We are in Week 4 of Dave Cormier’s open online course – Rhizomatic Learning: The Community is the Curriculum - and the topic is ‘Is Books making us stupid?
Dave Cormier has said in his introductory video:
There is something about print I’ve never trusted. There’s something about it that encourages objectivity and distance and remove and impartiality, something that is less participatory, something that is more towards the definite and not towards the relational.
There’s something about the written word that makes the journey of learning a finite one, an ended one, one where we can have an impartial judge who will decide, a jury who will tell us whether or not we’ve won.
I think I know where this is coming from. Last week Sarah Honeychurch in the Google Hangout asked whether nowadays all knowledge is up for grabs? Dave in his 2008 paper about rhizomatic learning - discusses how – in the light of information abundance and the speed of development and change – we now have to think differently about knowledge. He writes:
New communication technologies and the speeds at which they allow the dissemination of information and the conversion of information to knowledge have forced us to reexamine what constitutes knowledge; moreover, it has encouraged us to take a critical look at where it can be found and how it can be validated.
For me, whilst it can’t be denied that we live in an age of information abundance and the pace of change is so fast that we can’t keep up – I’m not sure that we should be throwing the baby out with the bathwater, i.e. don’t throw out your books. Whilst of course we need to be critically engaged with and questioning knowledge, the socially negotiated learning of communities, communities of practice, and communities of enquiry, is enriched by their history and reified knowledge. For me they would be weaker, shallower and more superficial without reference to this history.
In his seminal text on communities of practice (1998) Etienne Wenger highlighted the duality of participation and reification and the role of history in the shared repertoire of a community. Books, including Etienne’s, are part of our history. Are we going to ignore or throw away our books and so throw away our history? Doesn’t our past inform our present and future?
But this was not the first thought that came to me when noting this week’s topic. The first thought was to question whether its books that are the problem. Over the past couple of years, I have spent quite a bit of time, on and off, discussing with a friend from my CCK08 days – Iain MacGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.
It’s ironic that the topic of this week should bring to mind, so forcefully, a book! Whilst the title of McGilchrist’s book suggests a polarisation between the left and right brain – this is not the case. He is at pains to point out that we need both hemispheres of the brain – but the thrust of his book is that we have become over dependent on the left hemisphere, the hemisphere of abstraction, to the detriment of the right hemisphere, the hemisphere of embodied learning. Here are some quotes from the back cover of the book:
… Ian McGilchrist argues that the left and right hemispheres have differing insights, values and priorities. Each has a distinct ‘take’ on the world – most strikingly, the right hemisphere sees itself as connected to the world, whereas the left hemisphere stands aloof from it. This affects our understanding not just of language and reason, music and time, but of all living things: our bodies, ourselves and the world in which we live.
… McGilchrist argues, the left hemisphere has become so far dominant that we’re in danger of forgetting everything that makes us human. Taking the reader on an extraordinary journey through Western history and culture, he traces how the left hemisphere has grabbed more than its fair share of power, resulting in a society where a rigid and bureaucratic obsession with structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world hold sway, at an enormous cost to human happiness and the world around us.
So I would suggest that it’s not books that are the problem. We need books. We need our history to be able to critically engage with our present and think about our future. McGilchrist’s powerful book depends heavily on history and what has been written in the past. We need a balance between participation and reification. Books do not make us less participatory. The written word does not make the journey of learning a finite one. I have been discussing McGilchrist’s book for two years with my friend. That is participatory. We still have many unanswered questions. The journey is not yet ended.
Books are not the problem – it is us and the way we think – our lack of ability to critically engage with learning – the way we allow ourselves to think in black and white, to be persuaded by polarities instead of keeping a balanced perspective.
We need books, but we also need to engage with them critically. We need text, but we also need to be able to see its limitations. We need abstraction, but we also need embodied learning. We need to exercise both the left and right hemispheres of our brains.