Talk about amazing. The other day I turned on my computer. I got on the Internet, went to a webpage, sat there, put on my glasses…there was a lot of text swimming before my eyes…but I sat there and I read the whole thing! I read it slowly; I read it carefully; I highlighted portions of the text using Diigo; I made some notes (Diigo again). I read it through a second time: an article that was first published in the Chronicle of Higher Education and now is in residence on the Web.
Of course, I was also IMing, and twittering, and blogging and wikiing, and I had some music in the background—Moby—and I was playing solitaire, and answering questions on Yahoo, and working on a vocabulary game called Free Rice—but my primary focus was on this article by Mark Bauerlein, a professor at Emory University, called Online literacy is a Lesser Kind. Might be interesting, I thought. Oh, and I had Photoshop going, just to fool around with when I was bored. I’m thinking of creating an avatar.
The article did not start off auspiciously. Referencing Jacob Nielsen, the guru of web usability, usually puts me off. He can be a little pompous. And as I glanced down the page his name jumped up at me. I was tempted just to scan and move on, but I am interested in literacy and Professor Bauerlein should have some interesting points to make.
So, Jacob Nielsen. I read on. It seems he’s done this study on the way people ‘read’ material on the Internet, testing some 200 plus people, and it turns out the vast majority of them don’t read at all. Not line by line, word for word anyway. Rather, they scan the page looking at the text in an F pattern: read across the top, move your eyes halfway down the page, go across again, and then zip to the bottom.
‘F’ Mr. Nielsen opines, ‘for fast.’
One is tempted to use another ‘f’ word here, but this is a family oriented blog.
Now I wish I could say, ‘Jacob Nielsen, you’re dead wrong about this,’ but the F-pattern sort of rings a bell. That probably is how I ‘read’ most web pages. One doesn’t have all day, after all.
The problem, Professor Bauerlein points out, is that most schools are going under the assumption that the computer and the Internet are suitable venues for serious reading. They think that students can and will use the Internet to ponder such things as Heidegger’s ontic- ontological distinction or to ‘plow’ through Middlemarch, and your average student is just not going to do this. Educators think they can use the computer for serious learning outside the classroom, for research, reading assignments and the like—and that just ain’t gonna happen—because today’s students, before they even get to the classroom, have been trained by thousands of hours of non-academic computer use to look at the monitor with ‘fast eyes’—it’s those computer games, again—and it is futile to think they will slow down enough to actually think about something they are ‘reading/ looking at’ on the screen. So, if we take our culture seriously, if we take reading seriously, we need to get our students off the computer and off the Internet. We need to get them back to books and pencils—yeah, pencils, though I suppose a quill pen would be acceptable. Moreover, we need to honor older forms of narrative, like sitting around the campfire telling stories—yes, campfires, though ‘its modern day equivalent the PowerPoint projector’ is acceptable to Professor Bauerlein as well…
PowerPoint? Think Abe Lincoln reading by the fire, a screen off to one side, holding a mouse. First slide: “Four score and seven years ago…” Second slide: a graphic showing how many years in a score. Maybe a third slide showing the math: 20 + 20 + 20 + 20 + 7 = 87 years. Think a flickering center light, the students gathered round, their quill pens poised, a storyteller in the center, spinning tales of mystery and wonder about…I don’t know…the use of adverbs…or the use of prepositions at the end of a sentence. Something to get the blood flowing.
The PowerPoint thing kind of threw me; it seemed a little more research might be necessary here, so I read another article, this one by James Bowman first published in The New Atlantis, but now available on the web. “Is Google making us Stupid?” is his question. And his answer is yes. But that’s not the heart of the matter. The real problem is all those teachers.
If our young people are toiling their way through their educational careers while reading less than ever before for their own pleasure or enlightenment, why be surprised? No one has ever taught them that books can be read for pleasure or enlightenment—or for any other purpose than to be exposed as the coded rationalization for the illegitimate powers of the ruling classes that they really are. Why would you willingly read a single line of literature if that is all you supposed it to consist of?
Now, I know, your average literature teacher is a sycophantic ideologue, grinding away at the latest intellectual fashion and not at all interested in the pleasures of the text, the joys and passions of actual reading, but still, “the coded rationalization for the illegitimate powers of the ruling class?” It’s been a while since I was in college, but I don’t remember that lesson.
There is another article called, “Is Google making us Stupid?”, this one originally in The Atlantic by Nicholas Carr—but of course I read it on the Internet. Remember Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001? When Dave Bowman (no relation, I trust, to James Bowman) slowly disconnects Hal the computer from his database, he (Hal) moans, “Dave my mind is going.” This is analogous to how Mr. Carr is feeling these days—not, you know, dying exactly, it’s just that he isn’t doing the deep reading he used to do. Instead of Tolstoy or Kierkegaard, he’s fooling around with Google and ‘Mary had a Little Lamb.’
Carr’s contention is a little more serious than fast eyes and dogmatic teachers: He thinks we may be undergoing a change in the way we think. The medium is the message; because we have a new medium, our brains are being rewired; we are being programmed to be superficial sots. Our consciousness is being scattered by the sheer diversity of resources available to us: pop-up ads, animated advertisements, hyperlinks, multiple windows, e-mail messages. You get the picture: Computers may be working to counter our deepest goals regarding education. We may be multitasking ourselves into a profound state of ignorance.
Painting another Picture
The classroom can be a barrier, a wall, a box, a prison, a church. It can be a pasture or a meadow. It can be a window. A platform.
I’ve given you a bunch of metaphors. Sure, the classroom is a room that has a class in it; you can figure on having a black or white board in the front, some desks, a source of heat, a dynamic teacher, eager students; that’s a real classroom: but metaphors like these control the way we think about the literal room. The classroom can be a box that contains the students, holds them in and controls them. The classroom can be a prison. The classroom can be a pasture, nourishing the students. It can be a window on the world outside, a platform to discovery.
Fortunately it’s not an either/ or situation here: ‘all of above’ can be the answer to my implied question. But if you’re scanning this, I hope the word control jumped out at you, for to nourish the students, you have to control the classroom, correct? Nobody wants the little cherubs swinging from the rafters, nobody wants chaos and anarchy, milk and cookies spilled all over the place. When I was in high school, I had a Spanish class where every time the teacher turned her back to write something on the board, half the class (the boys) stood up and threw a paper airplane across the room. It was not a good educational experience. The teacher never figured out how not to turn her back.
‘Student’ can be a synonym for ‘citizen’. It can be a synonym for ‘philosopher’, ‘scholar’, or ‘sage’. It can be a synonym for ‘person’.
The student, philosopher and Zen Master Shunryu Suzuki talks about control in his book Zen Mind, Beginners Mind.
Even though you try to put some people under control, it is impossible. You cannot do it. The best way to control people is to encourage them to be mischievous. Then they will be in control in its widest sense.
Say you’ve got this herd of cows and you want to make sure they stay in the pasture. There are two ways to do this. You can build a very strong fence and surround the field, patrol it rigorously to keep it secure—or you can get a very big pasture.
So it is with people: first let them do what they want, and watch them. This is the best policy. To ignore them is not good; that is the worst policy. The second worst is trying to control them.
What Suzuki Roshi doesn’t tell us is that the cows might not know how to behave when they realize the proportions of this pasture.
The Big Pasture
Professor Bauerlein remarks on the good intentions of educators who set up computer labs for their students. They think the students are actually going to use them to read and study, to actually ponder the profundities of our civilization; they think they are extending the horizons of the students by giving them access to this new found source of information; they think they are extending the classroom—taking that literal box and changing the metaphor from prison to pasture. Little do they realize how little the students absorb their assignments—poor benighted fools—even with all the testing our schools do now. Little do they realize the students are looking at these computer monitors with the same mind-set that they bring to their Wii. Little do they realize how little this has to do with education.
Now, I hope you realize how little I think of this stuff. It’s not so much the idea that he thinks PowerPoint, perhaps the dullest program in existence, is an important narrative tool, nor is it the little confusions, like when talking about the ‘flattening’ of reading he writes: It equates handheld screens with Madame Bovary, as if they made the same cognitive demands and inculcated the same habits of attention. I mean, handheld screens are technology we use to read information. Madame Bovary is (or can be) the content we are reading. The problem is that he gets the big pasture wrong.
When we think about using computers we butt up against two models that don’t necessarily conflict, but can be thought to do so: The first is the world of Excel, Word, PowerPoint, the desktop, files and folders, keyboarding skills, information processing—a serious important use for computers, and the model at the heart of the origin of the personal computer. Let’s call this model Business Operations, or BO for short.
The second model is a little less easy to define, partially because it is a developing and emerging model (and one I hope to explore at greater length one of these days). It sees the Internet as both a vehicle of exploration, and as a mirroring of the world. Properly speaking we’re talking about the computer, the Internet and a data base so big that it is mind boggling to comprehend. Petabytes. I mean, just how big is a petabyte? Google, for one, is thinking in terms of petabytes these days. It could be just the beginning…
If the first step in computing was to see that information could be formulated using a simple binary formulation, the steps we’re taking now are to allow this binary structure via the computer and the vast structure that is the Internet to embrace and engulf the world—a kind of knowing, I think.
Let’s be honest, this is the computer mysticism model… and we got here listening to an old Zen Master… But keep listening. Here a short quote from an online essay about technology written by Hubert Dreyfus and Charles Spinoza:
In writing about technology, Heidegger formulates the goal we are concerned with here as that of gaining a free relation to technology–a way of living with technology that does not allow it to “warp, confuse, and lay waste our nature.” According to Heidegger our nature is to be world disclosers. That is, by means of our equipment and coordinated practices we human beings open coherent, distinct contexts or worlds in which we perceive, act, and think. Each such world makes possible a distinct and pervasive way in which things, people, and selves can appear and in which certain ways of acting make sense. The Heidegger of Being and Time called a world an understanding of being and argued that such an understanding of being is what makes it possible for us to encounter people and things as such. He considered his discovery of the ontological difference–the difference between the understanding of being and the beings that can show up given an understanding of being–his single great contribution to Western thought.
Professor Bauerlein, Martin Heidegger! And by the way, if you want to start reading War and Peace, here’s a link to an online version.