I hate this time of year. No, not Christmas…the end of the semester, with its anxious students and weary professors both slogging their way through papers and exams. No one likes it, and everyone wants it over.
Indeed, at the beginning of every semester I offer my students this glimpse of my approach to grading and assignments. They are, I say, a necessary evil, indeed the most unpleasant aspect of what passes for the life of the mind in a collegiate setting. Above all else, they represent the economic burdens under which we labor and which distort the educational enterprise. I give assignments and grade them, I say, because students want a credential and I want a paycheck, each of us treating as merely instrumental the learning that ought to be an end in itself. If we were all unburdened by the need to earn a living, our pursuit of knowledge would be freer: we would talk about questions that moved us, when they moved us, and write only when we actually had something to say. Certainly we wouldn't be locked into a schedule that demanded we had something to say between the hours of 10 and 11 every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and a syllabus that required that we produce 2,000 words on some specified topic by 5 p.m. on Monday, December 8.
Ah, would that I could rely on my students' unbridled love of learning and subsist on their voluntary and generous contributions! But, as they will be the first to tell you, Socrates I ain't.
Don't get me wrong. I have in my time read at least my fair share of excellent and interesting student papers, where I've seen lights go on as connections are made. And I've been party to all sorts of interesting classroom discussions, where I've witnessed to the joy of discovery and insight, and even learned a thing or two. I've seen, in other words, evidence of passion illuminated by intelligence and intelligence animated by passion.
But the instances I've witnessed are, in a way, accidents. Almost nothing about the contemporary university or, for that matter, about the contemporary world, supports or facilitates them.
I suppose that you could say that that's the human condition. Athens sentenced Socrates to death. Spinoza made his living as a lens-grinder. Poverty and persecution have almost always forced "free thought" to the margins.
But we're supposed to live in a time of prosperity and free inquiry, with "higher education" available to millions of my fellow Americans, and a multiplicity of sources of information and forms of communication. We're proud of that and often point to it as an indicator of our superiority over previous generations.
We're all "empowered" by (or is it entangled in?) the World Wide Web. My colleagues like to teach in "smart classrooms," with all forms of media at their fingertips. It seems that many of my students would be lost without their laptops. (Indeed, I'm lost without their laptops: legible handwriting and printing are increasingly scarce on college campuses — those ubiquitous bluebooks often contain scrawls that would do a doctor proud…although, come to think of it, my doctor doesn't scrawl any more, but relies on a touchscreen and a printer.)
I enjoyed the company of a group of freshmen — excuse me, "first year students" — this semester. Our class — an honors seminar on political rhetoric — culminated in presentations. They had all worked hard to find YouTube clips to illustrate their points. Many had put together PowerPoint slides. I was bedazzled by their technological sophistication (remembering my freshman year — we were still "freshmen" then — when I had an old manual typewriter and longed for an electric).
But for all the images and words they could project on their screens, there was something missing. Along the way, they hadn't learned how to stop and dwell on a word, a phrase, an argument. They could articulate their general impressions reasonably well and, as I said, were masters and mistresses of the manipulation of pixels. But to the extent that thinking depends upon careful reading or even attentive listening, they weren't prepared for it.
Is this a new challenge?
I can think of arguments pro and con.
I could argue, for example, that our new form of mass higher education is reaching classes of people who in the past wouldn't have had access to it at all. Where once a high school diploma was the limit of a person's aspiration, now we're satisfied with nothing less than a B.A. That's progress, isn't it? From this point of view, rather than lamenting the sad state of what I see in the classroom, I should be celebrating the fact that people who a couple of generations wouldn't have been attending a liberal arts college now enjoy that privilege. The top is still there, but there's a new middle, much higher than the old middle. Exaggerating for the sake of clarity, the relative incapacity to read, write, and think that I deprecate is surely superior to illiteracy or semi-literacy. Stated more soberly, when more people read — or rather are assigned — Homer and Aristotle, we might lose some depth of exposure, but we surely gain breadth, don't we? I should enjoy the peaks when I encounter them and appreciate the fact that the plains I ordinarily experience aren't the chasms they once would have been.
In other words, one could argue that what I'm encountering is nothing really new. Whereas at one time a man of the University wouldn't have had to notice those denied entrance into its classrooms and lecture halls, they're here now, profiting somewhat from and contributing somewhat to "higher learning."
Inasmuch as I'm only a couple of generations removed from the farms and small shops of Western Europe — I'm the first Professor Doktor in my family — I have at least some sympathy for this argument.
But I also feel even more acutely the force of another argument.
We have a technologically-induced short attention span. We like, and can have, our information in short, easily digested bursts, soundbites, if you will. These are not arguments, but at most quips or wisecracks. They almost have to be short because they are placed in a context where there are many competitors for the audience's time and attention. What's more, because we have the capacity to accompany them (and compete with them) with video and audio, it's relatively easy for the words and arguments to be overwhelmed by the images. Stated another way, our multimedia age privileges images and the emotions they evoke over arguments that are more likely to appeal to reason or to provoke a reasonable response.
The students I teach are extremely comfortable moving in this environment. They don't mind, or rather positively thrive on, multitasking — a nice way of saying not paying close attention to anything in particular. They're very savvy about communication in various forms. Ordinary email feels antiquated to them. They like the various ways one can communicate — from chatting to posting to emailing — on Facebook. To an old guy like me, Facebook feels chaotic. There's too much going on at once, everything distracting from everything else, and nothing demanding one's undivided attention. It may be a relatively efficient way of exchanging bits of information quite indiscriminately among large numbers of people, but it doesn't lend itself to sustained argumentation or deep conversation.
Oddly enough, I long for the relative intimacy and discursiveness of email, which tells you how far gone our age is. Does anyone now write letters after the grand manner of the old days, taking time to write something that will be savored and pondered by its recipient?
In the end, it seems to me that our "best and brightest" are charmed — almost mesmerized — by the amazing possibilities opened up for them by our technology. They see very clearly what it enables them to accomplish, but are almost blind to what they have lost. If they're discontented about anything, it's that there's not enough speed or stimulation in the devices they employ, not that these possibilities run the risk of overwhelming their judgment or short-circuiting their thoughtfulness.
If only I could get and hold their attention, I'd tell them that.
Joseph M. Knippenberg is a Professor of Politics at Oglethorpe University and a Culture11 contributing editor.