How Do You Think Outside the Box When the Box Is a Closed System? - May 14, 2012
Not all definitions are what Hegel called an sich (“as such”) definitions; sometimes they are of his für mich (“for me”) type. For example, I have my own definition of art: If I could do it, it’s not art. This encapsulates my own thought that art is not only inspiration but perspiration, not only ideas but execution, and, likely, not only perseverance but talent. Art, in my definition, is not just for expression but communication. If a person creates what he thinks is a work of art and no one sees it, he’s kidding himself. And thinking about all this in reverse is a great help: I figure that if a five-year-old can do it, I shouldn’t be doing it.
I say this as prefatory to my entering into a minefield that includes the history of education, epistemology, and a host of other subjects, none of which am I an expert. But the subject of this blog is something that greatly concerns book publishing and the future of the book, and if publishers don’t think about these subjects to the best of their ability, they are failing in their duty.
Let’s take the now-obvious case of the distraction of television. Thirty-five years ago, Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug was made a best-seller by warning parents not to use the TV as a babysitter. It succeeded in bringing the danger that stupefying programming can do to children, and it forced parents and TV programmers to find, shall we say, less selfish reasons for propping up children in front of the tube for hours on end. They found “learning.”
The argument over the quality of learning that television offers children has not been settled, of course, but for many parents, it has been a party in continuing the practice of video babysitting.
But what I’d like to address is not the quality of television but the way of learning that it provides. Take the difference between TV and radio as an example. Most publishers know that promoting a book on television, unless it is accompanied by an immense marketing budget and celebrity-status authors, is a fool’s journey. Television is not suited for discerning give-and-take with the audience; radio is far better (and radio typically is not tied to five-minute segments for questioning). Radio audiences pay more attention, and “engage” more readily
But what does it mean to “be engaged”? For many, engagement and absorption are the same thing. But if that is engagement, infants and toddlers are more easily engaged than ten year olds. You could almost say that the less intelligent, the less educated, the less knowledgeable, the more engaged.
The kind of engagement I am talking about here is more like a trance, and everyone who has been near a television has not only seen it in others, but recognizes that it has probably occurred to himself or herself.
It could well be that a youngster will memorize the materials being shown on the television, will exhibit great recall, perhaps even for more than a short time, will seem to be learning. But absorption in this way is a passive, not an active, encounter. It is accepting whatever comes rather than reacting to it. Whether as a result or as a cause, that which is absorbed is something wholly presented, wholly from an other.
Maria Montessori propounded the view that a child’s learning was “work,” not play. It was purposive, expanding, and communicative; in short, it was conversion. Now, it is diversion.
What applies to television applies in spades to video games, web searching, tweeting and texting, and the full panoply of istuff that floods our world. For a clear cautionary case, I strongly recommend David Gerlernter’s important article from the May 10, 2012, edition of the Wall Street Journal (“Make It a Summer without Istuff” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304451104577392410798575008.html?mod=djemEditorialPage_h).
Because a child seems active while playing video games does not mean he or she is intellectually active or less of a zombie than he was sitting in front of a television, just because he moves his fingers a lot. The action is directed toward an activity with built-in results, and what is learned is far more a manipulation than a discovery.
The learning we get from video games and television, for example, or what I’ve called absorption, is not a creative activity. In such “lessons,” 100% of what is learned is programmed from the outside, with definite right and wrong answers, and no way to argue a different route or even to be able to formulate a different ending. Alternatives to the fixed ending can come only from interaction with another human being or by reading (which is another way of saying, “interaction with another human being”).
When one learns through books, there is no predetermined result in terms of how the reader will learn or understand or accept the ideas that come from the author. With television and even more with video games, there is a predetermined result. As a consequence, quantity takes the place of quality, speed takes the place of correctness, and predetermined results replaces the jungle of mixed results. In other words, education in this way is the education of a computer.
Is reading, then, for contemplation, information, edification, entertainment, or data? Why, it can be for any of these. And it has the added advantage of allowing the reader to add or subtract from the author’s words.
Almost all adults realize that some of our education is rote learning, memorization, and fact-stuffing, and all that is fitting and right. But few of us are foolish enough to think that if all of our education were that, we would be educated. We need to react, to argue, to respond, to analyze, to accept or reject, to love or hate.
Gerlernter’s article addressed the learning of children. But, truth be told, it applies to adults just as much. But if Gerlernter had addressed adults here, there would have been a backlash. We all accept that adults should not be under the sway of others, and that, within reason, they have rights to do what they want. And we probably know that adults are too hopeless to change anyway.
But the fact remains that people nowadays do not live in retirement for two or three years but two or three decades. Line dancing and endless rounds of golf cannot satisfy the desires of all of us or make diversion rather than conversion the true purpose of our lives.