December 13, 2012

What the Internet Is Doing to Us

By J.M. Anderson


Toward the end of Phaedrus--Plato's masterful dialogue on rhetoric and erotic love--Socrates introduces an interesting argument with implications for us centuries later.  The argument is that the written word promotes superficial understanding because reading erodes discussion and the habit of discourse. People will come to believe they know much, but "for the most part they will know nothing." They will also "be difficult to get along with" because "they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so."

The parallel between Plato's passage and today's digital world is uncanny. In the age of Wikipedia, MOOCs, Ted ED, and the like, we, too, should consider whether unguided--and often misguided--access to seemingly limitless information can promote genuine knowledge, or whether it is really only promoting superficial understanding.

So far the signs are ominous. The Internet deluges us with information but it feeds an assumption that knowledge is the systematic accumulation of that information rather than the analytical collection and management of facts and ideas. Its main concern is with apparatus, not content, as Theodore Roszak writes in The Cult of Information.

In consequence, it has helped to change attitudes, not only about the nature of knowledge, but also about authorship and the ownership and use of ideas.

This is one reason, for instance, why so many students have no qualms about passing off the work of others as their own, as a professor teaching an online course on fantasy and science fiction for Coursera discovered, even though the course wasn't being offered for credit. It's not plagiarism or cheating in their minds, it's re-purposing, and it is entirely acceptable.

Even more unsettling is the finding of two researchers from the University of Ohio at Zanesville who recently reported that 72 percent of the students they surveyed admitted cheating on exams in their on-line courses.

Of course, cheating isn't a problem exclusive to on-line courses, but as Richard Pérez-Peña writes in the New York Times, "Internet access has made cheating easier, enabling students to connect instantly with answers, friends to consult and works to plagiarize. And generations of research has shown that a major factor in unethical behavior is simply how easy or hard it is."

This is what Jeffrey A. Roberts and David M. Wasieleski of Duquesne University concluded in a recent study proving that the more access students have to the Internet, the more likely they are to cheat. They also concluded that cheating is more likely to occur when students are encouraged (and in many cases, forced) to work in teams or collaborate in groups--confirming what Rita Kramer suggested here was the real reason behind the scandal at Harvard earlier this year.

The Internet abets such behavior because it complements perfectly constructivist and romantic theories of teaching and learning that predominate in education at all levels. It is also complicit in undermining the traditional idea of schooling that is highly dependent on personal interaction and grounded in formal instruction and books.

As E. D. Hirsch writes in The Knowledge Deficit, in "pre-romantic days, books were seen as the key to education" and the foundation for the "systematic acquisition of broad knowledge," which is precisely what students need to become good readers, good comprehenders, and sophisticated thinkers.

Traditionally, that kind of knowledge was acquired in school--a place of social interaction where one asked questions and learned the language of literate society through dialogue, writing, and the close reading of texts.

But the Internet is replacing the language of books and schools with one that is predominately image-laden and not always bound to syntax or the grammatical construction of the written word.

As if to highlight this trend, a recent essay in Inside Higher Ed calls for a "New Liberal Arts" that emphasizes "21st-century skills"--such as visual communication (graphic design, illustration and animation, photography, video production, sketching, drafting) and numeracy and data literacy (data analysis, data storage and management, applied mathematics and mathematical literacy, algorithms, information design).

But to teach such "skills" over the content-rich subjects of the traditional liberal arts curriculum, not only changes the way people interact (especially through dialogue--that is, if they engage in dialogue at all), it changes the way they read and think.

It could even change the physical structure of the brain, as Maryanne Wolf discusses in her brilliant book, Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain, whose influence on my views in this essay will be evident to anyone who has read it.

"Reading is a neuronal and intellectually circuitous act, enriched as much by the unpredictable indirection of a reader's inferences and thoughts, as by the direct message to the eye from the text," writes Wolf. Precisely because it is an "unnatural process," it requires "instructional environments" that allow the brain to "form efficient circuits among neurological structures."

Whereas reading using the traditional language of books, schools, and literate society is a slow, deliberative, and time-demanding process that deepens understanding, reading from the Internet is often a less critical effort that doesn't challenge or exploit the potential of the reading brain in the same way that reading in traditional ways does, as other research suggests. 

In fact, far from creating the appropriate instructional environment, the Internet panders to a generation accustomed to immediacy and instantaneous feedback. This not only affects how students read and study, it alters both their expectations and their notions of learning and knowledge. Wolf was often dismayed by her own sons who, after looking something up on Google or watching a video on YouTube, said they "knew it." But just how well, she couldn't say.

What never gets mentioned in all the excitement over the Internet and its vast capacities is that it has its own curriculum. It shapes, trains, teaches, and cultivates those who use it, but not through the traditional means associated with higher education, such as personal contact, conversation and questioning, and above all else, dialogue and discussion.

Wikipedia, MOOCs, Ted ED, and the like might eventually supplant traditional brick-and-mortar colleges and universities, but they can never replace the heart and soul of higher education--the Socratic method of teaching by questioning--which remains unsurpassed in facilitating the exchange of ideas, developing minds, and cultivating genuine understanding.

When that happens, education will no longer be a formative process that encourages self-examination; it will be a utilitarian pursuit that promotes something else: what Socrates in the Phaedrus called a "false conceit of wisdom."

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Published by the Manhattan Institute
The Manhattan Insitute's Center for the American University.