It is a dispiriting experience for me to walk across the Roanoke College campus. Why? Because the vast majority of the students don’t seem to acknowledge my existence or that of their fellow students. According to my unscientific observations, nine out of ten students do not acknowledge me or each other. Half of that ninety percent are looking down at their phone and the other half avert their eyes when I approach. When sharing an elevator they quickly glance at their phones. They avoid eye contact and any sort of greeting. It’s as if I—or anyone else—do not exist.
Now the fact that close to one hundred percent of the students carry an iPhone is not itself dispiriting, though I wonder what would happen if they were deprived of their phones for a day or so. No generation has been so dependent on technology since Cro-Magnon Man had to keep his stone axe constantly at ready. When I cross campus I am headed for a two-mile walk around the outdoor track. I leave behind my cell phone, the landline phone in my office, and especially the computer which occupies so much of my daytime hours. That frees me to enjoy the beautiful mountains around us as well as the blessed uninterrupted leisure to think. Do students take any time to think when they are so absorbed in their school work and their electronic connections?
Don’t get me wrong though. I am not grievously wounded or even offended by these “micro regressions” that withhold basic acknowledgement of the other. I still find it a joy to walk across a beautiful campus peopled by a span of generations from freshmen who look no older than fifteen to wizened old professors who are close to entering that Great Classroom in the Sky. And that joy is magnified when I meet that ten percent who look you in the eye, smile, and say “Hi” or “How’s it going?’ or simply nod their heads.
That simple acknowledgement helps to build a sense of human companionship in our fractured and polarized world. It helps you believe that everyone counts.
Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion Emeritus