Nicholas Carr’s “What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”

Tags

, , ,

The fact that this book has been a NYT bestseller and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize is a reassuring ray of hope in what has for years seemed to be a unassailable tech-enthusiastic culture.  Carr backed up his basic thesis – that we are abrogating our capacity for deep and meditative thought as a result of our regular internet use, with studies, stories, research and reason.  It was a thesis that throughout resonated with my experiences and which seemed to accurately characterize the culture surrounding us.  I also found his remedy to be both realistic and achievable: to whit, control internet use and spend some time immersed in reading the old-fashioned way – with a book.

It is that balance that I believe we can achieve, and which we could embrace as a society if we were to place the enthusiastic emphasis on the need for reading as wholeheartedly as we embrace the need to put a computer in every classroom.  In our rush to computerize the education system we may well be handing our children the keys to their intellectual destruction – moderation in all things.  If you have not read this book, and are computer-savvy enough to be reading this blog, I’d recommend you take the time to read through it.  I think you’ll find it well worth your time.

Purpose

It must be acknowledged in the beginning that this blog is an assignment, and its continued existence beyond the bounds of this graduate school class on the role of technology in the study of history is contingent on my opinion of the role and value of blogs being profoundly altered by this course.

To start, an attempted answer to a question: why am I studying history, (short answer: to be a history professor, which then begs the question): why do I want to be a history professor?  I have always enjoyed history, as it seems do most other people I meet, but that infatuation is not enough to warrant or justify the tedium, hard work, and questionable financial return of this profession.  There are many history enthusiasts, and quite a few with deep knowledge regarding periods of particular interest, but the role of a history professor must go beyond depth of knowledge in two fundamental regards:

1) He (or she, throughout this blog) must critically analyze previously derived conclusions and test those ideas in ways that are intellectually rigorous.

2) He must be able to teach well.

These two facets are what separate professional historians from the most well-read enthusiast.  The first of these professional obligations requires the historian to act in much the same role as the scientist, only the boundaries of his field’s intellectual parameters are not so well defined.  A historian performs research, comes to an idea that seems wrong, or a question that sits unanswered, forms a hypothesis which helps frame the research which serves to provide the raw data from which he will extract a conclusion.  That conclusion is set before his peers, or in the internet’s case, in front of anyone interested enough to read it, and its fate is determined by the scrutiny of those that pay it heed.

The second of these professional roles is drastically different and requires a wholly different skillset.  Teaching requires a degree of comfort with people and both the inclination and ability to clearly communicate both information and concepts.  Teaching is a major component of the history professor’s ‘usefulness’ – the way that he passes on the information gleaned in his own or others’ research on to others.

The connection between these two abilities, and their merging in a single profession, is perhaps not intuitive.  To use a sports metaphor, it is a rare and treasured individual who can perform as an accomplished athlete and serve as a valued coach.  Having been a professional kung-fu teacher, I can attest to the rare conjunction of personal skill and teaching ability; many kung-fu teachers are one or the other, only the greatest are both.  Despite that, it is exactly that combination that is expected in a college professor of history.

This diatribe is soon coming to a point dear reader, I assure you.  The original question that was set before me was, after all, not what characterizes a history professor, but why I am studying history.

I believe in the basic continuity of mankind.  I believe that while values, expectations, norms and goals have shifted over time and place, there are veins of continuity that can be found across those divisions.  Understanding what those contiguous realities are, and what or when they are not, is fascinating.  Less loftily, I enjoy understanding how people overcame physical, political, or ethical challenges in other times.  I also have an undeniably emotional love of the past – it is what I most fear losing in this intellectual pursuit and a thing I am determined to hold tightly too.  That love is a driving force, and as long as I do not allow it to cloud my attempts at understanding it will be a positive force.

As it ties into the characteristics of a history professor, I like digging for the truth.  I studied wildlife biology for two years long ago, and had seriously considered a career in that science.  Though I have left that behind, the basic appreciation for the power of deduction and analysis to solve problems and clarify obfuscated truth still appeals to me.  During my undergraduate studies I experienced the thrill of correcting a tiny piece of our understanding of history, and knowing that in however small a way I was correcting, rewriting our understanding of history was deeply motivating.

I also love to teach, and I believe that I am actually good at it.  Those two things are often not connected.  As mentioned, I have taught kung-fu, I have been a tutor, and I taught for a year as a Fulbright Fellow.  All of those experiences, though filled the ups, downs and disappointments normal for their situation only reinforced my love of passing on a better understanding.

I am studying history because I love it, I want to be a historian because I understand and enjoy the detail of the work, and I want to be a professor because I love to teach.