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From These Grounds

President's Letter

By William G. Durden '71

Dear Dickinsonians:

The subject of this issue—technology—can be at once disturbing and welcome in the liberal-arts setting. While liberal-arts colleges permit technologically delivered syllabi and electronically submitted exams and papers, few give credit for a course taken online. Of course, there are some outstanding liberal-arts colleges that are venturing into uncharted territory. Wesleyan, Bryn Mawr and Dickinson are developing course segments that treat online what is considered necessary but not worthy of precious class time. Many colleges see technology as an inevitable development in undergraduate education, as it can deliver increased access, convenience and scope of information.

Dickinson is engaging technology in many positive ways, as you will read in this issue. However, having received a liberal-arts education at Dickinson and respecting the necessity to question what it all means, I will share a few thoughts that I have not fully processed. You might simply say that I am using this space to think out loud (remember those wonderful late-night bull sessions?).

I recently read in The Economist that our ongoing global economic crisis can be attributed, in part, to a delivery cycle of new technological products that is so short and includes so many products that the consumer simply can’t keep up. The only form of self-protection is to retreat and avoid or delay consuming. But markets are not designed for hesitancy. There can be no slippage; there can be no pause. If the consumer does not respond as the markets expect, the economy becomes a train wreck. Technology meets an immutable force—the human mind’s capacity for innovation and tolerance for distraction.

I relate this technology-human collision to undergraduate education via an article I read in the winter 2011 Johns Hopkins Magazine. “Paying Attention to Distraction: Why is something as vital as attentiveness so hard to achieve?” by Dale Keiger begins with a vignette that many of us might appreciate. An iPhone user exchanges his smartphone for one without e-mail, GPS or fun apps. “The manager of the AT&T store said that a striking number of his customers were doing the same thing—and so had he. He was fed up with the distraction,” wrote Keiger.

Keiger then correlates this distraction with undergraduate education, citing P.M. Forni, a Johns Hopkins University (JHU) professor of romance languages who published a book, The Thinking Life, on the topic. Forni “worries that reliance on the Internet, plus the distractions inherent in constantly being connected to digital information streams—Facebook, texting—has begun to undermine deep reading, serious thought and the ethical engagement of one person with another.”

Keiger also cites Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, linking rapid technological change to consumer resistance: “Carr … calls working memory ‘the mind’s scratch pad,’ and it is essential to the formation of long-term memory and higher intellectual ability like reasoning and creating knowledge. The amount of information flowing into working memory, known as cognitive load, can exceed working memory’s capacity for storing and processing it. Whenever this happens it impairs learning, knowledge and deeper thinking.”

Keiger also invokes JHU history professor Gabrielle Spiegel, who “has noticed [that students] are used to really small chunks of things. … A noticeable consequence is they now have greater difficulty in building a long logical argument, [understanding] what should be subordinate, etc.”

Forni’s worries about what is lost when one succumbs to the distractions inherent to the Internet and Carr’s desire to preserve long-term memory and higher intellectual ability, like reasoning and creating knowledge, sound a lot like a defense of the very purpose of a liberal-arts education. And Spiegel’s observation resonates with a judgment about the quality of theological reasoning that I read recently in Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, a new biography of the late German theologian.

According to author Eric Metaxas, Dietrich Bonhoeffer distinguished between Karl Barth and Adolf von Harnack, saying that von Harnack’s theology was “like Archilochus’ proverbial fox, knowing many little things, while Barth’s theology was like a hedgehog, knowing one big thing.” Bonhoeffer “learned how to think like a fox and respect the way the foxes thought, even though he was in the camp of the hedgehogs.”

Seems to me that we who believe in the liberal arts are on the side of the hedgehog, but when it comes to rapid and dizzying technological innovation on campus and in the world around us, it remains to be seen if we can also dance with the foxes.

Published April 3, 2012