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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Socrates had objections to Written words

In Sanskrit there is a statement: “sahasram vada; ekam abhi ma likha” which means “Say 1000 words; but do not write even one”. Vedic tradition grew up on verbal recital and memorization. Greek tradition was also following the same course – until written words appeared at about the time of Socrates. It appears that Socrates was worried that students will obtain information from written words, but will not know how to think critically. We know he was wrong.

At present, we the “digital immigrants” worry the same way about our young “digital generation”. We worry that in the midst of these images and bits and “bytes” of information, the next generation may have problems with critical thinking skills. There are a few studies to substantiate such a concern.

The new generation of “technology-assisted” learners, are somewhat akin to the “book-assisted” learners that Socrates worried about. Our young ones learn from images and sound-bites and rapid summaries. There is no helping hand. Students multitask. They skim through information. They want instant answers. They forget that information is not knowledge and that they have to take an active part in making knowledge out of this information.
As pointed out by Maryanna Wolf in her book on Proust and the Squid (HarperCollins 2007) and in a recent issue of Science (August 19, 2011), writing and learning from written words was not natural for the human brain. It took several centuries for the human brain to evolve and adapt its structures and networks to this uniquely human activity. Will the neural networks developed over the past two millenia be useful in the new learning environment? Or, will the brain evolve new strategies to adapt to the new world of learning through images and streaming bits of information? How can we help the new young generation develop their reasoning and analytical skills and improve the so-called executive functions of the brain?

Socrates was of the opinion that spoken words are full of meaning and emotions, with added stress and nuances during the delivery. Written words are rigid. Written words “cannot talk back” if you ask a question. Nor can it offer clarification. Written words can be mistaken for reality if not examined critically with the help of a teacher, he thought. Decoding the words and their meanings is not the same as knowledge acquired by thinking about the thing words stand for with all their connections and implications. Socrates thought that reading from books might lead to superficial, false knowledge and “empty arrogance”.

The vedic teachers had similar opinion. They thought too that if students learnt purely from texts they may get arrogant with their superficial knowledge. That is one of the reasons for insisting on “gurukula” syle of learning and respect for the teacher (guru). Even now, an initiation by a “guru” is considered essential for spiritual enlightenment.

The second objection was that written books will be harmful to memory formation. We all know that it is true to some extent. It does not destroy memory; but there is less need for it. It is not all bad. Computers can store memory better than we humans can. They can store lot more facts and more important, they can recall in fraction of a second and without ever forgetting. So why use the brain like a “filing cabinet”?

The benefit of the arrival of written words and books is that the brain needed less territory and energy to store memory. That allowed the brain to develop its correlative and analytical functions. The other advantage of written words is that accumulated knowledge could be transmitted to the next generation. Clearly, the arrival of written words is the basis of human civilization.

With information technology, we can store more information in less space than in books. We can look for correlations and patterns with simulations and complex calculations. However, information is not knowledge. By focusing on information, looking at moving images and disappearing screens and with the use of immediate feedback and quick rewards, are we losing our ability to stay focused and think through a problem?

The answer to this last question happens to be “yes’ and “no”. Yes, our youngsters are not focused, they multi-task and are quick with joy-sticks but not with executive functions. At the same time, children’s ability to think analytically and creatively and to stay focused can be improved with the use of the same technology. It is interesting to note that working memory is an important component of creative and analytical thinking and this can be enhanced by specially developed computer programs.

What are the executive functions of the brain? These are the qualities needed to control our impulses, focus on a problem, think creatively, assign priorities, make proper judgments and plan for a course of action. These functions depend on development of neural networks which connect the sensory, motor, emotional and rational parts of the brain. Many of the circuits are not fully connected till late adolescence.

All of (Most of us) develop these functions over the course of our young lives. Can we facilitate the developments of these functions in children? Sure, we can. Recent studies on helping young children to develop executive functions show that approaches that seem to work include “computerized training” with specially developed lessons, hybrid computer-noncomputer programs, special “Tools of the mind” and classroom curricula. (Science 333:959-964, 2011). Yes, information technology can be used to maintain those functions which we are afraid our younger generation may lose.

Finally,Socrates thought that written words will result in loss of control over language. I do not know what he meant. Socrates probably thought that learning from written mode will lead to superficial understanding since there is no teacher to push the student to ask questions and ask for clarifications, make sure the student understands the meaning of words and the structure and the beauty of the language. The student is likely to move on with incomplete knowledge (not looking up the dictionary and ask for clarification) and thus lose control over knowledge. He said that “Once a thing is put in writing, the composition, whatever it may be, drifts all over the place, getting into the hands not only of those who understand it but equally of those who have no business with it…..”. In essence, we know how when a word is put on print, we lose control over it. We do not know who will use it and for what purpose. Is it not true even more when something is written into cyberspace?

As a physician-educator, I know that those concerns are still valid. Look at text messages, e mails and Twitter. There is no need for spelling or grammar. In medicine, when a clinical question arises, the students are able to get a reference or two about the subject in a second by signing into Pubmed or Google Scholar. But they read only the abstract. Very few go to the original and read it carefully and critically assess the quality of research and the validity of the conclusion. Much less time is spent on deciding whether the “information” in that article is relevant to the specific situation.

This problem is even worse when patients search the internet and come up with everything that can go wrong with their condition. When they read everything available on that subject in the internet, they do not realize that most of the material is unfiltered and untested and there may be even some dangerous ideas. The anxiety generated becomes worse than the disease itself.

We all know that Socrates was wrong in opposing written words and “books”. If he were alive he would admit his mistake. We also know that his concerns are of relevance once again. However, the age of information is here to stay. It has unleashed an explosion of available information. But information is not knowledge. The technology of acquiring information should not become an end in itself. Like all new technologies, information technology comes with its strengths and weakness. Like all new technologies, we will not know the full impact of this technology on individual learning and on the society for several decades to come. We do not know how this will alter the need for our brains to rearrange its circuitry for analytical thinking.

We have to adapt the information technology and adapt to it wisely and with prudence.

Proust and the Squid. Maryanne Wolf. HarperCollins, New York 2007.
Science Issue of August 19, 2011

1 comment:

Ramesh said...

Interesting post. Nice exposition of the difference between information and knowledge. Availability of information, easily and more readily is one of the great achievements of our generation. Its to be lauded rather than feared. Yes, it can be put to wrong use, but on the whole how much more we can enhance knowledge if we put the information availability to good use.

I hold great hopes for the future generation, They will not only be better informed, but , dare I say, wiser.