Wednesday, October 05, 2005

Fishes and Worms

A University of Munich study of 174,000 students in 31 countries indicates that students who frequently use computers perform worse academically than those who use them rarely or not at all.

Lowell Monke has some thoughts on why this is so. And on why "virtual community" is an oxymoron. And on why the computer is a far-from-ideal learning tool.

Charlotte's Web beautifully draws a child's attention to something that is increasingly rare in schools: the wonder of ordinary processes of nature, which grows mainly through direct contact with the real world. As Hannah Arendt and other observers have noted, we can only learn who we are as human beings by encountering what we are not. While it may seem an impossible task to provide all children with access to truly wild territories, even digging in (healthy) soil opens up a micro-universe that is wild, diverse, and "alien." Substituting the excitement of virtual connections for the deep fulfillment of firsthand engagement is like mistaking a map of a country for the land itself, or as biological philosopher Gregory Bateson put it, "eat[ing] the menu instead of your meal." No one prays over a menu. And I've never witnessed a child developing a reverence for nature while using a computer.

There is a profound difference between learning from the world and learning about it. Any young reader can find a surfeit of information about worms on the Internet. But the computer can only teach the student about worms, and only through abstract symbols—images and text cast on a two-dimensional screen. Contrast that with the way children come to know worms by hands-on experience—by digging in the soil, watching the worm retreat into its hole, and of course feeling it wiggle in the hand. There is the delight of discovery, the dirt under the fingernails, an initial squeamishness followed by a sense of pride at overcoming it. This is what can infuse knowledge with reverence, taking it beyond simple ingestion and manipulation of symbols.

To which I might add the observation is as true of literature as it is of natural science. I had pored over hundreds of maps and accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg, and pieced together a picture of what certain units did those three days (I was following particular groups of men, not the whole battle). But it did not come clear in my mind till I went back to the battlefields and stood where they stood and looked over the field as they saw it. My son and I tramped the route of the North Carolina brigade in Pickett's Charge, and saw for ourselves whether they ever would have dipped out of sight of the gunners on Cemetery Ridge. No map could tell you that as well.

To which I might add that this observation is as true of literature as it is of natural science. Though the Internet is less of a problem in that field. Ezra Pound reached for a natural science metaphor in "ABC of Reading" (one of the five essential books, IMHO, for someone interested in good writing):

No man is equipped for modern thinking until he has understood the anecdote of Agassiz and the fish:

A post-graduate student equipped with honours and diplomas went to Agassiz to receive the final and finishing touches. The great man offered him a small fish and told him to describe it.

Post-Graduate Student: "That's only a sunfish."

Agassiz: "I know that. Write a description of it."

After a few minutes the student returned with the description of Ichthus Heliodiplodokus, or whatever term is used to conceal the common sunfish from vulgar knowledge as found in textbooks of the subject.

Agassiz again told the student to describe the fish.

The student produced a four-page essay. Agassiz then told him to look at the fish. At the end of three weeks the fish was in an advanced state of decomposition, but the student knew something about it.