We are now living in an age when the world’s information is literally at our fingertips every hour of the day. Getting info is as easy as pulling out that smartphone or tablet and asking a search engine for the answer. In less than a second, there it is. “How many millimeters are in an inch?” Boom, there it is. “There are 25.4 millimeters in one inch,” the virtual assistant responds. “What’s the capital of Peru?” “Lima is the capital and largest city in Peru.” Done. You are now smarter than you were a few seconds ago. Or are you?
It turns out that learning is not as efficient a process as Big Tech would like it to be. The latest research in cognition shows that learning takes time, needs repetition, uses forgetting to strengthen it, and can be downright messy. But it sure is beautiful! A few months ago, I purchased a 1947 Encyclopedia Britannica Junior set in twelve volumes for my children. Technophiles and Google enthusiasts everywhere would laugh me out of the room for doing such a thing. Why on earth would you give your children such outmoded and outdated information?? Are you crazy? Just get a Google Home and they’re set! Actually, I’d say, my children would be set to become lazy, entitled, and dumb, in the intellectual sense of the word. With a Google Home or the like, I’d be training them to instantly gratify and to forget that books even exist. I’d be training them to be couch potatoes, letting the information come to them instead of them going on a journey of discovery to find it. Before I knew it, they’d become more selfish, more bored, and more ungrateful than ever, and I’d have a big problem on my hands. No, learning is a journey, and if I want my children to be successful in school and in life, I need to teach them that good things take time.
Without me having to promote it much, my children immediately took to the new encyclopedia. It piqued their curiosity. Here was something they could touch and smell as they looked up “tiger” and “Niagra Falls.” My wife and I taught them how to look up a topic by letter or use the quick reference volume to find out where a topic is discussed. We were also able to teach them that these volumes were published when Granddad and Grammy were just kids, and that what we know now about certain topics has changed in the last seventy years. This helps them realize that learning is a process, even for the “experts,” and that lifelong learning can provide a robust understanding of topics that doesn’t come in the short-term. In other words, the idea that intellectual patience is a virtue.
Every learning platform has its pros and cons. These encyclopedias are a bit faded, and lacking Photoshop and drone photography, the black and white pictures aren’t much to write home about, but as a springboard for learning new things, they do the trick, and coupled with our copy of Samuel Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary, my kids have a nice place to start the learning process at home, no batteries required! Of course, I’m certainly going to make sure my kids are computer literate and know how to use the latest technology as tools in their daily life. But I’m going to help them learn to keep their tech in check – to set healthy boundaries around the devices they use (and the companies behind them) so as to live an authentic life.
Yep, the world is in our pockets these days. I can start playing any song by any artist from any period in music history in about 15 seconds via my smartphone and a subscription to Napster. But I can also get off my keister and walk over to my fully automatic Audio Technica bluetooth turntable and put on some Miles Davis or some early Amy Grant. My selection of LPs is decidedly limited, but that’s ok. I’m going for quality, not quantity. It turns out that learning is a bit like a good album. It takes time and effort to produce, it’s a labor of love, and it stands the test of time.
By the way, did you know that pandas were largely unknown to the West until well into the 20th century? When my kids couldn’t find pandas in the encyclopedia, they wanted to know why. And so did I.
This post was also published at The Stream.