Friday, October 22, 2010

Liberal education and the internet

Here is an essay by Larry Sanger* that you should read it in full. Sanger writes well, expresses his thought clearly, concisely and with great insight. Nonetheless (for this is the age of the internet where the “complex, dense and cathedral-like structure” of educated prose is a challenge) I shall summarise it here.

Sanger takes three common strands of thought about education and the Internet. The first is the idea that the instant availability of information online makes the memorization of facts unnecessary or less necessary. The second is that collaborative learning is superior, or to be preferred, to outmoded individual learning. The third is that lengthy, complex books are inferior to knowledge constructed by members of a group.

Against the first idea he argues as follows. A strong focus is necessary for true knowledge, but the internet – the instant availability of information online - is a distraction for people who find it difficult to focus, and hinders them acquiring true knowledge. Therefore the internet is a hindrance to true knowledge. Also, true knowledge requires fairly substantial background knowledge to interpret the answer. Background knowledge is more than amassing a lot of facts: it requires assimilation and understanding as well. But assimilation and understanding (by implication – Sanger does not spell it out) take longer than just looking something up.
If public intellectuals can say, without being laughed at and roundly condemned,
that the Internet makes learning ("memorizing") facts unnecessary because facts
can always be looked up, then I fear that we have come to a very low point in
our intellectual culture. I fear we have completely devalued or, perhaps worse,
forgotten about the deep importance of the sort of nuanced, rational, and
relatively unprejudiced understanding of issues that a liberal education

Sanger considers the objection that new information makes old information redundant, replying that new information does not replace old information. Reading, writing, mathematics and basic science has changed little in the last one hundred years.
The vast body of essential facts that undergird any sophisticated understanding
of the way the world works does not change rapidly … in most fields, there is
certainly a body of core knowledge.

Against the second idea, that collaborative learning is superior, or to be preferred, to outmoded individual learning, he argues that while online collaborative learning can be an excellent method of exchanging ideas between the interested and motivated and obtaining free public reviews of work on wikis, this is not a sufficient condition of the most important ingredient, namely interest and motivation. “There is no reason to think that online conversation will necessarily reproduce, in students, either the motivation to pursue interests or the resulting increase in knowledge”

Regarding review of work on wikis or online, the problem is that users of online forums and especially Wikipedia may have “some rather idiosyncratic ideas about the subject .. which arguably wastes the student's time”. Another problem is that a significant level of useful feedback cannot be guaranteed.

A further fundamental difficulty he raises is that true learning is an essentially solitary process. You can find the Decameron online, but you must mentally process it yourself. You may post an essay online but you must engage in “the essentially solitary act of writing” by yourself (I don’t agree entirely with this, but I will leave for now).

In his final point - ‘boring old books’ - Sanger addresses the familiar arguments that books are old-fashioned, not interactive, constitute a single, static, one-way conversation with an individual, and so on. This view declares the irrelevance of most of the thinkers throughout history. Can knowledge, “even the knowledge contained in great books, now something that can be adequately replaced by the collaborative creations of the students themselves?”

To be well educated, to be able to pass along the liberal and rational values
that undergird our civilization, we must as a culture retain our ability to
comprehend long, difficult texts written by individuals. Indeed, the single best
method of getting a basic education is to read increasingly difficult and
important books. To be sure, other tasks are essential, especially for training
in scientific and applied fields; there are some people who are very well
trained for various trades without reading many books. But when it comes to
getting a solid intellectual grounding — a foundational, liberal education —
nothing is less dispensable than getting acquainted with many books created by
the "complex, dense" minds of deep-thinking individuals.

There is much to think about here, in a solitary, Cartesian way, so I will leave this for now. I need to assimilate.

* “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age” EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 45, no. 2 (March/April 2010): 14-24

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