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My earlier post on the internet and knowledge focused primarily on the interface between technology and human understanding. In this post, I would like to address the larger question, that is, what to do about America’s “knowledge deficit.”

Most of us have, at one point or another, heard alarming statistics about the precipitous decline in the the average American’s knowledge on a variety of topics.

For instance, one in four Americans, according to the National Constitution Center, cannot name any First Amendment right, and 62 percent cannot name the three branches of government.

Before we can discuss solutions to this problem, we must first understand the root cause(s). For some, Google is the chief culprit. The idea here is that, despite the fact that technology has made our lives easier and given us greater access to knowledge, it provides a sort of “safety net” (personally, I like to refer to Google as an “external hard drive for my brain”) that allows Americans to be less informed, or at least less able to recall large amounts of information. For the reasons given in my earlier post, I think this view is largely incorrect. Instead, I think there are two stronger contributing factors, each occupying very different ends of the cultural spectrum.

First, I would argue that the “softening” of educational standards is quite obviously a strong contributing factor. By this I mean that certain educational reforms, such as deemphasizing rote memorization while emphasizing “self expression” have, quite obviously, resulted in a populace with a reduced ability to recall particular facts. (One of my favorite examples is the virtual nonexistence of sentence diagramming in public school curricula, but maybe this is just because I still carry resentment for all the sentences I diagrammed at a young age.) Ironically, in the quest to do away with “winners and losers,” America’s public schools are seemingly creating more losers.

Second, I would argue that current populist sentiments are making knowledge and intelligence less desirable. Susan Jacoby, in a recent piece for the New York Times, argues precisely this, tracing the origins of anti-intellectualism throughout history. This populist distrust of “elites” manifested itself in the recent Democratic primary, with Hillary Clinton downing shots of whiskey and discussing firearms and Barack Obama bowling a lousy 37 and lamenting the price of arugula. Clinton, trading on this fear of elitism, picked up a number of victories in big states.

I find it interesting that my first complaint is one typically raised by conservatives, while the second is mainly in the purview of liberals. I see the two as being intimately interconnected. That is, in order to erase this populist impulse that exalts simplicity over expertise and in order to address the true vexed question of our “knowledge deficit,” we need to establish some more rigorous standards in public education.

Why haven’t we done this? For their part, conservatives embrace tougher standards (perhaps even just for the sake of being “tough”), but they stop short when they feel themselves becoming too much like the “limousine liberals” they detest. And while it is liberal empathy for the underdog that keeps “softened” educational standards in place, perhaps the more telling fact is that many well-educated liberals have their children enrolled in private schools and have no qualms hiring rigorous French tutors for their six-year-olds. Now that is the kind of elitism that worries this arugula-eating mediocre bowler.

Daniel Corbett


I think it is appropriate to respond to Dan’s post not by my own response post but rather referring to an article that has been found by a Google search. I came across the article linked below weeks ago and thought it extremely interesting. The wonderful thing about the Internet is that knowledge (and opinion) is so accessible. One of the more important skills as a lawyer is to find information, not know it. It’s how to find things that is important. Similarly, today’s generation is expert in finding information. I can do a Google search and know about things in 45 minutes which would have taken other generations a lifetime to learn. It’s remarkable. The “public sphere” (do a little Google search for Habermas, it could be fun) is larger and more sophisticated than ever before.

So here’s my response:

– Timothy DeHaut

Is Google making us stupid?

That’s the question Nicholas Carr poses to his readers in the Atlantic Monthly. Carr begins by noticing a frightening tendency among himself and his colleagues– the inability to digest the written word in substantial volumes. The internet makes it easier for readers to move seamlessly through different sources, skimming the information they want and discarding the rest.

Carr writes:

“When the Net absorbs a medium, that medium is re-created in the Net’s image. It injects the medium’s content with hyperlinks, blinking ads, and other digital gewgaws, and it surrounds the content with the content of all the other media it has absorbed. A new e-mail message, for instance, may announce its arrival as we’re glancing over the latest headlines at a newspaper’s site. The result is to scatter our attention and diffuse our concentration.”

Not only has the internet altered old media, but the inverse is true as well. In support of this claim, Carr cites the example of New York Times‘ recent editorial move to including in its print edition “article abstracts” which allow readers to get a quick “taste” of the day’s news.

There is, however, no good reason to assume that technology, namely the internet, is the sole impetus beyond the New York Times‘ decision. Indeed, the Wall Street Journal began giving its readers a quick “taste” of the news through its front page staple, the “What’s News” column back when the internet was still a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye, during the tenure of Bernard Kilgore, which lasted from 1941 to 1967.

There are perhaps better ways of explaining the prevalence of “news snippets” such as these. First, human beings are curious by nature and have a desire to accumulate more knowledge, particularly knowledge of current events. Second, as the economy changes, people have more hectic schedules and are thus more inclined to prefer to get their news in the form of brief summaries.

I would be foolish to deny that Google and other internet companies have contributed to our collective short attention span. However, this is not where Carr’s critique ends. Rather, Carr goes on to paint Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, as being behind some sort of sinister plan to replace human minds with robots.

Yes, robots.

This is where Carr’s argument becomes stilted. Carr rattles off a variety of different quotations such as this one from Brin’s 2004 interview with Newsweek: “[c]ertainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off.”

Maybe it’s a matter of opinion, but I read Brin’s comment as indicating merely that it would be advantageous to have all of the word’s information readily accessible through one’s own mind (or at least to have a “smarter” artificial brain). To me, this is an uncontroversial assertion. (Of course it would be great to know everything there is to know!) Carr’s reading, however, is that Brin’s comment demonstrates some sort of ugly antihuman animus, waiting to play itself out when Google takes over the world.

At root, this difference in interpretation comes down to a difference in how one views intelligence. Those, myself included (at least in large part), in Google’s camp take a pragmatic view, favoring efficiency and greater access to information. Carr, for his part, rests on the notion that intelligence must contain something more than this.

Carr goes on to argue that, in a society increasingly connected to the internet, there is a risk that we will lose the ability to reflect and deliberate in the same way we have in an age dominated by print media. Carr writes:”If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.” Perhaps this debate comes down to a question of balancing the trade-offs.

Finally, it’s interesting to note that Carr at least recognizes the theoretical blind spot in his argument– namely that any argument against technological growth and for the status quo can easily be proved foolish in hindsight. Carr references Plato’s Phaedrus, in which Socrates bemoans the development of the written word. In his article, Carr more or less advances a line of argument which is actually quite similar to the one advanced by Socrates. Carr’s argument hangs on a notion of “true” intelligence and the value of tradition. The question, then, is whether Carr can convince his readers that this somehow a unique case.

I’m not convinced. Not when I can already see the enormous benefits of the internet’s rapid, voluminous nature. Intellectual pursuits are aided as researchers can collect information more efficiently than ever before, and people in all corners of the world are now able to access information and ideas that might would have certainly been unavailable 20 years ago.

Any thoughts? Anything I missed?

Daniel Corbett

June 2008
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