Education is not information

The other day I heard a children’s book writer (who will not be named) say on the CBC that she writes books because children need to learn to read so that they can read things on the web. Lord love a duck, this kind of thing is starting to get me down! In keeping with my new personal mission, The Defense of the Book, I’m reproducing here a letter to Canada’s national rag, The Globe and Mail, by my friend Leah Bradshaw.

“Roy MacGregor says that he is with Bill Gates when he says that ‘we have to get information into people’s hands as cheaply as possible.’ Why buy books when you can go on-line and download? Maybe because universities are places where people go to learn, not just to cipher information. Maybe sitting down to read a book from beginning to end gives students something that they cannot get from technological interface. A student complained to me recently that professors in some courses give on-line references instead of recommending books. She looks at her university education partly as an opportunity to build a library that will sustain her through the rest of her life. There are some books worth reading, worth buying, and worth keeping.”


14 thoughts on “Education is not information

  1. In what way are books not just containers? If books are better than electronic files, then they must also be better or worse than the media that preceded them (scrolls and tablets, primarily).

    I do, in fact, believe that books have distinct advantages over scrolls, tablets, and electronic files, but all of those advantages stem from their ability to function as containers, whereas you seem to think of books in some other — dare I say “mystical”? — way.

    Do tell.

  2. The professor is recommending the best of all available sources, not just the best books. That’s good. There are disciplines where books are the important sources, but there are others where books are out of date and it’s articles (even preprints) that are the key sources.

    “A library that will sustain her through the rest of her life” isn’t the same kind of library as her parents or grandparents had. It’s a mix of books, articles, web sites, audio, video, etc., some that can be held in her hands, some that are online. New tools are appearing that will help us manage them.

    To the previous commenter: agreed, books (originally codices) are certainly preferable to scrolls, which is why they replaced them in the first five centuries AD. They are very good containers, for some kinds of content, but not all (for example, a human genome). But they are also sacred things. They’re books!

  3. I’m thinking, Meg, that different containers are good for containing different things. The book, as container, is like a big barrel of wine that one can crawl right inside. The wine might be crappy or it might be excellent, but either way the fumes are going to affect the way one sees the world. Digital media aren’t inviting like this. They push one out, asking for brevity and demanding clarity, and where the question does not permit of clarity they tend to impose a false one. Think of Wikipedia. There are disagreements there, oh yes, but no one has a chance to build up a sustained argument. What is encouraged instead is surfing from item to item, acquiring a lot of bits but no framework into which to put them.

    I’m not really down on sites like JSTOR. I do want to save trees. But I don’t think the attention people give to things they read off the screen is the same as the attention they give to books they can hold in their hands, scribble in, and throw across the room. And I also think that sites like JSTOR play into the wider problem of technocracy, making narrative into loci of information to be culled. The web, NOT the traditional library, is a “big box where information can be retrieved.”

    One main question here is sustained length. Books have a beginning, middle, and end, and reading them teaches people to pattern and understand their lives. JSTOR articles also have this feature, if anyone reads them from s to f. But does anyone?

    I don’t have much of a problem with your use of the term “mystical,” or Bill’s use of the term “sacred.” People use terms like this to debunk: if it’s mystical it can’t be rational. But I don’t see mysticism this way. Jewish mysticism, anyway, is a fairly rigourous discipline, based in experienced phenomena (many of them political) and rational speculation.

    Finally, Bill, while I defer to you on media appropriate for the sciences, the argument Leah’s making, I think, suggests that some of the scientific media are now being presented to students in the humanities and social sciences where they are less appropriate, if at all. Maybe you’re right and the book can live in harmony with all this other stuff, but do you not see books being moved out of libraries into storage bins (or disposal units) to make way for more computer terminals, and does this not distress? It’s happening even at Pomona.

  4. I guess your friends are too polite to mention the performative self-contradiction of blogging your complaint? If you just kept a diary, you’d have more time to read us books — and to work on the Andy stories.

  5. Profs don’t (I hope) assign books or articles or movies to their students based on their favourite media, but where the best resources are for their courses. If one medium is better than another, it’s only in the context of the discipline, the course, the level of the students, etc. Without knowing the details of the readings I can’t comment more.

    If this prof was giving links to online articles (which is my guess) then they are probably PDFs of journal articles. He or she would have given the print citation and the online link. The journals are probably incredibly expensive, far out of the range of any student’s budget. They probably strain the university’s budget. To save space and money, the university may try to only get them only online.

    That’s part of the “serials crisis,” which is a big problem these days. Too big for this comment. Services like JSTOR, though, are an enormous help. For example, they have the entire run of the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, back to the mid-1600s, digitized and online. That’s an astounding resource, now easily available to universities and others all over. Try buying a print copy of that.

    Taking books off the shelf and putting them in storage is a sad thing. Given a limited budget, no support for a multi-million dollar new building, and, say, 50,000 new books coming in every year, librarians are in a tough spot. What do users, mostly students, want? Places to work and computers to use. Something’s got to give.

    One way to ease the problem is with better online catalogues, so that people can easily browse the entire collection over the web. That will add lots of useful services (recommendations, links to online full text, comments, hyperlinked bibliographies and citations, etc.) but it will also take away the pleasures of serendipitous discovery and the physical sensations of books. The only way around that is money. Or for people to produce less new knowledge.

  6. I love JSTOR etc. For my own research as well as for my teaching, the access I get to serials in all the fields of interest to me is as slick as I could possibly imagine.

    It’s just so easy to avoid dealing with staff at the bookstore, and so sully my students’ access to the written word with the interjection of commerce, download pdf versions of articles, written by actual scholars, instead of professional textbook authors, dump them into my webpages for my classes (not WebCT), so that, whether or not I can personally lead the horses to drink, I invited them to take a good look at real deal.

    That, I reckon, is real fair dealing.

  7. Well yes, Bill, all very reasonable. Maybe the prof could have printed a course-packet, but I guess that’s not what the student in question wants in her home library, and if she does she can always make her own. I’ll skirt the idea of “less new knowledge” (new knowledge is fraught issue) by saying that I’d be thrilled if there were fewer new academic books, and I’m doing my bit in this direction, but I’ve posted on that before.

    The bigger issue isn’t whether JSTOR etc. are okay, but whether the book itself is threatened. I think it is. The rhetoric is all behind technology these days, and I’d say that the money follows but of course the money leads.

    Jack, that’s sweet, but this is it honey.

    Andy darling, I’ll make you a deal. You shut up about my hypocrisy, and I’ll draw up an episode of “The Andy Show Starring Andy” some time this week. Only do you mind if I blog it?

  8. Sure, but why romanticize the book. Why sell the book? In the course of educating undergrads, you drive them to extend that feeling to lots of other books that will never be lived with. hmmmm, what to do with all this Joseph Campbell? what to do with all these copies of my own book?

  9. Listening to a version “How the Whale got His Throat” which I downloaded through some P2P site I know not which and I know not when, I’m inclined to add, I do indulge in books as things of physical beauty, for, my Folio edition of the Just so Stories/The Jungle Book is something I prize.

    I don’t think I ever got all of the Jack Nicholson. Sometimes you just settle for less.

  10. I suppose the broader debate is one regarding how we know. Do we have intimations of things that we try to render into communicable form (Plato) or is the communicative mode itself constitutive of knowing (Rousseau, ordinary language philosophy). If knowing is a kind of “mimesis”, then we can enter into a discussion of what the best tools are for allowing us to recall what we have always known. Books, really good books, in my experience can help us with this process of learning. It takes patience, attention and effort to sustain through a whole, difficult book. And attention, as Iris Murdoch said is a form of prayer. A student can be moved by a book. I have yet to have a student who is moved by a collection of web readings.

    How about this from George Grant (Canadian philosopher). “If you can’t love it, it isn’t real?”

  11. Oona, I require a bit more clarity as to what your major issue with digital media is. Is it that digital media aren’t inviting or that courses structured digitally do not have the same inherent sense of clarity that comes along with courses structured around a book?

    To me, the issue is not Book versus Digital Media. It’s Book versus Text disembodied from its original form. Digital media almost never stays digital by the reader. Most students print them out to read them. Articles can be handed out by the professor as well. All of these articles can be put into a three ring binder. That creates a “course reader” of a less-expensive variety. The issue with digital media cannot simply be a soft-copy versus hard-copy difference because regardless of how they are accessed, they still create a course reader that, whether digital or paper, ends up as “a box where information is stored.”

    A course reader is nothing more than a collection of articles that all fit the subject theme of a professor’s class. It does not have a beginning, middle, or end. Accomplishment is finishing the article rather than digesting the information. Bottom line: they are all different ways of organzing texts that the professor feels will suffice as the material from a particular book or journal. It all eventually ends up on paper, same as books, and is throwable when the writer says something stupid or offensive.

    Books having a beginning, middle, and end. There’s a sense of satisfaction upon completion. However, that sense is completely lost when professors have students purchase books and read excerpts or passages. For example, in your mysticism/philosophy classes, I believe the only book we were expected to read cover to cover was Buber. Even then, I’m not sure if we didn’t do a little bit of skipping around. Everything else: Rosenzweig, Mendelssohn, Spinoza? Specific passages of their philosophies. Idel and Scholem? Same thing. In MJE, we read more books cover to cover, but I still have a three ring binder of articles that I picked up from outside your office.

    In fact, I had four classes in Claremont that exclusively assigned books which were always read from cover to cover: American Religious History with Yoo. American Jewish Experience with Barron. Researching the Holocaust with Petropolous. US, Israel, and the Arabs with Haley. I will admit, every week, accomplishing the readings for those four classes felt like winning the lottery much more so than any handout–digital or paper–can do. I do not have any handouts/side articles for those classes. Did that mean that the materials from my other 35 classes–particularly, the work I did with you, Althea, and Gary were not of intellectual importance? Absolutely not. But all of those texts could have been provided to me digitally and the class experience would have been exactly the same.

    Side Note: You ask if people read the beginning, middle, and end of JSTOR material? I always did when it was assigned. But I also always read the beginning, middle, and end of assigned books as well (even if not always by the due date). Many of my classmates did not. They read “every other page” of the book because “it was too long” or they were running out of time to read.

    Sorry, it got a bit long. I was thinking about this recently as I have been trying to consolidate my library of physical articles in three ring binders from college.

  12. I have *definitely* had students moved by web readings, over and over again. Moved to tears, even (as I have been, myself).

    We’re taught to fetishize books, but by the end of my life I hope to have shrugged off most of the lessons. I have burned a book — a gedankexperiment — and I do my best to scrutinize my dealings with the book form. Of course I treasure books, but as containers — the way that I treasured the glass jar that held my white truffle. Books do a good job of containing certain types of discourse, and as such encourage that discourse, but they suck at containing and promoting other types, types that I value highly.

    So sayeth the paleographer/codicologist.

  13. I have been moved to tears by articles, and some of these have been printed from the web. I have stacks of aritlces in my office, and I value them both as articles and as stacks. I also enjoy blogs. I have rarely enjoyed a codex, but I imagine I could. Yes, we have to be open and, yes, we have to assign articles to our students without always making them buy textbooks and, yes, it is good to slough off possessions and, certainly, it is good to save trees.

    My argument is that even the ‘good’ manifestations of digital media — the ones that seem most to allow and encourage the sustained attention that fosters contemplation and the philosophical life — are a slippery slope. Economically and culturally, we are more and more living in a world of information, or data-bites, a world in which there are only facts and opinions. Facts and opinions are the categories into which we divide knowledge: there is no depth, and no sense of a shared search for truth fostered in dialogue. Digital media has a great deal to do with this understanding, maybe everything.

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