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Jewish World Review
Sept. 26, 2008
26 Elul 5768
The Pancake People
We have to forget about the end of history. It's the end of economic ideology as we know it that requires thinking outside the box. With conservatives cheering, or at least tolerating, big-government bailouts and more regulation of what was once the free market, and liberals conceding that this is no time to expand government-funded programs dear to their hearts, we're in a shake-up, not a meltdown.
History records many examples of ideologues blatantly contradicting themselves and forced to stop preaching and start acting. That pesky devil who hangs out in the details often forced a change in direction. Famous Stoics proud of their emotional discipline would turn on the waterworks when confronting personal tragedy. Baby boomers radicals in the '60s who reveled in the gratifications of the sexual revolution and vowed never to trust anyone over 30 became tough disciplinarians when their sons got the keys to the family car and their daughters hit puberty and junior high school. Specifics always trump theory.
Football coaches teach their athletes to adhere to the game plan, but they expect a good quarterback to know how to chuck it and call an audible at the line when an unexpected opportunity requires a different strategy. No size fits all, and both physical and mental training require flexibility. The strongest tree bends in the wind. (A good defensive line bends but doesn't break.)
This sounds like Conceptual Thinking 101, and it is but we're faced with a technological revolution that offers no intellectual solutions to deal with problems outside narrow familiar frameworks. That can be deadly. When you fear for your pocketbook, economic security and a roof over your head, it's difficult to focus on the subtler dangers, but that doesn't mean they'll go away.
The shortcomings in the way our children are taught to obtain information doesn't have the urgency of an imminent Wall Street crisis, but how we respond to radical changes in how we learn about the world will gravely affect the ability to seek solutions in the future.
Mark Bauerlein, in his book "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future," describes the current model for educating our children as "information retrieval, not knowledge formation." An elementary school principal tells him that fifth-graders typically assigned to research for an essay will "go to Google, type keywords, download three relevant sites, cut and paste passages into a new document, add transitions of their own, print it up and turn it in." You don't have to be a Luddite (though you may feel like one) to realize that computers, wondrous as they are, can short circuit the thinking process needed to solve unexpected problems.
Teachers are forever on the alert for plagiarism, but plagiarism is increasingly difficult to detect because Internet Websites proliferate swiftly on an enormous variety of topics. Like hydra-headed monsters, one site is deleted and another grows in its place. Classic Comics and Cliff Notes, the cribs of earlier generations, by comparison require long attention spans.
Ay, there's the rub. Short attention spans have replaced hyperactivity as the malady of the moment. Children are reading less, and fewer boys than girls read for pleasure. As a result, publishers resort to shock appeal to get boys to read, offering them toilet-humor titles such as "The Day My Butt Went Psycho" or "Sir Fartsalot Hunts the Booger," with a "hero" who seeks the riddle of the foul wind as though it were the holy grail.
Ben Schrank, president of Penguin's Razorbill children's book imprint, tells The Wall Street Journal that these books "will pull a boy away from a videogame." (We must take it on faith that the book is better.)
Maryanne Wolf, a developmental psychologist at Tufts University and author of "Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain," argues that how we read determines how we reason. We frame ideas in a different way when we read deeply in a book than when we simply decode information from the Internet. Consequently, we form different analytical connections and interpretations that affect the circuitry of our brains. Or to update Descartes, "How I read determines how I think."
Playwright Richard Foreman is colorfully blunter. "We are the pancake people," he writes, "spread wide and thin, as we connect with that vast network of information access by the mere touch of a button."
Like most things in life, what you get depends on whose buttons you push. But wisdom requires depth of understanding, not shallow data retrieval. That's what we have to teach our children to avoid the ultimate meltdown.
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