What is wrong with the shape of learning in a digital age?

internetIn Ephraim Radner’s fascinating book A Time to Keep, he notes a transition that sociologists, economists and histories have seen, which Radner gives the title ‘the Great Transition.’ This “refers specifically to the rapid increase of life expectancy of the population on average, from around thirty-three years in 1800 in Europe to almost eighty years in the year 2000.”[1]

This dramatic increase in life expectancy – a historically unprecedented one – has shaped how we live our life and view such things as suffering, family, work and sexuality. Though he is attempting to provide a theological corrective to the effects of this ‘Transition’ by stressing how our own mortality and the recognition that life is a gift given by God informs how we view our life, he is careful to state that increase of life is not a bad thing. Increased life is a blessing from the Lord.

The problem rather lies in how our increased existential distancing from our mortality and the positive corollary that life is a gift from God to be enjoyed and treasured has given shape to how we view that which are life entails (relationships, work, meaning, etc.). Although only analogous to the insights Radner gains by meditating on the effects of ‘the Transition,’ our purpose here will be to look at how the internet (once called the Information Superhighway) has shaped how we view learning and the process and attainment of true understanding and knowing.

It is without doubt that the internet has provided great access to information. So patently obvious is access to information that we even a created a phrase which reflects this ease of access: ‘Google it.’ No one would question that ease of access is a bad thing. ‘Information is always good,’ one ought to surmise. Much like an increase of life expectancy is a good thing, we would agree that, yes, information and relative ease of access to the same is a good thing, but does it then follow that there are no negative effects or implications that come with such ease of access?

Here is where Radner’s contention and ours are parallel. The lack of awareness of our own mortality, Radner argues, gives rise to a host of problem: familial imbalance, sexual distortion, vacuity of existential meaning, to name a few. Similarly, the dramatic increase of access to information has given rise to an overestimation of what we know and a minimization of what it takes to truly know.

Such a bold assertion requires some explanation. In the era of pre-internet (or at least the widespread proliferation of household and business internet), learning took far more time. Books, magazines, papers would need to be located, gathered together, and laid out before the most basic steps toward learning could begin. Hefty boxes filled with tomes would strain the muscles of eager and not-so-eager students. Piles of journal articles and magazine extracts will rise to mountainous heights on the desks of the academic. Moreover, the pre-internet and pre-portable-personal-computer eras (i.e., laptop) were roughly contemporaneous, so though computers were used, there was much more time spent actually handwriting notes, observations and the like. Sometimes the now-antiquated and largely forgotten typewriter was used, which, unlike the computer, was a much more laborious process especially for the clumsy typer.

You may be thinking, “Okay, what’s your point? So, that (your?) generation had a rough go of it and researching was a drag [editor’s note: ‘drag’ may be outdated].”  That assessment would miss the point. Much like how our own sense of mortality reorients our priorities and shapes how we view our life, so does how we learn, what it takes to learn, shape how we view learning. There was no illusion pre-internet, pre-portable-PC that truly learning and growing in one’s knowledge of a subject was a task that took some considerable effort, as our brief sketch sought to demonstrate. What was required to even begin the task of deeply learning was vastly more strenuous than what is now required to read in some instances half a book. This almost non-existent process (except in some academic settings) in turn shaped what it means to learn. It gave us a more proper, true assessment of what the task of learning demands of us.

Put simply, learning is hard work. True, deep, lasting learning does not come by the tapping a few letters into a powerful and (seemingly) nigh-omniscient search engine. It requires pouring over texts. It requires hours, days, weeks and months of sustained thought. It takes wrestling with difficult problems and questions. It takes writing and re-writing. It takes pounding archaic terms, ancient languages, code and the like in one’s head. The visceral connection of the body with the mind in learning in the pre-internet era made the sheer effort demanded even clearer as one held up another cumbersome tomb, ran one’s fingers across another thick, dusty page or scratched onto paper some note or another.

So, yes, the internet is a good. Access is a good. Information is good. But true information is not cheap. Even if it only takes you a swipe of a device, the click of a link, or the tapping on a screen to access some knowledge, if that knowledge is truly substantive and worthwhile, it took the person producing it considerable time, thought and energy. The sheer amount of research, experience, and time put into a worthwhile piece of information, never mind work of fiction, is breathtaking once fully grasped. All one has to do to discover this is make an attempt to produce something of value to teach someone and then compare it with something else in the same field by someone more advanced or even a peer to find that the amount of effort displayed underneath is often incredibly daunting.

What do we gain then by remembering if not replicating the mechanics of learning for a largely by-gone era? First, true learning takes some grit and character. No matter if we agree or disagree with another thinker, if their thinking expresses something of substance, then we ought to engage them with respect and thoughtfulness since we recognize how laborious true learning is. I write book reviews for a number of journals and am appalled at how often I read reviews that are grievously dismissive toward the thoughts expressed. Reasonable disagreement is a virtue but hubris is not. Second, true learning produces humility. No avoid repetition, let it suffice to say that the effort required ought to humble us regarding our own capabilities as well as how we evaluate the contributions of others. Third, true knowledge is intimately bound up with wisdom for knowledge means little-to-nothing if it cannot be applied and if it does not (in)form how we live our lives.

Fear of the Lord, we are reminded, is the beginning of wisdom. Without wisdom, knowledge is trite and empty; without humble submission to and reverence of the Lord, wisdom is not attainable. Ultimately, wisdom and knowledge, bound as they are to the fear of the Lord, find their end in our love toward God and our neighbor—and our enemy. So, to pursue deep and lasting learning is to, at base, pursue the Lord with our entire being (“heart, mind, soul and strength”) since learning, rightly understand, requires all of us. Learning is tedious and wearisome apart from the Lord. As the author of Ecclesiastes tells us: “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” (12:12). But, when the aim of learning is seen as an aspect of loving and worshipping the Lord and loving and serving our neighbor then we find joy in it as a gift given to us for a benefit for ourselves and for others.

To conclude, the transition to an era characterized by a dramatic increase of access to knowledge is a good thing and a gift, but only if we continue to remember how limited we truly are, how much it takes to truly gain wisdom and understanding, and in turn if we do not lose sight of the aim of acquiring knowledge and wisdom, namely, to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself. Failure to grasp this trivializes the weight of responsibility that comes with knowledge and thus divorces this pursuit from its God-ordained end, reducing it to the cause of exceeding pride and abysmal self-adulation. But before our towering ‘Babels’ come falling down, cataclysmically bringing forth incoherence and confusion, let us turn to the Lord who is good, gracious and faithful to give wisdom to those who ask it of him (James 1:5).


[1] A Time to Keep, 24.

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