Archive for November 11, 2010

Finding hope in a book-less world

I also finished the Smithsonian magazine 40th anniversary issue on the way back from China.  (It’s a REALLY long trip.)  There were three pieces that I think speak to each other, to point to danger in a book-less world, and a possible reason to have hope.

Kevin Kelly explicitly predicts the end of the book over the next 40 years, and describes how the book-less world will be different:

“In books we find a revealed truth; on the screen we assemble our truth from pieces. On networked screens everything is linked to everything else. The status of a new creation is determined not by the rating given to it by critics but by the degree to which is linked to the rest of the world.”

Vint Cerf’s interview points out (one of) the dangers of this future world:

“[The Web is] a little bit like television. When it arrived there were many expectations that it would improve education and everything else. But what we discovered is there’s a finite amount of quality in the universe, and when there are more channels it has to be cut up into smaller and smaller amounts until finally, every channel delivers close to zero quality, and that’s where we are today, with a few exceptions.”

So Kelly is saying that students won’t read to learn truth from a master — they’ll construct their own truth out of the wide range of what has been written.  And Cerf is saying, “And there’s almost nothing good out there.”  When I read the two of these pieces, I felt dismayed.  It feels like Meno’s paradox. How can you find truth, if you don’t know the truth already?  And isn’t it all the more harder if there’s no or little truth out there to work from?

The hope comes from considering Cerf’s caveat “with a few exceptions.”  There’s something out there.  The student must be diligent in finding it and careful in evaluating it.  The student needs a critical eye.  Maybe that’s actually a huge advantage over where we are today, where students tend to memorize more and sense-make less.

Pre-Web, most people in the United States got their news from only one source.  Even today, how many people get most of their news and viewpoints from Fox News?  How many teachers teach using only one textbook or resource, and how many students use only a single source for learning a given curricular topic?  (And how does that contrast with the number of sources they use when they care about the topic?)  In contrast, how many scientists or doctors use only a single source for all their decisions?

It’s a positive direction for people to learn to work to gather information, to have to evaluate it, and to keep going until they come to a personal understanding.  As teachers, we’ll have to help students learn these skills.

I particularly liked the interview with Sabiha Al Khemir, an expert on Islamic art.  I thought that her comments encouraged this style of thinking, to rely less on the expert, and more on the individual student’s effort at assembling “small” pieces at the “intimate” level:

“Making that effort and wanting to find out is part of the duty of each one of us. Most Islamic art is not even signed; most is anonymous. The concept of a masterpiece is not the same as in the West. The concept of the artist is not the same. This is not art that was produced to be hung on the walls. The scale is much smaller, which calls for an intimate relationship. Basically, it is calling you to come close and look, to accept that it is different and try to understand that even though it’s small, it might have something to say. Maybe it’s whispering. Maybe you need to get closer.”

November 11, 2010 at 9:49 am 9 comments


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