Last year, the National Bureau of Economic Research surveyed the effects of computers on education. It found that “internet courses are less effective than in-person instruction,” and that “taken as a whole, the literature examining the effect of [internet communications technology] investment is characterized by findings of little or no positive effect on most academic outcomes.” Even having a home computer is given the ambiguous status of being “unlikely to greatly improve educational outcomes [and] unlikely to negatively affect outcomes.” The only areas that seem to buck this “insignificant relationship between academic achievement and the availability of school computers” are developing countries. This is explained not by the benefits of computers, but by the inadequacies of those education systems — a computer is only good when the school is worse.
The authors of the paper seem surprised by their own results. They give several explanations for the failure of the computer: The screen may “displace other more effective instructional and learning methods.” It may “distract schoolchildren.” Sure, but there is a more fundamental problem: The computer is anti-educative.
Cardinal John Henry Newman laid out his principles for education in his book The Idea of a University. He argued that to educate is to perfect the intellect. This perfection is not achieved by some blithe, bottle-cap collection of knowledge. It is “making the objects of our knowledge subjectively our own, or, to use a familiar word, it is a digestion of what we receive, into the substance of our previous state of thought.”
Computers are anti-educative in this first sense: They train us away from “digestion.” We do not need to incorporate Newton’s laws, the meaning of our bodily pains, or the process of photosynthesis into a living body of knowledge. We can “look them up” when the need to appear educated arises. We do not need to understand a map’s legend when we can ask Google for directions, or learn a language when we’ll soon speak through Google Translate, or make any objects of knowledge “our own” when the process of typing a query into a search bar already rivals the speed of furrowing our brow and dredging some date, fact, or formula from the recesses of memory. The computer tends us away from the subjective internalization of knowledge by encouraging us to rent out a pocket mind from the tycoons of Silicon Valley.
The Aesthetics of Book Learning
Newman goes on to argue that there is no education “unless there be a comparison of ideas one with another, as they come before the mind, and a systematizing of them.” This is the second great failure of computer education: It tends us away from the creative recognition of a “whole” into which all our various knowledge parts fit.
The easiest way to see this is to make a comparison to a traditional method of education that the computer replaces: the book. Newman says that “we feel our minds to be growing and expanding then, when we not only learn, but refer what we learn to what we know already.” The book, in its physicality, refers “what we learn” to “what we know already.” We feel the weight of “what we know already” in our left hand; we add new knowledge to its mass with our right.
We feel Newman’s description of education in our fingers — “the locomotion, the movement onwards, of [a] mental centre, to which both what we know, and what we are learning, the accumulating mass of our acquirements, gravitates.” We “move onwards” through the book — from cover to cover. We touch “the accumulating mass of our acquirements” — in the pages read and along the worn spines that grace our bookshelf.
Books and pages contain within themselves the history of our “digestion.” Their persistent presence in our rooms; their underlining, marginal notes, and dog-ears; their visible status as “read,” “not yet read,” and “half-finished”; these all conspire to transform mere means of education into mile markers on the map of our individual, educational “locomotion.” Our bodily engagement with texts characterizes the works with our personal stamp, relating this or that piece of knowledge to our unique, individual pursuit of truth.
Book reading is a sensory experience of Newman’s practical point: The facts and arguments of the present page have a history and whole into which they fit. This radical physicality symbolizes and supports the process of true education that Newman describes — “which takes a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near, and which has an insight into the influence of all these one on another; without which there is no whole, and no centre.”
The screen offers us a contrary aesthetic experience. To click “forward” from one “page” to another does not leave any physical symbol and reminder of past knowledge, past pages. Screened information simply stands out — without history and without context, in what Wendell Berry called “the industrial present, a present absolute.”
Screened text does not remain as a mile marker of our educational adventure. It vanishes once we are finished with it, offering neither symbol nor reminder of its place within the whole of our studies, refusing to trouble us by appearing in our house and throughout our day as something “half-read,” “unread” — or not fully understood.
Unlike the page, screened text never becomes a symbol of our “digestion,” for the simple reason that it never belongs to us. It is always owned by another, always “held out for viewing” by a combination of powers — data lords, electricity providers, software engineers, hardware manufacturers and all the rest. We rent our digital texts from the wealthy — and so our texts are not individualized by our reading them. They sink back into perfect nonentity. We leave no marks on their pristine presentation. We are not brushed by the sense that this or that text now belongs to the greater whole of our unique, individual, intellectual pursuit.
The screen does not offer its objects of knowledge interwoven by “their mutual and true relations.” If a book manifests the present page in relation to the whole book, the screen manifests the present “page” as if it has risen up from a well of infinite relations. This essay or that definition could, with a click, become something utterly other— a cat video, a Facebook page, hardcore pornography, some other thinker, some better topic. This is the experience of the average college student busy at her computer: distraction, from distrahere — “to draw in different directions.” Every momentarily screened object of knowledge could be something, anything else.
In short, the aesthetic experience of the screen is not one that serves the process of education according to Newman, in which new objects of knowledge are digested into one, living body of past knowledge according to some definite, individual pursuit of truth. Screened presentation serves the educational norm of fact collection — in which we gather new information as it pops up and munch at this or that object of knowledge because it happens to interest. It serves a mode of learning without intention, without discipline, and, most important, without the building up of a whole body of knowledge, bound closely by a warm understanding of the interrelation of its parts. What Newman said of the popular, TED Talk–esque education of his day can be generally applied to our own:
It has been the error of distracting and enfeebling the mind by an unmeaning profusion of subjects; of implying that a smattering in a dozen branches of study is not shallowness, which it really is, but enlargement, which it is not…All things now are to be learned at once, not first one thing, then another, not one well, but many badly. Learning is to be without exertion, without attention, without toil; without grounding, without advance, without finishing. There is to be nothing individual in it; and this, forsooth, is the wonder of the age. What the steam engine does with matter, the printing press is to do with mind; it is to act mechanically, and the population is to be passively, almost unconsciously enlightened, by the mere multiplication and dissemination of volumes.
The horror with which we recently learned that the average internet user cannot distinguish the “real” from the “fake” comes too little and too late. The screen’s mode of presentation never did aid us in the pursuit of truth. This is not to say that a student cannot overcome the aesthetic influence of the screen — it simply takes an effort, and if the statistics on the effects of computer are true, it is an effort few are willing to make.