Individual Learning & “Boring Old Books”

This post refers back to the post of May 14, 2010,  the post of August 25, 2010, and the post of January 30, 2011.

In those posts, I mentioned Larry Sanger (co-founder of Wikipedia) and his article Individual Knowledge and the Internet.  Sanger analyzes three common strands of current thought about education and the Internet.  "First is the idea that the instant availability of knowledge online makes memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary."  The second strand claims that "individual learning is outmoded, and that "social learning" is the cornerstone of "Learning 2.0"  The third two strand asks, "is participating in online communities via social media a replacement for reading boring old books?"

Of course this question is either ironic or prejudiced –the latter if we assume that Sanger thinks that books are truly outmoded; the former if we understand (correctly) that he does not.  The question as formulated does go to the nub of an argument by certain popular writers, however, that books are in fact outmoded, old-fashiong, and non-interactive.  Books are alleged to "constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual."  Clay Shirky, the internet theorist who always has something novel and fashionable to say, has alleged we are now experiencing a profound shift in culture in which an older "monolithic, historic, elite culture" is passing away in favor of "a diverse, contemporary, and vulgar one."  This will entail altering "our historic models for the summa bonum [sic] of educated life."

Shirky's assumptions are breathtaking in their naiveté: since when is traditional Western thinking monolithic? I seem to recall that Socrates had some remarkably sharp things to say about his rivals, as did Peter Abelard, Voltaire, John Stuart Mill, Virginia Woolf and other men and women who collectively make a "canon" (not even to pass to "the canon").  Shirky truly betrays the shallowness of his thinking when he writes, "… no one reads War and Peace.  It's too long, and not so interesting."  He does admit that his observation "is no less sacrilegious for being true."

Interesting to whom?  I just spoke with a young Russian-American student who was vividly alive with reading War and Peace (in both English and Russian, his case), as well as The Brothers Karamazov –surely another book "too long, and not so interesting."  One might waspishly add that interesting is as interesting does –or does not, in Shirky's case.  His argument boils down to the Sophists' argument as presented by Socrates in various Platonic dialogues, notably Symposium, that the popular course will determine what is right.  Ah, social networking, Athenian-style.  But I suppose this is simply to appeal to "monolithic, historic, elite culture."  No age lacks those who articulate obvious wisdom, the wisdom of the crowds, and tickles those crowds with it –not ancient Athens, or 19th-century Paris, or 21st-century New York University.  Unfortunately Shirky's name always reminds me of Tolkien's Sharkey –the Shire-folks' name for Saruman, that speaker of half-truths extraordinaire.

The nub of the argument seems to be that books are boring –well, because they are.  And boring cannot stand in the age of constant distraction.  The distractions of social networks, online communities of learning, and "learning how to learn" –as opposed to learning any actual content– demand a rejection of "static, one-way conversation" of the author to reader.

What a complete misunderstanding of the role of a subtle writer to a subtle reader!  Think of seminal works of a variety of discourses –J. S. Mill's The Subjection of Women, Ludwig Wittgenstein's Philosophical Investigations, Karl Marx' Das Capital, even Ayn Rand– could anyone read those texts and not engage in response and dialogue in the course of reading?  Is the conversation really so "static" and "one-way"?  Isn't one goal of liberal learning in fact to learn how to engage a writer, how to recognize strong points, weak points, and no points at all?  Complex, dense minds require training on complex, dense texts whose meanings can be multi-layered and sometimes even self-contradictory.  So much for monoliths.

This is an advocacy piece: I am advocating liberal learning in the face of so much that seeks to depersonalize young students today.  I want my young students to learn to speak with their own voices, even when their voices profoundly disagree with my own.  I am advocating that the traditional ideals of liberal arts education –independent judgement, imagination, care with texts, the ability to doubt both the wisdom of the crowds and the wisdom of the solitary individual– matter intensely, and are not only valuable to our future, but essential to being human in the world.

The educational goals of Internet boosters –communal learning, substitution of crowd-consciousness for individual memory, the unique roll of co-created group knowledge– point to a future which will be profoundly illiberal.  What in such educationalist dreams might prevent the rise of another Fascism?  To be sure, German liberal education did not prevent the rise of a Fascism but at least some Germans, and many other people with them, witnessesed against it.  And ultimately it did not prevail.   The prejudices of a digital hive or tribe could be profoundly unsettling –just ask any member of any minority.   The educational methods of profound remembering –including, but not limited to, some memorization; the profound importance of individual learning with an individual voice; the importance of critical, dense, and complex texts– this is what a liberal arts university stands for, what a library enacts, and what librarianship at its boldest embodies.  It is a noble calling in an ironic age.