I surf, therefore I am

A teacher says her students learn diddly from the Net.

By Judith Levine

Published July 29, 1997 10:49AM (EDT)

"Obviously, I'm somebody who believes that personal computers
are empowering tools," Bill Gates said after he bestowed a $200 million dollar gift to America's public libraries so they could hook up to the Internet.

"People are entitled to disagree," Gates said. "But I would invite them to visit some of these libraries and see the impact on kids using this technology."

Well, I have seen the impact, and I disagree. Many of my
students -- undergraduate media and communications majors at a
New York university -- have access to the endless information
bubbling through cyberspace, and it is not empowering.

Most of the data my students Net is like trash fish -- and it is hard for them to tell a dead one-legged crab from a healthy sea bass. Scant on world knowledge and critical thinking skills, they are ill-equipped to interpret or judge the so-called facts, which they insert into their papers confidently but in no discernible order.

Their writing often "clicks" from info-bit to info-bit, their arguments free of that gluey, old-fashioned encumbrance -- the transitional sentence. When I try to help them corral their impressions into coherent stories, I keep hearing the same complaint: "I can't concentrate." I've diagnosed this phenomenon as epidemic attention deficit disorder. And I can't help but trace its etiology, at least in part, to the promiscuous pointing and clicking that has come to stand in for intellectual inquiry.

These students surf; therefore, they do not read. They do not read scholarly articles -- which can be trusted because they are juried or challenged because they are footnoted. They do not read books -- which tell stories and sustain arguments by placing idea
and metaphor one on top of the other, so as to hold weight, like
a stone wall. Even the journalism students read few magazines and
even fewer newspapers, which are edited by people with
recognizable and sometimes even admitted cultural and political
biases and checked by fact-checkers using other edited sources.

On the Net, nobody knows if any particular "fact" is a dog.
One student handed in a paper about tobacco companies' liability
for smokers' health, which she had gleaned almost entirely from
the Web pages of the Tobacco Institute. Did she know what the
Tobacco Institute is? Apparently not, because she had
done her research on the Net, and was deprived of the
modifying clause, "a research organization supported by the
tobacco industry," obligatory in any edited news article.

Another young woman, writing about teen pregnancy, used data generated by the Family Research Council, which, along with other right-wing Christian think tanks, dominates the links on many subjects related to family and sexuality and offers a decidedly one-sided view.

A teacher at another school told me one of her students had
written a paper quoting a person who had a name but no
identifying characteristics. "Who's this?" the professor asked.
"Someone with a Web page," the young man said.

If there is no context on the Net, neither is there history. My
friend who teaches biology told me her students propose research
that was completed, and often discredited, 50 years ago. "They go
online," she said, "where nothing has been indexed before 1980."

A San Francisco librarian interviewed on National Public Radio
worried that, space and resources strained as they are, more
computers will inevitably mean fewer books. Another commentator
on the Gates gift suggested that the computers would not be very
valuable without commensurate human resources -- that is, trained
workers to help people use them.

At New York's gleaming new Science, Industry, & Business
Library (SIBL), you can sit in an ergonomically correct chair at one of several hundred lovely color computer terminals and
call up, among hundreds of other databases, the powerful
journalistic and legal service Nexis/Lexis. But since Nexis/Lexis
is in great demand, you have about 45 minutes at the screen, half
of which the inexperienced user will blow figuring out the
system, because there is only one harassed staff person to
assist all the computer-users. Then you'll learn that the library
cannot afford the stratospheric fees for downloading the articles. So most users, I imagine, will manage to copy out quotes from a couple of articles before relinquishing the seat to the next person waiting for the cyber-kiosk.

Unlike a paper or microfilm version of the same pieces, which
could be photocopied or copied at leisure onto a pad or laptop, the
zillion articles available on the library's Nexis/Lexis are more
or less unavailable -- that is, to no avail. Useless.

Technology may empower, but how and to what end will that
power be used? What else is necessary to use it well and wisely?
I'd suggest, for a start, reading books -- literature and history, poetry and politics -- and listening to people who know what they're talking about. Otherwise, the brains of those kids in Gates' libraries will be glutted with "information" but bereft of ideas, rich in tools but clueless about what to build or how to build it. Like the search engines that retrieve more than 100,000 links or none at all, they will be awkward at discerning meaning, or discerning at all.

Judith Levine

Judith Levine is a journalist and author of four books, most recently "Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping."

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