Bill Long 12/5/06
What Students "Teach" Us
[Three more-detailed essays on learning in our day are here.]
I have taught undergraduate and graduate students for the better part of 25 years, even though I had a seven year "break" from 1996-2003 while doing other things. The way that students learn in our day will increasingly become the way by which information is communicated and learned in the next generation or two. What is most striking to me about student learning styles these days is two things: (1) the centrality of visual learning; and (2) the relative impatience of students when they do research. What I am saying refers to broad trends; individual exceptions, of course, apply.
This is no surprise. We can see it wherever we go. Not only are we incessantly bombarded by visual images, but video is now the principal way that people born since 1985 have of relating to the world. Great moral dilemmas are not studied through reading of Brothers Karamazov; they are probed through Hart's War or Ocean's Eleven (or, more likely, movies I have not seen!) The "movie" version of books is known, while the book itself, and its usually more intricate plot and developed characters, goes unread. Even though A River Runs Through It is a comparatively brief story by Norman Maclean, people know of it through Robert Redford's movie.
Though I have been a bookish person all my life, I actually am sympathetic to this change in many ways. Often a picture, or a movie, can bring to life certain things that are hard to replicate in print. Let me take an example from law. I have studied dozens of old property law cases. Often these were boundary-line disputes or easement cases or something of that nature. The old cases (and many new ones, too) almost never gave maps or pictures of what they were describing; convoluted verbal descriptions was all you got. It was sometimes nearly impossible to "visualize" what was before you. One picture would have been worth 1000 words, but no pictures were forthcoming.
I was struck this morning, when reading T.E. Lawrence's (better known as Lawrence of Arabia--1888-1936) Seven Pllars of Wisdom how difficult it is for me to envision what he is talking about in a description. The book has been described as follows: "Seven Pillars is an immense work, extremely dense with complicated syntax, but Lawrence clearly communicates through his prose and the book is stunningly beautiful, poignant, and at times even comic." See if you think the following description from ch. 63 (!) works better with words or, possibly, with a picture.
"In the idleness forced on him by our absence, Lewis had explored the cliff, and reported the springs very good for washing in; so, to get rid of the dust and strain after my long rides, I went straight up the gully into the face of the hill, along the ruined wall of the conduit by which a spout of water had once run down the ledges to a Nabatasan well-house on the valley floor. It was a climb of fifteen minutes to a tired person, and not difficult. At the top, the waterfall, el Shellala as the Arabs named it, was only a few yards away.
Its rushing noise came from my left, by a jutting bastion of cliff over whose crimson face trailed long falling runners of green leaves. The path skirted it in an undercut ledge. On the rock-bulge above were clear-cut Nabathaean inscriptions, and a sunk panel incised with a monogram or symbol. Around and about were Arab scratches, including tribe-marks, some of which were witnesses of forgotten migrations: but my attention was only for the splashing of water in a crevice under the shadow of the overhanging rock."
My sense is a picture would have helped us much more than the words. This is not to say that words couldn't have made the scene more gripping for me, but in this case they don't.
I am all for visual learning, if it is done in connection with some attention to classic texts. Even pictures, I believe, cannot replace the beauty of well-chosen words in these texts.
I was speaking to one of the research librarians today, a man who knows so much about methods for print and online research that. I dare say, if he doesn't know it, it might not be knowable. His judgment reflected my experience. With the advent of the Internet, the Internet now becomes the first, and often the last, place where students do research. Even though the university subscribes to 120 additional data bases (such as the OED, the Historical NY Times, etc.), his conclusion is that unless students can get what they want in one click or in the top 10 Google results, they conclude that what they seek doesn't exist. This is a caricature, but it doesn't misrepresent the true state of affairs by much.
What this means to me is our understanding of knowledge and ways to get knowledge is changing in our time. We are, more than ever, desirous of and expecting instant knowledge of the world. That is what the Internet is supposed to provide. And, for a surprisingly large number of things is life, this knowledge is all that we really need. We may want a reference, a date, a movie review, a quotation, a biography of someone. And the Internet is here to provide it. Many say that you have to assess critically what you read here, but that is no different, in my judgment, than what you have to do with referreed journal articles or edited books. For 99+% of books, no one is standing around doing "fact checks." But for those for whom life includes more than just instant or quick knowledge, for those who think that mastery of texts and internalization of the events of the past is central to their self-understanding, this kind of learning will help but will not ultimately be satisfying. Nevertheless, we are in a new era, and everyone is or will be adapting. The challenge is not to tell people to read books; it is to put better quality materials right here, one click away.