Tuesday, August 23, 2011

A Touch of Reality or Just Out of Touch?

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Bruce Krajewski has written a response to the Class of 2015 Mindset List released by Beloit College. We've all seen those lists, the intended-to-be-humbling reminders that incoming freshman are actually from another planet. Things like, "To the class of 2015, Amazon has never been just a river in South America" and "There has never been an official Communist Party in Russia."

Krajewski's response takes the opposite approach. His list is meant to introduce the incoming class of 2015 to old fogey faculty members born before 1980. Many of his entries are amusing, such as:

8. Faculty members born before 1980 said "Wii" to express the euphoria they felt as children when sledding down a hill.


13. Faculty members born before 1980 grew up during a time when "like" represented the beginning of a simile, rather than a piece of verbal confetti.

However, there is an underlying bitterness to his writing, as several in the Chronicle comment section have pointed out. There's also a fair amount of condescension, such as the following:

20. We [....] never used libraries as restaurants or coffee shops. We faced books; we did not facebook.

As a non-member of Facebook (I think I'm the only one left) and a teacher born before 1980, I guess I'm supposed to nod along in silent indignation, recalling a time when kids didn't engage in disruptive technologies and demonstrated conventional literacy.

When was that again?

I think Krajewski risks repeating the same mistake that established thinkers always make in the face of emerging technologies (probably since the first cave paintings), which is to assume that society is eroding. Instead, it could merely be rebuilding itself.

Movable type and the printing press were, of course, disruptive technologies. The authorities (namely the Church) resented the loss of power and feared what the spread of literacy might do. (They were right. It led to the Reformation.) The quality of new books was uneven. Many pulp novels and works considered smut were printed. The scribe industry (mainly monks) lost a lot of work and authority. The transfer of cultural authority from oral culture to the printed page was greatly accelerated. Trouble-makers, rabble-rousers, and snake-oil salesmen took full advantage of new methods of distribution. You can bet that non-book readers complained about people being distracted from reality with their noses stuck in books.

All of this sounds familiar to me. It sounds like our present moment.

What was once a threat to society has become, in today's world, a marker of the status quo. Owning a private library in the late 15th century might have made you a radical (albeit a wealthy one) with access to texts not authorized by the Church, books that contained the seeds of the Renaissance and the eventual European Enlightenment. Now it makes you that guy who introduces Masterpiece Theater, pipe and jacket in tow. Today, owning a telescope makes you a science geek. Back then, you would have been a heretic threatening to explode accepted human knowledge.

Could it be we're at another one of those moments in history when new technologies have left us in limbo? Certain aspects of culture are being torn down, and quickly, without a clear replacement. What will our schools and offices look like in fifteen years? Or even five? How will we read? Kindle books are already outselling "real" books on Amazon. Online newspapers are outperforming paper versions.

Even the vocabulary has changed. Everything is networked, online, on the cloud, the web streaming, wired....Maybe Krajewski is right: the scholar is no longer just facing a book, living the life of the solitary mind. Instead, he or she is also facing others, constantly connected, and hopefully working in collaboration to create the foundations of change.

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