There is widespread concern, particularly amongst significant portions of the Generation X population with children, that video games, virtual reality, and the information overload, dowloaded so efficiently by the information super highway of the World Wide Web, has made the general society more… well… stupid.
To be sure, the Industrial Revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries produced technologies and practices which thoroughly revolutionized the economies and living standards of the Western World. The inventions and mechanized advances born during that era (particularly in 19th century England) sprang from a highly literate culture, one in which even the common man on the street was able to express himself with a literary and philosophical erudition not as often seen today. One reader, in comparing the old and the new, described how the previous era allowed for expression through art, allowed for a mind’s greater capacity for memory and tasks, while today, we are encouraged to design only through a digital medium and are dependent on our iPhones to remind us of everything.
I agree with that premise. It is certain that the minds of the previous era were far richer in literature, the fine arts, philosophy and the like. Even the study of the hard sciences of that day took on a classical, humanistic, holistic bent. Any such person who was an educational product of that era was called a “humanis literatae” (a ‘man of letters’, also called a ‘belletrist); incidentally, one may wish to read John Gross’s, “The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters: English Literary Life Since 1800” for a pleasantly enlightening discussion of the same. (An intriguing counter-point to the triumph of the Classical model, albeit in true pop-culture analysis style, may be found in, Steven Johnson’s, “Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter”.)
Many such “men and women of letters”, are extant and available today- Stanley Fish, William Safire, and William Deadwyler come instantly to mind. Classical education is not entirely dead, though it has taken a far-back seat to contemporary technology’s priority usage.
Here is a list of thoughts and queries I’ve compiled for discussion amongst my students:
- Is it not the application of knowledge that is truly at issue? Is not the methodology and end-purpose, by which and for which one employs information the ultimate determinant? If the final result is that we have progressed as a people, does it matter from where the process was sourced? (This, of course, begs the idea of what may be truly defined as “progress”).
- If the classical minds of the previous era were exposed to the technology of today, would they have the intellectual capability, the finesse, the presence of mind, and a developed enough combination of highly efficient physical and mental dexterity necessary to keep up?
- Does the fact that the classical brain is neuroplasticized by literature and the arts make it an altogether “better” brain than the modern brain, the majority of whose synaptic connections are formed by reading online as opposed to on paper, by watching an educational program shot in HD resolution rather than observing directly in nature, by sharpening the reflexes and problem-solving skills by navigating through the complex world of today’s video games rather than working through a physical puzzle or labyrinth?
- Is there a problem with the fact that knowledge gleaned from what was once “real world” experience is now knowledge gleaned from a “virtual world”? Does this “dehumanize”, or perhaps even “roboticize” the learner? Are we really at risk of building a nation of Borg?
- For many, brain usage is a matter of intellectual preference, that is, some will naturally move toward the classical model and others toward the technological model. Is it just, or even useful, to attempt to predispose a person towards one or the other?
- Can a classically trained mind be an asset to the technologically trained mind? Does the reverse hold true? Which of the two is more “adaptable”?
- Is one type of brain better equipped to deal with the modern world, or, is there truly a place for everyone?
- Does the argument for one “type” of brain’s superiority over another risk intellectual homogeneity? Is it possible to cripple the diversity of ideas?