of some of the highest-paying jobs in today’s economy. A student without full access to the internet is a student working at a disadvantage, and one who is ill-prepared to participate in today’s workforce.
The repeal of net neutrality rules opens the door to internet service providers to speed up, slow down or block content or applications. Full access to high-speed broadband is still problematic in some parts of Maine. The repeal of net neutrality rules could be an additional obstacle.
Some states have recognized the handicap this would represent to internet users and are attempting to reverse the decision. Two of these are New England states: Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Others say this is much ado about nothing, and most internet users will not notice any difference.
Hope Osgood, the author of the letter to LePage, recognizes the value of the internet to the successful completion of her school curriculum. The governor’s flippant response does not reflect an understanding of what the internet represents to students. It perpetuates the idea that getting online is optional at best, a frivolous time-waster at worst.
Indeed, much time spent online is just that, but that is by no means all there is to it. Want to make an anemometer? A sea floor spreading model? Use the altitude of Polaris to find latitude? Find out why apples turn brown, or which metal is the best conductor of heat or how distance affects the spreading of light? These are all science projects suggested for fourth-graders, and they can all be found online at education.com.
At the high school science fair level, it depends on whether you want a project in physics, biology, engineering or chemistry. Build a radio, a powered parachute or a lie detector. All the instructions are online. In the Blue Hill area, high school students are eligible for a software design competition with a $5,000 prize.
One of the originators of this Pioneer Prize contest, Lee Buck, was quoted as saying: “Writing software is a compelling and lucrative career path that knows no geographic boundaries.” When a student takes the time to express her concerns about the impact of net neutrality rules on her future, it would behoove us to listen.
In precomputer days, there was not much for science fairs. Experiments consisted of making crystals or baking soda volcanoes. Now the level of sophistication of K-12 science study is staggering, and kids can win big scholarship money by participating. But not if they don’t have high-speed access to an unfettered internet.
Begging the governor’s forgiveness, those of us of a certain age will never entirely understand how essential the internet has become to success at school and work. That success is something we all want for our kids, and Maine’s future depends on it.
Rather than dismiss Hope’s concerns so quickly, both the administrative and legislative branches of state government should consider how the repeal of net neutrality would impact Maine.
Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King, and Rep. Chellie Pingree all took an active role in opposing the new net neutrality rules. Both senators are supporting an effort to overturn them. LePage has long emphasized the need to make Maine appealing to youths. Being cavalier about net neutrality is not the way to do it.