Much has been made recently of an Atlantic Monthly article, Is Google Making Us Stupid? and a book by Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation. James Bowman in The New Atlantis reflects on them both in his article, Is Stupid Making Us Google?
The primary premise in all three is contrary to much of our conventional wisdom regarding the consequences of technology. They all argue that it is more than likely that the use of current technologies is actually making us dumber.
Though more quality information and materials are at our fingertips than ever, people (especially young people) on the internet spend less and less time reading good books, thinking through real trains of thought, and skim over most of the information they read. In addition, this virtual skimming is taking us more and more away from the weightier and more transformative act of reading good books. We overwhelmingly replace online Plato for Facebook.
Concerning some of the educational consequences, Bowman notes:
As The Dumbest Generation rightly notes, “the model is information retrieval, not knowledge formation, and the material passes from Web to homework paper without lodging in the minds of the students.” Generally speaking, even those who are most gung-ho about new ways of learning probably tend to cling to a belief that education has, or ought to have, at least something to do with making things lodge in the minds of students—this even though the disparagement of the role of memory in education by professional educators now goes back at least three generations, long before computers were ever thought of as educational tools. That, by the way, should lessen our astonishment, if not our dismay, at the extent to which the educational establishment, instead of viewing these developments with alarm, is adapting its understanding of what education is to the new realities of how the new generation of “netizens” actually learn (and don’t learn) rather than trying to adapt the kids to unchanging standards of scholarship and learning.
I share his alarm that a significant portion of education philosophy is not digging in its heels and remaining steadfast in the light of cultural changes for the worse. Not all change is good, and we need the discernment and strength to resist bad change. He goes on:
Like redefining education as the acquisition of information-retrieval skills, this is to go with the flow of youth culture, which begins by throwing off the yoke of the past and rejecting the sort of self-denial necessary to acquire the more difficult sort of educational accomplishments.
So education becomes more and more narcissistic as we retrieve information without allowing ourselves to be changed by the wisdom to be gathered by dealing with ideas and differing opinions. As anyone who has done this knows, if you search long enough, you can find any headline to support any position you desire.
This especially worries me in the context of the Church, or as some have called it, the context of the “people of the Book.” If our youth in general are losing the patience and cognitive capacity to comprehend trains of though longer than 30 seconds in duration, and are losing the patience to read books for longer than two or three minutes at a time, how are they to adequately comprehend the Gospel of John? For that matter, how are they to take in the significance of the life, death and resurrection of Christ?
Can we be content with Christian discipleship based on sound-bites and “headlines”?