My good friend, Martin Hardeman, Associate Professor of American History at Eastern Illinois University, was expressing frustration about his students during a telephone conversation we were having. He was discussing how his students use their computers and smartphones to get knowledge in the form of pinpoint facts. Do you want to learn about something? You can go online and find it fairly quickly without having to go through extraneous information. Obviously, this speeds up finding answers. But in the process, knowledge becomes reduced to isolated defined discrete pinpoint facts. When one had to go search for answers in the library in the old days, one had to read through a lot of related material in order to find an answer. And, in the process, according to Professor Hardeman, one developed a “framework” for the material. One developed a significant understanding of a subject matter. One connected the dots to form a “pattern”. One developed order and avoided chaos.
Now Professor Hardeman did say that the very ease with which one can find answers on the Internet was something that stimulated some intellectual activity, which to him was good. My only response would be to point out that there is not very much meaning in looking up lots of isolated facts. Lots of isolated facts have no meaning which Professor Hardeman would translate as no framework. I guess he was trying to find something positive about this new trend which has had such a great effect on the students he is teaching.
For the most part, I am in agreement with my friend. One of the earlier articles in this column dealt with how students were doing their school research entirely from their computers, and that they were no longer going to the library to do traditional library searches for material for their school papers. There is one area, though, where perhaps I would question my friend’s assertions. It is the idea that to have meaning, knowledge has to be put into a framework, a pattern, an order. Professor Hardeman says that without, order, knowledge, in effect, sinks into chaos. This notion of order plays a very important role in Chinese philosophy. There has to be order in society, or else there will be chaos. Which is one reason that mainland China has had such a difficult time tolerating individual freedom and democratic tendencies.
But I am digressing. Putting facts into a framework is a way of putting little figures together into a larger figure. The connections that hold the little fact figures together are causal and logical connections. Rational connections. And certainly some of the connections that hold knowledge together are rational connections. And this would be particularly true in math and the hard sciences. But not all connections are rational, causal, logical or formal. Some connections simply relate to facts bunching together into a common body of knowledge. The facts complement one another in the description of phenomena rather than fitting into a chain of explanations of phenomena. In this situation, facts are grounded together into a cohesive body of knowledge. The relationship between the facts is organic rather than mechanical.
But what this does give, which a framework relationship does not, at least by itself, is a real feel for the subject being considered. One has an understanding which is greater than the bundle of facts upon which it is built. It can almost be said that one feels alive within the subject. In this kind of understanding, defined discrete facts blur together into flowing blendable continual insights. And this gives one a sense of some intuitive control.
This sense of intuitive control is what one gets when exploring a subject by looking at a series of books that are near each other at the library. One is looking for one book for a report and finds books on either side of it that are on related themes. These other books frequently supply a whole flow of facts and ideas that, together with the searched-for book, provide a flowing panorama of knowledge and understanding about the subject under question and, in particular, a greater sense of the significance of the subject under consideration.
But the students of Professor Hardeman somehow got away with not having to use the library this way very much. The result is pinpoints of knowledge, a lot of little disconnected facts that have little or no meaning by themselves.
Can pinpoints of knowledge be really considered an education? Professor Hardeman says that most of his students don’t know how to write well-crafted papers anymore. If one sees the world as defined discrete pinpoints of knowledge, then it becomes hard to bring the pinpoints together into coherent ideas. And if there aren’t any coherent ideas, then it becomes hard to bring some together to develop a thesis for a history paper.
One might say that maybe a lot of students aren’t doing well writing academic papers anymore. But what do academic papers have to do with solving the ongoing daily problems of real life? Academic papers are theoretical and abstract, while daily life problems are practical and concrete. A lot of people never had a college education at all and still are able to function quite well in the everyday world of work and family. This may be true, but there are many areas of the corporate world where well-thought-out ideas and coherent writing are definitely a plus. And it is not only that good thoughts produce good writing. Good writing stimulates a person into good coherent thinking.
And then, there is still another important level upon which being unable to put facts and data together into ideas and theses has an effect on students’ lives. Filling one’s mind with endless facts and data from the Internet has a deleterious effect on developing a coherent sense of self that is capable of making good coherent decisions in one’s life. Writing good papers can be looked on as a laboratory for well-directed living, developing a coherent life narrative that allows one to make and preserve meaningful imprints and to prepare for death with a strong surrogate immortality, creating a life that will be positively remembered by the people that surround the deceased.
If students today are developing a defined discrete pinpoint approach to knowledge and if such an approach impedes the development of flowing blendable coherent thoughts and of a coherent sense of self, then where will modern society enlist the people to take the important managerial and professional jobs that will eventually have to be filled by members of this generation? The pinpoint approach to knowledge not only leads to poorly written papers for today’s professors like my friend Professor Hardeman. It leads to people with fragmented senses of self, people who have difficulty making good life judgments and formulating good life strategies. Professor Hardeman’s concern is not just a concern about a problem connected only to academic performance. Ultimately, an excessive focus on data from smartphones can have ramifications for performance in life, and for the proper functioning of society.
© 2016 Laurence Mesirow