Friday, August 19, 2005

Say it isn't so

A school in Vail, Arizona is going to issue students i-Books (with e-books) instead of textbooks this year.

Does it sound codgerly of me (and phooey if "codgerly" isn't a word--it should be, and what good's a PhD if it doesn't entitle one to coin words? I mean, really) to suggest that this might be the final sign of the Apocalypse we've all been anticipating? The final straw on the back of Western Civilization as we have known it?

Lest you think I am a Luddite, pure and simple, please note that I do in fact a) blog; b) have a "professional website" [okay, full disclosure--my husband designed and updates it; I just email him the text files]; c) communicate with my students by email often; d) have experience in "computer-assisted pedagogy."

Okay, so maybe my technological savvy is not genuinely impressive, or even impressively genuine. I still found this article alarming, and not just on the visceral level of a bibliophile and library-phile. I'm still mourning the passing of those massive wooden card catalogues we used to use once upon a time, with their ancient yellowed cards, barely legible typescript from obsolete machines, and their careful notations in the elegant spidery-scrawled script of old-lady librarians long past. I miss the old bulky "Reader's Guides" to periodicals, too. I now do most of my research online first, but I think intellectual culture has lost some of its cultural heft and value with its removal from the realm of the tactile.

But as I was saying, this article alarms me not just in a sensory or material way. Instead, I have more pedagogical concerns. First of all, I am incredibly skeptical about the claim that

[. . .] officials looked at the use of laptops in other schools and decided that high school students were more engaged when using computers. Unlike many adults, teens weaned on digital material seem to have little difficulty adapting to reading primarily on computer screens, Baker said.

I have no doubt that the current generations are more comfortable at a screen than I was, and possibly more comfortable there than they are with books. What I don't buy, however, is the implicit claim that students absorb as much or even more of what they read on-line. As it's developed, I think the internet tends extraordinarily to favor skimming over submerging, scanning over real intellectual engagement. I know that's not true for everyone, of course, but given how my students often struggle to retain material they read, let alone read on line, I worry that this technology just exacerbates the real lack of reading skill among young people. Tell me what you will about the various technologies for "interacting" and "engaging" with the text on the screen--anecdotally, I ain't never seen it happen.

Second, and perhaps more disturbingly, this approach feeds into the student-as-consumer/ citizen-as-consumer mentality that we struggle against in our classrooms daily. This whole idea that the primarily goal of education is to "meet students where they are" and adapt to fit the ideas, technologies, and assumptions already in use is pernicious and, I think, destructive. I'm not anti-progress or anti-technology. I know my students already live in a world and culture very different than the one I grew up in, or even than I live in now. My values and beliefs are vastly different in some ways.

But I firmly believe, too, that my job is not merely to play to my students' strengths. They have lots of those: they are acute visual observers, quick thinkers, inveterate arguers. But the whole notion of education, for me, is predicated on the possibility, even the tendency, toward transformation. Students should come to class expecting not "the same" as what they encounter at the mall, the video-game store, the consumer website, the blog. They should expect to be challenged by information and perhaps technologies that they would not otherwise encounter, that they could not otherwise master, that they could perhaps learn from. I'm afraid that books are becoming one of these "Other" technologies. Already our students code everything they read or encounter in terms of what they call "relatability"--does it speak to me as I am, where I am, and as I currently understand myself? If not, they all too often reject it out of hand.

But books, especially old books, are something outside of their everyday frame of reference. The pleasures of the library must be learned. The intricacies of locating knowledge extend beyond "Googling" an obvious phrase. It seems to me that what these laptops suggest is that everything of value can be found on a computer. To me, that's the most frightening idea of all: That only what has been deemed, by the recent generations savvy enough to have mastered the technology, important enough to be made available through technology, matters. That learning is something you can do solely or even primarily by sitting on your ass waiting for it to appear on your screen. That nothing written by or valued by generations prior to the "technology revolution" is worth the effort of walking to the library, asking the librarian, or digging around. That "Important" knowledge is technical, and never to be found on yellowed pages in dusty stacks on a shelf untouched for the past 15 years.

Their spokesman claims that
"We're not trying to eliminate books [. . . .] We love books."

But at best, won't their plans prevent students from learning to feel that love?


At 10:37 AM , Blogger Demetri said...

Neat post, good catch on the article.

Yeah, browsing isn't the same as web-browsing. I too do much of my initial research on line and am so thankful that journal articles are available online, but hard copy is still more useful for me in many situations. I still like to go to libraries for the serendipity of what might be found when your not actually looking for it. Some of the things I've stumbled upon are greater than all the things I've set out to look for.

Maybe it's just a different medium, but I do think it's harder to read and repeat (or refer back) on a laptop/screen than it is in books. This is perhaps what you were getting at when you wrote of the lack of reading skills (with retention).

At 10:36 AM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

My pal Emily Dickinson wrote, succinctly and completely, "There is no Frigate like a Book."

May pal Joe Campbell was once asked by Alan Watts about Joe's meditation practice. He
replied, "I underline sentences." [1]

That a University isn't aware of the ineffable value of real books simply confirms something
Joe Campbell said during a series of interviews with Bill Moyers: "What we're learning in our
schools is not the wisdom of life. We're learning technologies, we're getting information.
There's a curious reluctance on the part of faculties to indicate the life values of their
subjects." [2]

So our wise Doctor Dorcasina is onto something here and it should disturb us.

Edward Tuft has written eloquently in "The Qualitative Display of Quantitative Information"
that "information is data endowed with relevance." I take one additional step and add simply
that wisdom is information endowed with relevance. And I suggest that we once cared that
universities were the protectors of this deeper treasure.

Books are iconic for me, mythological, spiritual. I can hear the voices of their authors when I
open them and my eyes touch their words. Of all the tools I have inherited as the treasure of
ten thousand centuries passed down to me, books simply overwhelm the value of all the rest.

Books appear frequently in my dreams (I log my dreams daily). The books in my dreams
may rest on large wooden tables in dimly lit libraries, or they may float in empty space. In a
dream last summer, a book flew up to me while I was walking in a beautiful wood. It was
heavy and ancient with jewels buried in the cover. An element of this powerful motif is always
repeated: the books open by themselves and the pages turn without my touch and the
words glow with hidden fire. The term "illuminated manuscript" is very literal and very
personal for me.

Of course the words can exist electronically. But I have never dreamed about being at my
computer. This is a completely different metaphor and it is interpreted utterly differently by
the unconscious.

The metaphor of the internet is connection. Books are not about infinite connections, but
about condensed and credentialed knowledge -- jewels of wisdom.

This post by Dorcasina is a synchronous response for me to a question I've posed my own
unconscious over the past month. What draws me to the blogs on the Internet over the more
organized subject domains on the Internet? This post framed my own question with sufficient
difference that I was handed a "view" into my answer. And it lies in the realm of fate (or
guidance from the unconscious).

"One book opens another," goes the phrase. Meaning read deeply from one author who will
provide a thread that takes you to another. Follow that golden thread. In doing so, I release
the reigns of volition (like a Grail Knight who follows the natural instinct of his life, his horse)
and allow the fates (my unconscious) to guide me in bookstores and libraries.

The Internet is good at connecting numerous domains on subjects well bounded but
shallowly represented and poorly credentialed. It can be very frustrating to try and find
depth (credentialed information) on a given topic in a bounded speciality. Perhaps library
science will be able to help and in the future islands of specialized knowledge will be
available and easy to find. But those domains will still be "there" in a virtual world, distant
from holding and manipulation in "this" world. And wisdom is in "experience," not simply
"knowing." Right now, however, the blogs provide random connections to the alternate
worlds of other writers and other thinkers -- and just a few keystrokes through a handful of
blog links can take me into a far wood.

Understand that this beautiful walk is not through the organized wisdom that can be held in a
single book, personalized and customized. One can not easily annotate Internet resources
or even find them again on a large site. And at this point in my life I almost can't read -- at
home or in the office -- without highlighters in hand. My partial solution to the Internet is the
management of numerous Visual Basic databases to store notes and links; but this is not
workable for the average person, nor very efficient for me (an adept "tool user").


I started a site (AmericanConscience.Org) to enter the collective conversation of the Internet
and to publish an organized schema of high-level ethical concerns. Since these concerns
are relatively unchanging, because they are resistant to emendation, I felt confident I could
write a fairly stable "letter to America" and gradually enhance its links to qualifying
resources. The name I chose was informed by my experience at work; no matter where I am
professionally, I end up being called the conscience of the organization.

My site is an experiment for me, one of two in which I am actively engaged over the long
term. The first has to do with the spiritual health of cities: can one live a spiritual life and is
that life nurtured by the city -- or does city life imperil deeply ethical living (the mystic's path)
because noise drives out silence, aggression kills off pacifism, and ruthless rule-less
competition supplants the possibility of ethical capitalism. My experience is that we must
redesign cities or lose our connection to that world which is always closer than our own
breath. I think if cities are hostile to children and women (most are), they are instantiations
of evil. Basically, Marx was right and unbridled capitalism becomes unethical corporatism
and turns people into replaceable machine parts who blindly (unconsciously) consume the

Worse, unethical corporatism seizes all humanizing institutions, including Universities (those
courses are called "The Humanities" for a reason), and turns them into corporatist-
supporting kennels designed to turn out efficient and profit-motivated literalists who have lost
their connection to the poetry and mythology of life.

My interest in the Internet is to explore the possibilities of self publishing; the reason I'm
drawn to blogs is they recapitulate my experience in a vast library -- a random walk through a
million unknown worlds. Because these worlds are reflections of the people who maintain
them, they have attributes of "spirit" and "aliveness."

Where the Internet fails utterly is in providing the deep physical experience of real human
connection; it is by name and definition "virtual."

Depth is where the wisdom is. And wisdom is experienced with the whole Self. I use the
Internet only to find opening notes of conversations; then I go find a small stack of books on
those subjects and lose myself in the thoughts of those who have walked before me.

My experience of reading Rumi and Emily Dickinson and Rilke and Pablo Neruda is very
different on the Internet than it is with a book in hand. These are not abstract sentences that
float in space; these are living water and anything this holy needs a sacred container.

As an adjunct to books; yes. But look at any photo of a warrior with a rifle. She didn't give
up her knife. And we've been carrying those for thousands of generations.

Today I use my site to help me organize my own personal Internet Library. An autodidact
and polymath and philomath (yes, opsimath, too), my site is gradually becoming a simple
reflection of my varied interests. My Internet experiment is to see how faithful this reflection
can become -- how "human" can this be made in support of spirit. My nieces (who live far
away) can have a shallow window into who I am and what I think about.

If Universities are giving up books, it's the beginning of benighted times. It's embracing the
shallow and relative over the deep and wise.

The fantasy of the paperless office is a sterile one. If Universities are now striving to go
"bookless," they've abandoned the very treasure they are in the business of protecting.


p.s. I like this neologism; "codgerly" fits nicely with my other nom de plume, "eccentric old

[1] The Hero's Journey / Joseph Campbell / page 176

[2] The Power of Myth / Joe Campbell with Bill Moyers / page 9


if the length of this comment violates etiquette (and i suspect it does), please delete. i just wanted you to know that your post helped me answer one of my own questions.

At 12:31 PM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Delete? Absolutely not! I find your thoughtful, expansive responses one of the most satisfying things about my blog-life. And I agree perfectly that this online community is a wonderful enhancement, not in any way a substitute, to our "Friends" and their books.

This touched me particularly in what you wrote:
The metaphor of the internet is connection. Books are not about infinite connections, but
about condensed and credentialed knowledge -- jewels of wisdom.

I think the internet allows for "public" moments of personal communication in much the same way that it is possible to have deep, individual, and meaningful conversations at a party or social gathering. Books, to me, are a more private form of communion, like sitting in silence (not passivity, not stasis) with a beloved companion.

As always, thank you for your reflections, your response, your thoughtful presence.

At 4:37 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

Anybody can "know bunches" about a subject. But you ask the right questions, and that's much harder.

Then you summed this whole effort with the best (perfect) single word, "communion."

The Internet is a powerful communication tool and it truly can support "spirit" and "love" in the world. Perhaps it can help pull us back from the tipping point we're approaching.

As we agreed once before, let's be "cautiously optimistic."

Thanks for allowing this student such latitude in this spiritual enterprise.


At 6:09 PM , Blogger timna said...

One of my favorite assignments involves asking students to bring the real books and articles cited in the Norton edition of _The Awakening_. We have sources from every decade of the last century. It usually moves them.

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