Posted tagged ‘Nicholas Carr’

Is the internet destroying or enriching education?

March 26, 2010

I was wandering around the room at a reception the other day; you know, one of those receptions where, once you get there, you really can’t remember why you accepted the invitation. Still, networking is everything, and so I sidled up to the first little cluster of people standing around with wine glasses. One of them turned out to be an educator, and he recognised me and rounded on me. ‘One of my students brought me this essay’, he said, ‘and he used your blog as a source for his argument.’ Good man, I thought; but I didn’t say it, because the face of my interlocutor betrayed clearly that he was anything but pleased. He continued: ‘I had to explain to him, v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y, that your blog is not a primary source.’ OK, I thought, I’ll have to bite now. ‘Primary source for what?’ I asked. ‘He was doing an assignment on higher education values.’ He paused, and then exclaimed, ‘Oh my God, the way the internet is misused. And it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t there.’

OK, I had to find another cluster of wine drinkers to bother, because if that conversation had continued I might have had to hit the man. Of course to be fair, he was right when he said that the internet could not be misused if it wasn’t there. But everything else was nonsense; well actually, that was nonsense, too, but at least it was logically correct, if stupid.

Of course we all know about the capacity of the internet to supply ready material for those tempted by plagiarism, and we know that not everything that makes it online is necessarily correct. But those who make that latter point often imply that in the past, once it was put on paper by a hot metal process every statement was infallible; in truth an awful lot of nonsense also got printed. And in any case, there were all sorts of hyperventilating people who in the 16th century were arguing that unless a monk had sat in a cellar etching something on to pigskin a written text had no scholarly value.

But now there is a whole industry of people shouting about the corruption of knowledge wrought by the internet. One of these is the writer Nicholas Carr, who became famous for criticising student habits with the phrase ‘Facebook is the dorm; Wikipedia is the library; and Craigslist is the mall.’ By the way, he issued that dictum on his blog, where else? Elsewhere he has argued that the internet is killing off ‘concentration and contemplation.’

I confess that it really bugs me when people argue that easier access to information is a great tragedy. Underlying this assertion is the view that knowledge cannot be shared, it needs to be mediated, and this needs to be done by a special priesthood of experts who will be there to tell you what is right and what is wrong. But actually, knowledge reaches its true value when it is provided democratically, openly and freely. Of course knowledge needs to be accompanied by understanding, and this needs to be secured by learning (and teaching), but we need to have much more confidence that in the end knowledge enlightens, educates and transforms. Why else are we in education?