UPDATE (July 30): an almost identical version of this appears on the Britannica Blog.
The part of the Britannica Blog “Your Brain Online” debate that I am interested in is this question: does Web 2.0, or whatever you want to call it, mean the end of the Great Books or of liberal education? And is anybody really saying that it does mean that? I’ve written once before on this question, but I would like to clarify my position.
Let’s get clear on what the problem here is. The problem is not that most people are in danger of becoming “uncultured”; there never was a time or a place in which most people were particularly cultured, i.e., thoroughly familiar with the history, literature, science, religion, and so forth that defines a culture. The problem — if we can believe what some Web 2.0 revolutionaries say — is that those who are cultured are doomed to become uncultured, by the inevitable influence of the Internet on our minds, at least by the standards of liberal education. And our children will never be cultured again, not by the standards of liberal education. Rather, they will be acculturated by the Internet. It seems that Clay Shirky, just for example, believes that the only things of cultural importance in the future will take place in “the crowd” online, a “group mind” or a “collective intelligence” — even if the crowd looks in the future a lot different from how it looks in 2008. Of course, I could easily be misunderstanding Clay, and so I want to make this point very generally, and not as an attack on Clay. My concern is that, if we are on a vector toward the radical collectivization of knowledge in this way, the products of the best individual minds of the past will become less and less valued by anybody. Yet they plainly do have considerable value, on virtually any educated person’s view now. If we did not think so, we would not buy the books of the people who have posted on the Britannica Blog, for instance: no individual mind would be worth spending so much time on.
If you are not convinced by the example of Tolstoy, think of various dense, system-building philosophers. If anyone were to say — and I dare not accuse anyone of actually saying this, as that truly would be damning — that such thinkers are no longer relevant, because they weren’t part of anything like a Blogosphere, that would be to declare your own personal intellectual bankruptcy, your utter failure to benefit from a liberal education. Let’s be serious, here. If you actually think the Internet’s “group mind” somehow renders passé all the difficult, great books, which shaped our civilizations — if that is what you really want to do — then you certainly are not, not in any way, “on the cutting edge.” I don’t concede that one inch. If you say such a thing, then it seems to me you have merely given us embarrassing evidence that you not really fit to be reasoned with.
But I very much doubt that such philistinism — and that might be too good a word for it, because what it is, is just crude, unserious, uneducated, or silly nonsense — is actually the direction we are travelling in. There are far too many people who still actually appreciate all those old books, and the value of the liberal education that only they can impart. Moreover, if we are travelling toward such widespread philistinism, I have not seen the case made convincingly that we are. Merely to point to the power of the Wikipedia model, or the sheer amount of information in the Blogosphere and all the rest of the Internet, does not even come close to making the case. Pointing out that some of us as it were compulsively check for e-mail and other short Internet communications, and have little time or concentration for long reading, also does not prove that we are, all of us, doomed to become philistines.
Do I really need to point out the virtues of liberal education and how they apply in the present case? Sadly, perhaps I do. “How soon we forget.” Liberal education is so called because it liberates the mind from a million prejudices, replacing them with knowledge of history, science, and culture, and above all making it possible to think through new problems. (For those who are not familiar with the phrase, “liberal education” refers to “the liberal arts,” not to a position on the political spectrum.) So far from being irrelevant, nothing could be more useful in the proper evaluation and appreciation of newfangled stuff like Web 2.0 than a liberal education. Is it any wonder that the principals in the debate are all, quite obviously, possessed of a liberal education and so familiar with great artists and thinkers like Tolstoy, Nietzsche, and Proust?
My concern is not “nostalgic,” of course — why would it be? To say so assumes, first of all, that the Great Books (not just Tolstoy of course) are in fact passé, that we have somehow “moved on” from them. But nobody has established that, not in the slightest way. More importantly, nobody in the Britannica debate ever clarified in what sense the Internet poses any sort of threat to how we value the Great Books — other than that we might have to rouse ourselves a little if we want to read them. It has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with nostalgia or with silly romanticization of a novel-gobbling past. It has to do with a proper valuation of human minds and of what they have produced, both individually and in the aggregate, from around the world and from the dawn of recorded history until the present. If someone really did want to dismiss the power and interest of individual human minds and what they are capable of producing as somehow passé, he would thereby do away with all those great books, and the strange, ever-conflicted, varied culture that resulted from them, and I suppose replace them with the Borg. You will be assimilated; resistance is futile. Right? It’s techno-socially determined. You can’t do anything about it.
Does anybody in this debate really believe that Web 2.0 spells the end of the great books and of liberal education, and its entire replacement by the productions of undifferentiated “crowds”?
Surely nobody really believes that, or even anything like it. I do wonder, of course, what the perceived merits of the Great Books and liberal education will be, once we have gone through the massive societal transformation that, I fully agree, the Internet is bringing us. I would like to point out that if we do give up the foundations of Western civilization, indeed the written records of all civilizations, and if we give up even any pretention to having to become acquainted with those records, we give up a very great deal.
The prospect is nothing short of horrifying. It would be quite literally the death of civilization as we have known it. That means all the good parts as well as the bad. It essentially would herald not a bright new world, cleaned of bad old influences, but very probably a new dark age. After all, those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.
As an aside, I should also state (apparently, it’s necessary) that I am not opposed to Web 2.0. If you know me, you’ll realize this is just silly. I just have a different idea about what direction we should take, that’s all. (For some clues, see 1, 2, 3, 4.) I am much more optimistic about the prospects of the Internet and what it means for human civilization. I think it will enhance liberal education as never before, and more likely to usher in a new enlightenment than to cause the death of civilization.