Is books making us stupid? behind the curtain of #rhizo14

The rhizomatic learning course #rhizo14 is the first open course I’ve ever taught without affiliation. (though certainly being employed by my university and having an invested and interested partner allows me to have the ‘free time’ to pursue it) I have no partner that I’m working with or no school supporting it. This is the educational exploration I’ve been doing for the last 8-9 years, and I invited whoever may want to join to come along with me for the ride. It is, in many ways, the vision of MOOCs that I have had since we first starting talking about them in 2008. The course participation has been fascinating… and enlightening. Don’t take my word for it, check out some of the highlights for yourself on Cathleen Nardi’s curation page. The course is being ‘designed’, if you can call it that, to expose the concepts of rhizomatic learning through a succession of challenges. The challenges have been developed on the fly based on my sense of what might help push the conversation to a new and interesting place. They are structured to challenge the cultural assumptions that are prevalent around learning and to have people share their responses to it.

Challenge 1 – Cheating as learning
This was a blind opener. I had to have a topic to get conversation started in the first week and this is the place i usually start in my first week of my face2face classes. I started out purposefully vague with this topic with the hope that it would allow for a greater number of perspectives around the power structures that support cheating. That seemed to work. We got power and ethics and lots of fun stuff. More than anything, I was hoping to break down the teacher/student divide and trouble who was responsible for deciding who was learning and how they should be doing that. It might, also, start conversations around collaboration.

Here’s the intro video.

Challenge 2 – Enforcing Independence
This was intended as a counterpoint to week 1. Yes, the student is responsible for learning. Yes, our traditional system is a command and control structure better built for enforcement of norms than for the nurturing of creativity. Sure. We need independent learners. But how do we get there. We’re not starting from a blank slate. We can’t just reset the last 150 years of schooling and start over. We need to create classroom and non-classroom learning structures that slowly move people towards independence. We need to live inside the paradox of telling people to do what they need to do and to judge themselves by their own goals and objectives.

Here’s the intro video

Challenge 3 – Embracing Uncertainty
Encouraging people towards independence is one thing, creating an ecosystem where multiple answers are possible is something else entirely. Uncertainty is a part of most of our real lives, it is very much part of the learning process that we live outside of ‘schooling’. It takes a long time for my students to get over the sense that there is a hidden series of things i want them to believe, and that my attempts to have them create their own objectives is just reflective of sadistic tendencies. I have to embrace my own uncertainty around things, and the uncertainty around the things that I know about, in order to demonstrate that as a goal for learning. Those goals aren’t about knowing right/wrong but rather being able to make reasonable decisions when confronted by uncertainty. If this is the new goal of learning, it fundamentally changes the way you go about it.

Intro video

Challenge 4 – Is books making us stupid?
I got really strong support for independence and for uncertainty… to strong I thought. I expected a little more pushback. I decided to ask the question in a different way, one that maybe went more to the core of our beliefs about knowledge. Many of us (me included) have been brought up to adore the idea of the book, to revere the smell of one. We have found solace in books, escape, the voices of the past… all kinds of things. But the book is a technology and it has it’s own logic to it. It’s own set of affordances. It is very easy, for instance, to see a book linearly. It starts at the beginning and moves on to the end. Sure… you can jump into the middle and read it backwards if you want, but that is you disrupting the technology.

My hope for this week was to trouble the relationship between printed, unmodifiable text and learning. The responses have been pretty divergent… I’m in no way suggesting that books haven’t had a very valuable historical place. I’m not suggesting that I don’t want to read them. I do, however, think that we have lost a fair amount of value in our cultural move towards the book-type text. Are books ‘more right’? Do they encourage the tendency to look for a ‘correct’ answer? Was socrates right when he suggested that writing would mean people wouldn’t think for themselves that they’d just ‘read it’?

I also think, and I get into this more in the ramble below about Nicholas Carr, that the book heavily privileges people of a certain ‘tradition’.

The question of the book and of its primacy is fundamental to community curriculum… hence it’s placement here in the course.

Intro video

Note on the title and darker critique and rambling
Nicholas Carr wrote an article called “Is google making us stupid”, in which he critiques our ‘get answers at your fingertips’ google fuelled world. In response to Socrates’ warnings about writing, he suggests “Socrates wasn’t wrong—the new technology did often have the effects he feared—but he was shortsighted. He couldn’t foresee the many ways that writing and reading would serve to spread information, spur fresh ideas, and expand human knowledge (if not wisdom).” And I agree with him, those things did happen. But at what cost? We moved from ideas moving towards fluidity to them becoming more truth based. And now I’m suggesting that we can have both worlds, if we leave behind the trapping of the technology of paper. A return to orality need neither be us turning over our culture to mindless interaction nor a complete divestiture of books… just of a primacy of complexity over simplicity. Of conversation over printed-text.

He continues…

“The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking.”

And herein lies the rub. The book promotes independence of thought, our ‘own’ ideas and our ‘own’ inferences. It promotes possession. It reifies the things we are reading and makes them a thing that can belong to a person. There is value in this. But there is also a fundamental difference between an idea that I HAVE that I DEFEND against someone else and an ongoing conversation that develops BETWEEN people.

He quotes Richard Foreman saying the following –

“I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. [But now] I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self—evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available.””

If we look to the life lived by Foreman and Carr’s Dartmouth/Harvard education, it doesn’t take a huge stretch for us to see that the ‘tradition’ that they are talking about doesn’t necessarily include all of us. Much like similar critiques from Sherry Turkle, the ‘we’ might not extend to the rest of ‘us’.

Who does the ‘tradition’ of the book serve?

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.” For you… I quote a book that tells of a conversation where meaning is up for negotiation.

11 thoughts on “Is books making us stupid? behind the curtain of #rhizo14

  1. Thanks for kicking off the amazing experience that is #rhizo14. It’s a really great place for learning.

    (Aside: I still find it very difficult to make any sense of the idea of the ‘community is the curriculum’ in whole or in part within this experience and not sure how far the negotations have got with regard to that part of the title.)

    I am very confused: sometimes I got the impression that you were referring to text books, books that purport to be factual, asking “Do they encourage the tendency to look for a ‘correct’ answer? ” Well the answer, as it often is for me, is “it depends”.
    I wonder if the framing of the questions doesn’t tend to polarise the debate, a little as you critique the article by Sherry Turkle (to which you have linked) in the context of readers. Sometimes you are referring to books that, though they are ‘frozen’ by actually being published at a particular date (albeit with several editions), would never purport to contain truth in terms of facts. Some as these, such as ‘Through the Looking Glass’ that you quote in your last sentence neither purport to be nor would be taken (by most people) collections of facts. Incidentally, as well as being about meaning, Humpty Dumpty is also talking about power
    ” Alice was too much puzzled to say anything, so after a minute Humpty Dumpty began again. “They’ve a temper, some of them—particularly verbs, they’re the proudest—adjectives you can do anything with, but not verbs—however, I can manage the whole lot! Impenetrability! That’s what I say!””

    Books didn’t replace orality, anymore than orality as it might have been understood by Socrates will be returned to. Conversations on blogs have both similarities and differences to both print texts and verbal utterances.

    As I said on the Facebook group “It made think immediately of Wenger’s use of dualities in his Communities of Practice work – specifically the duality of participation and reification – mouthful! So that might be the tensions between us having conversations here on the FB group and the more concrete things we make and share like blog posts (by ourselves and others), course designs and tips, remixed images, etc. Anyway – it’s not just either/or and we have jenny mackness on hand to explain it more thoroughly;) http://jennymackness.wordpress.com/tag/reification/

    I think there is a real danger of us getting stuck in dualisms / polarisations when looking at dualities might be a more fruitful approach.

  2. Thanks for the kind words about the course!

    I think of Humpty Dumpty as mostly talking about power and certainly mean it in that sense.

    I’m not referring to any particular collection of books or one version of them. I’m trying to force the questioning of the issue to free up the community conversation a little. I struggled with this blog post mostly because I’m not trying to make a specific claim but rather trying to encourage a broad number of claims from participants.

    Clumsily, I suppose, i am trying NOT to be master.

  3. “ … I come from a tradition of Western culture, in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality—a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West. … ”
    This tradition might be typical for Anlo-saxon (aristocratic) world with its overload of literature in education, Shakespeare, Milton, and essays in education. Might be a cultural difference.
    Nicholas Carr was/is selling a book, that is reason to be very critical or even suspicious about motives. Selling a book is an economic project and has no connection to academic discourse. (It is not at all a crime to sell books, but it is not an academic business )
    Could books be obstacles for learning? Books do have a certain authority, printed matter is more trustworthy, in the eyes of many. These books need more critical reflection.
    Books are valuable commodities, that may influence the content of books. Lots of books do not exist because no publisher wanted to publish them.
    Mistakes, lies, false statements never will be erased when the book is sold. Only sometimes a 2nd edition is edited.
    Once a month me and some friends have an evening to discuss one book. Most of time everyone has a different story about the one book we read. Reading a book is very subjective, and discussing a book is never a dull evening.

  4. Curious and Curiouser this tale becomes. Believe it or not, we are trained by good manners not to have opinions on things we don’t quite understand but none of us have good manners here so…

    I find the questions difficult to irritating until something in my brain and its extension in my book case starts getting obscure messages about things to apply to the problem (question). The notion that I can assemble resources in the form of sometimes whacky, often inconsistent but always further to resolution than politeness would normally allow is a useful tool.

    This self-reliance I think is an outcome we expect from school but it seems to have become a side-effect or even directly in opposition to the orderly purpose if teaching people to replicate answers cleverly disguised as questions. We need more clumsiness in education.

  5. I suppose my interpretation is that a focus on the print book is not the most relevant. It seems to me to be a bit of a distraction since the print book itself is in such a state of flux. It’s more easily found (even if out of print) via sites like Amazon (and their extended market place), it could be distributed mainly through pdf copies with less frequents prints (eg lulu.com) enabling self-publishing, some people even make books from their blogs. If indeed it was a tool for dominance in the power games of knowledge, then new arenas for text and conversation do not diminish this, any more than the old ones did. I’ll shut up now and go and think about a blog post on dualities and dualisms in this context.

  6. It’s a good question but I resist anything that claims to make me do things. It’s me that makes me do things. I might not know why or what’s shaped the things I do (like leaving this reply) but that doesn’t absolve me of responsibility. So if I allow a book to make me stupid that’s really me being stupid. And I can be made just as stupid through conversations or by things people say in spoken media.

  7. Your post reminds me of something Harold Jarche wrote:

    Books gave us the illusion that knowledge was stable. It never was.

    Books, and by extension linear text, are not organised like we think. We need tools that allow us to interact online like we think. I love blogs for teaching, the to and fro through comments is great. However, it doesn’t quite catch the “conversation that develops BETWEEN people”. A blog like tool that allowed comments, or comment boxes within the post would get closer to allowing people to converse. Blog posts still present ideas in a linear fashion, to which we respond through comments, but I often want to comment on a part of a post, not on the whole thing. That’s closer to a conversation than commenting at the end.

  8. Interesting article. What should I say to this? But keep one thing in mind that many people which achieved high places in the world were readers of books.

  9. Hey there Kamran. That’s true, but lots of people who were very successful are also tall… but that doesn’t necessarily mean that tallness leads to success :)

  10. So I’ll push back a bit. Greenblatt in The Swerve talks about this quite a bit, the way books profoundly changed the way we thought. Part of that, according to Greenblatt, is the way books can transcend context. But a big part to was the intimate solitude of the book. The ancient world had a deep suspicion of reading — anti-social, it allowed people to develop ideas outside a social framework.

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, as I look at why wikis have not had the impact in education that they might. And I think to some extent the closest thing we have to the ancient world is Wikipedia. And if you’ve been in Wikipedia, you realize how much communal ownership of ideas sucks. I wrote about this a bit today:

    http://hapgood.us/2014/02/09/why-i-dont-edit-wikis-and-why-you-dont-either/

    Wikis tend to supress dissent, sure, but they also force dissent into factionalism. It’s probably no coincidence that in the ancient world you had to pick a school of philosophy and adhere to it religiously or break off into your own heretical faction. There really was no middle ground. There still isn’t in Wikipedia, which is why people (and especially the less privileged) flee from its gang violence in droves. If you want a culture that preserves a status quo hierachy, pick an oral culture. Your dissidents won’t stand a chance.

    Thinking about about writing broadly, it’s worth going back to some of the earliest uses of it, in accounting and lawmaking. In both cases the record of what a debt was or what the law was protected the weak. I think books also protect weak ideas, allowing them to grow without being smothered. I think oral/web culture tends to make ideas better, but it needs the countervailing force of personal tracts and spaces, or it just becomes a mob. I know you’re just being provocative with the anti-books idea, but far from reinforcing the power structure, it was the book which allowed us continually critique and dismantle it.

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