Friday, August 22, 2008

Atlantic Monthly's Slightly Irresponsible Article

The Atlantic Monthly published an article that many have seen in its July-August 08 issue called "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" In it, author Nicholas Carr talks about why he doesn't particularly care for what the Internet is doing to print culture (my interpretation). I don't like the potshot the title takes at Google and I don't especially care for its somewhat alarmist tone. However, I do understand that part of the magazine's and the author's purpose is to be provocative, sell magazines, and generate discussion.

The article has certainly generated a lot of discussion.

A lively listserv I'm on called LM_NET, composed mostly of K-12 school library people, carried a post from Tony Doyle of Livingston, CA on August 20. In it, Mr. Doyle said briefly that he thought the Carr article could provide good support to argue for a Sustained Silent Reading program in a school. I thought Mr. Doyle's conclusion, though surely well intentioned, was off the mark and decided to write to him. My response turned somewhat passionate and I thought it might be a good idea to place a copy of it here.


Thanks for continuing the conversation about this article.

It could be used to strengthen arguments for SSR, and a lot of other things in support of books, but to do so, in my opinion. would be a mistake.

Carr's piece, as seemingly intellectual and well-informed as it may appear (and may actually be), strikes me as little more than an early 20th century farmer telling a city slicker in a newfangled automobile to "Get a horse." In fact, it's more than a little ironic that a symbol of normalcy and stability in the cartoon accompanying the article is a car; itself the symbol of unwelcome modernity in an earlier age.

There were those who lamented the introduction of paper into schools in favor of slates, who extolled the virtues of quill pens over the fountain variety, and who preferred gas illumination to electric lights. And all of their criticisms of the excesses of the new in favor of the virtues of the old were not entirely erroneous. That is not the point.

There were many concerned about education who used to argue that too much reading and writing were detrimental to the skills of recitation and rhetoric and that therefore students should be made to memorize and recite much of what they were expected to learn. While there are virtues to this position, the preponderance of experience and opinion today indicates that those who took this position were essentially incorrect.

So too would be using Carr's article as justification for a back to basics movement for more reading the way it used to be done, as worthy as that may be from a (nostalgic and) purely intellectual point of view.

Where Carr is on the money, in my opinion, is when he speaks about the differences between gaining knowledge from and through print and from and through digital technology (As much as he tries to legitimize his gratuitous attack on Google, it's little more than a straw man here. He's really talking about personal computers and cell phones and PDAs and iPods and the Internet, not just Google.). We would do better to expend our limited energy and resources on working to understand these differences and seeking ways to maximize the benefits to students of knowing how to function effectively in using them both -- not arguing that the old way is better than the new.

When photography appeared in the mid-19th century, there were many who derided it and claimed it would destroy painting. In a relatively short time, it became accepted as a legitimate art form, and though it did not destroy painting, it did change it irrevocably. The printing press did not destroy the spoken word, but it did change it profoundly.

Today's digital technologies are having the same sorts of effects on the print culture. Digital will not destroy print, nor our abilities to think; it will, however, produce profound changes on both. We ignore or deride such changes at our peril. It seems to me our role as educators is yes, learn from the past, but not only from the past. We must embrace the future as well. By doing so, we will more effectively prepare our students for the world that will be, rather than only the one that was. It's not pages versus screens, it's pages and screens.

Jim Lerman

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