Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Troubling Use of “Information”

For some time I’ve noticed a perplexing quality of college student word use.  Here are a couple of examples:

“I have to miss class tomorrow and I was wondering if I could get the information that you’re going to cover.”

“I want the professor just to give me the information without his/her opinion so that I can make up my own mind.”

I hear some version of these remarks fairly frequently and they alarm me.  In the second one, I can see the student’s concern for not being force-fed ideology and I’ll give that one to him.  It’s a legitimate concern, but in a broader sense reflective of a fundamental misunderstanding of what should happen in a college (it was a political science) class.  Secondly, referring to course content as “information” sounds utterly lifeless and sterile, having no more than instrumental value, available only to be manipulated for some pragmatic aim.

(Disclaimer: I believe in the importance of facts and information.  I am not a rank subjectivist.  In fact, I hold an “externalist” view of truth – that it is really “out there” and available.  With that qualification, back to my point.)

How did we get here?  Well, clearly, the “information age” of personal computers and the worldwide web has helped dramatically.  I love the technology, but if we don’t pay attention to the paradigmatic control these computer metaphors are working on us, I can hardly imagine how impoverished, even perverse, our lives will become.

The other culprit is hiding in fifth or sixth grade classrooms, where students are indoctrinated with the fact/opinion distinction.  Certainly, there is a difference between facts and opinions and I applaud the intention, but I’m worried about the misleading implications.  A “fact” is evidently something beyond need of interpretation because it is “neutral.”  We trust facts.  “Opinions,” by contrast, are squishy and subjective and, most damming, idiosyncratic.  How many times have you heard, “That’s just your opinion,” as if the mere fact (yes, I meant that word) makes the whole thing dismissible?

It’s a short step from “fact” to “information,” Same feeling, same attitude, same problem.  First, it seems to assume that people are neutral information processors, a self-evidently absurd notion when one pauses to think about it (but who’s pausing?).  Likewise with facts.  Facts have to be applied and application requires interpretation.  We have to figure out what the facts mean. They tell us nothing in and of themselves.  Do students understand how important this step – from facts to meaning – is?

In this context, campus ministers have a crucial role to play.  The world needs wise, well-formed disciples of Jesus.  Wisdom requires thoughtfulness, the habit of taking into consideration a range of opinions, weighing evidence judiciously; most of all, it means applying truth lovingly, with the heart of Jesus.  In other words, to think well requires a well-formed character, which involves far more than “getting information.”  “Just getting the information” simply won’t cut it.

Campus ministers: we’re supposed to be about developing well-formed followers of Jesus.  We may not assign grades, but we’re still educators in the best sense of that word.  Precisely because we are not giving exams and assigning grades, we have the luxury of helping students learn, untrammeled by the pressures of academic demands.  Let us not squander this sacred opportunity.

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October 2, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Religion | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Harsh Assessment of Young Adults

I just finished a book by an author not so enamored with the effects of technology on the “net generation.”  Entitled, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, (Penguin, 2008), it mounts massive data from various surveys and organizations to argue that, for all their tech savviness, most young people use the internet for entertainment and social networking and not for (the author’s main concern) “expanding knowledge.”  Hence, the claims made for the educational benefit of the internet are badly exaggerated, even dishonest.

Mark Bauerlein, the author, is not “anti-young.”  He acknowledges regularly throughout the book how curmudgeonly he sounds, but his point is not to run down young people.  It is, rather, to sound the alarm about the myth-making by educators about the educational benefits of various forms of computer and internet-based entertainment.  Worse, he’s concerned about the way some of these educators are talking about plain, old fashioned paper-based books, as if we don’t need them any more.

Perhaps the most damming chapter is “The Betrayal of t he Mentors.”   Here he uses the term “Twixters” to refer basically to the same age period that Jeffrey Arnett calls “emerging adulthood.”  Bauerlein mentions an article from Time magazine (24 January 2005) that describes this demographic category: “22 to 30 years old, have a college degree or substantial college coursework; come from middle-class families and reside in cities and large urban centers.”

There’s the demographic.  Now the problem.  Bauerlein continues: “What makes Twixters different from other people with the same demographics from the past is the lifestyle they pursue after college. [ ] Instead of seeking out jobs or graduate studies…they pass through a series of service jobs as waiters, clerks, nannies and assistants.  Instead of moving into a place of their own…they move back home with their parents or into a house or large apartment with several Twixter peers.  Instead of forming a long-term relationship to marriage, they engage in serial dating. [ ] They have achieved little but feel good about themselves,” (170).

And the betrayal of the mentors?  Here we turn to Bauerlein’s deep concern: teachers who jump on the bandwagon of disdain with their own toward books and more traditional forms of learning.  Bauerlein again: “In casting Twixter lifestyle as genuine exploration and struggle, neither the author nor the researchers nor the Twixters themselves whisper a single word about intellectual labor.  Not one of the Twixters or youth observers mentions an idea that stirs them, a book that influenced them, a class that inspired them, or a mentor who guides them,” (172).

I still don’t know what I think about this book, but I’m inclined to share Bauerlein’s concern.  As he says, there is no question that this generation is bright and full of talent.  But they seem more achievement-driven than thoughtful and they’re (generally) impatient with intellectual struggle.  And the thoughtful ones turn too easily to dismissive sarcasm for ideas that don’t seem immediately to match their beliefs.

The internet isn’t going away.  We need to learn how to use it educationally, with good means of assessing learning without buying the hype of vendors.  At the same time, I’m solicitous for the leisure of slow, thoughtful reflection, for young people.  How else will they become wise?

August 12, 2009 Posted by | Higher and Theological Education, Ministry, Pop Culture | , , , , , | 5 Comments