The Web will be the end of Critical Thinking
It is fairly common, particularly among informal groups of educators, to hear someone excoriate the Web, Social Media, and Information Technology in general. “Our kids don’t think anymore, they just click.” The argument is that Social Media and text messaging are eroding, if not destroying, the ability of young people to write coherent sentences. In “my day” if you wanted to learn something, you had to pick up a book, roll up your sleeves, and concentrate. Nowadays, you just Google it or, if you go in for heavy intellectual lifting, you can take five minutes and read about it in Wikipedia.
[When I started UC Berkeley, an undergraduate had to have a dedication and commitment to learning. In order to access “information,” it was necessary to enter the “temple of knowledge” (the Library), go to the massive ranks of card catalogues, and start thumbing. When three likely sources were found, cards would be filled out and handed to the keeper of the books. Elves would scurry through the stacks retrieving the requested tomes. As it happened, usually only one of the three would be of any use and the process began again. –Today, I can find more information in five minutes than I could in a week in 1967.]
What does this all have to do with Plato? Two-and-a-half millennia ago, Plato also lived in a time of changing technologies. Plato was literate, just as most educators use email, Google, and to a certain extent, social media. Like other educators, Plato was generally conservative though, and skeptical of change. One of these changes was the rapid spread of written language. Plato felt that writing would, in essence, destroy critical thinking by making people’s minds lazy. Why remember when all you have to do is open a scroll?
Does any of this sound familiar? This is what Plato said about the loss of essential skills resulting from the adoption of new technologies:
“[Writing] will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have came to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with, since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.” (Phaedrus 275a-b)
Plato was also prescient about content-filtering. There are some things and ideas that should not be shared indiscriminately.
“You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same hing forever. When it has once been written down, every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not. And when it is faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father’s support; alone, it can neither defend itself nor come to its own support.” (Phaedrus 275d-e)
There are some ideas that not just anyone should be able to access.
Change is dangerous. It threatens to sweep away things that we have always believed. It frightens us because we feel that we don’t understand it and can’t control it. Funny thing is: it’s always happened and we’ve always managed to use changing ideas and changing ways of doing things to our advantage.
You could go to the Library and see if they can find a copy or…
you can read the full text of Phaedrus here. You can even download an audio version for your iPod/iPhone/iPad.