Saturday, November 24, 2007

Pulling Wolf and Socrates together

Maryanne Wolf, in Proust and the Squid, acknowledges Socrates’ concerns about how writing may lead a reader to think they understand something complex when they have missed the “living word of know knowledge which has a soul and of which the written word is properly no more than an image...” She feels, though, that the development of reading beyond the difficult stage where one moves the lips, into true fluency and expert reading, gives the reader a special gift of “hidden time” in which to reflect on what they read, to query the author, and decide for themselves the truth of assertions. She shows how the study of actual brain function discovered a difference in the part of the brain used for reading in early steps from the parts of brain functioning in an expert reader. The links between synapses have become automatic, and the linkages between the “repurposed” parts of the brain used for reading become much different as the reader moves beyond sounding out the words read. With drawings and data, the book shows how expert readers have faster links and use less of the brain’s real estate. The expert reader thus has microseconds more in which to dialog with the text, question it, and decide for herself how characters feel, and
whether they agree with an author.

When all is said and done, of course, Socrates’ worries were not so much about literacy as about what might happen to knowledge if the young had unguided, uncritical access to information. For Socrates, the search for real knowledge did not revolve around information. Rather, it was about finding the essence and purpose of life. Such a search required a lifelong commitment to developing the deepest critical and analytical skills, and to internalizing personal knowledge through the prodigious use of memory, and long effort. Only these conditions assured Socrates that a student was capable of moving from exploring knowledge in dialogue with a teacher to a path of principles that lead to action, virtue and ultimately to a “friendship with his god.” ...

Socrates’ concerns might have been partly addressed through a more nuanced understanding of how inextricably related knowledge and literacy are, and how important they are to the development of the young. Ironically, today’s hypertext and online text provide a dimension of virtual dialogue to reading in computer-based presentations. ... Such reading requires new cognitive skills that neither Socrates nor modern educators totally understand. We are only at the beginning of analyzing the cognitive implications of using, for instance, the browser “back” button, URL syntax, “cookies,” and “pedagogical tabs” for enhancing comprehension and memory.

... From the Garden of Eden to the universal access provided by the internet, questions of who should know what, when, and how remain unresolved. At a time when over a billion people have access to the most extensive expansion of information ever compiled, we need to turn our analytical skills to questions about a society’s responsibility for the transmission of knowledge. Ultimately, the questions Socrates raised for Athenian youth apply equally to our own. Will unguided information lead to an illusion of knowledge, and thus curtail the more difficult, time-consuming, critical thought processes that lead to knowledge itself? Will the split-second immediacy of information gained from a search engine and sheer volume of what is available derail the slower, more deliberative processes that deepen our understanding of complex concepts, of another’s inner thought processes, and of our own consciousness?

... This book’s questions are not quixotic efforts to prevent the spread of technology– whose indisputable worth transforms all our lives. ... the technological analogue both of Socrates’ concerns and of the issues discussed below about what the reading brain contributes to the intellectual formation of the species and the child. The question that emerges, therefore, is this: what would be lost to us if we replaced the skills honed by the reading brain with those now being formed in our new generation of “digital natives,” who sit and read transfixed before a screen? The evolution of writing provided the cognitive platform for the emergence of tremendously important skills that make up the first chapters of our intellectual history: documentation, codification, classification, organization,interiorization of language, consciousness of self and others, and consciousness of consciousness itself. It is not that reading directly caused all these skills to flourish, but the secret gift of time to think that lies at the core of the reading brain’s design was an unprecedented impetus for their growth. Examining the development of these skills through the “natural history of reading” shows in slow motion how far our species has come in the 6,000 years since literacy emerged, as well as what it stands to lose.

Wolf, Proust and the Squid pp. 220 - 221

No comments: