BY MICHAEL SACASAS This is part 2 of a 3 part series. For part one click here.
I think you will find among classical educators, homeschool parents included, the conviction that education is a sacred and moral undertaking aimed at something more than earning good money, achieving distinction, or even accumulating knowledge for its own sake. You will find, rather, the conviction that education is about learning to live well, learning to live wisely. Old Testament scholar Bruce Waltke, referring to wisdom in the biblical tradition, put it this way: Wisdom is skill in the arts of living. In classical, Christian education the end of learning is the achievement of wisdom in precisely this sense. Conveniently this recognition also offers us an excellent segue to our original question, What does classical education offer to those living after the digital revolution? It would take a much longer essay to explore all that we might mean by the phrase “the digital revolution.” I would like to suggest, however, that one of its most salient and significant features, and one that bears directly on learning and education, is the explosion of data or information that digital technology has made possible. Perhaps you’ve already heard statistics pertaining to the data explosion. This passage from a Washington Post story published last year is typical:
“So much digital data now moves around the globe that those who endeavor to measure it employ a new … term. Meet the exabyte. How much data is an exabyte? It’s a billion gigabytes – and it signifies just how digital and data-intensive the world has become. In 2007, the global capacity to store digital information – on computer hard disks, smartphones, CDs and other digital media – totaled 276 exabytes, a new report finds. How much is that? Imagine a stack of CDs – each holding an album’s worth of digital music – shooting from the top of your desk to 50,000 miles beyond the moon.”
The article goes on to add the following:
“Of course, for anyone tethered to an iPhone, Gmail and Facebook all day, all of this probably comes as no surprise. That daily digital activity contributes to a churning information tsunami. Humans generate enough data – from TV and radio broadcasts, telephone conversations and, of course, Internet traffic – to fill our 276 exabyte storage capacity every eight weeks …”
In short, we have moved from an era of information scarcity to one of information abundance. And putting it thus surely understates the matter severely. To put this into perspective, let’s take a very quick look at the long term historical trajectory of information and information storage. Early human cultures had almost no method of storing knowledge apart from memorization. I say “almost” because even early cultures could meaningfully pile a bunch of rocks to convey information. But consider that even in this case, knowledge of what the rocks signified existed only so long as it was kept in memory by particular human beings. Then came writing. First developed by the Sumerians and then the Egyptians, and later refined by the Phoenicians and perfected by the Greeks, writing revolutionized knowledge and learning. Suddenly it became possible to store knowledge independently of any particular human mind. The ancient Egyptians have long since passed from the historical scene, but what they knew can be known to us, at least once scholars deciphered hieroglyphics. The evolution of writing technologies would gradually increase the amount of information that could be stored and transmitted. From tablets to scrolls to codices (what we call books), writing became increasingly efficient and portable. Then the printing press radically enhanced the ease with which books could be produced resulting in an information revolution during the early modern era. We forget this. We tend to think that information overload is a uniquely modern condition, but consider the following. Writing in the sixteenth century, one Adrien Baillet complained, “We have reason to fear that the multitude of books which grows every day in a prodigious fashion will make the following centuries fall into a state as barbarous as that of the centuries that followed the fall of the Roman Empire.” We can only imagine what Mr. Baillet would have had to say about the Internet. But whether he liked it or not, the printing press and the emergence of cheap paper made it possible for people of slightly more than modest means to accumulate more books than they could be expected to read in a lifetime. Later, sizable public libraries would make many more books available than anyone could ever read in ten lifetimes. The contemporary data explosion described earlier is yet one more radical augmentation of this trajectory. We have immense amounts of information at our fingertips, as we used to say figuratively before Apple made it literal. We can hardly fathom the quantity of information that we are talking about when we speak of terabytes to say nothing of exabytes. All of this is, of course, a good thing in many ways and I take it for granted that these are more or less obvious. But it has also given rise to the aforementioned sense of information overload or what we might also call information fatigue. But it is not only this, information at this scale also has a tendency to become meaningless. The superabundance of information threatens to overwhelm our ability to discover meaning and reach for wisdom. For a long time now Christians have been concerned about the relativization of truth. They have heard about postmodernist theories in the universities that take truth to be merely a function of one’s perspective. The roots of this threat are usually traced to some subversive philosopher or another, typically Nietzsche. Perhaps, but I would suggest that the greater concern may not be the tendency to believe that all truth is relative, but rather the tendency to tacitly assume that all truth is trivial. By calling it “trivial” I intend to draw a link to the game Trivial Pursuit. Trivial Pursuit is about the accumulation of data points, of mere information. Facts, places, names, dates, records, events — knowing these with little to no regard for what all of these might mean or what relationship these facts have to one another, much less what they have to do with living well is what wins you the game. Information comes to us in massive amounts and in the form of an undifferentiated digital stream. From the moment we wake up and check our email or our Facebook feed to the moment we close our eyes to sleep again, we are immersed in a torrent of information from which we only momentarily come up to catch our breath. When we are in this flow, information comes hard and fast. Some of it is personal, some of it is public; some of it is news, some of it is gossip; some of it is happy, some of it is tragic; some of it we seek, some of it seeks us. (Notice how the line separating the categories paired in each of those sets is getting blurrier by the day.) So and so is dating so and so, an earthquake hit somewhere, some country is threatening some other, this team traded for that superstar, some study shows the risk of some activity, some star is divorcing again, some director is working on a new movie, some politician has proposed something, some friend texted where are you, some other friend passed along a link, Google this, Facebook that, Tweet the other thing … and so it goes, day in and day out. Now, let me flash my digital media credentials for just a moment so that I make it clear that I’m not merely being a retrograde crank. I blog, I have a Twitter account, I’m working on a PhD in a program dedicated to digital media, I spend a good deal of my day immersed in this same stream. I’m not suggesting that we burn the machine. But I do think it is important that we use our new digital tools and toys with eyes wide open. And I do think there are certain consequences that we would do well to avoid if possible or at least mitigate. And I certainly believe that there are real losses that we are in danger of incurring if we are not careful in our adoption of new technologies. Some of these consequences are obvious and they are more easily avoided. Others are more subtle and may not be immediately apparent. Consider the “just Google it” mentality. Googling it — and, of course, Google here just stands for the Internet as a whole — encourages the assumption that knowledge is valuable only insofar as life is a game of Trivial Pursuit where the point is simply to have access to random, disparate facts. There is a growing sentiment, even among those who ought to know better, that it is always unnecessary to learn what one can easily look up. Consider a study from Columbia University psychologist Betsy Sparrow and her colleagues. They conducted experiments in which they found that people are less likely to remember information when they know they can find it through a quick online search. Like many studies we hear about, this one only confirms what we already knew intuitively. Some time ago we began noticing that we no longer know anyone’s phone number. We’re doing well if we can remember our own. Ever since cell phones started storing numbers, we stopped remembering them. And for the most part we’re no worse for it, except, of course, for those instances when we need someone’s number and we can’t access our phones for whatever reason. But those situations tend to be few and far between and on the whole we have little reason to begin memorizing all the numbers in our directories. But should we expand this line of reasoning to all areas of knowledge and learning? Only if knowledge is equivalent to the mere accumulation of discreet bits of data or information. Only if this is the case does it not matter whether those discreet bits of data are held in mind or in the cloud. Only if life were a game of Trivial Pursuit and we all had a smartphone to help us play could we conclude that it matters little whether we internalize knowledge. When the “just Google it” mentality reigns, you can be sure that goal of education is not understood to be the attainment of wisdom. The orientation of classical education toward wisdom strongly resists this temptation to flatten knowledge and reduce education to the accumulation of facts or information. And this is precisely what classical education offers the digital age, a way out of the sea of mere information toward the heights of knowledge and wisdom. COMING SOON: PART 3.
Michael Sacasas currently teaches at Smith Prep in Longwood, Florida. He is a graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary and is now working toward a PhD in “Texts and Technology” at the University of Central Florida. He blogs at thefrailestthing.com