American Elephants

Is The Internet Making Us Stupid? by The Elephant's Child
December 16, 2008, 6:43 pm
Filed under: Freedom, History, Literature | Tags: , , ,

One of the great problems of education has been the desire to make education easier — easier and more interesting for the teacher, who finds it boring to have to do it all over again each year with a new batch of children, smarter or dumber, quieter or more obstreperous.  And of course, if a way could only be found to make kids enjoy learning the basics of civilized life, then it would all be so much easier, and more fun.  After all, things should be fun, shouldn’t they?

When television first arrived on the scene, everyone was sure that we had found the magic key.  Symphonies, uplifting plays, history as it was being made. That turned out well.

The computer and the Internet are still thought to be some sort of magic in the education of children.  President-elect Obama apparently believes that much good will come from greener school buildings and more computers in the schools.

An elementary school principal noted that “fifth graders proceed as follows when they are assigned a research project; go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up, and turn it in.” This is not knowledge formation, but information retrieval.

Anyone who has Googled for information knows the difficulty of separating the valid websites from the junk.  Keywords get you keywords, not necessarily deeply informed information from a reliable website, and not even correct information at that.  Discernment is not much taught in fifth grade.  That takes long education in reading and history and the other basics.

A number of writers are suggesting that reading on the web is changing the way we read and the way we think.  Nicholas Carr has written recently in a piece titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” in The Atlantic Monthly that he is now having trouble with lengthy reading.  The deep reading that used to be so enjoyable has now become a struggle.

[M]edia are not just passive channels of information.  They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought.  And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation.  My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it’ in a swiftly moving stream of particles.  Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words.  Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet ski.

I’m not the only one.  When I mention my troubles with reading to friends and acquaintances — literary types, most of them — many say they’re having similar experiences.  The more they use the Web, the more they  have to fight to stay focused on long pieces of writing.

James Bowman expands on Mr. Carr’s essay in The New Atlantis with his recognition of the changes in his own reading patterns, and evidence from other authors that there is something going on here that is as yet untested by those who explore and test the functions of the brain.  If  you have children and are concerned about their education, these two essays provide food for thought.

I would suggest that schools have it backwards. Students need to learn deep reading, discernment, judgment and how to cope with the overflow of information characteristic of our age before they learn about how to retrieve information.  In elementary school math classes, students are taught with the assumption that they will always have a handy calculator.  Cursive writing is no longer taught in many schools, for it is assumed that students will always have a handy keyboard.  Is there a relation here to declining math and science scores and the decline in SAT scores?

There is, however, plenty of time to teach children of the dangers of global warming and the importance of recycling and the pressing need to save the polar bears.  Go figure.

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