College costs a lot. I teach at BC, where a year’s tuition, fees, room, and board currently add up to $52,624. What are the students paying for? What can’t they get online for free? In my end of the academy, the humanities, it comes down to one thing, in essence: the other people in the room, teachers, and fellow students. We can debate whether that’s worth the price tag, and we can debate the relative value of lectures and seminars (I think the best mix in the humanities is some of the former and a lot of the latter), but you’re paying for the exclusive company of fellow thinkers who made it through the screening processes of admissions and faculty hiring. That’s it. You can get everything else online, and you can of course do the reading on your own.
Your money buys you the opportunity to pay attention to the other people on campus and to have them pay attention to you — close, sustained, active, fully engaged attention, undistracted by beeps, chimes, tweets, klaxons, ring tones, ads, explosions, continuous news feeds, or other mind-jamming noise. You qualify for admission, you pay your money, and you get four years — maybe the last four years you’ll ever get — to really attend to the ideas of other human beings, thousands of years’ worth of them, including the authors of the texts on the syllabus and the people in the room with you.
You can spend the rest of your life surfing the web, emailing, texting. You’ve got one shot at college. So, at least until the novelty wears off (probably not in my lifetime), that means no laptops in my classroom.